Open daily. Always free.

Mellon Grant Helps Exhibition Archive Go Online

A growing digital archive of the Chazen Museum of Art’s exhibitions and permanent collection is now online, making the Chazen one of the few art museums in the nation to make such a wide array of its historical records easily accessible to the public.

The archiving effort, a collaboration between the Chazen and UW–Madison Libraries, is supported by a $500,000 grant from The Mellon Foundation with UW–Madison contributing an additional $317,000. With the Chazen serving as the pilot organization, library staff developed tools to collect, preserve, and share digital assets. These tools will be adaptable to other collections across campus as part of the libraries’ Digital Preservation Repository.

When completed, the Chazen’s digital exhibition archive will include thousands of high-resolution images and documents from the museum’s physical archive, which spans more than 500 exhibitions over 53 years: images of museum events and gallery installations along with correspondence, promotional materials, research notes, checklists, and other items of interest to artists and scholars. As well, high-resolution images of about 3,000 of the museum’s 24,000 permanent collection objects are online, making highly detailed remote viewing widely available for the first time. The archive covers the time period when the museum was known as the Elvehjem Art Center, the Elvehjem Museum of Art, and the Chazen Museum of Art.

Developing the presentation of the museum’s archival materials required months of cross-organizational collaboration between the Chazen and library staff. After detailed content analysis by Chazen staff to determine user needs, library staff decided the Chazen’s exhibition records merited a new, visual user experience for mixed materials. The user experience is designed to be adaptable to a wide variety of gallery, library, archive, and museum content.

The Chazen’s digital archive is embedded in the University of Wisconsin Digitized Collections (UWDC), making it easily accessible to UW students and faculty alongside other library resources. It is also connected to the WorldCat global catalog of library materials, and the Digital Public Library of America, extending its reach far beyond the university.

Museums typically have only a few pages of past exhibitions posted on their websites to serve as an online archive of sorts. Even the nation’s largest art museums often have sparse records, offering bare-bones descriptions of past exhibitions and a few low-resolution images. Few other museums in the country have such robust online access to their archives, not only in terms of the diversity and depth of resources, but in the way they’re organized, tagged, and cross-referenced. Project leaders believe that such an effort will lead to more discoverability, not only by museum experts, but by general audiences and researchers outside the fields of art and art history as well.

“This is totally groundbreaking in the field,” said Chazen Director Amy Gilman. “I thought we were solving a problem that was particular to the Chazen, but I didn’t think we’d also land on something that the entire field should be paying attention to.”

That so much of the institution’s history had existed only in paper records concerned Gilman and other museum staff, including Andrea Selbig, the Chazen’s registrar for the past 22 years. Besides worries about deterioration and potential damage of physical records, Selbig also lamented that much of the museum’s history was, in effect, inaccessible.

“I’m absolutely thrilled, almost in tears,” said Selbig, who has fielded numerous requests for past exhibition materials over the years that often ended in frustration. “The fact that our actual archive documents are online is very rare. The vast majority of museums just have finding aids that tell you ‘these items are in a box somewhere.’ ”

A major part of the team’s effort involved the physical handling and processing of materials, building a strategy for preserving and organizing materials, and deciding what should be digitized. Once the items were analyzed and prepared, they were shipped off in batches to the UW–Madison Libraries, which did the high-resolution scanning.  Jordan Craig, the Chazen’s digital asset coordinator and multimedia archivist, expects exhibition content through 2002 to be incorporated by the end of the year.

Getting the content online has not been a simple process. Led by Craig, a small team dug through dozens of large storage boxes stuffed with manila folders, letters, memos, receipts, printed emails, three-ring binders, and glossy photos. They accessed documents from long-obsolete word-processing programs via specialized software. Floppy disks, dust, crumbling rubber bands, and rusty paper clips were par for the course.

There was even a bit of danger. “I suppose you could say I’ve literally bled for this archive,” Craig quipped. (She wound up going to the emergency room after injuring herself on a paper cutter.) No other injuries were reported. “No graduate students were harmed in the making of this archive,” she said. Craig praised the work of UW–Madison graduate students Kim Bauer, a PhD candidate in anthropology; Megan E. Fox, PhD candidate in English; and Bridget McMahon and Bonnie Steward, both master’s students in library and information studies.

As of mid-September, the digital archive contained material covering the museum’s first 24 years of exhibition history. This includes thousands of digitized 35mm slides and paper records documenting gallery spaces, promotional materials, museum events, curatorial practice, and educational activities. The graduate students also meticulously described all physical materials in a finding aid. Once the finding aid is published, all exhibition records will be publicly discoverable in their physical format, regardless of their inclusion in UW Digitized Collections.

Another key aspect of the team’s work is preserving the Chazen’s collection of videos, many stored on vintage videocassettes, which are at a high risk of deterioration. Craig prioritized preserving interviews with and presentations by artists of color, including artists Gronk and Xu Bing, and Freida High Tesfagiorgis, an artist, art historian, and UW–Madison professor emerita of African American studies. It’s hoped that such digitized media eventually will be incorporated into the Chazen’s digital collection.

Housing the Chazen’s archives within the UW–Libraries system yields more benefit besides greatly expanded access. Craig said archived files in the Digital Preservation Repository will be systematically monitored for obsolescence and file deterioration, a phenomenon known as “bit rot.” When implemented, the repository will update and restore any problematic files.

Archives staff are also working on adding thousands of high-resolution images of the museum’s permanent collection artworks, which haven’t been easily accessible to the public until now. High-resolution images that are out of copyright will be accessible to the general public; images that are still in copyright will be accessible only to UW affiliates for teaching and research purposes. The ultimate goal is to include high-resolution images of the museum’s entire permanent collection.

“To make our entire collection of more than 24,000 works accessible through the website, from UW faculty and students to those around the globe, with just a few clicks, truly embodies the Wisconsin Idea,” Selbig said. “To take these works out of the vault and share them with the world has been a priority of mine for the past 22 years.”

For more information about this project, see Coordinating Cultural Heritage Collections at UW-Madison.