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.

Outreach: Marwen visit

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.

Reproduction prints of AIC staff at work over the decades

Reproduction prints of AIC staff at work over the decades

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.

Original archival negatives and transparencies

Original archival negatives and transparencies

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.