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Archival Preservation in the Mainstream with Monocurate

Ellen Goodwin, Artifcts
January 20, 2022

The joys of Artifcts have been endless for Heather and me, the founders. We’ve experienced with our early subscribers the emotional highs and lows of bringing back heritage and forward memories. Whether that’s unearthing long forgotten family heirlooms, discovering the joy of connecting through shared experiences incapsulated in objects, or simply finding a new, safe place to preserve bits of ourselves, we’ve experienced a lot with our Arti Community.

One of the more remarkable and surprising aspects of the Artifcting journey has been how often people have come to us with ‘stuff’ that really should be in a museum or carefully preserved to ensure it can even last another year much less generation! Browse Artifcts and you’ll see what I mean – letters from WWII, old maps, stacks of photos, bibles hand carried from Europe in the 1800s, cherished cookbooks, original sketches, and more.

So, imagine my surprise when one Sunday morning while reading my local northwest Austin community paper I saw a short blurb about a new company that specializes in archival preservation services. Monocurate is just around the corner from my house, has a web design aesthetic that immediately drew me in, and drum roll please… is another female-led business!

I reached out to founder Brooke Lake to learn more. While her sweet spot is paper – think photos, books, and documents that require stitching, dry cleaning, and other restoration and preservation – her skills also include preserving textiles (think wedding gowns), digitization and digital catalogs, and more. I can also disclose the thoughtful, patient course correction she offered us at Artifcts to ensure we never encourage people to write on photographs or attach QR codes to objects in ways that could ultimately be damaging (now in our FAQs, "Artifcting Process"). Thanks, Brooke!

Brooke and I have since met several times, including a tour of her workshop, and I wanted to share with you some of our musings and discoveries about the overlapping world views of Artifcts and Monocurate.

Ellen Goodwin: Well, we might as well start at the beginning – we both launched our businesses during the late summer of 2021 with no end in sight for the pandemic. What led you to make that leap, at that time?

Brooke Lake: When quarantine happened, I, like many others, found myself faced with looming uncertainty. Widespread closures of public institutions left me with some extra time on my hands, and I used this opportunity to reflect on my experiences in public archives. I couldn’t shake the feeling that however much I enjoyed my work, it was becoming increasingly disconnected from our day-to-day lives. I created Monocurate with the hope of filling the need for archival and preservation services on a personal level.

Goodwin: You told me you have a passion for papers. What’s your background and how did it lead you to papers?

Lake: I have always been interested in the written record. I have a BA in history and and a masters in library science (MLIS). Through both, I have spent countless hours reading through source material. However, with my history degree I was the researcher; with my MLIS I was able to work as a formal Archivist making me the custodian of the records. Later in my career, I was trained by a highly respected Conservator here in Austin. My time spent with Carrabba Conservation gave me another perspective on the physicality of paper. Through all three—a researcher, a custodian, and a caretaker—I was provided with a multi-faceted perspective of the use of the records (i.e., paper). As a result, I was able to respect and appreciate use of paper and the importance and connection papers have to our day to day lives.

Goodwin: Respecting your clients’ privacy, of course, can you share with us the outlines of a favorite project?

Lake: One of our favorite collections in the past year was a client’s late mother’s poetry collection. It consisted of a handful of partially organized folders but the paper was folded, crinkled, and in desperate need of TLC. We flattened, cleaned, and encapsulated fragile pieces so that they could be safely read and handled. We created a simple inventory and reboxed the collection in an archival box with a brass nameplate with the client's name on it. The cherry on top was finding an old email that the client had written to her mother while she was away at school. Our client had no idea her mother had read that email let alone printed it out and saved it. We loved that we were able to rediscover that part of her history and preserve it along with the poetry collection, just as her mother had originally. 

Sample archival box with brass nameplate

Goodwin: What about the most challenging? What makes one object more challenging than another, or is it really just more time consuming?

Lake: Everything we take on can be challenging and time-consuming. We have to work slowly to respect the material regardless of what it is. Each object, in some way, tells us how it needs to be cared for and preserved. For example, with paper, it can rip so we must be meticulous when handling and caring for it. This is especially true of high-acid wood pulp paper. It was first developed in the early 1800s and used in some newsprint, kraft and manila papers, as well stationary, and is fragile as well as prone to darkening and staining with age. 

