Art Institute of Chicago - Vanishing Beauty

The exhibit for which I did a good deal of extensive Photoshop editing has opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. Entitled Vanishing Beauty, each room is dedicated to a different region and culture in Asia. The objects tell the story of the different societies’ traditions and craft. After having spent so much time staring at minute details of these pieces of jewelry and ritual objects, it is refreshing to see them in person, to understand their context. It is easy to become bogged down when focusing on the details, so I’m glad to be able to appreciate these objects for the culturally significant and beautiful pieces that they are.

 

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Images edited for the publication in the final reading room of the exhibit. 

Images edited for the publication in the final reading room of the exhibit. 

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Art Institute of Chicago - Job Perks

There are some serious perks to working at as large and historic an institution as AIC. Working in a department that is granted access to much of the museum multiplies these perks considerably.

While training, I was taken into one of the modern and contemporary art storage rooms to color correct several digital files. I’ve spent some time in collections storage in previous positions and have toured many others, but I’ve not encountered anything like it. There is rack after rack filled with amazing oversized paintings. To be able to spend time, however brief it may be, up close to works I’ve admired seeing on the gallery walls is wonderful.


I’ve also been able to walk through the museum before it was open to the public. I needed to compare how some works were published in a catalog to the originals, and it was a treat to explore the galleries without anyone else around. It was so peaceful, and I found myself looking at works much more carefully than I’ve allowed myself to do in the past. I’m looking forward to more solo exploration in the future.

 

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Art Institute of Chicago - Imaging Production Specialist

I’ve moved from a contract position to a full-time position at the Art Institute of Chicago. This means I’m no longer working on singular projects, but I’m digitizing the film archives of collections and exhibitions documentation, editing files from the digital archives, and fulfilling internal and external image requests. It’s nice to transition to a new job when you’ve already been working in the department for half a year, but I still have much to learn.

Having worked in the imaging department of three LAM institutions in Chicago, it’s been interesting to compare how each gets things done, and what priorities are. There are always strengths and weaknesses. I’m happy to be working with equipment that is fully up-to-date at AIC, and while there’s never enough man power in non-profits, it’s nice to be working with a team of nearly a dozen rather than two or three other professionals.

This is an image of the department’s Imacon drum scanner. I’ve never had the chance to use one of these types of scanners before, and the quality of the files it creates certainly is impressive.

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National Public Housing Museum - After the Plan: What Happened to Public Housing Families?

While the National Public Housing Museum doesn’t yet have facilities open to the public, they’ve continued to provide excellent programming for the community. They organized a panel discussion about Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation. After the Plan featured academics Mary Pattillo and Amy Khare, as well as CHA Assistant Director of Resident Engagement (and NPHM board member) Crystal Palmer, and Housing Choice Partners Executive Director Chris Klepper. The panelists discussed the fate of public housing residents after the demolition of so many housing units, each from their unique point of view.

I appreciated the fact that given the diverse background of the individuals speaking, both the positive and negative outcomes of CHA resident relocation were addressed. The improvements in existing public housing units were discussed, including health and safety measures and access to resident services. The benefits of moving, the “opportunity area” effect, of improved physical and mental health, higher income, better grades for children, and higher college enrollment for teenagers were also addressed. While residents forced to moved may have faced discrimination in a new community and a difficult housing market, some believe the benefits outweigh or at least counterbalance the downsides of remaining in traditional public housing buildings.

The more critical view of the Plan for Transformation took into account the recession, and how outside circumstances led, in part, to a failure to create housing at the rate the CHA demolished units. This has led to a shift in newly vacant land being set aside for housing to any development, including commercial spaces. The question many ask as a result of these priority shifts, is does the Plan actually benefit CHA residents in alleviating high-density poverty, or is it simply shifting the land back to the affluent? As mixed development developments have become the new “solution” to the traditional public housing “problem,” residents are often forced to handle the market economy on their own. And neighborhoods and communities with Section 8 housing, units CHA residents can rent with vouchers, often express a “more than our fair share” mentality about this housing. There is a continued fear of a concentration of the underprivileged and a stigma against those from public housing. The poor continue to be blamed for community problems even though crime is a symptom of economic inequalities.


So much of the focus on public housing is the history of the high rise, and its perceived failure. It is refreshing to hear about the work so many are doing to address what is happening now, what the future may hold for those pushed out of the high rises and other traditional public housing units.

 

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Museum of Contemporary Art & John Cage

 

I left my position at Northwestern University Library in August, and one of my last jobs was the digitization of several John Cage scores. I attended an after-hours event at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and once again found myself face-to-face with Cage’s unconventional work. It was a fantastic surprise to stumble upon a project I had a small part in and watching others interact with and enjoy the exhibit.

