All posts in “Archives”

Preserving SAM’s Historic Media Collection: Part One

In 2013, an institutional archival assessment was performed that brought to light the Seattle Art Museum’s Historic Media Collection, held in the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library. The collection contains valuable SAM-related content from the 1930s to the present, held on media in various time-based formats, such as reel film, cassette tape, and DVD. Due to the importance of the content and the fragility of the media, it was determined that this collection had the most urgent needs for preservation. The Historic Media Collection has the ability to raise community awareness of SAM’s activities and involvement in Seattle and the region since 1933. Recognizing the community impact and institutional value of the collection, a donation from an anonymous donor and a grant from 4Culture’s Heritage Collections Care have assisted in creating a stewardship project to develop and preserve this notable collection.

The project consists of three phases: surveying and planning, preservation and digitization, and public access. I am currently involved with the first phase of the project, an institutional discovery phase. For the past two months I have interviewed SAM staff at the Olympic Sculpture Park, Asian Art Museum, and Seattle Art Museum to locate any media relating to SAM and institutional history. Through discussions with various institutional departments and tours of the three museum sites, the scope of the collection has grown and the necessity of the project has been substantiated.

So many boxes!

Shelves and AV equipment

Including the items that were known in the Bullitt Library’s holdings, over 2,000 items have been found thus far. An investigation of the nooks and crannies of SAM’s buildings uncovered four film canisters containing thirty rolls of 35-millimeter film in a closet. The search of a storage facility revealed fourteen boxes containing Beta-format tapes, cassettes, VHS recordings, and CD/DVDs. A number of the tapes and CDs found in these boxes were unfortunately ruined due to lack of climate controls in this warehouse, further emphasizing the critical nature of this project.

Damaged CDs :(

Another aspect of the project is an appraisal of the materials—what’s on the media and what condition is it in. With the assistance of a personal VCR, cassette, and DVD player, a survey is currently underway of media within this part of the collection. The material that has been discovered has already proven to be rewarding. A CD simply labeled “Data” contained an audio recording of SAM founder and president Dr. Richard Fuller giving a lecture at a Rotarian luncheon in the 1960s, as well as a “Museum on the Air” radio recording with former Educational Director Edith Thackwell (Mrs. A.M. Young).

Film Canisters

Film Canister

A number of the videocassettes have contained a treasure trove of news stories and clips relating to the museum. A KIRO News special from 1987 (“Nightsight”) captures a pivotal time in SAM’s history, documenting the transition from the Volunteer Park location to the opening of the current Downtown location. It features interviews with former SAM director Jay Gates and Seattle arts patron and SAM champion Virginia Wright. Other important findings include recordings of interviews and lectures featuring docents of the Seattle Art Museum, who share their stories of SAM. These recordings offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the amount of time and work SAM docents devote for preparation of their tours and presentations. Finally, the recordings capture the contributions of staff and volunteers, many who no longer work at the museum, showcasing a glimpse into the amazing work (from exhibitions to educational programs) that SAM continually provides for communities in the Pacific Northwest.

Cassette tape

DV

Another dimension of the project is outreach to local experts in the community to aid with the next two phases of the preservation process. I interviewed John Vallier, Head of Distributed Media at the University of Washington’s Media Center to ask questions regarding best practices for preservation and to provide recommendations to local community experts that could assist with the project. A meeting followed this session with Rachel Price and Libby Hopfauf at MIPoPS (Moving Image Preservation of Puget Sound). At least 400 items in the collection are Beta-format, a format not readily viewable on available equipment at the Bullitt Library. Also a recipient of funding from 4Culture, the team at MiPoPS has graciously offered to assist with the appraisal of these materials and to provide budget recommendations for the digitization process. Finally, an interview was conducted with Grammy Award winner and audio wizard Scott Colburn, who graciously offered his time and advice regarding a number of sound recording tapes and cassettes within the collection. The advice and support of these community experts has been invaluable, and will hopefully lead to further collaborations with latter phases of the project.

Audio and 16mm film

This blog will be the first of several continual updates into the surveying and planning for SAM’s Historic Media Collection. Interviews with departments throughout the institution, the appraisal of media materials, and discussions regarding policies are still underway. Once the first phase of the project is completed in December, the next projected steps of preservation and access will begin, with the goal to preserve these valuable cultural materials in order to sustain SAM’s rich history and provide access to these public resources.

If you have any questions about this project, please post them in the comments section below.

–Michael Besozzi, Project Coordinator: Historic Media Collection

Photos: Michael Besozzi.
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Building a Digital Collection: Annual Reports at Seattle Art Museum

The following post is from two students who have been interning at SAM’s Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library while completing their Master of Library and Information Science degrees at the University of Washington’s Information School.

We are Michael Besozzi and Kate Hanske, and we have been working with Librarian Traci Timmons in the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library on an exciting digital initiative for the culminating work of our degree program. At the University of Washington’s iSchool, every student must complete a Capstone project, which should apply classroom theory to address a real-world information problem. For our Capstone work, we decided to tackle an information gap presented by access to SAM’s institutional annual reports.

