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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.

1 comment:

Tim Lacy said...

TH: I look forward to the future posts with more pictures. The ones I looked through last week were quite interesting (I'm sorry I don't have a more focused comment). The Outspoken exhibit pre-dated, somewhat, my early involvement with the Newberry (Jodi was there, but I was still in the phd comp-exam stage). This is like getting a second chance to learn about something I never wanted to miss the first time around. - TL