Chicago History Museum Archives Tour

I recently met with Julie Wroblewski, the senior archivist at the Chicago History Museum (CHM), to discuss the state of the archives program at the museum and future goals for its development. I worked at CHM several years ago, but sadly our time at the institution did not overlap. A colleague, and former archivist from CHM, introduced Julie and I recently, and my current enrollment in the Archives & Manuscripts course in my MLIS program seemed like a perfect opportunity to reconnect and put into context what I am learning.

Julie is a certified archivist with an MLIS from Dominican University. She also recently completed an MA in Digital Humanities from Loyola University, and received her digital archives specialist certification from the Society of American Archivists. Previous work experience includes the role of Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at Benedectine University, Project Archivist at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, and Project Archivist at Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society. Her experience makes her well qualified for her current position, especially given the changes the collections unit is undergoing.

The museum is a stand-alone institution, and there is both a library and an archives within it. Hierarchically, the 3D museum collections, archival collections, and library are all situated under the collections unit, so the staff work closely with one another. The archives program at CHM is extensive - a fact I did not fully grasp when I worked there. The archival collecting scope aligns with the overall policy for the museum. The areas include: living, working, and governing the metropolitan area (including the broader suburbs around Chicago), the built environment, and individuals and ideas (Chicago History Museum, Collecting scope, 2017). Each of these areas is further broken down into topics, all of which are represented in the archives. Examples of these subjects include neighborhoods, class, leisure, business, labor, electoral politics, citizen action movements, and urban planning (Chicago History Museum, Collecting scope, 2017). Needless to say, there are a broad range of ideas represented in the collections, but they are all generally geographically focused in the Chicagoland area.

Screenshot of an image from one of the museum’s  permanent exhibitions

Screenshot of an image from one of the museum’s permanent exhibitions

Given the wide range of topics covered in the archives, its user base is wide and varied. Requests are primarily fielded through the research center, though she mentioned she assists with queries which prove to be especially challenging. When I worked at CHM, I would walk through the research center on a daily basis, and I was always amazed by how consistently busy it was, and by the range of individuals visiting and materials they were using. Indeed, they information needs of users include genealogical research, architectural drawing requests from homeowners, primary subject material for Chicago History Fair project for students, and both broad and specific subjects in the archival collections driving the development of new work by authors, filmmakers, and academics. The research center was recently able to eliminate the fee to visit and use the archival and library collections, so now even more of the city can use the institution’s resources. Requests from those outside the city is also welcomed through the use of local freelance researchers.

There are several distinct collections areas managed by archivists at the institution: architectural drawings and records, prints and photographs, and archives and manuscripts. Julie is currently focusing her efforts on the first and last, and the museum is currently seeking a new archivist to manage the prints and photographic materials.

The architectural drawings and records highlights the metropolitan area’s scope and variety of buildings. It includes both famous and lesser-known architects and architectural firms, and collecting efforts have prioritized the acquisition of entire archives of the creators (Chicago History Museum, Architectural drawings and records, 2017). The collection is comprised of architectural drawings, documents, photographs, and some 3D material which is managed separately. The Holabird & Roche/Holabird & Root architectural drawings and records, 1885–1980 and Harry Weese Associates architectural drawings and records, 1952–78 are two prominent collections within architectural drawings and records (Chicago History Museum, Architectural drawings and records, 2017). Much of the material in these collections can be challenging to work with, given the scale and relative fragility of many drawings and blueprints. Julie indicated that a good portion of these materials are stored off-site, and that much work needs to be done to improve the discovery of these holdings.

Screenshot of a sample archival document from the architectural drawings and records collection

Screenshot of a sample archival document from the architectural drawings and records collection

The prints and photographs collecting area is that which I am most familiar, as much of the work I did in the photography department at CHM was digitizing negatives and prints for licensing requests. There is an incredible volume of content at “1.5 million images and more than 4 million feet of moving images” (Chicago History Museum, Prints and photographs, 2017). In addition to the sheer number of items, a wide range of media are represented: “prints, including etchings, engravings, and lithographs; photographs, including cabinet cards, cartes de visite, cased images, stereocards, paper prints, and negatives; broadsides; posters; postcards; greeting cards; and moving image film and video” (Chicago History Museum, Prints and photographs, 2017). My favorite collections I had the opportunity to handle and digitize were the Hedrich-Blessing architectural photographs and the morgue from the Chicago Daily News. The majority of these materials are stored at the museum.

Screenshot of a sample photograph from the prints and photographs collection

Screenshot of a sample photograph from the prints and photographs collection

I am the least familiar with the archives and manuscript collection, so fortunately this is one of the storage areas we toured. There are over 20,000 linear feet of materials, and this is the one collecting area which does include content related to broader American history, especially as it pertains to the country’s early history. Archives and manuscripts include “unpublished materials including correspondence, diaries, business and financial records, meeting minutes and agendas, membership lists, research notes, scrapbooks, scripts, sermons, and speeches” (Chicago History Museum, Archives and manuscripts, 2017). Collections which see a lot of use are the Red Squad files - which have challenging access restrictions - and the Chicago Division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters records, 1925–69 (Chicago History Museum, Archives and manuscripts, 2017). A large storage space is located in the museum to house some of these materials, but given square footage limitations and the need for more efficient shelving, some collections are stored off-site.