Dating back to 1932, the reports include information about specific accessions, ongoing museum activities, exhibitions, and other special events in addition to the financial statements for the year. In a survey of nearly 900 American museums and cultural institutions, only 171 host their annual reports online. Out of those 171 institutions, many have unaccountable gaps between years of published reports. In the library, we saw an opportunity for SAM to create a unique digital collection and exhibition that includes every annual report in the museum’s history. We decided to aim for three outcomes for the digital collection: accessibility, transparency, and posterity.

The Bullitt Library is composed of “open” and “closed” stacks. The “open” stacks consist of shelves containing materials that any member of the public, from curators to visitors, can browse and handle without the assistance of a staff member. The “closed” stacks, located in a back room, contain a number of historical special collections materials. Due to the fragility of special collections materials, the closed stacks are only accessible by staff and designated volunteers. Located in those closed stacks are the Seattle Art Museum’s annual reports, dated from 1932 to the present.

SAM Libraries Annual Reports Archives

In order to access a report from a particular year, a visitor must have a staff member physically walk into the collection, pull out the box from the time range, and bring it to the patron, who must browse the materials in the box for the desired information. Requests for annual reports are common, ranging from staff members attempting to research financial records to visitors researching the history of the museum and the museum’s collections.

Annual Reports 1940s

Typically, a patron will perform a search that will require several boxes to be pulled at one time, which can also take up a lot of physical space in the small library. To add to the problem, the physical annual reports are not easily searchable: if a patron wants to locate a specific individual, exhibition, or piece from the collection, the user must usually go through multiple boxes (and other resources) in order to find what they need. This process can be time-consuming and frustrating! Further, the frequent physical handling of the documents, particularly the most aged and fragile, can cause irreversible damage over time.

Annual Reports 1950s & 1960s

Annual Reports 1970s

The completion of this digitization project empowers patrons to conduct research with the reports without being physically present in the library and without requiring the assistance of library staff and volunteers. The reports are more fully accessible to the public, which facilitates institutional transparency, and they are preserved digitally for posterity.

To create this collection, we scanned all 71 annual reports into the PDF file format and ran a program to make sure that the documents themselves are searchable. We then created a spreadsheet to store essential metadata (title, contributors, year, etc.) for the files to make the collection easy to navigate in an online environment. We uploaded these files and the associated metadata to the online repository and platform called Shared Shelf Commons, which allows these items to be browse-able and view-able alongside contributions from a variety of other institutions.

Annual Reports 1980s

Annual Reports 1990s

Once the collection was made available in Shared Shelf Commons, we set about building an exhibition using another digital scholarship and web publishing platform called Omeka.net, which allows users to build digital collections and create online exhibitions. With Omeka.net, we were able to customize the exhibition display, organizing the reports by decade, and share the narrative history of the museum as told through the reports themselves. This is the first online collection of its kind for SAM and we are incredibly excited to finally make it available!

—Kate Hanske and Michael Besozzi, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library Interns

You can explore the annual reports via the Omeka website here.

You can explore the annual reports in Shared Shelf Commons here.

And watch a short video overview of the project here.

Photos: Natali Wiseman.
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Spring showers in the SAM archives

Drops of Rain, Clarence H. White (American, 1871-1925), ca. 1903, National Gallery of Australia

Drops of Rain, Clarence H. White (American, 1871-1925), ca. 1903, National Gallery of Australia

It’s raining again. I stare as rivulets of water course down the window panes of my room, obscuring the view outside. Beyond my window, the passing cars blur together alongside the chairs that decorate my lawn. Everything assumes a greyish cast. “Welcome to Seattle,” people say. Prior to moving to here, I had never encountered a group of people so fixated on the weather, and I’ve lived in Cleveland where it is not only grey but also claims ownership of “The Lake Effect,” which encompasses all manner of atmospheric sins.

Yet as I approach my second year of living in Seattle, I too, have become consumed by thoughts of the dreary weather – so consumed by these thoughts that I seem to have neglected my blog – and the ever-present hope that sun is just around the corner. However, it was the weather that inadvertently led me to the exhibition Camera Work: Process & Image held at SAM from November 26, 1985 to February 2, 1986and focused on the early pioneers of photography including Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Steichen, Clarence H. White, Paul Strand, Alfred Langdon Coburn, and Alfred Stieglitz.

Cover of Camera Work, Issue No 2, April 190, published by Alfred Stieglitz and designed by Edward Steichen.

Cover of Camera Work, Issue No 2, April 190, published by Alfred Stieglitz and designed by Edward Steichen.

