Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in our second annual Digital Summer School series which highlights digital humanities projects focused on urban history. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Chris Cantwell conducted our first class regarding the digital project Gathering Places, Religion and Community in Milwaukee. Trinity College historian Jack Dougherty led our second course discussing his work on Metropolitan Hartford: On the Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and its Suburbs. Public historian Victoria Bernal, co-founder of @LAhistory, instructed our third session on the art of curating history through the medium of social media. For our fourth week, University of Southern California librarians and digital curators Stacy Williams and Andy Rutkowski explore the intersection of photography, murals, and pedagogy through the Robin Dunitz California and Los Angeles Files.
Who is/was Robin Dunitz and what made you decide that through her photos you could develop a larger project?
Stacy: Robin Dunitz is a photographer, curator, and mural researcher who has written and co-written books on murals in California. As an Angeleño, Robin was involved with the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA), serving as an Advisory Board Member and the organization’s tour director. Since the late 1980s, MCLA has advocated for the restoration and preservation of murals in Los Angeles. Their website, until recently, has served as a mural database, where users could look up murals, artists, and locations. My first introduction to Robin was when I became the librarian for Architecture and Art; researchers from all over the world would contact me about accessing the artist file collection that Robin donated to USC Libraries a few years ago, Robin Dunitz California and Los Angeles Murals Files. In addition to accessing the physical collection, researchers also had questions about the slide collection. The people that stood out to me were the ones who had moved from Los Angeles and wanted to download an image of a mural that they remembered from their childhood. Additionally, Robin’s book on murals, Street Gallery: Guide to 1000 Los Angeles Murals, has been a wonderful resource for me as I work with researchers using the online collection or the artist files.
Andy and I started thinking about how Robin’s collection of artists files and the online slide collection really captured a part of LA’s public art history. Aside from the slide collection, the artist file collections contain letters, notecards, newspaper articles, pamphlets, and other ephemera. Each file is unique and provides meaningful content that enriches and spurs conversation and thinking about murals in Los Angeles.
Why did you establish this digital project? Who is your audience? What do you hope people take away from it?
ANDY: The primary reason for creating the project is to connect folks with the Robin Dunitz archive and to promote research and creative work inspired by and through the archive. Murals in Los Angeles have a rich and complicated history. From Judith Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles to the murals at Estrada Courts, the Dunitz collection documents these murals and many others through the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s. USC provides access to a digital collection of these murals through our digital library. In addition to the digital library a physical archive exists of papers, artists files, and other materials that Robin Dunitz collected as she photographed the murals. This digital project showcases the relationship between both of these archives and, we hope, provides inspiration and context when doing community-focused research through murals. One of the main ideas that we had in terms of developing the project was to use the physical archive as a way to get students thinking about how they do research in neighborhoods, especially ethnographic work (photographing, interviews, videos, data collection, etc.). Dunitz’s archive provides context for the murals that she documented and also more information about why they were important at the time. For many of her photographs of murals, she also collected newspaper clippings, letters, art brochures, handwritten notes, and other materials that show the importance of documentation.
The audience is anyone who might be interested in better understanding the history of murals in Los Angeles and how they can help to pose and answer questions about communities, gentrification, sustainability, and any number of other research areas. We have our academic community at USC that we try to share this work with, but we have also worked with the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture
In addition, we hope that fellow librarians and educators with similar projects might be able to see what we have done and use the same infrastructure for their own work.
We want students, faculty, and researchers to think about how these murals have had an impact on how neighborhoods and Los Angeles understand itself. Part of that process involves being able to look at the murals collectively on a map. The other part is being aware that an archive exists that can further enrich your understanding of the murals and the work that was done to create and preserve them.
How did the project come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?
Andy: One of the first developments of this project actually started with a research inquiry from a course in the Urban Humanities Initiative at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). At the time I was working there as a Geospatial Resources Librarian and a group of students was doing research on radical art in Los Angeles, specifically looking at muralists like David Sequeiros. I directed the students to UCLA’s mural collection that features the photographs of Nancy Tovar as well as USC’s Robin Dunitz collection. One of the things that my colleagues from UCLA and I ended up doing for the students was taking a selection (not all the murals have addresses or longitude and latitude coordinates) of the murals and placing them on an easily accessible web map. In addition, I strongly encouraged the students to visit Stacy at USC’s Art and Architecture Library so that they could see what other information might be available in the Dunitz archive files. That collaborative process of connecting the digital collection to the archival collection and thinking about how it could help to inspire research was really the start for building and working on this project. Since then we have taken lots of little steps in creating maps and thinking about the project more broadly as something that might be a part of the collections as data movement. One of the things about working with the digital collection has been using it as a dataset. When I made the webmap we were able to do so because we had a CSV file for the entire collection. This really opened the door to thinking about the collection beyond individual murals or artists—more about looking at Los Angeles and understanding where murals exist, where murals don’t exist, what murals have been lost, and where murals haven’t been documented.
