National Public Housing Museum - Cataloging Kickoff

The second project I worked on last month was a cataloging kickoff at the National Public Housing Museum. The institution has new staff onboard, and there has been forward momentum building up in the collections program. PastPerfect was selected as the museum’s collections management system, so we started this project by getting to know the software.

I used PastPerfect while I was a photography intern at the Jewish Museum of Maryland back in college. Needless to say, the years that have passed have made me a bit rusty, so it was good to spend some time reacquainting myself with the program. We reviewed the company’s comprehensive documentation and walked through cataloging some of the 3D materials from the collection. This helped us to determine what fields would be most useful, and how  we could narrow the parameters of data entry to assure consistency.


Next steps include writing up guidelines and how-to guides, and onboarding interns. Much more work is yet to be done, including developing finding aid procedures as much of their collections are archival. It is satisfying to move forward and make progress, and I’m looking forward to being a part of this ongoing work.

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Rehousing some 3D materials in acid-free tissue: an upgrade from zippered plastic bags. 

Northwestern University & the American Indian Center

Last month featured two side projects which allowed me to work hands-on with collections materials. I really enjoy these opportunities, and while my schedule has been busy, I hope to have more chances to do this kind of work in the future. It’s helped to remind me why I love working in the cultural heritage field.

A former colleague from Northwestern introduced me to a professor working on a collaborative project with the American Indian Center here in Chicago. The organization is in the process of moving to a new location, so the university is teaming up to help assure temporary safe storage and perform an inventory of their collections materials. There are plans to digitize materials as they are inventoried, as well.

I visited campus to assess the materials, and to meet with the project lead to review the process. I had developed some initial workflow steps and a basic inventory form with data entry guidelines. Looking through the materials helped us to refine this documentation, and it was beneficial to walk through creating some dummy records for a few items. The goal is to set up a dedicated space for this work to happen, and to train both NU students and AIC community members so that the work can happen in teams. This will foster stronger bonds between both institutions, teaching those from NU about the AIC community, and assuring AIC ownership and consultation in the process. The hope is that the inventory can be developed into online portal to the collections, allowing public access.


I hope to continue to provide guidance as needed with this project, and I’m excited to hear updates as the work progresses. In spite of its decades-long history and important role in bringing together communities shifting from reservation to urban life, AIC isn’t well-known to many Chicagoans. Hopefully this project can help in part to make this important organization more visible.

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Art Institute of Chicago - Moholy-Nagy: Future Present

In December, I finished up the first of four online classes I’m taking through George Washington University. The certificate program is focused on museum collections management and care, and I’ve learned so much already. Since the program is restricted to those already working or volunteering in the field, it has meant that I often learn as much from my classmates as I do through the class itself. Some amazing stories have been shared about experiences in collections, and there have been opportunities for us to pool our knowledge to help in times of need.

The first class was focused on preventive conservation, including the primary agents of deterioration and the different material types commonly found in museums. With this knowledge, I was able to assess the National Public Housing Museum exhibit installed for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and report on next steps for degrading institutional film archives at the Art Institute of Chicago. I’ve even seen my education at work while touring one of AIC’s recent exhibits - Moholy-Nagy: Future Present.

As a multimedia and experimental artist, Moholy-Nagy embraced new materials, including plastics. The materiality of different formulas produced desirable effects for the artist; unfortunately, many of these developing synthetics also degrade quickly. There were conservation notes next to some of the pieces, explaining research that was done and components that had to be replaced over the years. Many of the artworks that featured plastics also incorporated other material, including metal, paint, and wood, further complicating their care, storage, and display.

Understanding some of the basic principles of conservation makes me appreciate the work that goes into exhibits like this one that much more, and it makes me excited to learn more about conservation and collections management.

Tenement Museum

I recently traveled to New York City, and I finally visited the Tenement Museum while there. This museum has been on my list to see for several years, especially since the National Public Housing Museum wants to follow a similar model of recreating apartments once their space is fully renovated. I opted to go on two of their tours, and I’m glad I did.

