Digital Archives and Preservation at the Mark Morris Dance Center

I visited with Stephanie Neel at the Mark Morris Dance Center on Friday November 9th. Neel is overseeing a group of archivists working on a large-scale project at the Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Her team has been making diligent progress towards digitizing the Center’s library of VHS and pneumatic tapes. 

History of the Mark Morris Dance Center

The Mark Morris Dance Center, located one block west of the Brooklyn Academy of Music at the intersection of Lafayette and Flatbush in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, has been the home base of the Mark Morris Dance Group since 2001.  The Center was the first building to be dedicated solely to a dance group, and serves an additional function as an education space and outreach facility for the community.  The Mark Morris Dance Center offers many affordable and inclusive classes to the community and are not prejudicial with regard to experience or ability.

The Team

Neel is conducting this project in consultation with Greg Lisi and Savannah Campbell. Lisi and Campbell are video digitization specialists employed by the Dance Heritage Coalition. Lisi is also the moving image preservation specialist for the NYPL and has overseen all of their AV digitization efforts for the past ten years. Campbell is a graduate of the NYU Tisch School’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program. This team is rounded out be Regina Carra, Archive Project Metadata and Cataloging Coordinator, and Sarah Nguyen, a University of Washington MLIS student.


Neel and her team have been producing their work in accordance with a three-year Mellon grant, which is specificly tailored to the Mark Morris Dance Center. The grant is compliant with current digitization standards, and is aligned with OMEKA, a performing arts database standard. The main objective of this work is to organize and digitize their large holding of pneumatic tape, beta, VHS and high eight.

Archival Process

Neel and her team begin by cross-referencing the individual records with open source software. This method is similar to that which is employed by the NYPL and the Tate in London. 

The primary challenge of this work is in coordinating between Mark Morris and the various institutions throughout the world that commission dance pieces from the institute. Each of these institutions employ their own videographer, and therefore maintain proprietary usage rights of their footage. This footage then resides in a cold storage facility.  Mark Morris must then request an extraction of the digital files from cold storage.  The files are then checked for compliance with the Collective Access.  Collective Access is database software technology for use in cataloging.  

Further Challenges

The archival process at the Mark Morris Dance Center poses exciting challenges. These challenges are best illustrated by Michelle Caswell’s article “The Archive” is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies. In this article, Caswell identifies the importance of the record in archival practice. She writes: “The ‘record’ is the foundational concept in archival studies. Records, according to the prevailing definition in archival studies, are ‘persistent representations of activities, created by participants or observers of those activities or by their authorized proxies.'”1 Neel and her team of archivists and preservation specialists are sifting through a various forms of records in their process and must create separate hierarchies. 

Neel and her team are grappling with the archiving and cataloging of the so-called “uncatalogable.” They approach this problem by dividing the work into two aspects. One aspect is the choreography, which is authored soley by Mark Morris. The choreography is its own text. This text is then translated to other institutions that choose to perform the work with their own companies. The performances are a separate aspect of the process. They are made physical in the form of the recordings captured by each company’s individual videography department.

This process of sorting relates to Caswell’s definition of provenance. She writes: “Through provenance, archival studies insists on the importance of the context of the record, even over and above its content.”2 While content is important for Neel, the contextualization of the performance (when, where, which company) is the primary method of placing the records within the archive.

Outside Assistance

Neel has contracted with The MediaPreserve in Pittsburgh to complement the work being done in Brooklyn.  Shipping crates come and go from the Center’s archival office. The crates are filled with analog reels and cassettes, a couple of which I helped carry up to the lobby. According to the website of The MediaPreserve: “We have digitized for hundreds of institutions, universities, and museums transferring an array of formats including 1” Type C, 2” Quad, video cassettes, digital videos, film, and many more. Our work has covered numerous genres, including home movies, propaganda, documentaries, and works of art, as well as news, scientific, musical and educational programs.”

Practical Use of the Archive

The digital resources, once archived, are not simply kept in a closet. The tapes are a vital aspect to the company’s process, and are heavily referenced by new dancers and other global dance companies in order to recreate the specifics of Morris’s choreography. A database exists for the dancers where they are able to access time-stamped footage of past performances and other forms of raw choreography that serve as the building blocks for new performances.

Secondary Goals

Neel’s team is also responsible for the large collection of costumes and ephemera belonging to the Mark Morris Dance Group. These costumes  span the forty-year history of the Group. Additional items in need or archiving include historical prints, photographs, and programs. Most of these items are securely stored are of a less urgent manner for the team.  The analog technology of the video tapes is more fragile and requires urgent attention. Neel has decided to tend to the costumes toward the back end of the grant. 


Stephanie Neel and her team are dealing with an interesting challenge in archiving the digital materials at the Mark Morris Dance Center. They must parse through the records and create hierarchies of place and performance in order to assign order to their holdings. Their digitization and preservation methods are sophisticated and the team is composed of accomplished specialists in the field. The archive is unique in that these records will then become widely used as practical tools for instruction.


  1. Michelle Caswell, “The Archive” is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies.
  2. Caswell, “The Archive.”