Screenshot of a sample archival manuscript from the archives and manuscript collection

Screenshot of a sample archival manuscript from the archives and manuscript collection

Julie showed me a portion of the storage spaces in the museum, which are not open to the public. We walked past the cool and cold storage - used primarily for still and motion film and color prints. Our next stop was the primary archives and manuscript room. The spaces has several computer stations and large working spaces for processing. Additionally, there is a clearly defined area dedicated to largely unprocessed collections.

Storage space at CHM

Storage space at CHM

More storage

More storage

Efficiency and backlogs were a topic that came up repeatedly throughout our conversation. I knew that the museum historically struggled with a substantial backlog, and Julie indicated that the archival collections were not immune to the problem. Fortunately, she has been making substantial progress to reduce unprocessed collections. She employs a variety of strategies to this end, with More Product, Less Process - or MPLP - featuring prominently in the success. Reflecting on previous finding aids, there had historically been a tendency to approach description from a historian’s rather than archivist’s perspective. Rather than focusing on providing a few useful access points, collections were exhaustively described.

Julie also uses processing plans to help go about work strategically. These plans include timelines to provide benchmarks for work, and she uses spreadsheets to document the work she (and volunteers and interns) do while processing collections. She has also taken a note from agile development strategies used by software developers, and she will often organize work into two week chunks. This helps break down complicated and seemingly daunting tasks into more manageable portions, and it helps keep the processing plan on track. Collectively, all these efforts have resulted in the archives backlog shrinking, all while she continues to take in new collections and faces a staffing shortage.

Capacity is an issue, especially given the fact that Julie is the only archivist on staff at the moment. The consequences of this reality are reflected in two ways in regards to growth of the collection: the nature of acquisitions and the material types currently permitted. Currently (and historically) donations have accounted for roughly 80-90% of new acquisitions in the archives. Staffing is the limiting factor in the solicitation of archival collections, especially since it often takes a substantial amount of time and effort to build relationships, and these types of acquisitions can take years before they are completed. Julie mentioned that some exhibitions have helped to kickstart these relationships, especially with communities who were unaware of CHM and who are underrepresented in the collections. Gaps she would like to address include materials created by and that are about the south and west sides of Chicago, as well as communities of color and the Muslim community in the city. Archivists at CHM will likely need to actively solicit materials to more fully round out the archives.

Potential donors can facilitate the process through the online form

Potential donors can facilitate the process through the online form

Additionally, the museum does not accept born digital content as is outlined in the collecting scope and policy. Julie recognizes that this is problematic, as the majority of archival material being created today is likely digital. As such, there is a chronological gap that has the potential to grow, with material from the 2000s and on simply not being present in the holdings. Limitations in IT, especially as it pertains to infrastructure and the development of a digital preservation plan, are the primary source of this issue. In order to take this on, it will be necessary to have robust staffing and resources to support the substantial amount of work necessary to support born digital material. Julie is actively working on remedying these current limitations, and she hopes that they will begin collecting this type of material in the next few years.

Related to the current technological barriers at CHM, Julie stressed the necessity of emerging archivists to embrace new developments. When I inquired about specific tools or processes, she reflected on the fact that technology changes quickly and that above becoming an expert in one specific application, students should seek to be well-rounded. Competency should be reflected in gaining a range of experiences in order to learn how to use the next new thing, and to develop a foundation and comfort with using technology. She also reassured me that the technical aspects of archival work are not as complicated as they may seem, and that newcomers like me need to approach finding aid encoding and digital preservation with patience and humility.

One especially interesting idea Julie brought up repeatedly, and perhaps many of us do not fully consider when going into this field, is the necessity of relationships. She indicated a variety of ways in which she is actively strengthening ties within the institution - from working with curators to strategize collections building activities to the collaboration with the library and research center to learn what collections are being requested most frequently. Rather than acting as a silo, she understands the need and value in seeking out the experience and knowledge of other staff, and using it to strengthen the archives. This has resulted in the development of a series of brown bag meetings for staff, where Julie presents interesting new acquisitions to raise internal awareness of the collections.

The research center is an important ally for archival activities at CHM, especially because most external research requests are filtered through this department

The research center is an important ally for archival activities at CHM, especially because most external research requests are filtered through this department

Externally, she has been forging connections between current events and archival collections through programs and events, which often take place off-site. This helps acquaint communities, neighborhoods, and organizations with CHM and its archives, and it demonstrates the relevancy of the collections. Julie has developed a strong intern program, which is helping to train the next generation of archivists. As she is going about her work on a day-to-day basis, she keeps a list of candidate processing projects for emerging professionals. These real-world projects feature concrete aims, realistic deadlines, and the types of challenges we will face as archivists. Finally, she maintains close ties with other professionals in the field, especially those with similar collecting scopes. They work together to determine where materials might be a best fit, and they can serve users better by understanding where to refer individuals to with specific requests.


