“The New Exchange”: a New Urban Arts Web Archive and Exhibit Tool Prototype

My project took the form of a thought exercise and preliminary digital and web-hosted proof of concept for a front-facing digital archive and curation tool for New Urban Arts. I thought about what an archiving and exhibition tool might look like so as to be relevant to the needs and everyday operation of the organization, its staff, and the students and families it serves. Centering on a test run of the Omeka interface, I thought specifically about the types of users who will interact with the tool, as well as the kinds of information they would find most useful in an accessible, searchable presentation.

This project has been stewing in the back of my mind since mid September of 2015, when I began working with New Urban Arts in a volunteer “archivist” position. My relationship with the organization began about a year and a half prior, when I worked on a multimedia “biography” project of the organization for a first-year American Studies seminar called “Culture, Communities, and Change.” My time spent interviewing staff, mentors, and students at the organization sold me on their pedagogy and approach to community arts programming. The organization has an atmosphere of controlled chaos, where adults, teenagers, and those of us who find ourselves somewhere in between can meet and build relationships on equal footing, in a colorful building with loud music and art supplies strewn across the tables and sometimes the floor. The everyday operation of NUA is centered around helping teenagers build a creative practice, which in turn facilitates building supportive relationships with peers and adult mentors. When making the biography/portrait project, I spent some time digging around the organization’s physical archives, which live conveniently in the cold, dusty basement, with a Brown grad student in the public humanities. Two years later, she had graduated and the organization took me on as the new, temporary steward of the organization’s boxes of files, artwork, postcards, and who-knows-what.

 

This is what the basement looks like.
This is a cute comic from the NUA physical archive.
This is a cute comic from the NUA physical archive.

Artifacts, documentation, and memories from the organization’s 19-year history are spread extensively and impressively throughout the boxes in the basement, the server in the office, several online platforms, and in the hearts and minds of every student, mentor, and staff-member who has passed through over the years. Like many community nonprofits, NUA has a high turnover in paid staff, and its student turnover is the four years spent in Providence’s public high school system. But NUA is unique in that is has built a family of artists and friends who have remained relatively consistent throughout the organization’s history in some way or another. If they aren’t current staff or mentors they might be passing through to photograph works in a show, or meeting with staff to offer insight on new projects, or simply stopping by to chat and share a snack. So in approaching this thought exercise, it was important to keep in mind that New Urban Art’s has an already-rich, already-comprehensive institutional history and wealth of knowledge surrounding it.

On the web, there are a few platforms that house a majority of relevant digitized artifacts and information. The Exchange section of New Urban Arts website serves as an all purpose location to dump files, information, and images relevant to New Urban Arts. Current features include a web store with artwork for sale, an audio archive of podcasts produced in the studio, and free downloadable curriculum resources for youth arts programming, most notably PDF versions of the NUA’s annual “Summer Art Inquiry Guide.” While the section of the site hasn’t been updated for a couple of years, it provides a compelling look into the history, culture, and ideology of NUA as a space and as a program. However, for any formal archival purposes or specific tasks beyond aimless browsing, the interface is awkward and the most interesting content is buried within several pages and subpages. I also know from working with the NUA staff that the website is difficult to update or amend, and requires some basic coding knowledge that most staff and students don’t have.

Newurbanarts.org also features social media icons with a link to the organization’s flickr page. The photostream, while hosted remotely from the rest of the organization’s web presence, is the most navigable and neatly arranged archival resource. It features photos of every major event and exhibition since the fall of 2005, most of which were taken by NUA alumni and former staff member Jesse Banks III. This is also the most consistent way the organization maintains archives of student and artist-mentor artworks, which get photographed before each major exhibition.

A harder to find but more formally executed archival project from 2012 lives on tumblr at http://da-nua.tumblr.com/. Labeled as a “visual audit”, this project was carried out by the design firm responsible for updating NUA’s logo, website, and overall branding. The site features institutional documents and design pieces, with the stated mission, ““to provide an overview of all printed materials produced by the organization since its founding, in 1997, up until the present day; and to to inform the development of NUA’s visual voice in the future.” This project uses tumblr’s tagging feature to implement a system of metadata, under which a user can view all the items tagged with the same label in a number categories. For example, a user could look at all items tagged under the years 2009-2010, or look at every item related to the annual Midyear Makings exhibition.

Moving forward with a new or reimagined archival resource, I acknowledge that these projects are relatively comprehensive and feature an abundance of information about NUA. The issues that arises from these existing sites have to do with access, generosity, and discoverability. These resources require the user to do some serious digging, clicking through links, scrolling through years worth of photo documentation, to get a sense of the scope of the organization’s history, or to find a specific item. They are somewhat searchable, but limited in the ways they group and present information. There is also no system whereby any staff member or student could make contributions to the web-archive without technical knowledge of coding or guarded passwords. The task of updating and maintaining structure is only attended to when there is someone around with expertise and time on their hands, or when the organization creates a specific position.