 

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Collection, Building, Action

Preparing for the exhibition Collection, Building, Action at the National Public Housing Museum was a whirlwind experience. From the beginning plans and outline to installation, our small team had around two months to pull everything together. And given the fact that the space used to house the exhibit (and two others, as well) is a gutted former public housing site, there were some interesting limitations around which we had to work. I’m so happy I got to be a part of this project, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the museum in the future.

If you’re in Chicago, take time to visit the Addams Homes to see all three exhibits (up through mid-November), and the rest of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

 

Exploring the museum's collections.    

Exploring the museum's collections. 

 

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Entrance to all three exhibitions in the future museum site: Collection, Building, Action; House Housing; We Next Door. 

Entrance to all three exhibitions in the future museum site: Collection, Building, Action; House Housing; We Next Door. 

Collection, Building, Action - 3D collections items, a slideshow of images, and selected oral histories. 

Collection, Building, Action - 3D collections items, a slideshow of images, and selected oral histories. 

House Housing, curated by Columbia University.

House Housing, curated by Columbia University.

The museum's Youth Advisory Council curated We Next Door, a response to House Housing. 

The museum's Youth Advisory Council curated We Next Door, a response to House Housing. 

National Public Housing Museum & the Chicago Architecture Biennial

 

I’ve been volunteering at the National Public Housing Museum, helping the team to assess what information management systems might work for their collections. While researching the options, I’ve also been working on a plan to help them to develop a collections management policy and some basic first steps before cataloging begins.

I’m also assisting the curator on a temporary basis, helping to select images and objects for an upcoming exhibit at the future museum site. As a part of this process, I had my first tour of the building, the former Jane Addams Homes. I’d walked past the abandoned housing many times, always wondering who had lived there, what it had been like, and what would happen to the last remaining structure. Some of those questions will be answered, in part, in the exhibit, and will be answered more fully once the museum opens. I’m thrilled to be working on this project, both because of the access it will give me to the museum’s collections and this historic site, and because of the potential for this exhibit to raise awareness about the museum. It will open as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial in October 2015.

Interior of one of the Jane Addams Homes units. 

Interior of one of the Jane Addams Homes units. 

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Exterior of the site. 

Exterior of the site. 

Digitization requests

Most of the patron requests I handle at work involve little interaction between myself and the requestor. This streamlines my work, but it is nice to occasionally meet with patrons to learn about how they are using digitized versions of library collections material. There have been two orders over the last quarter where I did indeed get some insight about projects for which I’m responsible. The first is developing into an on-going collaboration between an international artist, the library, and the Block Museum. His request allowed me the opportunity to work with the Duckworth collection from our Africana special library. The second came from a professor who is working to create an online repository of classic literature dating to Shakespeare’s time for academic research and discovery. Working with original collections material is what’s drawn me to this field, but it’s that much more rewarding when I can learn how others are using our work.

Crops from a few of the Duckwoth images. 

Crops from a few of the Duckwoth images. 

One of the classics being digitized. 

One of the classics being digitized. 

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Panel discussion "Museums and Social Justice: What role can we play?"

Deb Kerr, one of the Museum Studies certificate program professors, invited former students to an event at her museum a few weeks ago. It was organized by the Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group and hosted by Intuit:  The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Three museum professionals - from Intuit, the Illinois Holocaust Museum, and the National Veterans Art Museum - led a conversation about “Museums & Social Justice:  What role can we play?”  

The event opened with a video of Dr. David Fleming of the National Museums of Liverpool imploring museums not to be dispassionate. There often is this idea that these institutions should be purely educational, and as such, they should be as unbiased and clinical in their approach to their subject as possible. This isn’t a particularly welcoming, compelling, or relevant strategy, though. Christine Bespalec-Davis, the education director at the National Veterans Art Museum, addressed this issue by explaining how their staff encourage visitors to talk through their emotions. They work to promote dialogue for topics that are difficult to discuss, like violence and trauma, rather than simply “stating the facts.” Kelley H. Szany, director of education at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center spoke to the power of a story in its ability to form connections with visitors, and the idea of this connection moving visitors to act. Far from encouraging passive observation, they promote activism.  

I hope that over time, the field as a whole can embrace the idea that museums can be educational while still taking a stance on important issues. I would argue that in some cases failing to address controversy or conflict can intrinsically be viewed as taking a stance. With education comes responsibility, and museums need to learn to accept this responsibility and use it for the greater good.  

Deb discussing the challenge and dishonesty of labeling and claiming ownership to Martin Ramirez as a Mexican American outsider artist.

Deb discussing the challenge and dishonesty of labeling and claiming ownership to Martin Ramirez as a Mexican American outsider artist.