Chicago History Museum. (2017). Architectural drawings and records. Retrieved from

Chicago History Museum. (2017). Archives and manuscripts. Retrieved from

Chicago History Museum. (2017). Collecting scope. Retrieved from

Chicago History Museum. (2017). Prints and photographs. Retrieved from

IS&T Conference

During my trip to Washington D.C. this spring, I attended the IS&T Archiving conference in conjunction with visiting two Smithsonian archives. A representative from our department had attended this event in the past, and it’s been on my radar for several years. It was a good opportunity to learn about the trajectory of cultural heritage imaging and archiving on a larger, international scale.

This conference led me to consider my career path and hopes for the future, especially as it pertains to information professions. I originally became interested in the field of cultural heritage imaging as a result of my background in photography. Internships in two museums during college opened my eyes to the world of archival and museum work, especially as it pertained to making historic materials accessible. Digitization has been the focus of my career so far, having worked in three different museums and libraries in this capacity. After taking over some archives duties in my current position, I’ve realized how much I enjoy this related, yet different side of making materials accessible. It’s become clear to me that digital capture is just one aspect of access, archival practice is necessary in order to make data findable, and to preserve this data. I was pleased that the IS&T Archiving conference covered the full gamut of my interests: from digitization to quality control, workflows, metadata, standards, and information management.

While much of the conference focused on the hows of doing the work, the end goal of access and preservation was evident in all the presentations. The keynote was a prime example of this focus on use: the Montreaux Jazz Festival Digital Project in Switzerland was conceived first as a means of preserving unique, culturally important audio recordings, and it evolved into an effort rich in dynamic programming. The collaborative project has resulted pop-up exhibits and experiences utilizing archival footage during the annual jazz festival. The project faces the challenge of complicated rights issues, but staff have found a creative solution in the form of a custom-built cafe for researchers, students, and enthusiasts to interact with the collection.

A presentation by staff at the U.S. Library of Congress was another excellent instance of technology serving end users in making archival material accessible. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped within the Library of Congress has been digitizing its Braille music collection for preservation, given the often fragile and rare nature of the material, to maximize space on circulating shelves, and to better serve patrons. Given the fact that this branch serves citizens across the country, digital access has become the preferred method of disseminating music scores. The presenters reviewed their research in the various hardware and software used to effectively capture and output files which accurately capture the original. There is still much that could be improved in the existing technology, library staff made it clear that the challenges in digitization are worth it given the educational value they provide for the community.

The project manager of the Robert F. Smith Fund at the National Museum of African American History and Culture discussed the incredible collaboration between cultural heritage institution and community via their archival projects. Their community curation, professional curation, professional development, and Explore Your Family History Center all connect individuals with history. Staff have organized community digitization projects, which allows folks to learn about best practices for storing materials and digitally archive their ephemera and family photographs. Through professional curation and fellowship and internship opportunities, agency over representation and narratives can be retained within the community. And the Family History Center allows for information professionals to guide genealogical research. The presenter relayed stories about the unexpected social interaction that happens in this space, as long-lost family members have connected as a result of their findings. The work being done as a result of the Robert F. Smith Fund is a prime example of the multitude of ways in which cultural heritage institutions can create value for their patrons and community.

Doretha Williams from the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Doretha Williams from the National Museum of African American History and Culture

There were several sessions that focused on 3D capture of historic objects and sites, and the value of documenting our changing world. This is one emerging side of cultural heritage digitization which shows incredible promise in capturing our collective, global cultural patrimony. Historic sites at risk due to political or economic instability, disaster and climate change can now be captured with a high degree of detail and accuracy. While these captures are no replacement for the originals, their use and distribution can help foster a sense of urgency to preserve these sites and it can help individuals across the world learn in a tactile way about these histories. It was heartening to hear a call for a review of file formats, metadata schema, digital preservation and an overall strategy for dealing with 3D capture. There aren’t currently any standards, so this is a crucial concern. After all, long-term access of this data will only be assured if information professionals turn their attention to effectively archiving these materials.

One presentation out of Finland, and another out of South Korea also pointed to searchability of digitized archival material as key as it pertains to access. The Digitalia Research Center has been working to create systems which will accurately and efficiently perform OCR on a variety of typeset and handwritten materials, in a variety of languages. In addition, their solutions are able to analyze the resulting data to determine keywords for processed materials. The research done in the audio archives of the National Archives of Korea reveals the value of speech recognition technology. Though manual intervention is often necessary with automated processes like this one, deep learning is being implemented on an experimental basis in an attempt to improve efficiency and accuracy. Both these automation projects underscore the value of cost-effective technologies that will provide improved access via search, and which will keep up with the incredible volume of archival materials we create.

