The Ever-Evolving Life of Archives

by Jay Rosen

I recently attended a presentation and panel discussion at this year’s Lapidus Center Conference on Enduring Slavery, hosted on October 10-12 by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at New York Public Library. The theme of this year’s conference was “Resistance, Public Memory, and Transatlantic Archives,” which I thought might connect to some of our previous discussions on archives, cultural preservation, and collective memory in the United States.

The particular session I attended was entitled, “Emerging Perspectives on Public Memory and Popular Representations of Anti-Black Violence.” The conversation was introduced by Jennifer DeClue, Assistant Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College, who also presented original research and moderated the subsequent discussion.[1] Other panelists included Dr. Tyler Perry, Assistant Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Dr. Allison Page, Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at Old Dominion University. Because the material presented in DeClue’s presentation was especially interesting to me, I’ve decided to focus exclusively on that here.

The title of DeClue’s presentation was “Staging Slavery: Public Television and the Performance of Slave Narratives.” Her discussion centered on “The History of the Negro People,” a 9-part televison series which aired on the public television network NET (now PBS) in 1965. The series explored lesser known narratives of black people in America and throughout the world, featuring episodes on ancient African civilizations, the racial history of the American south, and the experience of black people in Brazil, among other topics.

Poster for 1965 television series “History of the Negro People”

The episode discussed by DeClue is simply titled “Slavery.” Included in it are staged dramatizations of slavery that emphasize resistance; significantly, these dramatizations were based on the actual stories of enslaved people in America. The testimonies used in “Slavery” were collected as part of FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) program in the 1920s. Though the WPA is mostly remembered for grand-scale public works projects like the construction of highways and buildings, it also included the Federal Writers Project, which facilitated the collection of American folklore and oral histories. As DeClue put it, a “database” of oral histories by formerly enslaved people was amassed through these efforts. The “raw material” embodied in these histories was then reanimated through the dramatic performances described by DeClue, and given a national audience through the medium of public television.

As previously mentioned, “Slavery” primarily highlighted instances of resistance to slaveholders and the institution of slavery itself. The episode included re-tellings of the stories of infamous rebels Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and John Brown, as well as narratives of lesser known enslaved people who dared challenge the “peculiar institution.” In chronicling American slavery through the lens of resistance and using the words of people who endured it,  the episode marks an “intervention into the dominant narrative of slavery,” shifting our public memory of slavery away from narratives of servility and complacency and towards tales of humanity and resilience.

The excerpts from “Slavery” that DeClue played for the audience highlight the potency of archives, as well as their insurrectionary potential. More specifically, they demonstrate that archives contain material that can be used to disrupt dominant understandings of history and uplift the narratives of marginalized people. As the Schwartz and Cook reading we were assigned earlier this semester suggests, archives have tremendous power in shaping our collective memory and identity, and can be used as tools to promote hegemony or resistance, depending on the materials available and the objectives of those who use them.   

At one point, DeClue mentioned that Federal Writers Project employees discovered that former slaves were less likely to be as forthcoming with white interviewers as they were with black ones. This unsurprising fact demonstrates that the archival record is anything but an unmediated collection of stories and documents. Rather, the records available to us today were shaped — implicitly and explicitly — by the people in positions to receive, create, and preserve them. As DeClue reminded us, it’s remarkable that so many powerful and subversive stories were collected by this project, given that most interviewers were white and were thus received less comfortably by black storytellers. What might this archival record look like if only black people collected these histories?

Still image from Ja’Tovia Gary’s “An Ecstatic Experience”

In closing out her presentation, Jennifer brought up the avant-garde short film An Ecstatic Experience,” created by Brooklyn-based artist and filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary. The film repurposes footage from “Slavery,” overlaying etchings, drawings, and other markings over images from the 1965 segment. In manipulating this footage, Gary added yet another “layer” to the archive and underscored the fact that archival materials evolve over time and in response to current understandings of the issues they embody and reflect. I found it exciting (and a bit dizzying) to try and peel back the archival “layers” included in DeClue’s presentation. For one, there are the narratives collected by the Federal Writers Project — these testimonies themselves comprise a kind of “transatlantic archive,” as DeClue put it. There is then the archival repository represented in “The History of the Negro People,” now over fifty years old. From there “An Ecstatic Experience” was born, further commenting on and repurposing the “raw material” collected by the Federal Writers Project in the 1920s. Finally, there is DeClue’s own analysis of these “layers,” which has already been digitally archived on Vimeo, in addition to my own commentary on her recent discussion, now archived on WordPress. These various “layers” enliven my understanding of archival “provenance” as introduced in the Caswell reading assigned earlier this semester. They show how records and archives are far from static, but rather unfold over decades and in conversation with the past and present.