The living spaces above the ground-floor businesses originally shuttered due to code updates the landlord could not and did not want to fulfill. This means that the majority of the building was a time-capsule, abandoned for decades. This also means that basic updates had to be completed to open the space for tours, and there are still restrictions on how visitors see the space. There is no free roaming, and tours are limited to an hour. While I understand the practical limitations to the space, I still found myself frustrated by this highly-controlled experience. I like to take my time and absorb at my own rate.

Information was also repeated from one tour to another, particularly in the entry hallway, perhaps with the assumption that visitors usually only opt to take one tour at a time. This normally would not bother me, but with limited time, it felt like lost time.

On the whole, I did thoroughly enjoy my experience at the museum, though. I appreciate the fact that they retained the majority of surfaces as they found them when the building was first reopened. “Abandoned” apartments are showcased on each floor, so that visitors can get a sense of the scale of these rooms and the urban archaeology involved in a space like this one. In some rooms, they have uncovered over 40 layers of paint, and looking down revealed decades of changing flooring, from wood to linoleum.

The recreated apartments were also effective. Each was meant to replicate the experience of specific families that lived in the building. The objects in these spaces were collected from thrift stores, estate sales, flea markets and many other venues not usually used to fill a museum spaces. As such, they aren’t traditional collections materials, that individually tell a story. It is only collectively that they recreate the stories of the families who lived and the times in which they lived. It did feel a bit like stepping back in time, and it was done tastefully.

I had a great deal of questions after visiting - what their conservation efforts looked like while making the space visitable, what current conservation challenges they face with the space, how collections materials (from what I gathered, primarily objects recovered on the site) are handled and tracked differently than apartment objects, etc etc. I hope to be able to ask these questions to staff one day, and I also hope to be able to return once their new apartments open this summer. These feature more contemporary families, which will more closely align in time period with families NPHM will likely feature.

Art Institute of Chicago - Ayala Altarpiece

My position at the Art Institute of Chicago involves image preparation and delivery to both internal and external clients. Working with other departments, we supply collections, exhibit, and program documentation for a variety of purposes. We work most closely with publications, developing both online and print catalogs.

One such recent project involves post-conservation treatment documentation of the Ayala Altarpiece, a massive two panel piece created in 1396. In order to get the largest section out of the chapel in which it was originally housed, the largest panel had to be cut into three sections. It was reassembled and the spaces between the sections were filled and inpainted by conservators. Both panels have undergone full conservation in the past few years, which has meant the sections have had to be cut once again to navigate from the gallery to the conservation lab and to imaging. You can read more about this process on the Art Institute’s blog.

A publication is being developed which will feature the Ayala Altarpiece, but the deadline falls before the anticipated completion date for gallery re-installation for the panels. The three sections of the largest panel have been individually documented after conservation was finished, but our department will not have the opportunity to photograph the inpainting done to fill the sections prior to the print date. I have been tasked with digitally filling the gaps, following pre-treatment documentation from its prior gallery installation. This falls outside my normal editing work, and it was a fun challenge. It’s been years since I’ve drawn or painted, so I had to brush up on my skills to complete the panel, especially in areas which featured figures and detailed decorative elements.

We will do overall imaging once the panels are fully installed and inpainted, which will be the ultimate and true collections documentation for the altarpiece. But for now, this digitally stitched image will have to suffice for immediate needs.

A quick view of some of the steps involved with editing the altarpiece.

A quick view of some of the steps involved with editing the altarpiece.

Detail, before

Detail, before

Detail, after

Detail, after

Field Museum of Natural History - Restoring Earth

A group of friends and I visited the Field Museum together - it was a nice departure from our normal social activities. I tend to be a thorough, methodical museum visitor, but it’s a nice change of pace to approach these spaces more casually. I also really enjoy sharing the experience with others, it’s fun to share odd discoveries and find the most unusual-looking creature together.

A friend who previously worked at the museum encouraged the group to visit one of their newest exhibitions, which focuses on the conservation work the institutions’ scientists are actively doing: Abbott Hall of Conservation Restoring Earth. While I love the traditional dioramas, this exhibit felt much more contemporary, and the design itself matched the important work teams are doing from in landscapes from Peru to Cuba to Chicago. I was impressed in particular by a video showing off the collections storage, and how these materials contribute to our understanding of ecosystems and cultures across the globe. I welcome this direct approach museums can take to connect visitors to the institution itself and its connection to the outside world.