For digitization, when we scan, say photos from the 1920s, we have to ensure the color is calibrated perfectly to get the most accurate representation of the photograph which can be time consuming and challenging. For objects, there is no one-size-fits-all approach so everything we do is individualized to meet the needs of the material. This can be especially true for objects that people want to handle or display. Since we offer an array of services everything we do is met with some sort of challenge. The silver lining of course is that we are always learning and developing our skill sets so I appreciate the fact that our work keeps us on our toes. 

Goodwin: What do you wish people knew or better understood about archival preservation?

Lake: It’s not as simple as keeping everything “safe” in a bin in your closet. Lots of factors come into play with preservation. The environment (light, humidity, air quality) to the type of enclosure you are storing items can not be understated. Poor handling takes it’s toll as does poor-quality storage, which can accelerate the deterioration of your collection.  

It is important to remember that very object is unique and should be treated as such when it comes to preservation, as mentioned above: it’s rarely a one-size-fits-all approach. A common example is scrapbooks. Sure they store all your favorite photos and nostalgic items but ultimately they are incredibly damaging and horrible from a preservation standpoint.

Goodwin: I could imagine that like Artifcting, with archival preservation services people may not know where to start. They have too much to prioritize. What would your advice be to these people?

Lake: Start organizing your collections at home first. I think this is an area where Artifcts truly shines. Just being aware of what you have and where it is located is a great first step. From there, evaluate your collection and decide what needs to be prioritized. For example, if your important family papers are in a plastic bin on the ground, move them into an acid-free cardboard box to a mid-tier shelf. If you have a large collection of glassware, rearrange them so the boxes are not overcrowded and include lots of padding. For metal objects ensure the environment is dry and ensure each piece is stored individually. Move slowly through your list of Artifcts and focus on one area at a time (e.g., first family documents, then glass, then metal) that way you are in the headspace and can streamline your at-home preservation endeavors.  

Goodwin: Artifcts are literally unique, transferable digital assets. Artifcts will outlive us as individuals, they might even outlast the objects they capture. And yet, with your services, we have hope that objects can be carried forward from generation to generation, family history and world history captured and preserved. Tell us about a project that really resonated with you and the why behind it.

Lake: Currently we are working to digitize and preserve a large collection of hi8 home-movies. This family came to me to digitize and preserve the original media that they recorded over a 20 year time period. These tapes include a complete timeline of their marriage and children’s childhood through birth to graduation. It’s an incredible amount of footage. I found it interesting that each family member had a different take on the “why.” For example, the father simply didn’t want to lose the footage. The mother was more interested in editing clips of the newly digitized media to share with friends and family, and their two now grown children didn’t recall all the moments that were filmed and were more interested in watching the footage to see what was there. 

For me, I was just happy to bring these forgotten memories to light while simultaneously stabilizing and preserving the original media should a better analog-to-digital conversion technology come along in the future.

Goodwin: In your experience, what’s the primary motivation for someone who brings you a precious object for archiving?

Lake: Many collections are becoming increasingly fragile and are in danger of being lost forever. Our clients want to ensure that their collections remain in stable condition to be passed down for generations to come. This is true regardless of whether it is a family collection or work for institutions. While deterioration cannot be stopped, it can be slowed down, and that’s our primary motivator for helping people. In addition, we also provide organization, inventories, digitization, and reference and research services—all of which provide our clients with an accessible, holistic approach to their collections regardless of what they may consist of. 

Goodwin: Okay, last question! I asked Jennifer Singleterry of Sort & Order about this and want to ask you, too. You know all about Artifcts. How do you think Artifcts could help you in your work with your clients? 

Lake: One of the biggest aspects of family collections is the lack of collaboration. Usually, one person is the gatekeeper so to speak. As a result, external stories tend to be lost or forgotten simply because the other individuals don’t have access to the item. Artifcts rectifies this problem by providing the space to crowdsource and share stories. The way Artifcts allows several individuals, no matter their distance, to provide context to objects is just incredible. 

< End of interview >

We know that when it comes to our personal lives and histories “someday” often turns into never or maybe simply too late. We hope you will think about those pieces of you that should be Artifcted and archived to pass to friends and family and future generations before it’s too late. Take it one object at a time. If you get stuck, see if some of our partners and membership organizations can help you!