Determined to elevate both photography and the photogravure to the status of fine art, Stieglitz produced a magazine whose primary focus was photography. As a member of the New York Camera Club, Stieglitz spearheaded the production of a quarterly journal – called Camera Notes – dedicated to both high quality photography and articles surrounding the art form. Yet Camera Notes was merely the beginning, for in 1902 – a mere five years later – Stieglitz left the Camera Club and started his own quarterly, Camera Work, in which he strove to establish a journal that was in and of itself a work of art. From 1903 to 1917, Stieglitz edited and published a total of fifty editions of Camera Work, through which he championed photography as a form of art instead of a mechanical process that simply documented reality. He pushed photographers to take an active role in the editing process of photogravure production – a print of the photographic image that emphasized deep shadows and a rich textural quality – in which the photo negatives are transformed into photo positives and transferred onto a printing plate that is then etched and printed. Stieglitz strove to maintain high quality photogravures that he felt could be viewed as original prints that had their own artistic value. Through this process, photographers in Stieglitz’s circle were able to participate in the production of the photogravures, which instigated a collaboration between the artist’s intent and the hand that created the final product.

Exhibition media file - including exhibition installation views and transparencies and prints of checklist images - from Camera Work: Process & Image and the exhibition catalogue. Photo: Kaley Ellis.

Exhibition media file – including exhibition installation views and transparencies and prints of checklist images – from Camera Work: Process & Image and the exhibition catalogue. Photo: Kaley Ellis.

This examination of Stieglitz’s Camera Work and the photographers involved in that publication act as the focal points of the 1985 exhibition at SAM. Of the works displayed, Clarence H. White’s Drops of Rain, Adolf de Meyer’s Still Life, Hugo Henneberg’s Villa Falconieri, and Alfred Stieglitz’s Spring Showers, New York are the works I find the most compelling. Water is prominently featured in all these works, whether it takes the form of rain, a glass of water, or a shimmering river. The water either distorts and obscures aspects of the work or is itself distorted. Far from being a direct representation of fact, the water provides a medium through which the artistic intent becomes clear. The fact that it is raining outside is not the point of the image in White’s Rain Drops; instead, the simplicity, the lighting, and contrast between the smoothness of the glass ball compared to the pattern of rain drops on the window pane combine to make this work beautifully compelling. The emotional response that these images evoke transcends time and, like other forms of art, is subjective.

Today – despite rapid advances in technology and the advent of the digital camera – artists such as Stieglitz, White, and Cameron remain relevant. New lens are engineered, such as the lensbaby, to create a blurring effect or to obscure the background, while plastic cameras allow photographers to further experiment with light and shadows and finally Photoshop and the Instagram app offer the opportunity to enhance or manipulate an image with the click of a button. Despite these developments, photographers are still creating images that favor the deep shadows, blurred lines, and sometimes dreamlike quality that continues to reference the past and the art of Stieglitz’s circle that he tirelessly perfected for publication in Camera Work.

By Kaley Ellis, Exhibitions and Archives Intern

 

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Interning with the buried treasure

By Kaley Ellis, archive and exhibitions intern

What is an archive? And why would I work in one?

When I first spoke with Sarah Berman, Collections Coordinator and Research Associate at the Seattle Art Museum, she mentioned the possibility of interning in SAM’s archives and my mind immediately conjured images of buried treasure languishing in the basement of the museum awaiting a moment (or in this case a person) to tell its story. Although admittedly somewhat implausible, the thought of digging through the museum’s archive – tucked out of sight and thus inherently mysterious – was intriguing.

I could easily imagine Indiana Jones (relocating to the Pacific Northwest for example) uncovering a treasure map that led to an underground chamber in SAM, overflowing with riches, long lost paintings by Titian, Vermeer, or Degas, ancient Egyptian coffins, or Roman marble sculptures for example. Now, seeing as my mind had already made this leap from archives to Indiana Jones to priceless art work, the next obvious step was to accept Sarah’s proposed internship working with the archives.

During my first few weeks interning, Sarah asked if I’d like to see where the archives were kept – which I clearly needed to see if I was going to discover the previously mentioned hidden treasure. However, I was instead led to a small, rather dreary room, decorated with a table, chair, and numerous filling cabinets. While this was a bit depressing, I was promised I would not be left alone to work in this windowless room that had a door that occasionally locked you inside, so I suppose there was a silver lining. However, this process of imagining an archive filled with treasure – whether those are jewels and piles of gold or artwork – and then coming to terms with the reality of a room bursting with metal cabinets of old documents made me think about what it means to be an archive.

The SAM archives (part of them, at least). Photo: Kaley Ellis.

The SAM archives (part of them, at least). Photo: Kaley Ellis

Archives preserve documentation of the past, in this case a visual reminder of the art and exhibitions held at the SAM since the 1930s. While these files do not contain actual treasure, they do offer valuable insight into the museum’s history and collection. They offer the chance to analyze and reflect upon the past while simultaneously acting as a reservoir of memories. (And, thankfully they have been moved from that cell-like room to the much sunnier library!) During the upcoming months, I plan to delve into and share some of the secrets found within these file folders. I hope you’ll join me.Recognize the fedora and whip? Photo: Gary Stewart

 

Top photo: Recognize the fedora and whip? Photo: Gary Stewart

 

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