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Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Tale of Two Projects

Over the past few months--on and off as time permits--I have been working on the revisions for the Newberry's Global Heartland project. Among the tasks at hand is to recast the content from another of my Newberry projects into GH. That second project, Outspoken: Chicago's Free Speech Tradition, was a physical exhibition of documents and objects from the Newberry and the Chicago Historical Society. I co-curated it with Peter Alter from CHS, and it was funded largely by the IMLS.

There are two main problems with integrating the two projects. The first is structural, the second thematic. In terms of structure, the exhibit text is fairly straight forward. However, it was a collaborative exhibit which means that about 40 percent of the objects were from CHS. Bringing the old content into the context of a new project is well beyond the agreement between the two institutions that governed the exhibit, and in any case raises all sorts of copyright issues with the more recent material. Simply put we don't have the financial or human resources to sort of this out. And in any case, we don't have the time.

One of the interesting, and vexing, aspects of the original exhibit was that tried to encompass the entire sweep of Chicago's modern history. We began with artifacts of antislavery activism and ended with artifacts from protests that happened only a few months before the exhibit opened in September 2004. There were plenty of topics that dropped out--often because there wasn't the right artifact. And none of the topics were treated in depth. This was a bit of a departure for the Newberry, which tends to focus in on, and deeply contextualize, particular topics. But many visitors to the exhibit commented that the breadth of coverage was a strength. They were familiar with this or that conflict or free speech struggle. The exhibit introduced new topics, and impressed them with the connection between different free speech conflicts over time.

In this we were aided by a lucky coincidence. As we finalized the exhibit script in the spring of 2004, Chicago was alive with street protest. It was the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq (the year previous thousands had spontaneously taken over Lake Shore Drive), and the country was in the midst of a debate about gay marriage. We sent two staff members (Ginger Shulick and Jen Koslow) out of take pictures of the protests with instructions to get shots of "both sides". And we displayed the best of these pictures in the exhibit. Because the historical aspect of the exhibit (90% of the whole) had frequently touched on issues of gender discrimination, homosexuality, and opposition to American foreign policy, the images of contemporary conflicts were very resonant.

Just this week, the Newberry graciously agreed to let me post these images to Flickr, and to use them on this blog. There was discussion about licensing the images with Creative Commons attribution non-commercial, but in the end they decided to reserve all rights. So technically, you'll have to ask permission to reprint or blog the images. I rather doubt they would object to noncommercial uses. But if you want a high-quality print, you should contact the library and pay for it, if for no other reason than to support a good institution.

My hope has been that getting these images into the photostream on a high-traffic system like Flickr, and associating them with the Newberry project, will serve as a kind of advertisement. And in fact, these images are being viewed much more intensively than anything I've put up before (which isn't saying a lot, but is a good step).

It would be interesting to see what would happen if we put up a batch of historical images, and set them free online. For an interesting example of this see the "American Image" gallery of the photos of John Collier, Jr., and the Flickr account in Collier's name. The project was created by Ideum using a Flickr mashup. It's a bit odd to see a Flickr profile for someone who has been dead in 1992. But then yesterday I ran into MySpace accounts for Charles Darwin and other 19th century British intellectuals, so we should get used to it. So far, examples of these Flickr mashup galleries are either based on contemporary, purpose-taken, photos or on photos that are public-domain. I would love to see the day when a the GH project actually encourages visitors to share and blog images of historical documents and artifacts. This is a step for the future, maybe, but not for today.

What are the thematic/content issues with integrating Outspoken and Global Heartland? I'll talk about it in another post.

Friday, February 09, 2007

High Tech Hogs...from the Heartland!

Originally uploaded by Tobias Higbie.
I shot this photo at the new hog processing plant about 15 miles north of Champaign. Katie Dorsey at the ILIR library alerted me to its existence and hooked me up with this industry report. Seems that most of the product from this plant finds its way to Europe and Japan where consumers are, shall we say, more discerning about how their food is prepared. There are two other pics in the GH Flickr pool, but there isn't much to see from the outside of a modern slaughterhouse, and it was 5 degrees so I was not going to explore on foot.

Two things really caught my eye in the industry report. First, they use cutting edge information technology to track each hog carcass.
The tracking system incorporates electronic tag smart cards placed on each meathook. These electronic tags contain information about what farm the hog came from, how it was raised, what it was fed and what medications it received, information that is particularly sensitive to customers from Japan and Europe.
Nevertheless, the logo for Meadowbrook Farms (formerly known as "American Heritage Farms") evokes "simpler times" with an image of a traditional midwestern barn and silo set amidst a furrowed field: high-tech, down-home. You CAN have it all! This reminds me of Ruth Ozeki's wonderful novel My Year of Meats, in which a Japanese American journalist is hired by the American Beef Exporters to produce a TV show for Japanese audience that will convince them to eat beef like Americans.

The second thing that caught my eye about this plant is that it is owned by a producers cooperative, and is branded as a "farmer coop." For each $900 share of the coop a member is entitled to have 50 hogs slaughtered per year. Sounds very egalitarian, but note that members range from 200 head slaughtered per year (4 shares or $3,600 investment) to 50,000 head per year (1,000 shares or $900,000 investment). Obviously, like many other agricultural enterprises (e.g., Sun Kist) this is a cooperative in name only. Don't get me wrong. I can see that this is likely a better deal for the farmers than selling to Cargill or Swift. And I have no reason to doubt that the product is high quality. But when you are sending 50,000 hogs to slaughter each year are you really a "farmer"?

I was on the road again this week, out in the western suburbs of Chicago for the Sheetmetal Workers Industrial Association apprenticeship program. This was a 100% male group, with fewer of the older "second-career workers" we see in the IBEW. More like high school seniors than early college. The Transnational Capital Auction worked like a charm, but we really could have used more time to break through their youthful resistance to authority. We made an impact on a about a third of the class, I would guess based on the number of students who hung around asking questions afterward. And given the setup, I guess we can be happy with that.