You can reach out to Brooke at Monocurate for a free consultation. She has beautiful project examples and easy to follow steps on her website as well. And, if you’re in Austin, we encourage you to attend a Monocurate workshop!

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What's New at Artifcts
So, You Want to Be a Pro Artifcter? Fresh Tips!
The Arti Community is full of inspiration. From the Artifcts shared to the discussions we have during Arti Events, here are some of the bright ideas circulating lately to help you Artifct.

Location is really flexible. Really.

Because you can write anything you want for "Location" in your Artifct and it’s always private, people use it creatively. A home organizer said her clients use this field to indicate future location of items, e.g. to donate, sell, dispose, or pass along to friends or family. A genealogist said he uses Location to indicate the file path/folder where he stores related materials to a specific Artifct, such as 100s—truly, 100s—of photos and documents.

Voicemails are trending.

You can include voicemails as a featured media file or as a document only you can access. One gentleman told us he’s Artifcted the voicemails he’s been saving for years on his phone, including a message from his daughter before she deployed in the US Navy. Life moments captured forever in the voice of loved ones.

You can of course create your own voice messages to include with Artifcts. Check out our tips if you need help!

Downsizers unite!

The spring moving season has seen a lot of people turn to Artifcts as they prepare to move, relocate, and/or downsize. People are Artifcting items that have sentimental value but either no functional value or not enough space in their new home to make the cut. They keep the memories safe in Artifcts while parting with the 'stuff,' saving them moving costs and precious square footage.

Access our downsizing, moving, and organizing tips here.

The pictured Artifcts below were shared with us by an Arti Community member who is in the midst of his downsizing journey. Click the propeller to view the Artifct.

Artifct of Propellers from Art Arfons' Garage Artifct of Budejovicky Shred Bucket Artifct of 1978 Battlestar Galactica Action Toy

So much better than a baby book.

For our final tip today, we turn to several of our youngest 20-something Arti Community members who have told us that they use Artifcts to capture what they may otherwise forget - a bouquet from a recital, original artwork, that college acceptance letter, and more. Forgetting is not about being a specific age. Life's busy and disorganized. We all forget!

One of our members told us that she wishes her mother had Artifcts when she was younger so she'd have a virtual baby book of all her firsts and special moments. In her words, "Artifct when you're still young so you have a lifetime of memories when you're older."

Below is a snapshot of an Artifct created by our co-founder Ellen related to her high school graduation. One Artifct can cover a lot of ground!

Artifct of Wrightstown High School Graduation materials
 

Happy Artifcting!

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Beauty + Resilience Through Ceramics

Meet Valentina Ferrada Aguilar, a ceramic artist, jewelry designer, and founder of Chercán Project. Valentina is originally from Santiago, Chile, but recently relocated to Washington, DC. She is deeply passionate about creating and teaching and finds daily inspiration in nature’s resiliency and beauty. 

Valentina’s path to becoming a ceramic artist and jewelry designer was anything but typical. She studied journalism for three years but felt something was lacking, so she quit journalism and took up the arts. 

Her first ceramics course under the industrial design program she enrolled in did not go so well. In her own words, “I failed it.”  So what did she do? She registered for a second course, and through this course met a professor and mentor in one who taught her everything she knows. But, maybe more importantly, according to Valentina, “He really inspired me to do what I love.”  

Ceramics flourished from hobby to business as she began experimenting with making smaller ceramic pieces using her father’s old (and very small) kiln. A classmate asked her if she could create some ceramic jewelry, and well, the rest is history. In Valentina’s mind, all these pieces came together at exactly the right time—access to the kiln, a great mentor, and an interested “client.” 

Valentina launched Chercán Project as part of her thesis in 2018. In Spanish, chercán means wren, and Valentina tells the story of a small wren she once observed, working day in and day out to make a nest for her eggs. One day, the nest was destroyed, but that did not stop this wren. She went right back to work, building a new nest.  

"That wren and his story resonated a lot with me because that's exactly how I felt when my mom died a few years ago. I felt like I lost everything, but I got back up for her. Everything that inspires me is also from my mother. For what I saw in me reflected in this resilient wren. It’s beautiful.”  