Works referenced / cited:

Bly, L., & Wooten, K. (Eds.). (2012). Make your own history: Documenting feminist and queer activism in the 21st century. Los Angeles, CA: Litwin Books.

Caswell, M. L. (2016). “’The Archive’ Is Not an Archives: On Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies.” Reconstruction, 16 (1), 1-12. Retrieved from:

Schwartz, J. M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, records, and power: The making of modern memory. Archival Science, 2(1–2), 1–19. Retrieved from:

[1] Side note: DeClue mentioned during her introduction that she is currently working on a book titled “Visitation: Towards a Black Feminist Avant-Garde Cinema,” which focuses on black women filmmakers who use archival documents and avant-garde filmmaking techniques to encourage different ways of perceiving black women. This project brought to mind Alana Kumbier’s article “Inventing History: The Watermelon Woman and Archive Activism.” Kumbier’s article analyzes Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, in which Cheryl — represented as filmmaker but also a character in the film — traces a fictional persona named Fae Richards largely in order to “create a documentary heritage for black lesbian cultural production to enable future products” (Kumbier 103). Thus, both women use archival materials and the medium of film to encourage nuanced and feminist depictions of black women.

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.”

Help! ––I’m at a symposium and I’m trying to learn!

By Meghan Lyon

Last Friday, October 19th, I had the pleasure of observing two symposiums. I attended the first half of The Uncomfortable Archive: New York 2018 Archives Week Symposium, and the the second half of the first day of theWhitney Independent Study Program 1968-2018 50th Anniversary Symposium. These events marked my first encounter with the conference-style symposium. I have attended numerous lectures, but a presentation in the symposium format has a quality that diverges from a unique lecture; each speaker addresses their own content or area of expertise  as well as the overarching concept of the day.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of symposium includes: “a social gathering at which there is a free interchange of ideas”; “a formal meeting at which several specialists deliver short addresses on a topic”; “a collection of opinions on a subject”; and “discussion.” Additionally, it defines a panel as “a group of persons who discuss before an audience a topic of public interest.” The panel would be the object of attention, the body expected to enlighten the audience; it could also be the platform from which information is distributed. From my observation of the symposium as an information environment, I would define it as a learning-based information environment, where the audience is an information-seeking group whose attendance is predicated on the expectation of a conference of knowledge from the panelists. 

The Uncomfortable Archive Symposium, which I observed from 9:30 am through the lunch break at 1:15 pm, was devised to motivate the audience by revealing uncomfortable histories and truths about archives or loosely-defined archival materials. This goal manifested in multiple presentations about obstacles to record keeping and maintenance from autocrats, fascists, and capitalists. The Keynote Address was given by Anthony Clark, who played up the “uncomfortable” concept. Clark is an expert on presidential libraries and archives and discussed the more insidious aspects of presidential libraries—not just as propaganda machines but as active forces in politics, conservatively oriented towards maintaining the status quo of private interest groups. His address examined the unfortunate history and present mismanagement of the National Archives and Records Administration by the former director of NYPL, David Ferriero.

Clark addressed a room full of concerned professionals who were mostly cis-female, mostly white. The audience lights and stage lights were both on and remained on throughout the day; the AC was on, there was carpeting and plush chairs, there were no outlets throughout the seating area, and  there was no wifi and no data service in the hall at the Center for Jewish History. There was a podium for speakers and a table for panelists; I found that every panelist was an individual speaker and the “panel” discussion was, unfortunately, just an audience Q&A directed at the group of “panelists.”

The Uncomfortable Archives Symposium was crafted as a learning environment for archivists and professionals within the field of information. Most audience members were taking notes; actively engaged and trying to learn. However, several days after the Uncomfortable Archives, a peer who was also in attendance bemoaned that there was too little discussion of problems or troubleshooting thereof from within archives; in other words, she gained no knowledge that was useful to her as a professional.  Also, most talks were initiated after a precarious disclaimer: “My comments are my own and not my employers,” a common social media and web-based, personal disclaimer which has migrated towards any format that has the potential to wind up on the internet. This attempt by speakers to protect their professional status could relate to Robert Jensen’s paper, The Myth of the Neutral Professional. In order to keep their jobs, librarians and archivists are pressured to appear politically neutral. At the very least, they must attempt to be sure that they cannot be held accountable as a representative of their employer when speaking publicly. I find the disclaimers’ presence to be unsettling, and feel sorry that the speakers need to present defensively on stage.

