At first, I came into this course thinking I knew nothing about archives and was slightly scared that I would get lost along the way. Curating a recently made collection with little to no background involves multiple steps such as creating metadata, Finding Aids, subject headings—things that I hadn’t thought about until now. My biggest priority when approaching and curating this collection was inclusivity. I want all voices to be heard in this collection- the sitters, my colleagues, the viewers, etc. This aspect is what I kept in mind while constructing my Finding Aid and looking at the Black Portrait Photograph Collection.
My background in Art history is the reason behind my need to be inclusive. After years of looking at primarily white subjects made by white artists, it was clear that the shift to inclusivity has to be within institutions such as museums and education. One specific aspect I made sure to include when constructing my finding aid was making sure to include the labor that enables this collection to be accessible and discoverable. Many times, the behind-the-scenes gets lost when looking at exhibitions or collections. Who is behind digitizing the photographs? Who is behind all the data collection that allows this image to be public? To acknowledge the attributions of collaborators humanizes the collection, while also showing the efforts done in putting together a cohesive collection. Another aspect to consider was the inclusiveness of the audience. An aspect of the collection that was remained important to all of us was making sure that the Black Portrait Photograph Collection is always stayed living through researchers and viewers. This collection will continuously be added to and adapted. With a collection that has little to no background, there needs to be an outreach to the public in order to gain knowledge about any aspects of the collection, whether that be history, fashion, or even the identity of any of the sitters. By inviting the audience to contribute their knowledge in a finding aid, the collection becomes interactive and stays living.
While working on this collection, its digital archive, and its public curation, specifically the finding aid and descriptive titles, old aspects must be considered and debated. Black with a lowercase ‘b’ or uppercase? Do we specify in the title or in our descriptions that the sitter is Black? Are these sitters’ family or friends? Is their form of dress them fashioning themselves or props provided by the studio? The biggest question mark for me was the subject headings given by the Library of Congress. The subject headings that are established in the Library of Congress (LCSH) haven’t had an inclusive past, but it is widely used. Instead of getting rid of the LCSH system, many individuals have petitioned for change, and it is becoming a bit more inclusive. In order for LCSH subject headings to be effective for users, the Library of Congress needs to change by creating new broad but also new specific headings to accommodate the changing society.
As a Black woman in a predominantly white field (which is slowly changing!), feeling included and acknowledged is what is most important to me. Working on this collection, alongside my colleagues from different educational backgrounds, has allowed me to gain the knowledge I wouldn’t have gotten from any other course. The sitters, the photographers, the viewers, and more, are all aspects that need to be humanized when curating a collection. This collection isn’t just about the photographs of Black subjects, it’s a reflection of humanity in both the creators of the archive and the individuals involved in the original photography process.
Daniella Statia, May 2021, Black Portrait Collection