This fall I had the opportunity to show a group of youths the photographic institutional archives at the Art Institute of Chicago. I have previously toured the space and explained the collection to staff curious about our holdings, visiting archivists, and interns. As such, most folks have had some background in cultural heritage or interest in pursuing it as a career. This was my first chance to connect the archives with this type of group, many of whom are learning about and often new to the range of professions that connect with the work of our department: photography and imaging, museum studies, and archives and information science.
The teens who visited were enrolled in a photography class at Marwen, taught by one of my colleagues in the department. Her focus in the class has been imaging as a means of telling stories, often involving personal objects (collections, archives) as a way of weaving a narrative. She brought the group to the museum both to show them how other artists have approached these ideas, but also to give them a peek behind the scenes of the work we do in our department: documenting the work of the museum and archiving those images for future use.
My colleague requested that I discuss my path to this line of work as well as what the job entailed. Given that many in the group are thinking about college and what they might want to do professionally, this was a fantastic opportunity to show them one way to arrive in a career like this one. I did not realize that museums, archives, and libraries had such a wide range of jobs within them until I started a few internships in colleges. I would love to make sure more folks area aware of these career options, as I have found this path to be so rewarding. With this in mind, I told them about my background in art and photography, volunteer internships, and professional experience working in several Chicago area institutions. I shared how my love of both history and imaging have blended seamlessly into this job, and how it affords me the chance to continually pursue curiosity.
She also asked me to gather some original archival materials and some corresponding reproduction prints to show the students. Though I mentioned the core topics covered in the archives (documentation of collections, exhibitions, programs, visitors) I tried to stick to three main themes within the prints to demonstrate to breadth of subjects: World’s Columbian Exposition images, gallery and architectural views, and documentation of museum staff at work. The last theme in particular connected to my discussion about the unexpected types of jobs one might find in a museum like this one. Even more interestingly, these views show how work has both changed and stayed the same over time. Being able to talk about the role of documentation through photography in a museum, for example, and see images that represent that work over time, in addition to touring our facilities today helps to tell a fuller story about this behind-the-scenes work.
I also pulled some original archival material to show where these reproduction prints came from, especially given this group’s interest in photography. I made sure a range of sizes and film bases were represented, including black and white negative, color negative, and color transparency materials. Though these students are using digital technology to create their images, it was clear they were still interested in and connected with these negatives and transparencies. Even within an archives which is fairly narrowly focused by content (institutional archives) and materiality (photography), there is still a fascinating degree of variety. I hope that these materials underscored that fact for the group.
Finally, we took a brief look inside the archives themselves - at the compact shelving, card catalog, and digitization setup. They were curious about how things were organized, how we find images, and how often things are lost or misplaced. They wanted to know about the oldest negatives and duplicates. They asked so many excellent and engaging questions! Curiosity brought me to this profession, and it was amazing to see how curious they were about so many aspect of this collection and the work involved in caring for it. My goal was to open their eyes to this fairly niche intersection of photography, archives, and museums if it was not previously on their radar, and to make it relevant to their interests. Given their excited chatter, and the fact that they wanted to linger even after it was time to go walk through the galleries, I hope that I was successful in those goals. This might have been my first outreach program for this type of group, but it certainly won’t be my last, because it was wonderful.