Things vs People

This spring, I pursued and completed a certificate program in Museum Studies at the School of Professional Studies at Northwestern. I learned so much during the quarter and walked away with some wonderful resources and connections. What struck me the most in our discussions in class is this shift in museums as a whole - away from strictly serving the role of a repository and towards a space of facilitation and connection. Simply put, museums are trying to be less about stuff and more about people. Part of my interest in and motivation to work in cultural heritage institutions has been the stuff. I feel that there is so much we can learn from unique objects and materials. That being said, I understand and agree with the movement to make these institutions less static, more welcoming, and more relevant to the audiences they are supposed to serve. It’s an exciting time to be a part of the field, and I hope museums, libraries, archives, and galleries can adapt and embrace change.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the House of Terror in Budapest. This institution is dedicated to telling the story of Hungary under fascist and communist regimes in the 20th century. Wandering through the exhibition spaces, visitors are immersed in environments - not reproductions of historical spaces per se, but rather rooms meant to illicit emotion. There are objects and artifacts on display, but these are not the focus; interpretive text accompanying objects is minimal, instead there are paper handouts in nearly every room which provide background information to the topics covered. Multimedia elements, interviews and music in particular, are used frequently. The hardships faced under the regime were personalized by individual accounts, and it was clear that the intent with this was to generate a connection between history and visitors. While the subject of the museum may not be a welcoming one, the contemporary exhibition approach facilitates a relationship between those who lived under the regimes and those visiting the museum today. There are aspects to the exhibition I might approach differently, but I did find it to be an interesting example of this user-centered experience we discussed in our classes. 

 

The imposing exterior gives a good indication of the challenging subjects addressed inside.

The imposing exterior gives a good indication of the challenging subjects addressed inside.

Courtyard with victim portraits. 

Courtyard with victim portraits. 

Room dealing with justice under the regimes.

Room dealing with justice under the regimes.

Room dealing with "normalcy" in popular media under the regimes. 

Room dealing with "normalcy" in popular media under the regimes. 

Re-created office of a communist party official. 

Re-created office of a communist party official. 

Volunteering at the Museum of Holography

 

A few months after I moved to Chicago, I attempted to visit the Museum of Holography with a friend who was in town. Unfortunately, we discovered that the museum was closed indefinitely. The collections have been locked away for years at this point, but that’s beginning to change. An anonymous benefactor has assured that the collection will remain intact, and volunteer efforts are underway to sort, clean, accession, and catalogue the materials in the former museum. I attended a object handling and cleaning training session in the old space this weekend and spent some time after helping to clean holograms for the upcoming temporary display at SoHo House. It was so heartening to see people coming together to lend their time and expertise to benefit this amazing collection, and it was fantastic being able to view and handle some truly unique objects. There’s so much to the story of this museum and its holdings, and I hope that it can develop into a permanent museum again someday soon.

The exhibition featuring highlights from the Museum of Holography is on display July 28th from 7pm - 10pm at SoHo House

 

There are so many treasures in this collection! 

There are so many treasures in this collection! 

Reviewing some preservation issues: glass plates that are fused together.  

Reviewing some preservation issues: glass plates that are fused together.  

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Collections awaiting processing. 

Collections awaiting processing. 

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Digitization Challenge: Oversized Material

I work in the department in the library which fulfills patron, faculty, staff, and curator image digitization.  One recent request I was tasked with at work involved the scanning of several large maps that are part of the library’s collection.  And I do mean large:  two of the maps had to be captured in six separate exposures to be stitched together.  Our department’s most recent production equipment purchase was an A1 planetary scanner, but even its 23” x 33” bed couldn’t capture the maps in one shot.  The maps themselves had been encased in mylar to protect them, but had to be removed from this housing for digitization.  They dated to the World’s Columbian Exposition, and they were and still are rather brittle.  Paired with the unwieldy size, and digitizing them proved to be quite the challenge.  It was a treat to explore them in such detail, and a good excuse to make sure my Photoshop skills are up to snuff.

The setup. 

The setup. 

The smallest map from the order. 

The smallest map from the order. 

Art and Science Symposium

Last week, I attended a symposium for Northwestern University Library's new exhibition Art and Science:  Traversing the Creative Spectrum.  Speakers included S. Hollis Clayson, Professor of Art History at Northwestern; Harriet Stratis, Senior Research Conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago; Susan Russick, Northwestern University Library Conservator; and Oliver Cossairt, Professor of Computer Science at Northwestern.  The discussions all related to the intersection between science and art, and I was drawn to the discussions of imaging science in particular.  Using rapidly advancing technology has enabled researchers to learn more about historic works of art - Gauguin's working process via Infrared imaging, for example.  I always appreciate it when the cultural heritage imaging field is recognized for its contributions, and it was an interesting group of presentations.

 

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Oak Grove Library Center Tour

Last week, I had the chance to visit Northwestern University Library's offsite storage in Waukegan. It's a pretty incredible operation. They have room to store nearly 2 million titles with their current shelving units and already have well over a million titles barcoded, boxed, and shelved. The organizer in me was very pleased by all this order. 

Those dots at the end of the walkway are people, just to get a sense of the scale. 

Those dots at the end of the walkway are people, just to get a sense of the scale. 

Lift to get all those books put away. 

Lift to get all those books put away. 

Grid heaven. 

Grid heaven. 

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