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Museum of Contemporary Art - Mastry

I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to see Kerry James Marshall’s survey Mastry at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. His work is incredible, and seeing so many pieces together, telling the diverse stories of African Americans in this country was moving. I was encouraged, too, to see a wide variety of individuals visiting the exhibit: young and old, all races and ethnicities. Too often I only see a specific type visiting museums; this exhibit should teach museums a lesson to make their spaces more inclusive by including more voices in what is presented. There was a nod to this in the introductory wall panel:

“For the past thirty-six years, Kerry James Marshall has been driven by a mission to address the absence of black artists and subjects in the history of art. Like many African Americans born during the civil rights movement, Marshall’s worldview and artistic practice have been shaped by questions of racial representation. He has committed to filling the walls of museums with black figures, depicting black people almost exclusively and telling stories about black lives and history on a grand scale.

To compete with the great artists from past centuries while expanding the possibilities of representation, Marshall has methodically mastered a wide range of techniques and remixed almost every tradition of painting from the past 500 years. He takes on many of the genres of art - including history painting, landscape, portraiture, and abstraction - carrying the tradition of painting into the present. To do this, he incorporates references to history, pop culture, contemporary life, and his hometown Chicago. He also reenvisions how African Americans are depicted, mixing black pigments to create his own set of tones for the skin and features of his subjects. In his richly detailed paintings - complex, beautiful, and relevant to the challenges of our time - it pays to look, look closely, and look again.”

The show is now traveling, I hope many more have a chance to connect with Marshall’s work.

 

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Chicago Architecture Foundation - Open House 2016

Another great year of visiting interesting sites! This year we covered locations from Back of the Yards, the Loop, and UIC. These are a few phone shots, proper photos will be posted on my site soon. 

 

Union Station

Union Station

Maybe less scenic part of the station

Maybe less scenic part of the station

Palmer Printing

Palmer Printing

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River City

River City

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Growing Power Iron Street Farm

Growing Power Iron Street Farm

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Testa Produce

Testa Produce

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UIC's brutalist campus

UIC's brutalist campus

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Fine Arts Building

Fine Arts Building

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Roosevelt University Auditorium Building

Roosevelt University Auditorium Building

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Berlin's German Museum of Technology

We also visited the German Museum of Technology in Berlin. Industry, infrastructure, and transportation turned out to be the inadvertent theme of our trip. There was limited text in English, so I decided to enjoy the photographic opportunities in the space. These are a few shots I took with my phone, many more were taken with my DSLR.

 

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Berlin's DDR Museum

Another museum we visited on our trip was the DDR Museum in Berlin. It opened in 2006, and it is rare (in Germany) in that it’s a privately-funded institution. It is a popular destination in the city, and that certainly proved to be the case when we visited. It was difficult to see everything, due in part to the crowding, the relatively small space of the exhibits, and the design of the exhibits themselves.

The primary exhibition spaces, which covered everything from travel throughout Eastern Bloc countries to required military service, relied on cabinets which you had to open to see objects and read about them. Drawers and shelves which could be opened had handles, but even with this visual clue, many skipped them opting to see what few displays were out in the open. Given how limited an area one had to be in to see the opened cabinets, it was a crowded, rushed experience that didn’t seem to connect much with the content itself. There were many in-depth interactives, as well, including “dressing” a dissident and running a factory under the limitations of the DDR. I only had the opportunity to try one of these, but it was an interesting way of engaging with this history.

The recreation of the apartment made more sense to have information presented in this way. Visitors could open kitchen cabinets and drawers under bunk beds to learn more about particular aspects of day-to-day life in East Berlin. Statistics were printed on appliances, and there was a CG timelapse of views outside the windows of the apartment, showing what the neighborhood looked like.

The tone of the labels was biased, sometimes sarcastic. This is interesting given how recently all of this occurred, and how most museums attempt to stay as neutral as possible (sometimes to their detriment). Perhaps this can be attributed to its private funding.

I would be curious to know how this museum is perceived by visitors, both those who experienced life in the DDR and outsiders. I walked away from the experience intrigued by the bias, but somewhat frustrated by the limitations in what I could see.