Anssi Jääskeläinen from the South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences, Digitalia Research Center

Anssi Jääskeläinen from the South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences, Digitalia Research Center

A poster about the Echoes project, based out of the Netherlands, caught my interest as it pertains to cooperation and collaboration across institutions and countries. This effort is attempting to link data, and thus archival collections, through one unified system. Based on the Europeana portal of digital collections that pulls together cultural heritage material from scores of institutions across the continent, this system goes one step further to connecting collections across the globe. Through careful crosswalking of metadata, museums, archives, and libraries can add to a growing web of information. The data is transformed to LOD/RDF triples, and users can query or use maps as search interfaces (Netiv and Hasselo, 2018). Projects like this one point to the larger trend of linked data, and the necessity of international collaboration. It is easy to become overwhelmed by options when searching for or browsing information as a result of the sheer number of search engines and information portals. Consolidation of data, and enrichment from making connections is key to help cut down on information overload.

I left the conference considering how we might improve our processes and standards within the digitization program at our museum. This has yielded helpful conversations about progress and improvements, that should help to ensure we are producing accurate documentation of our collections for archival purposes. Beyond these implications, I keep reflecting on the presentations in relation to the value of archives. The physical materials and their digital surrogates have value when they are accessed. Access depends on preservation, searchability, and connections. This is where archivists come into play - they help to transform sheets of paper and digital files. Given the scope of impact within each of these projects presented during the conference, it’s crystallized in my mind the role information professionals play in connecting individuals, communities, and societies to unique, historical content.

Netiv, A. and Hasselo, W. (2018). ECHOES: Cooperation across heritage disciplines, institutions, and borders. Retrieved from

Smithsonian tours

Last month, I traveled to Washington D.C. for the IS&T Archiving conference. I headed out a few days early in order to meet with a couple of archivists at the Smithsonian. My first stop was the Smithsonian Institutional Archives, and my second stop was the National Anthropological Archives.

I met with the photography archivist, Marguerite Roby, at the Institutional Archives, and it was incredibly helpful meeting with someone managing collections so similar to those I’m overseeing at the Art Institute of Chicago. We discussed issues we’re currently facing, and she provided suggestions based on similar challenges she’s encountered. She stressed finding an approach and sticking to it, for consistency it’s not about the perfect solution, rather one that will work in most situations and will produce repeatable results. She also encouraged our department to work collaboratively with other departments to learn more about our materials, and to foster institutional ownership of the collections.

She also provided the history of the Institutional Archives, whose complicated past mirrors our story. With institutional archives, especially photographic material, it seems as though the distinction between “working” and “archival” material is often hard to make. At AIC, this is reflected in the fact that the Imaging department, that which is currently making new documentation for the museum, is still tasked with managing all historical photographic documentation. At Smithsonian, progress has been made in the form of one centralized repository for all institutional documentation, but there is much work to be done to sort and catalog a legacy of inconsistent management. It was eye-opening hearing her thoughts about the unique challenges embedded within photographic institutional archives, which I’ve felt intuitively, but have never been able to pinpoint exactly.

Additionally, we talked shop about image records, metadata, information management systems and workflow, storage, and digitization. While Marguerite is dealing with a scale of material that far surpasses our collections, learning about the ways in which our day-to-day work is similar and differs gave me ideas on what we can improve. It confirmed areas where we’re on the right track, and areas that need more attention. We also toured the on-site storage in the Smithsonian Institutional Archives building in D.C. The majority of photographic material is located elsewhere, but I was grateful for the opportunity to take a look at some of their archival material. One item in particular, the custom slide cabinet and vertical viewing station, caught my eye.

It was wonderful discussing archives, and institutional archives in particular, with a professional with so much experience and knowledge.

Storage in the Institutional Archives office building

Storage in the Institutional Archives office building

Slide storage and viewing cabinet

Slide storage and viewing cabinet

Custom housing for glass plate negatives

Custom housing for glass plate negatives

Material to-be-sorted from a departing Smithsonian staff member

Material to-be-sorted from a departing Smithsonian staff member

The next day, I met with photograph archivist Gina Rappaport, who manages the National Anthropological Archives. Her office and storage are located in one of the off-site facilities outside Washington D.C. - one of the warehouse spaces I’ve long wanted to visit.

She told me about the Archives’ long history and how ownership and management as shifted over the decades. Paralleling the Institutional Archives, and our own, it’s interesting to learn how common a reality this is for archives - and it’s a reality which has a huge impact on archivists’ work. Uneven oversight results in piecing together puzzles and backtracking to revise work previously done. This is further complicated with Gina’s material, since there are so many different creators. Institutional archives can be considered mainly in terms of the institution itself as creator and subject, but more traditional collections like the National Anthropological Archives have unique creators and subjects.

We discussed physical and intellectual organization of the archives. She helped answer some of my questions about the utility of creating finding aids for our collection, and how to go about resolving physical reorganization which has resulted in a loss of information about material. These management issues made it clear how important it is to have trained archivists overseeing materials like these. While interpretation of collections is good, it can’t happen without measures in place which allow for the safe storage, retrieval, and care of these materials.

