In 1980, a group of Chicano artists dubbed the “East Los Streetscapers” were awarded a commission from Shell Oil to paint a mural alongside a gas station in a neighborhood of Los Angeles. What they produced was a provocative take on consumerism, community cultural heritage, and exploitation of the natural environment titled “Filling Up On Ancient Energies.”

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A small portion of the 200-foot-long narrative mural “Filling Up on Ancient Energies,” courtesy of UC Santa Barbara Special Collections

The mural juxtaposed images of dinosaurs and ancient Mayans next to gas-guzzling cars driven by modern-day Chicanos, pointing out to gas station patrons the implications of their consumptive act. But beyond that, Holly Barnet-Sanchez and Tim Drescher argue in Give Me Life: Iconography and Identity in East LA Murals, the murals of East Los Streetscapers were produced in a formative period of Chicano identity and ideology (chicanismo). They are worth more than the sum of their parts because they resonate with a community actively navigating issues of cultural identity, assimilation, and both political and social activism against oppression.

When it was destroyed without warning in 1988, the artists sued. They argued that it ought to have been relocated, preserved via paint transfer, or at least documented and archived. Archives of these types of artworks do exist. But the issues of preserving these public works of art is thornier and more complex, to my mind, than appears at first blush.

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archives month
It’s Archives Month! Time to get maudlin.

As I become more familiar with the archival community in Philadelphia, the more at-home I feel. When I first came to the city, I was astonished to learn about PACSCL, a remarkable consortium of area repositories committed to collaborative work and consideration. PACSCL demonstrates that Philadelphia’s archives “scene” is greater than the sum of its parts, and it serves to fulfill the ideal, expressed in our textbook Understanding Archives and Manuscripts, that it is in the interest of everyone for archives and special collections to share resources and work together. I haven’t encountered anywhere near this level of cooperation among institutions in any other place where I’ve lived, researched, or worked.

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This week, our Archives and Manuscripts class was afforded the rare opportunity for a peek inside Paley Library’s treasure vaults: the archives, rare books stacks, and working spaces of the Special Collections Research Center at Temple University. Some of the highlights of the tour included a cuneiform tablet, a lovely illuminated book of hours, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin clippings “morgue file”, and the collection of protest materials from January’s Pittsburgh Women’s March.

Even after years working with rare books and archives, passing through these quiet spaces retains a forbidden, hallowed feel for me. I once worked with an archivist who jokingly described herself as one of the “top men” mentioned at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, referring to this scene:

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I made the acquaintance of my gill net and floats one week ago, and it is time to begin situating how I will apply some of the theory readings in its interpretation and analysis.

I found this week’s reading of Martin Ames’ “Meaning in Artifacts: Hall Furnishings in Victorian America” particularly compelling in relation to my objects. I’ve read this article before, but in the context of Progressive Era housing reform debates. To approach it with tangible (not to mention portable) objects in mind is equally fascinating, but in a different way. Ames argues that artifacts used together form “artifact constellations,” which in turn can reveal values and patterns of behavior inherent in microscopic moments. The encounters a Victorian might have in an entry hallway- hanging a hat, leaving a calling card, standing awkwardly waiting to be permitted (or not) into the private areas of the house- might have taken mere seconds, but the setup of the hall furniture illuminates the layers of meaning inscribed into this brief cultural action.

My net and gill floats are parts of a whole; they were used together, probably stored together, and certainly compose an artifact constellation. Without one piece of the collection, the others would be useless or at the very least would not communicate the same meaning. The accession record also specifies a hook that came with the other stuff- this, too, would be a part of the artifact constellation- but it wasn’t set up there in the archives.

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This week, I was introduced to my very own objects to get to know, analyze, and research for Studies in American Material Culture. These items, a gill net and wooden floats, are in the collection of the Independence Seaport Museum. I was also offered a catfish net, but it seemed tangential to the other objects; perhaps I’ll take it up at a later point. My classmates were assigned a variety of other maritime-related items (fishingwear, a firearm, a knifegoose decoys, etc.) We will spend the semester learning more about these objects, as well as what their context can tell us about the LESLEY. Our research on these artifacts will make them more accessible to researchers at ISM and enrich our understanding of the methods of material culture study.

The first step in the process is to follow the methodology of Jules Prown, whose article “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method” established a guide for using artifacts as primary source evidence of human culture of the past. This method is intended to force close observation and minimize internal bias or assumptions.

The process of sketching, observing, and willing myself not to peek at the artifact’s documentation laying in an envelope just inches away was more challenging than my introduction to LESLEY had been. This time, I was preoccupied with documenting all of the details while cautiously trying to be aware of any assumptions I was making, and wondering where I might include them in the object analysis.