Midday I walked over to the Whitney Museum of American Art for the ISP 50 Year Anniversary Symposium; This second observation lasted from 2:30pm – 8pm.

The Whitney Independent Study Program 50 year anniversary Symposium was a very different kind of event from the Uncomfortable Archive; It was not technically a professional event. The intended audience was ISP alumni, but the ISP program is so popular that many others were also in the audience. The 2-day event was both open to the public and free, so it drew contemporary art enthusiasts, fans of panelists, social climbers, artists, museum workers, art historians, current university students, and people in some way involved in the art world who are hungry for continued education. Because of the various points of entry, there was also a more diverse demographic. It was so packed in the lecture hall that overflow seating was made available in the Tom and Diane Tuft Trustee Room on the 8th floor, which is where I wound up for the first panel that I witnessed.

Whitney ISP Symposium from the 8th floor Trustee Room

In the trustee room, there was a monitor playing a livestream of the symposium as it occurred downstairs. This room quickly filled up, although it wasn’t totally full and people wandered in and out. There was an odd phenomenon of 8th floor of attendees clapping when speakers concluded, even though the presenters were on tv.

Another unexpected occurrence (unexpected to the Whitney staff, at least) was that people who showed up at the beginning of the symposium did not leave. This created a major occupancy problem, because people who registered beforehand, or who were ISP alum, could not enter. I believe that the organizers thought that people would come for a panel, or a particular speaker, and then leave—grossly underestimating the major interest in this kind of educational experience. After witnessing this symposium, I would conclude that multitudes of people are craving high quality, free, educational experiences. The panelists in this case were key figures in art theory, writing, criticism, contemporary studio practice, and pedagogy, and it is too often an exclusive few who are able to interact with the brilliance associated with the ISP milieu.

Like the Uncomfortable Archives’ attendees, nearly every audience member had a notebook out, although I would say the note-taking at the Whitney was a little more feverish, on both the 8th and 3rd floors. Eventually, a few people from the 8th floor went down in between panels to try and claim a few abandoned seats.

A panel in the lecture hall at the Whitney ISP Symposium

I made it into the lecture hall for the Pedagogy and Critical Practice panel. The structure of the panels were similar to those of the earlier symposium; each member of the panel gave a short presentation with slides, however, instead of a Q&A afterwards, there was a moderated discussion on the overarching theme of the panel, with a short time for  audience questions. The time-ratio weighed heavily on the lectures, clocking in at almost 2 hours of serial lectures per 20 minutes of panel discussion.

A little earlier in the evening, curator Johanna Burton had referenced  “embodied learning”—which she described as something along the lines of “trying out learning through new experiences.”  I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore  Marcia J. Bates’ paper Fundamental Forms of Information.  I could see note-taking as an interaction with recorded information, “communicatory or memorial information preserved in a durable medium,” (Bates 14)  as well as an enactment of student/teacher paradigm, and an attempt to fill a knowledge-seeking need. The symposium could be examined as a place for the expression of recorded information (lectures) to be

Single-Circle Diagram that says "Information Environment / Learners / I feel grateful to be here ----->"
“Information Environment / Learners / I feel grateful to be here ——–>”

embodied by an audience through listening and interpretation, and then enacted by their future selves as more knowledgable beings.  

Nearing the end of the ISP Symposium, Mary Kelly took the stage. Kelly was the only speaker who did not use a slide-show presentation, and she was so soft spoken yet captivating, you could feel the entire audience leaning in and opening up. I drew a small diagram of the environment and how I felt.


Bates, M. (2006). Fundamental Forms of Information. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 57(8) (2006): 1033-1045

Jensen, R. (2006). The Myth of the Neutral Professional. Lewis, A. (Ed.), Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian. (pp. 89-96). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.


“Archives, Advocacy, and Change” at the New York Academy of Medicine

“The archival profession is inherently an activist profession.” -Rich Wandel

Last night, the New York Academy of Medicine hosted a panel called “Archives, Advocacy, and Change” as part of their Changemakers series. The panelists were Jenna Freedman, founder of the Barnard Zine Library; Steven Fullwood, founder of In the Life Archive; Timothy Johnson, director of NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives and co-director of Tamiment’s Cold War Center; and Rich Wandel (quoted above), founder of  The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive.  Continue reading