She led me on a tour of some of the photographic archives storage space in the building, as well as some of the general museum collections storage, primarily for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The building has been custom designed to maximize storage space, with 435,000 square feet dedicated to the collections. This includes rows upon rows of stationary and compact shelving units filled with historic negatives and prints. The photographic archives are beautifully housed, and Gina discussed their good fortune of having volunteers dedicated to making custom housing for unique or unstable materials. This includes floating mylar supports so researchers can look at original negatives without having to touch them. They also have extensive cold and frozen storage both on- and off-site, and a comprehensive digitization program.

These more traditional archives gave me a better sense of context about archives on the whole, and the ways in which our institutional archives fit in the larger field.

One small section of photographic archives storage for the National Anthropological Archives

One small section of photographic archives storage for the National Anthropological Archives

Nitrate negatives, soon to be stored in freezers

Nitrate negatives, soon to be stored in freezers

Custom housing for glass plate negatives: mylar support to allow viewing and reduce handling

Custom housing for glass plate negatives: mylar support to allow viewing and reduce handling

I’m incredibly thankful for the chance to spend so much time talking to these archivists, and for the opportunity to tour their facilities and see their collections. The field of cultural heritage is perpetually overworked and understaffed, so it’s a testament to the generosity of staff like Marguerite and Gina to take time out to meet with me. I learned so much from both of these visits, and I’ve made some valuable professional connections. I hope that I’ll be able to pay it forward in the future, especially once I have more formal archival training under my belt.

Midwest Archives Conference 2018

This was my first year attending the Midwest Archives Conference, and luckily, it was located here in Chicago. I knew it would be a smaller event than the American Institute for Conservation conference that I attended last spring, and I was pleasantly surprised by the content presented. In particular, there was a cohesiveness in the tours and sessions I attended on the first day, all of which related to diversity in archival practice. The day started off with a tour of two southside archival repositories: the Carter G. Woodson Regional branch of the Chicago Public Library (CPL) and the DuSable Museum of African American History, and it ended with conference sessions.

At Woodson, we toured the newly reopened facility and learned more about the history of this regional branch. This included a discussion of and glimpse at some of the materials in the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature. This collection is one of the largest and most comprehensive documenting black life in Chicago and the region as a whole (Chicago Public Library 2018). Part of the history of these materials is the strong support of the surrounding southside community itself: neighbors banned together to raise funds in order to build an expansion of the library to house the collection, and they fought against the relocation of the materials to the hub CPL location downtown Chicago. The Vivan G. Harsh society formed as a non-profit friends organization in 1994 to directly support the archival materials at Woodson (Vivian G. Harsh Society 2018). Our librarian guide recounted the variety of content in the collection, from newspaper clippings to funeral programs to yearbooks. She also spoke to the wide range of users of this material, including genealogists and students working on history fair projects. I enjoyed the chance both the take in the space, especially the beautiful art and revamped exhibit featuring the archival collections, and appreciated the opportunity to see the closed stacks and learn about this amazing collection from staff.

Exhibit space at Woodson regional branch, featuring several archival collections stored onsite.

Exhibit space at Woodson regional branch, featuring several archival collections stored onsite.

A few of the many yearbooks stored in the closed stacks.

A few of the many yearbooks stored in the closed stacks.

Our second stop was the DuSable Museum of African American History, which I visited several years ago in order to write a paper for one of my Museum Studies classes at Northwestern. Our visit started in the amazing entrance hall covered in Thomas Miller mosaics, where the museum’s archivist, Ms. Skyla Hearn, told us the story of the institution. The museum exists today because of the efforts of Dr. Margaret Taylor ­Burroughs. She was passionate about African American culture and history and worked tirelessly to create a place where the community’s story could be told. She and her second husband Charles developed the idea for a museum, and with the support of a large network, they transformed their plan into reality. The museum has grown substantially since it first opened its doors to the public in 1961, and it was through Dr. Burroughs’ strategic collecting and deep connections with the local community that has led the institution to its current position as an invaluable and beloved museum dedicated to telling important, often untold or overlooked stories (Feldman 1981).

Ms. Hearn then led us on a tour of their exhibition spaces, and we ended up spending the most time in the more recently developed exhibit Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality. There were a number of impactful archival pieces featured, including ephemera from America’s slave trade through posters and film footage from the civil rights movement. The exhibition is “dedicated to the thousands of unsung lives given in the name of freedom and equality,” and it tells important stories in a limited amount of space (DuSable Museum 2018). The archivist then spoke about upcoming exhibits and the joy of finding new content while organizing and cataloging the museum’s archival collections. We ended our tour in the newly completed reading room for the Hamilton Institute for Research and Civic Involvement. The museum has been working closely with Dr. Charles V. Hamilton, scholar, activist, and political scientist, on the creation of this addition to the museum (Hutcherson 2018). Dr. Hamilton’s papers (an ongoing acquisition), in addition to a wide range of additional archival and rare book collections can be viewed in the new reading room. It was exciting to hear about the substantial progress that has been made acquiring, cataloging, and making accessible collections relating to African American history. These are amazing resources, and they are in good hands.

