Because the calendar seems to have reset to 1899 (or a dystopian 2099?), last month the billionaire owner of a major online news syndicate shuttered the sites a week after newsroom workers formally declared their intention to unionize under the Writer’s Guild of America East. On November 2nd, Gothamist and DNAInfo CEO Joe Ricketts replaced the front pages of the websites, including Gothamist’s many local subsidiaries, with a letter explaining that he had decided to discontinue publication:
What happened next was akin to hysteria, as the worst nightmares of journalists and digital archivists appeared to have come true. Contributing writers use their published articles as a form of portfolio for acquiring new work. So when it was discovered that as of 5pm the site’s thousands of articles – amassed over over a decade – were no longer accessible, panic began to spread among journalists. The internet black hole appeared to have opened up and swallowed their livelihood, just like those skeptics among us had always warned it would.
I’m frequently shocked at how much of the world I’ve been missing out on when I occasionally stop to look up. Recently, walking through Center City on Walnut Street for the thousandth time, I happened to turn and catch a glimpse of a plaque on the site of the house of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, practically indistinguishable from the identically-colored plaster surrounding it. Reading the inscription (“He taught us the use of rest for the nervous. He created ‘Hugh Wynne.’ He pictured for us ‘The Red City’ in which he lived and laboured from 1829 until 1914.”), I felt myself getting angry, and then sad. Silas Weir Mitchell, of the fabled and ineffective “rest cure” for “hysterical” women – “a regimen of forced bed rest, restricted diet, and a combination of massage and electrical muscle stimulation in place of exercise” – lived here. That S. Weir Mitchell, the one who so harmed Charlotte Perkins Gilman that she was inspired to write The Yellow Wallpaper, lived here. How ghastly.
Still agitated by the time I reached home, I undertook an angry Google search. I’m not sure what I was looking for, but what I found was a brilliant article entitled “Crying in the Library” on the blog of the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. In the piece, researcher Heather Christle describes her experience sorting through Mitchell’s correspondence and diaries in the archive, and how overcome with emotion she became as she read about his own bouts with grief following the death of loved ones. She began to cry (certainly not covered in the Archives Usage Policy) and retreated to collect herself following this empathetic outburst. (more…)
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the origins of the “public museum”- a institution open to visitation by a general audience and sensitive to the societal needs of recreation, education, inspiration, and relevance. One of the largest categories of such museums, early on, was akin to a natural history museum: full of biological specimens, mineral samples, and other evidence of the marvels of the natural world. A major player within this particular subset of museums is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In fact, as of 2015, this institution was the third most-visited museum in the world.  It houses five million plant specimens in its Herbarium, and has recently launched a herculean project to digitize them all, along with their documentation, to be put online in a publicly-searchable database.
The result is a massive, mostly untapped dataset. Convinced that this collection could reveal big, important things when analyzed in the aggregate (as “big data”) the Smithsonian engaged data scientists to employ deep learning techniques on the digitized collection that would enable automation of sorting tasks. The published findings suggest that computers are well-equipped to handle these sorts of tedious time sucks- in this case, sorting specimens that contain mercury stains, and sorting two physically similar yet distinct plants- which have normally been performed by human beings.
They’re coming to get you, Barbra.
This iconic line appears in the very first scene of George Romero’sNight of the Living Dead (1968), one of my very favorite horror films. It’s a terrific example of dramatic irony- Barbra is right to be frightened walking through a graveyard, but not for the reason for which her brother Johnny is taunting her. The film is grisly, subversive, and genuinely scare-inducing to watch even today, and I make a point to revisit it and other George Romero classics around Halloween each year. One thing I didn’t know about Night of the Living Dead, until reading this article, was that it is in the public domain, and has been since its release.
I first saw the film as a kid, airing on the local Cleveland late-night horror program Big Chuck and Lil’ John. Low-budget shows like Big Chuck and Lil’ John aired some really terrible movies because they didn’t have to pay for the rights to them. But the quality mattered much less to me as a kid watching my free local television station when I was bored late at night. Most of the movies I saw this way were silly and/or poorly made, but I was fond of them anyway. When my older brother introduced me to Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show that overlays comedic commentary on cheesy, low production-value movies (often from the public domain), I was hooked. Years later, my friends and I still love these awful B-movies so much that we host movie nights to watch them together. They’ve got a lot of charm in their cheesiness. But because many of them are so old, of low quality, or otherwise just bad, I know that I wouldn’t bother to watch them if they weren’t easily accessible. Thankfully, a lack of copyright means that they are easily available online and through streaming services, in addition to airing on local television stations.
Reflect on history. Imagine the future. Change the present.
-Monument Lab tagline
Tania Bruguera’s “A Monument to New Immigrants” installation at PAFA
Prototypes of proposed monuments for the city of Philadelphia on display at PAFA
Close-up of proposed monument prototype
It’s taken me about three weeks to gather my thoughts about the Monument Lab program that I attended at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, entitled “Monument Lab Live: Hidden Histories and Missing Monuments.” This was the first event I’d been able to make it out to, although I first heard about Monument Lab back in June, contributed to the Kickstarter fundraising campaign, and shared my excitement with others via various social media platforms.
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.”
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.
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.