Self-conscious, the process reminded me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant: As the blind men attempt to describe this mysterious creature, they mistake its parts for its whole, describing it as a rope, a wall, a spear, and a fan. Despite Prown’s painstaking process, I was unsure how much bias would slip into my analysis. Given my limited time with these objects, I didn’t want to miss the proverbial elephant, so at first I waffled about where to start. I then began to take measurements and photos, and to touch and smell the objects.

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The_written_word_endures._Be_sure_to_create_it_._._._and_preserve_it._-_NARA_-_518154
A 1987 NARA advertisement promoting good record management practices of the time. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain image

This month, the US National Archives and Records Administration announced a new strategic plan for 2018-2022. Titled “Making Access Happen,” the new plan re-envisions the role of the archives as a customer-centered agency proceeding forward with goals that serve modern records needs.

Most notably, as reported in MeriTalk,

NARA would make the records available to the public online through the National Archives Catalog. NARA also will stop accepting analog records from agencies by Dec. 31, 2022, and will accept records only in electronic format and with the appropriate metadata. This will cause many agencies that haven’t done so already to consider how they’ll store and manage their records electronically as well.

This is interesting as it positions NARA’s record retention policies in relation to their own strategic goals rather than a passive dedication to collecting records in whatever format they might be available. NARA is being proactive in prioritizing their goals to reduce backlog and improve the pace of record retrieval above the desire to gather a more “complete” collection of documents that might would not be easily accessible for a certain period of time.

I think this is a good, forward-thinking move on NARA’s part, although many federal agencies will probably find it shocking or burdensome. The transition to electronic record-keeping is a complicated one, especially when it comes to government records, and I foresee that many agencies might avoid the necessity of putting a plan into place for as long as possible. In that kind of situation, enforcement of records retention schedules might become an issue. Who will be the bad guy when it comes to making sure these agencies are up-to-speed and accountable?

 

This past week, Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast with record amounts of rainfall, displacing millions of residents of the Houston metropolitan area and causing widespread property damage of inestimable cost. I’ve been following the news from the East Coast, awed and heartbroken at the devastation, and frequently coming across photographs with captions like this: “A resident looks for important papers and heirlooms inside his grandfather’s house after it was flooded by heavy rains.”

Having once worked with a conservator who volunteered as part of the American Institute for Conservation’s Collections Emergency Response Team, I was aware that larger museums, archives, and other document repositories often (but certainly not always) have procedures in place for when disaster strikes. Qualified experts have compiled best practice guides and conducted training programs with cultural heritage professionals in order to prepare them for unavoidable situations where their collections could be damaged, and many institutions carry insurance policies in case of emergency. The AASLH, which will hold their annual conference in Austin in the coming week, has issued a statement that includes a list of resources for organizations and museums in need. Despite all these measures, some amount of permanent damage to important collections will inevitably be sustained. Although necessarily secondary in importance to the lives lost during the disaster and recovery efforts, the loss of irreplaceable cultural heritage artifacts and documents in the collections of museums, archives, and cultural organizations, will be tragic.

But in seeing the aforementioned photo captions, it strikes me that many peoples’ personal histories will be lost to the flood as well. They have fewer resources to help retain their personal archives. They will lose photographs of loved ones, heirlooms, keepsakes, and important documents. While the latter example is less sentimental than the others, it is more likely to have far-reaching consequences. In Texas, citizenship is a raw, contentious issue. Border patrol checkpoints dot the highways, remaining open even during evacuation. What will happen to people who may have lost their residency paperwork? Will they receive the same amount of recovery aid as their neighbors? Will they be deported, or detained pending administrative review? What will be the life-or-death consequences of this loss of documentation? When we attach so much meaning to paper documents, what is left when they float away?

*Update: This article from CityLab, a subsidiary of The Atlantic, explores the chilling implications that this will have on upcoming elections, given punitive voter ID legislation and the more frequent occurrence of this type of disaster given global climate change: “How Voter ID Laws Disenfranchise Voters in the Wake of a Hurricane.” Here’s an excerpt which connects all the dots:

[Assistant Council at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Deuel] Ross, who has worked with families trying to rebuild their lives in the face of fire and flooding, is concerned by how the current political climate and escalating weather events could work in tandem to harm poor communities of color. “Communities affected the most are cities in the south, which are often poorer, more rural, [and predominantly] African American,” he says. “Given that this is now the second major storm here in the U.S. in the last 10 or so years, I’m very worried that this kind of thing could continue to happen, and continue to impact the communities most vulnerable and unable to deal with the burden of having everything in their lives destroyed.”