In order to think about potential improvements to the current system, I imagined what kinds of users would be most likely to interact with a NUA web archive. I decided the archive would serve a dual purpose: both internal and external. The primary use would be internal. Staff would use the archive to source documentation of the organization’s history and pedagogy for grant materials, promotion, and fundraising. Students might be interested in artwork and event documentation from past years. Externally, the purpose of the archive would be to educate curious individuals. People involved in similar arts or youth development organizations might look to the archive for inspiration. Funders might use the tool for further investigation into the organization’s merits and ideology.

Considering the issues in the current system, as well as the range of potential users, I identified three areas of improvement that I thought were worth focusing on in a modified or updated version. These were:

  • Searchability/Metadata
  • Interface Generosity/Organization
  • Ease of Amending/Updating

Searchability and Metadata:

When I first started thinking about this project, my intention was to create a modified wordpress site that could display items in an online-exhibit format. However, I quickly realized that implementing a dynamic search function and metadata into the wordpress platform would take more knowledge of coding and tweaking of the wordpress site than I would have time to learn. So I changed my approach to using the omeka platform. The major advantages of the omeka platform is that search and metadata are central to the way the site is designed, so there are no major modifications needed to make them work well.

Between metadata and tags, the site I created already exhibits a greater degree of searchability that NUA’s tools that already exist. With a system of tags and metadata that incorporate artist names, dates, and item types, the user can type in a term of interest to them, and view all items relevant to that term.

DPLA Metadata: it's very complicated, pt. 2
DPLA Metadata: it’s very complicated, pt. 1

I wanted to think about what kinds of metadata or systems of metadata would make sense to incorporate into the site. I was encouraged to consider how a NUA archive might be incorporated into a larger archival project such as the Digital Public Library of America. However when I investigated the kinds of metadata that would need to be implemented in order to make this kind of cross-compatibility feasible, it became clear that such a system would require more expertise than would be reasonable to expect of staff or volunteers at NUA. So, I decided to start with the basic Dublincore categories included in the omeka interface. I found that even a preliminary attempt to fill these categories out as thoroughly as possible drastically improved the functionality of the website’s search.

DPLA Metadata: it's very complicated, pt. 2
DPLA Metadata: it’s very complicated, pt. 2

Interface Generosity/Organization:

I didn’t make quite as much progress in thinking about this are of “The New Exchange” project, but learning from the shortcomings of the current archival system, an updated version clearly needs to organize and present information more dynamically and clearly. To begin the process, I established categories on the Omeka site using the “collecitons” tool. In the future, this effort could be expanded to involve curated “exhibits.” Ideally, the new archive would give the user an idea of the breadth and depth of the contents of the archive on the landing page, without making any particular type or category of item “hidden” or buried within pages of the interface. A landing page could also inspire some search terms to start with, so as to avoid a required working knowledge of the contents of the archive in order to find items of interest.

Ease of Amending/Updating:

Another lesson of the current archive is that without a clear and easy system for adding items and updating the site, it will fall out of use and fail to remain current. This is another benefit to the omeka interface. While it might be clunkier and less aesthetically appealing than other tools available, it is very easy to upload files and fill out categories of metadata. A potential system for updating the archive would be to designate a computer in the studio and post a list of steps for adding items. It would then be someone’s job to clean up the metadata and make sure tags, collections, and exhibits remained consistent and organized.

Takeaways:

In thinking about this project, it became clear why most organizations like New Urban Arts aren’t able to maintain a similar or greater degree of documentation and web presence. These types of organizations have high turnover in staff, are often pressed for resources, and rarely have spare time on their hands to take up extra projects. NUA is unique in that it has a dedicated community of current and past staff, mentors, and alumni who are willing to take on projects and advise the organization in maintaining these types of tools. Going forward, my major recommendations would be:

  1. Establish a clear system of metadata so as to keep the archive searchable and avoid burying interesting items inside. This system would be best kept simple. Names, dates, and descriptions are important, and adding a few tags to each item that further describe and categorize can improve searchability.
  2. Maintain a system of curation and presentation that illustrates the depth and breadth of the archive’s contents on a landing page. A few times per year, someone should update the landing page to feature more recent items alongside rotating artifacts from the organization’s history. Any easy schedule would be to perform this task after every major exhibition when the items from the show are added to the archive.
  3. Related to that last recommendation is to establish a step-by-step guide so that any student or staff could go to a computer in the studio and add a scanned item or existing file to the archive. In this way, the task of updating and maintaining the archive might be diffused and made more manageable. It would then be one person’s job to clean up and organize these items.

Perhaps omeka is not the best platform for such a tool, but it provides simple solutions to some of the more pressing shortcomings of the current system.

Here is my omeka test site.

Here is the google spreadsheet I used to export .csv files for adding items to the omeka site.

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