This latest iteration of the project is a direct result of working with a writing faculty partner at the University of Southern California. In some cases we work with the faculty in the program to develop more extensive assignments that allow students to engage with archival materials and new technologies and software. In this case, we worked with Professor Dana Milstein to create a set of assignments that let students explore some of the archive via a digital map; the students then came into the library and looked at a selection of materials from the archive and discussed how the murals could help them understand issues within that neighborhood. Finally, they put everything together and wrote essays about a neighborhood that they chose to document.
The most challenging aspect of doing a project like this was finding a receptive faculty member who understands the demands of creating a digital project with students and the challenges of incorporating archival research into a semester-long course. One of the hardest aspects was developing a workflow for students that allowed them to create and publish essays on the digital platform. This process involved introducing the very basics of GitHub to the class and getting all the students an account so that they could create content and share it with the larger project. Luckily we were working from a template that our friends and colleagues at UCLA had already developed in GitHub. Dawn Childress developed a great template that allows students to write essays that are linked to places on a digital map. I was actually part of the first iteration of a project at UCLA that utilized that framework and then I used the same platform for another project, Barrio Suburbanism. Because of that experience I was feeling pretty confident that we could make it work with a larger group of students. For those interested in learning more about the platform, which was originally designed by Dawn Childress and Nathan Day, you can get more info about the latest version here.
Nevertheless having nearly 80 students working and creating content in GitHub for the first time is a huge obstacle to deal with in real time during a semester.
Where do you hope the project goes in the future?
Andy and Stacy: For the next year we have a student researcher who will help us digitize and catalog more of the content from the physical Dunitz archive. We hope this work will help to provide better accessibility for students and others who might want to explore this archive. We are also exploring how to get more writing courses
(or other courses) involved in contributing content to the “Exploring Los Angeles through Dunitz” website. We also would like to generally think about how folks could submit articles and content to the site who are outside of the USC academic community.
In regard to the student essays, how did the students decide what to write about and how do you envision the essays and digitized images of the murals interacting?
Andy and Stacy: The research process for how the students shaped their essays was particularly meaningful for us in terms of how we were involved in the process. First the students were generally introduced to the Dunitz Archive; this was done primarily through a web map that simply displayed murals located throughout Los Angeles. You can take a look at the map of the murals, alongside the student essays, here. This map gave the students a general overview of the Dunitz slide collection and a better idea of where the murals were located throughout Los Angeles. For this part we also provided a selection of murals that dealt specifically with sustainability, broadly speaking, so that students could see how the murals directly discussed issues within a neighborhood. Next, students were introduced to the physical archive. During this session the discussion focused on themes and issues that the students could explore in a neighborhood, from gentrification to access to transportation to green space, using the archive to help illustrate real-world concerns and conversations that were happening at the time a mural was created. Lastly, students chose neighborhoods that they wanted to write about and document. Using what they had learned, they found murals or other public art or elements of the visual landscape that they then documented and wrote about within the context of themes and issues that they had previously discussed. The essays resulted in a mix of original photography – every student had to take original photos for the assignment – and photos from the archive. Not every essay had to use an image from the Dunitz archive. Our vision was more about using the archive during the process of writing. The students were allowed to share whatever they wanted in the essays as long as they went out and learned more about that neighborhood.
What have you learned about Los Angeles through your work on this project?
Stacy: Having lived here for the past five years, I am learning that Los Angeles is a multilayered city. The architecture, the public art, the food culture, and of course the many communities that make this sprawl have all contributed to the public history of LA. Something that I learned as we’ve been working on this project and thinking about next steps is how many of the murals express the history of Los Angeles: its indigenous roots, the necessity of immigrants in this city, and its most turbulent moments in American history. Through the murals that we’ve come across in person and in the collections, Angeleñoes can look backwards towards their past and move forward towards their future.
Andy: I absolutely agree with Stacy. One other part that I would share is people in Los Angeles are passionate about murals. Some of the murals around the city are really well-preserved and taken care of by community members. If graffiti goes up, artists and community members come back and touch up the mural. They really are part of the fabric of this city.
Andy Rutkowski is the visualization librarian at USC Libraries. He works with maps and data and a whole range of tools and software to help explore and communicate different research problems and questions. He is particularly interested in how to empower communities and individuals to tell their own stories through and with data.
Stacy R. Williams is the Head of the Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library. She is the subject librarian for Architecture, Art History, and Fine Arts. She received her MLIS from Queens College, City University of New York and her BA from New York University. Her current research interest is focused on looking at how artists incorporate data into their work.