Some of the collections on display in the exhibit  Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality

Some of the collections on display in the exhibit Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality

The conference officially kicked off with the plenary session, which featured Natalie Moore, WBEZ Chicago Public Radio investigative reporter and author of The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation. Much of her work looks at entrenched segregation in Chicago, and her book is a deep-dive into the impacts of segregation on the housing market. While much of the content focuses on more contemporary events, looking at her and her family’s experience with property ownership, she does provide historical context for their story. Local archival repositories (Chicago History Museum, Newberry Library, Chicago Public Library, etc) were important resources for her in covering the histories of the Great Migration, Jim Crow, redlining, public housing, and white flight. Primary source materials helped her to gather data about the realities of inequity in neighborhoods and housing. She related how even materials like yearbooks could provide valuable insights: patterns of shifting neighborhood demographics could be traced in photographs of the student body over the course of a few years. It is exciting to see the ways in which archival materials can be used and interpreted, especially linking the past with current realities. I am grateful that there are individuals like Ms. Moore who are making the connections between past and present issues, and telling stories which will hopefully make the city and region as a whole more aware of the ongoing inequity in Chicago and beyond.

Finally, the general sessions at the conference began in earnest. I attended a panel program entitled “Beyond Institutional Boundaries: Community Archives and Representational Belonging,” in which five speakers addressed various institutions and programs that are embracing local communities. Each project reflected the notion of “representational belonging,” which is key to deferring the erasing of communities and instead provides them the agency to collect and tell their own stories (Caswell 2016). Presenters discussed Mukurtu Collections Management System and ArtHyve, in addition to the Chicago Area Archivists (CAA) Day of service at Pullman State Historic Site, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Preservation Outreach project at Stony Island Arts Bank, and the history of Shorefront Legacy Center.

The Pullman project was an interesting case study in the merger of historic sites with archival content and the surrounding community. The representative from CAA proposed that regional archival organizations can fulfill a unique role in how they serve their surrounding communities, as they are comprised of individuals not institutions. As such, some of the power struggles and challenges with agency and ownership may not arise. In this instance, CAA worked with the neighborhood to define common goals for the project and emphasized relationship building throughout the process. The end result was the cataloging of over 180 boxes of archival material relating to the historic site, which included box level inventories and condition assessments. Archivists from CAA assisted in organizing the event, and providing expertise, but it was the community of local volunteers in this southside neighborhood which owned and directed the work.

Slide from the CAA and Pullman collaboration

Slide from the CAA and Pullman collaboration

The ALA preservation outreach project also helped make common ground between conservation practitioners and another southside Chicago neighborhood via a local cultural center. The Stony Island Arts Bank is a “hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center – and a home for Rebuild’s archives and collections,” Rebuild being the parent organization (Stony Islands Art Bank 2018). This site was chosen because its location in an area historically underrepresented and under-resourced in terms of archival care and management, and the ALA series is focused on engaging in partnership with these types of organizations. The day-long event started with presentations from ALA members on preservation best practices in regards to a wide range of archival material reflected in the collection, from books to photographs, sheet music, posters, and ephemera. The rest of the day was spent working with Arts Bank staff and community volunteers to rehouse portions of the collection. Access to these materials is a crucial aspect of the mission for the organization, so the goal of this partnership was addressing collections care to help ensure their longevity. The Dorchester Avenue photograph collection was one focal point for the effort. These found images from the neighborhood show snippets everyday black life in Chicago from the 1950s to the 1980s. Their rehousing in binders will allow easier access and will help to keep them organized and protected. The Ed Williams collection was also addressed, and it is through an ALA press release about these materials in particular that led to a newspaper article on the preservation outreach project. This write-up resulted in increased community donations and engagement with the cultural center. The event not only provided the Arts Bank with rehoused archival material, it also provided foundational preservation knowledge to attendees, and it helped further connect the organization with its neighborhood.

The Shorefront Legacy Center’s history is a demonstration of true community archiving in practice. The organization originated with the goal of showing the experiences of black life in the suburbs around Chicago, not just in the urban environment (Shorefront Legacy Center 2018). This community-created organization was developed in order to address a lack of representation in traditional archival spaces, and to reverse narratives of powerlessness that sometimes follow with black history and representation. The center instead focuses on empowerment and agency through collaboration with the community it represents. This is done in part through a partnership with the Black Metropolis Research Consortium. The relationship supports the center’s work through education on best practices and guidelines, as well as increased visibility and the subsequent increase in resources. One recent project the center has undertaken has been an outreach project with one of the Evanston YMCA branches. Community relations with this location were poor due to the lasting legacy of segregation: local African Americans were barred from joining or using this facility in the mid-twentieth century. Archival material in the form of meeting minutes were used to facilitate open forum discussions and the recording of oral histories. This helped the community to more openly discuss and collectively process its history, and it led to an exhibition at the Shorefront Legacy Center, as well as documentary books and films. At the same time, this project helped with YMCA to act to bridge the gap by acknowledging their history (renaming rooms) and welcoming the entire community (creating scholarships). The center strives to collect, provide access to, and foster development of products (exhibitions, art, documentaries) in order to reach more individuals and tell more stories. This nimble organization has accomplished a great deal, and embodies community-led archiving, in spite of limited resources.