Symposium Review: “The Uncomfortable Archive”



I attended a New York Archives Week Symposium at the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street on Friday October 16th entitled “The Uncomfortable Archive.” The symposium, co-sponsored by the CJH and the MetLife Foundation, was open to the general public and aimed at bringing together archivists, librarians, museum professionals, scholars, and researchers around the subject of difficult and “dangerous” information in the digital age. Of particular interest to me was the early afternoon program entitled “Uncomfortable Powers: Archiving Dangerous Knowledge,” which promised talks ranging from cloistered Soviet-era archives, presidential records, and Wikileaks.  

Omission and Obfuscation in the Private Soviet Archive

Katherine Tsan presented the first talk, “Omission and Obfuscation in the Private Soviet Archive.”  It was structured around her research into the coded messaging that survived this highly-censored historical epoch.  Tsan outlined the difficulty facing the contemporary archivists responsible for interpreting these incomplete records, which were obfuscated in order to circumvent the draconian provisions of Soviet-era oversight. Archives were state-controlled this way until 1991, meaning abbreviations, incomplete names, and code words were the norm in information files.

Tsan discussed the dual concerns when focusing on Soviet-era projects.  She highlighted the ethical conundrum involved in archiving writings and information that were purposefully celf-sensored. Tsan also discussed the dilemma posed by Putin’s current-day deep-freeze of national archives, which show strong evidence of private citizens blotting out images and cultural memory. Tsan questioned if historical preservation should probe beyond these intentions or approach them from an ostensibly globalist, progressivist slant? Putin’s unwillingness to fund archival activities is in line with Soviet effacement, indicated by the complete lack of KGB archives and the concealment of Russian presidential archives.

Tsan’s talk echoed concepts of power and the archive that we read in Schwartz and Cook’s article Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. They write: “The point is for archivists to (re)search thoroughly for the missing voices, for the complexity of the human or organizational functional activities under study during appraisal, description, or outreach activities, so that archives can acquire and reflect multiple voices, and not, by default, only the voices of the powerful.”1 The near-totalitarian aspects of Soviet rule should be examined in the archival renegotiation of history. However, the key challenge here is how archivists can locate missing voices in a historical period in which they were silenced and redacted? 

Tsan’s talk also recalled Drabinski’s article Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. Drabinski notes that Queer theory also found roots in a postmodernism that challenged the idea that truth could be final.”2 Is there a possibility for a more thoroughly accurate and truthful picture of Soviet Russia given the degree of suppression and censorship prevalent in that era? Or is the fact that so much of Soviet history was censored the truest depiction of its archival history? Would further excavation create a muddled history? These are intriguing questions posed by Tsan’s presentation. 

Watergate, Covfefe, and presidential records

Katherine M. Wisser followed with her presentation, “Watergate, Covfefe, and presidential records.”  Wisser, an Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Archives/History Dual Degree Program at Simmons College in Boston, conducted an entertaining talk which contemplated the implications of presidential records. Presidents Nixon and Trump were Wisser’s primary examples as she grappled with the debate over whether or not presidential records constitute the private personal property of those individuals in office.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 served as Wisser’s primary  point of orientation. She chronicled the various ways in which the executive branch has handled this Congressional decision, which mandates the preservation of Presidential and Vice Presidential records and states public ownership of said records. Various Executive Orders have been issued since the Act’s inception that have variously limited and broadened the scope of the PRA.

Wisser was quick to point out the Trump administration’s valuing of  secrecy over transparency. She highlighted this by discussing Trump’s proclivity for tearing papers to shreds, which has resulted in government officials taping said documents together to avoid egregious violations of the PRA.

SID Today and SID Tomorrow: Releasing an Archive of Leaked Government Documents

The final talk was given by Tayla Cooper, Digital Archivist at The Intercept.  The Intercept is home to the Snowden Archive, which archives the internal newsletter of the NSA’s Signal Intelligence Directive (SID).

According to The Intercept’s website: “SIDtoday is the internal newsletter for the NSA’s most important division, the Signals Intelligence Directorate. After editorial review, The Intercept is releasing nine years’ worth of newsletters in batches, starting with 2003. The agency’s spies explain a surprising amount about what they were doing, how they were doing it, and why.”3 In August 2018 alone, The Intercept published 328 separate documents from a source inside the NSA . These documents covered a range of topics, and summarized “how corporate the agency had become and rallied other frustrated spies to his cause; about the NSA’s environmentally-driven spying; and about some of the virtual private networks the agency cracked into, and why. Other highlights from this release, which covers the first half of 2006, touch on Iranian influence in Iraq, the attitudes of NSA staff toward the countries where they are stationed, and much more.”4

Cooper discussed the labor involved in redacting elements from these documents when sent to the NSA for review. Cooper also talked about  how organizations like The Intercept work to counteract what she described as “surveillant anxiety,” in which no amount of data is ever seen as offering a complete picture of governmental activity. She concluded by stating that this anxiety is something that can not be quelled, a dispiriting endnote that also served as a rallying cry.



  1. Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” 4.
  2. Emily Drabinski, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 83, no. 2 (2013): 94-111. doi:10.1086/669547.