National museum, DuSable stage community archiving project

Technicians in the National Museum of African American History of Culture’s digitization truck process audiovisual material outside of the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E 56th Place. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

As part of a nationwide effort, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is archiving 2D and audiovisual materials in Chicago through Sept. 28. Donors can keep their original materials and one digital copy of them and allow for additional copies to be archived at the Smithsonian.

“Our goal is to go throughout the country and help families, individuals and civic organization digitize their items, whether it’s moving or still images,” said Doretha Williams, the NMAAHC’s Robert F. Smith Fund program manager. “This project is not a collecting project for the museum. It’s a service to communities, individuals and families.”

Several high-tech photography stations have been set up in the DuSable Museum itself, and the program’s digitization truck for videos and audio is parked outside. Audiovisual archiving is done in real time.

“If you come in with two hours of content on the tape, you’re looking at a minimum of two hours to digitize it,” explained media archivist Black McDowell.

Candace Ming, formerly of the South Side Home Movie Project, is now the team’s media conservation and digitization specialist.

“It’s a little similar,” she said of her new job. The Community Curation and the Home Movie Project will screen some of their digitized material on Sept. 29 at the University of Chicago Arts Block on Garfield Boulevard in Washington Park.

“One of the reasons we’re coming to these cities is to bolster and improve the breadth of the collection and work with DuSable and Chicago State and the Black Metropolis Research Consortium to get the word out and help people digitize,” Ming said.

Still and moving images digitization sessions are at the DuSable, 740 E. 56th Place, from Sept. 7 through Sept. 20. Moving digitization sessions are planned at Evanston Township High School from Sept. 21 to Sept. 28, and still image digitization sessions are planned at Chicago State University from Sept. 24 through Sept. 28.

More information and registration can be found at

Once archived, the digitized materials become of great use to historians and other professionals.

“We recently had two artists who were looking through the collection materials and through the Great Migration [Home Movie Project] to facilitate their artwork,” Williams said. They advised the producers of “Green Book” how to better capture the history through their archived travel footage.

Tony Burroughs, a Bronzeville genealogist who will lead a “Genealogy 101” workshop on Saturday, Sept. 7, at Chicago State’s Gwendolyn Brooks Library, 9501 S. King Drive, at 11 a.m., encouraged people to save their family’s personal records: letters, postcards, discharge certificates, funeral and church programs, obituaries, etc.

“They don’t realize they have a broader value for their family, for their descendants and for the community as well, because they don’t realize that’s what we use to do community history as well as write biographies,” he said. “And sometimes, our ancestors have done extraordinary things, but we knew them, and we just kind of took it for granted.

“That’s kind of the other part of my educating: letting them know what’s really valuable, that you should save it, why you should save it and how you should save it,” he said.

The Community Curation’s goal is to travel across the United States; it has already traveled to Baltimore and Denver. One woman’s digital donation from the Mile-High City stands out in Williams’ mind.

“She said, ‘This is my great-great-grandfather in the middle of the picture.’ I was like, ‘Oh, he’s a dapper man; it seems he went to school at Harvard.’ It’s like from 1915 — and I look up in the corner, and in the picture is Alain Locke, who is considered the father of the Harlem Renaissance and an African American philosopher,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness! Your great-great-grandfather knew Alain Locke!’”

“It’s a great project. It’s a lot of work and involves a lot of set-up, and it’s a lot of people,” she said. “It lends to the idea of digital humanities and archiving this material to tell a deeper story, to share the resources with other institutions as well.”