General exhibition case design, objects presented without having to open cabinets

General exhibition case design, objects presented without having to open cabinets

Opening a drawer in the general exhibition

Opening a drawer in the general exhibition

Crowded theater space

Crowded theater space

Kitchen in the apartment

Kitchen in the apartment

Kitchen cabinet

Kitchen cabinet

Living room

Living room

Living room with time lapse window scene

Living room with time lapse window scene

Children's bedroom desk with opened cabinets

Children's bedroom desk with opened cabinets

Port Museums of Hamburg

We just came back from a trip overseas, and we visited several museums along the way. Two of these sites included the Maritime Museum and the Harbor Museum in Hamburg. When I first learned about both, I was curious as to the similarities between the two, and there turned out to be many striking differences.

We visited the Maritime Museum first. It is surrounded by (and is housed in) large red brick warehouses recognized by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, which complements the comprehensive information the museum presents about all things shipping. It opened in 2008, and the overall design and flow of the exhibits is reflected in its recent inception. Much of the original structure was maintained while renovating the space for the museum, and the rustic columns and beams work nicely with the sleek glass cases and minimalist design used for the collections. The design of the space works well to highlight the objects. There are ten stories to visit, though we didn’t make it to all, and it would be easy to spend an entire day admiring the many amazing ship models, uniforms, buoys, and machines. I learned a lot about the history of shipping through this museum, which was a nice foundation for our visit to the Harbor Museum.

Historic warehouse district

Historic warehouse district

General exhibition design in the historic spac

General exhibition design in the historic spac

Contemporary models on display

Contemporary models on display

Parts of ships, mechanical engineering behind the vessels

Parts of ships, mechanical engineering behind the vessels

Historic models with supporting collections materials

Historic models with supporting collections materials

The Harbor Museum is located is the harbor proper - across the Elbe from the city center and nestled into working spaces of the busy port. We ventured over by means of bikes, which was a great way of seeing more of the impressive infrastructure surrounding this museum. This site is also located in a former warehouse, but the presentation is much different than that of the Maritime Museum. 

Wandering inside, there are large industrial shelves filled with collections materials, some with labels explaining the contents. Scattered throughout, there are basic boxes with lights and plexi covers which hold groups of objects and labels. It feels more like storage than a traditional museum space, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Though the lack of climate control and protection seemed to cause stress to some of the materials, the space seemed much more lively than the Maritime Museum. There were individuals displaying their own model ships, and children and adults were “racing” model ships outside the main entrance. 

Outside, we wandered through their oversized industrial collections - cranes, railroad cars, and ships floating in the port. I was struck by how much freedom we were given; in the United States, we’d have to sign waivers and be supervised. It wasn’t always clear what was part of the museum and what was actually still in use - there was a basic map but no signs to guide the way. We ended up getting stranded under the cover of one of the warehouses when a thunderstorm let loose. 

Exterior space, model ship race

Exterior space, model ship race

Interior with model ship event

Interior with model ship event

Collections on display and in storage

Collections on display and in storage

Display cases

Display cases

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Outside collections

Outside collections

Historic cranes

Historic cranes

Part of the museum? 

Part of the museum? 

Caught in a thunderstorm  

Caught in a thunderstorm  

I’m glad we experienced both museums - one traditional which taught us a great deal, one untraditional which felt more like an industrial playground. It was nice to learn both through exhibition labels and through actual hands-on exploration. I think this speaks to the amazing range one can find within the museum world.

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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Laudi Vidni - Factory Visit

I specialize in photographing spaces and things, people have never been my focus. Being the primary photographer for local company Laudi Vidni has forced me to step outside of my comfort zone in this regard, though. I’ve worked on model shots to show their products to scale, and most recently, we took a trip to their factory to get some images. They are proud to make all their bags in the United States (in Chicago!), and they needed some photographs to show this process. This included capturing the (ever patient and friendly) craftspeople at work, and I really enjoyed creating these environmental portraits. The space and tools they were using were also pretty photogenic.

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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National Public Housing Museum - Spring Cleaning

The National Public Housing Museum organized a spring cleaning session in their offices earlier this season. A researcher using the collections and I teamed up to create an up-to-date inventory of the materials stored on-site. She has been combing through visual materials to write a dissertation on how the CHA sites were portrayed, and has been a huge help in identifying people and places depicted in photographs.

