Imagining Ourselves Into The Virtual: A Visit to the Penn Museum’s Archives

“Where is this?” Ingrid asks.

“This is Mexico. 1933,” Kate says. On the computer screen, women scrub clothes on the banks of a river. An old trolley rumbles by, scarred with graffiti. Palm trees wave.

We are looking at film from the Watson Kintner collection on a computer in the archives of the Penn Museum of Archeology and Anthropology with film archivist Kate Pourshariati. “The reason that it looks so great is that it’s Kodachrome,” she says. It does look great: the rushing water, the blue sky, oranges ripening in the sun.

This visit grows out of ICA’s Jennifer Burris’s interest in contemporary artists working with archival footage, together with Kate’s desire for artists to work with the Archives’ material. More practically, we hope to learn from Archives’ experience with digitizing material, storing it, and making it available on the web, a project ICA is also embarked upon.
Miranda: groupA

Miranda: groupA

The Archives’ material, of course, is quite different from ours: drawings by archeologists in the field, maps, notes, photographs, and these extraordinary 16 mm films—close to a century’s worth!—documenting daily life, clothing, dwellings, and the manufacture of artifacts and implements in over 30 countries around the world. They also have 25,000 lantern slides, many of them hand-tinted, of American Indians, scenes from the Ottoman Empire, and many other subjects. Kate has pulled images from the Philippines for us to look at.
Miranda: Hemp cart

A group of Kalingas from Northern Luzon, ca. 1910. Penn Museum image no. 219041.

Some of these are faked, intended to make people look more primitive than they were—too primitive to rule themselves—in a propagandist attempt by Dean C. Worcester, an infamous character, to justify the continuation of colonial rule. He also made a 1913 film for the same purpose, which Kate is working to repatriate.
Miranda: Kalingagirl-300x258

D. C. Worcester or C. Martin, Kalinga girl, ca.1913. Penn Museum image 219033.

Even though ICA is focused on the art of today, we don’t want to lose our lively and significant history—ground-breaking exhibitions that helped propel many important artists to wider recognition, including Andy Warhol’s first museum show. As a non-collecting museum, we rely on catalogues, installation photographs, and various ephemera like exhibition cards and posters (also blog posts) to document the work we do. There’s lots of this stuff in flat files and cartons in our archive room, and much more in Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which people can look at if they go over there, know basically what they want, and fill out a request form.

But what if you’re in Omaha, or Oslo, or Osaka? What if you’re just in Manyunk but don’t want to bother crossing the river into West Philly? What then? We’d like you to be able to go to our website and access our wonders from there.
Miranda: ortega01

Damián Ortega Untitled, 2002 courtesy of the artist, galeria kurimanzutto and D’Amelio Terras

Miranda: apfelbaum07

Polly Apfelbaum, 2003 Installation, Institute of Contemporary Art. Photo: Aaron Igler.

Miranda: dirt01

Photo: Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media

Miranda: von-heyl-install

Photo: Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media

ICA is currently working on a new website, to be launched for our 50th anniversary in fall 2013. Part of the idea is that the site will be a living archive: a rich, emergent territory with portals to past shows and programs where people will want to spend time exploring, and where even those who never physically come to ICA can participate in the ICA experience. We envision the website as a real expansion of our physical space into the fluid world of the virtual, propelling us to the acute edge of what’s contemporary: a museum without boundaries.

Heady stuff.

The visit to the Penn Museum’s Archives is both an inspiration and a wake-up call. On the one hand, here is this extraordinary collection of over 700 reels of film from all over the world, available at the click of a mouse. As Senior Archivist Alex Pezzati says, “In the 1980s, when everything went to video, all the film became totally inaccessible. You couldn’t even project it, it was too delicate. Now, what was inaccessible has become our most accessible collection.”

On the other hand, the organization that digitized this material and put it online, the Internet Archive, won’t be doing another project like that anytime soon. After the tour, we sit around the big table talking about digital asset managers and format issues and standards for file naming and image management systems. (“Do your images first,” Alex advises. “Documents are complicated.”) Alex and Kate are full of information, opinions, and experiences both cautionary and otherwise. It’s sobering to realize that, even with all their expertise, their advice can sometimes sound like this: “Nobody really knows what to do.”

Meanwhile the lantern slides sit in the middle of the table, glowing faintly yellow and red. Kate has explained to us that, before motion pictures, people would crowd the museum’s auditorium for illustrated travelogues. Picture a time when lantern slides were the latest thing, the YouTube of the age! People sat together, straining to imagine themselves into distant countries—unknown worlds.
Miranda: Oxen

A hemp cart in Albay, Luzon, ca. 1910. Penn Museum image no. 219115.

I like to think that’s what we’re doing now at ICA as we plan our new website: imagining ourselves into the unknown world of the virtual.

To sign up for Miranda‘s mailing list, email