Archival outreach and advocacy at AIC

The Art Institute of Chicago celebrates the 125th anniversary of the opening of its Michigan Avenue building December 2018. This structure is the second home to the museum, but it is tied to the institution’s identity. There have been a number of campaigns produced to highlight this moment, and fortunately, the photographic archives have been featured through these efforts.

The museum’s social media platforms, including Instagram, have featured a number of images - sourced both from institutional archives and from outside repositories - and it’s been fascinating seeing the response. Though our department was not directly involved in the selection or sourcing of these images, these are some of the “top hits” in terms of iconic views of the exterior and interior of the building. The photographs have prompted folks to share their experiences visiting the museum, their interest in the landscape around the building in the early days, and their appreciation for a glimpse back in time. The response underscored for me the public’s interest in this institutional history.

Our department was more actively involved in the creation of a promotional video and behind-the-scenes blog post, both of which focused on the institutional photographic archives. For the blog, I worked with the communications team to provide information about the day-to-day tasks involved with working in the archives. Following a format previously used on the blog, I was given a set of questions about my job - more specifically, relating to the photographic materials themselves and what goes into caring for the collection. It was wonderful diving into the topic, trying to reflect on how to explain things to a broad audience. It’s easy to get caught up in jargon used in the field, so working with other staff was helpful in keeping that tendency in check. I also really appreciated the opportunity to explain some of the work that happens at the museum which many folks may not consider. So much of what happens at the museum is invisible to visitors - I think it’s important to let them peek behind the curtain. It humanizes the work, and people often seem excited to learn about it.

One of my colleagues from our department then teamed up with us to capture some images around the archives space. She photographed me looking through photographic materials, a sampling of media in the archives (formats, bases, etc), and our digitization station. I don’t normally enjoy being in front of the camera, but it was nice to partner with a talented photographer to highlight this collection. And, it’s worthwhile making visible the work of archivists, and not just the archives themselves. We then chose some highlights of digitized negatives to feature along with these documentary images, to help show the depth and breadth of content in the collection. You can read the full post and see the images here.

The second project involved a substantial amount of legwork to compile compelling images for a video narrative. I teamed up with the museum’s videographer to assess what types of images would work well. Many of the negatives and transparencies had to be digitized again - a substantial portion of previously digitized archival materials are small files and don’t meet our current standards - then edited, and formatted for prints. The video shoot featured these archival reproductions, as well as a small sampling of original large format negatives and 35mm slides. He also captured scenes around the archives room, and a few scenes including me functioning as archival caretaker. I was glad that he chose to include contemporary images our department is creating as a way of tying the past to the present. It also shows that the institution is thinking about the future as it reflects on its past.

The video project could have focused primarily on the images themselves, essentially functioning as a dynamic slideshow of sorts. Instead, the videographer understood how compelling the archives-as-collection are, and made the decision to feature the original materials, space, and work involved in caring for them as part of the story. History doesn’t preserve itself, intervention is necessary. It felt good to see that acknowledged in the final product, which you can find here.

On one hand, all these initiatives function as outreach in that they raise awareness of a collection largely hidden to the public. Folks who maybe hadn’t considered that institutional archives like this exist have the opportunity to see the amazing images that tell part of the story of the museum. Perhaps equally important in the second two projects was the chance to make visible archival work. Archivists are key to the proper management of collections like this one, to preserve and provide access to materials that help to tell part of our collective story. As such, projects that highlight the individuals that steward the collections help to advocate for this profession. I hope that these projects positively contribute to the growing number of online opportunities which feature the skills, knowledge, and passion of archivists.