 

From the filing cabinets and piles of materials, we attempted to break everything down into potential categories: library and reference material, archival material, collections material, and research material. We then evaluated potential collections to determine priority for conservation and/or digitization. I bundled the physical materials together by category, and photographed objects for the spreadsheet for reference.

 

While there are still some objects stored off-site, this was a good opportunity to take stock of what will become the foundation of the museum’s collections and archives. It is helping to shape our discussions on creating a collections management policy. And it was also a wonderful opportunity for me to take a peek at some of the treasures NPHM has already accumulated and been gifted.

 

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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Chicago Cultural Center - Theo Jansen's Strandbeests

The Chicago Cultural Center hosted an excellent exhibit of Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests this winter. I’ve long admired his mobile creatures, so it was wonderful to have the chance to see them up close. On display were black and white photographs of the beasts in action, a wide variety of the handcrafted pieces used in the sculptures, some hands-on demonstrations of engineering principles, and several retired Strandbeests. There were wranglers on standby for daily demonstrations, showing how the beasts harness and store wind power for self-mobilization.


I love the combination of engineering and aesthetics that go into Jansen’s work, and the exhibit showed off this pairing beautifully.

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National Public Housing Museum - Telling Stories Telling Belongings

The National Public Housing Museum recently organized Telling Stories Telling Belongings, an event that has successfully brought the community together for several years. This time around, they partnered with the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and it took place in the newly refurbished Jane Addams Resource Center in ABLA. The focus was on the near west side of the city. In spite of the dreary spring weather, more than 70 people were in attendance, and many came with objects and stories to share.

The event was split between individual presentations by volunteers wanting to tell their stories and group story-telling sessions. It was a great way to bring people together, and I was heartened to see several people exchanging contact information at the end of the event.

One of my favorite objects and accompanying stories was one that Tammy brought to share. She was excited when she approached the table where representatives from the Hull-House Museum were having volunteers sign paperwork, and where I was photographing objects. From a ziploc bag, she pulled out her original birth certificate and a few black and white family photos. It turns out she was born in the Jane Addams Homes, formerly on Cabrini Street, as part of a midwife program being tried out in the 1950s. She explained how her mother much preferred this option to making regular treks to the hospital to see her doctor. She was able to stay home and rest, and received excellent care from a visiting professional. We were all equally excited about her story, and she was incredibly engaging when talking about this connection to public housing and her experience there to the audience.

Another wonderful story came from Ms. Ida. She brought in a painting her son Jeffries created when he was 7 years-old, she entitled “1383: a Front Yard.” The painting depicted a large tree surrounded by beautiful flowers, bees, and butterflies, and a smiling sun watching over the scene. She explained that her son injured himself, and they sought housing in one of the low-rise CHA buildings since the elevator in their high-rise was frequently broken. Once they settled into their new home, her son was adamant that they plant a huge garden in their collective front yard. His injuries prevented this from happening, so instead he created his wonderful painting.

I am so happy I was able to attend this event, and better yet, was afforded the opportunity to help document it. Seeing such a diverse crowd representing so many decades of history in the area coming together was really amazing.


Please head on over to the National Public Housing Museum’s blog to read more about the event.

 

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Art Institute of Chicago - Journeys from Xanadu

I’ve been working at the Art Institute of Chicago in the Imaging Department as a Post-Production Technician for the last few months, on a temporary basis. The project I’ve been focused on is retouching photographs for an upcoming publication, released in conjunction with an exhibition:  Journeys from Xanadu: Asian Jewelry and Ritual Objects from the Barbara and David Kipper Collection.

A new approach for the department is being undertaken with these images, in which the object is masked from the background. A new, standardized background with set RGB values is created, as are new, uniform shadows. The goal with this post-production work is to create as cohesive a visual effect as possible in the images. For some objects, this was a fairly straight-forward process. But many items in this collection had intricate beadwork, fabric, and metalwork, which made the masking process a challenge.


The catalog will be released and the exhibit opens in June, and I’m excited to see the final products of this work.

 

Masking examples

Masking examples

New backgrounds, new shadows

New backgrounds, new shadows