Slide from the Shorefront Legacy Center presentation

Slide from the Shorefront Legacy Center presentation

I learned so much in one day, and the theme of diversity and representational belonging resonated with me. I have worked in traditional museum and library spaces, which have not always focused on or done an adequate job of collecting material from diverse communities or successfully partnering with them. I hope that this will change as time goes on, and institutions realize how valuable these relationships are. Additionally, I hope traditional repositories can take cues from community-organized repositories to learn what equitable collaborations look like. I also hope to be involved in or support in some way community archiving efforts at the National Public Housing Museum. This community has historically been incredibly effective at organizing and advocating, and I am sure that this grassroots-founded museum will do wonderful things.



Caswell, M., Cifor, M. & Ramirez, M. (2016) “To Suddenly Discover Yourself Existing”: Uncovering the Impact of Community Archives. The American Archivist: Spring/Summer 2016, 79(1), 56-81.

Chicago Public Library: Woodson Regional. (2018). Retrieved April 3, 2018 from

The DuSable Museum: Freedom, resistance, and the journey toward equality. (2018). Retrieved April 3, 2018 from

Feldman, E. & DuSable Museum of African American History. (1981). The birth and the building of the DuSable Museum. Chicago: DuSable Museum Press.

Hutcherson, L. (2018, January 27). Noted Political Scientist Dr. Charles V. Hamilton Establishes Research Institute at DuSable Museum in Chicago. Good Black News. Retrieved from

Shorefront Legacy Center. (2018). Retrieved April 3, 2018 from

Stony Island Arts Bank. (2018). Retrieved April 3, 2018 from

Vivian G. Harsh Society. (2017). Retrieved April 3, 2018 from

MASS Action, meeting 1

Last year, a cross-departmental group of staff from the Art Institute of Chicago attended MASS Action, a national convening of cultural heritage institutions committed to supporting practices of equity and inclusion at their home institutions. The goals of this group are far-reaching and ambitious, but they are necessary. From MASS Action’s website:

“As the museum field begins to shape its identity in the 21st century, MASS Action poses the following questions for practitioners to consider: What is the role and responsibility of the museum in responding to issues affecting our communities locally and globally? How do the museum’s internal practices need to change in order to align with, and better inform, their public practice? How can the museum be used as a site for social action? Through a series of public convenings and the creation of a toolkit of resources, this project's intention is to share the strategies and frameworks needed to address these important topics.”

The first two institution-wide meeting to discuss the toolkit took place this month. MASS Action provided a framework for this discussion to get started, which is invaluable given the challenging nature of the content to be covered. We started by chatting with a neighbor, and posing the question - what does social action mean to you? There were lots of animated conversations taking place throughout the room, and my discussion partner and I talked about the necessity of connecting with people directly. Even though there are many means of interacting, face-to-face communication is necessary to forge strong ties, build momentum, and provide a reminder of the humanity of both peers and the public we’re serving.

A set of ground rules were then laid out by the organizers, to which we all agreed:

  • We are making an honest attempt to address the most pressing issues of equity within our museum. We are building a network of people that are (and have been) developing long-term solutions and effective strategies based on the immediate confrontation of our most pressing issues.

  • In developing these strategies and solution, we emphasize our own power, not our powerlessness.

  • We share the airtime. We listen to understand. We ask questions before assuming. The best way to understand the choices, actions or intentions of one another is by asking.

  • In order to create a space where everyone may speak freely, we recognize the importance of confidentiality. What is said here stays here, what is learned here leaves. We encourage you to ask before quoting, online or in-person,  someone when they are sharing their thoughts in a space of trust.

  • We encourage people to engage with their whole selves, not just with one part of their identity.

  • We deeply value the time and energy participants are contributing to this project, and therefore want to create a safe, productive, healing space. Please ensure you maintain your health, energy and wellbeing throughout these discussions.

These guidelines helped set the tone for the work that we need to do. It is about sharing in a non-judgemental way, working together, and respecting where folks are coming from - basic ideas, but necessary to state in an increasingly hostile world.

We then broke into groups of about 10, to address two prompts: what is our truth, what is our role in the museum. I ended up talking with many peers I’d never met before, who represented a range of departments across the museum and central administration. We discussed in depth our identities and how certain “truths” (place in the family, state we grew up in, etc) inform how we function both in and outside of work. Additionally, we talked about how we exist in this institution, its relation to our identities, and the challenges we personally face. We also addressed the fractured nature of this museum, both in terms of physical space and in terms of work divisions. Given how large the institution is, many staff do not have opportunities to connect with each other.

I have always approached museums and archives from a collections-oriented perspective. I believe in the power for original source material to tell stories, for the benefit, growth, and education of all. As such, my focus in career development has been on the stuff-side of the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museum) world. I now know that there is no neutrality in the notion that cultural heritage institutions are collectors. The history of our holdings are rife with trauma. Colonial powers have taken materials they had no right to. Museums have continued imperialist tradition by continuing to claim ownership, and presenting in often uninformed or insensitive ways materials from hosts of cultures. Even the ways in which we categorize and catalog materials has been done in a privileged and tone-deaf manner.

Museums cannot be neutral, every choice made betrays priorities and biases - even when we are not aware of them. Fortunately, there are efforts to address these problematic sides of collections and archives. NAGPRA is one very small step in a positive direction, necessary but limited in scope. Mukurtu collections management system is an even more meaningful effort. This open-source platform allows communities to assert sovereignty for their cultural materials - in how these items are cataloged, shared, and keyworded. On the stuff-side of GLAM work, we need to be open to change and we need to move away from institution-as-owner-and-authority. Dr. Kimberly Christen gave a wonderful presentation on all of these ideas, and it is something all museums need to embrace.

Outside of collections as challenges in the context of social structures and uneven power, museums must also address our institutions in the context of our local and global communities. I have been slowly coming around to the idea that without people, without outreach and support to and interest by these people, these materials have little value. The human-side of GLAM institutions is thus crucial. This is likely obvious to most, but it’s dramatically altered the way in which I think about my work and the work of my peers. It was therefore striking and confirming that our group discussion focused on people, not the museum as a collecting entity. The museum is an organization of people, and it is for the benefit of other people. As such, our identities and challenges as staff can help to inform how we might think about the public we serve. Additionally, this groundwork can help us to determine what change can come from within. It is not enough to offer more programs for local public school kids. We need to embrace and reflect the change we want internally before we can hope to expect meaningful change externally. And as a member of our group succinctly pointed out, everyone wants change, but not as many want to change.

At the end of our too-short introductory MASS Action session, each group chose a representative to say once sentence that summed up the discussion in their group. It was interesting to listen to the range of ideas expressed: accessibility, audience selection, donor relations upholding the status quo, institution size as both a pro and con, the need for vulnerability. As the meeting ended, what stuck out in my mind was the notion that our reputation and identity could hold us back.

Art museums have a reputation for being elitist, for catering to and telling the stories of a select few. I think this is even more-so the case of a museum like ours, which does not focus on contemporary practice, but rather attempts to be encyclopedic in scope. It may not seem necessary, then, for our museum to embrace issues our world faces today head-on. Our behemoth size make timely, meaningful internal change difficult. It feels akin to correcting the course of the Titanic - we will need buy-in from hundreds of staff and from all levels of management. Our reputation as one of the top art museums will make external change difficult. We need to find a way of moving beyond this way of defining the institution, so that it can be a more welcoming, inclusive community center.

I do not think these challenges are insurmountable, and I do not think we should use them as excuses to not even bother trying. I hope that we can continue coming together to reflect on who we are and what we can do, so that change can happen internally and externally. This is a good start to larger conversations here at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I sincerely hope we can turn the conversation into action.


Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 7.22.28 PM.png

AIC Archives & GWU Museum Collections Management & Care Program

Last month I finished up the last class to complete the George Washington University graduate certificate program in Museum Collections Management and Care. Over the course of four semesters, I was able to grow my skill set and gain a solid foundation in basic collections management principles. The first two classes focused on preventive conservation, the third in general management protocol, and the final in legal aspects of the field. I knew about some of the ideas behind these topics from internships and jobs in museums, but these classes provided me with much more in-depth information.

Each class also provided a wealth of resources, so even if I come across challenges in the future and do not know the solution, I feel confident in knowing where to look for answers. I also enjoyed the structure of the classes: all were taken with the same classmates, so we built solid relationships in spite of the courses being offered exclusively online. I know those enrolled with me, along with my professors, will continue to be an amazing network of knowledge, experience, and camaraderie far into the future.

It might seem as though these topics could not effectively be offered without in-person instruction, but the program requires that you have access to museum or archival collections. This is crucial, as much of the coursework is reliant upon the application of principles taught. As a result, I was able to use what I learn to improve the physical and intellectual control over the photographic institutional archives at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I work. Projects included assessing the temperature and humidity levels, monitoring dust, and analyzing and advising on copyright, right to privacy, and right to publicity issues in the archives. You can find out more about work I’ve undertaken here, both class-related and independently.

It’s reassuring to look back on the progress that’s been made in the archives over the last year or so. The resources are perceived to have greater value, awareness of the content represented is growing, resources and manpower is being dedicated to continued work, and the museum has applied for an IMLS grant to further sustain the archive project as a whole. This was my first opportunity being a grant writing project lead (class projects provided a fantastic starting point for this!), and with the help of many talented colleagues, hopefully we will secure funding for additional funding. This award will be used for contract positions for the digitization and rehousing of photographic archival material, as well as image record creation.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to have begun managing the archives. Eighteen months ago, I was curious about the contents and care of the archives but lacking the knowledge and experience to tackle the work. I still have much to learn, but I’m happy that my coursework has helped our department to make progress in the care and management of our resources.