That wren and his story resonated a lot with me because that's exactly how I felt when my mom died a few years ago. I felt like I lost everything, but I got back up for her

Valentina sees herself in the story of the wren and tries to capture the same resilience in each piece that she designs for the collection. Take her tulip earrings, for example. The tulip comes up each spring after enduring a long, cold winter. It’s resilient. (Fun fact: Valentina’s favorite flowers are tulips, and she had a tulip bouquet at her wedding. You can read more about the earrings here.)  

The collection also includes  sun and moon earrings, representing the resiliency of our universe. According to Valentina, “I am very struck by the fact that everything in our universe is perfectly and calculatedly designed, and everything has a balance, and these earrings represent that, the balance, day and night, Yin and Yang, light and darkness, etc. 

The entirety of her art is in fact a tribute to resilience. As Valentina notes, it takes a lot of practice to make such small pieces. A lot of fails too. “Fail to fail to fail to succeed.” At the start, Valentina would make 100 earrings to achieve 20 perfect earrings. It was that powerful mix of frustrating and rewarding.  

"Ceramics itself is so unpredictable. You have the paint, and the glaze, but you can’t see how it is going to look until it comes out of the kiln. You have to cross your fingers and say, ‘See you in two days!’” 

“I never thought that I’d end up at this point in the project. I always had this feeling that I wanted to create my own business, never thought it would be so soon. I also thought it would be easier. I love it though. I can create my own stuff, and I love it when people see my artwork and they get excited about it, or they can relate to it. I think it’s the most beautiful thing when you give jewelry, and they feel pretty and happy.” 

So where does Valentine see herself in the future? She would love to have her work featured in a museum. She would also love to stay in DC a while and watch her business grow up. If (or when) she goes back to Chile, she would like to teach and one day establish a community arts workshop like the Capitol Hil Arts Workshop (CHAW) on Captial Hill. In her own words, “I’d love to create my own Chilean CHAW. Inspire people of all ages to be artists and help them incorporate the arts into their lives.”  

You can view Valentina’s collection of Artifcts here and more of her work at Chercán Project 

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Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me a Map

Not all maps are created equal, I think on this point we will all soon agree!

Stepping into my converstaion with mapmaker Ken Czarnomski, I thought he was an artist, specializing in maps. And not just any maps. Maps accurate according to GPS, but also humanized by way of incorporating natural landmarks, informal trails (human and animal), and remarkable vistas.

But Ken instead considers himself a “broad stroke naturalist”—meaning that he knows enough to get himself into trouble, so to speak, but is not a specialist in any particular species (insects, grasses, flowers, etc.)—who happens to make maps. Ken borrows from his background in architecture and his learnings in natural sciences to consider for each map he designs what would appeal and engage regular people like us.

The truth is that Ken's maps mean a healthy life for him, too. “If I can’t hike one day, I can still go in, even if at a shuffle rate.” The region of Western North Carolina where Ken resides outside Waynesville makes this statement all the more practical, because the Smoky Mountains are ranked as the most biodiverse in the United States. With over 1,900 species in just a quarter mile stretch, a person can encounter 30 and even upwards of 50 unique species of flowering plants.

That’s lucky since the “what” people are interested in is always a surprise to Ken. For some, it might be flowers. Others may only want to learn more about the trees. Still others are there to learn about mushrooms or salamanders. Western North Carolina accommodates!

And just where did his artistic talents spring from? Ken shared with us that before he developed his cartography skills, he painted. He preferred organic natural themes in watercolor and ink. His largest work was usually 24" x 36," but he has smaller works in sketch pad size. Sometimes he would produce and sell his watercolors while traveling. His passion for art and fieldwork, in fact, used to make him late routinely for his university classes. Tsk, Tsk!

Birth of a Mountain painting from 1969

Later, as Ken turned from his formal career as an architect, his global explorations brought him into the world of maps. Hiking in Ireland back country in 2012, local park rangers and ecologists kept pulling him off course to see areas beyond the usual tourist haunts, and he found himself thinking, “Wouldn't it be great if others had access to the data that could safely lead them to see the world beyond the usual?” So, Ken took a fresh look, with an open mind, at how he could make this happen in the area where he lived, and his first map was born.

 

Just pause a moment and think about the map shown belown. It’s functional and beautiful. Now think about the type of maps you might be more accustomed to when you stay at a resort or hotel or rely on generic maps on your GPS. It’s functional - surely you won’t get lost. But does it grab your attention, invoke curiosity, and invite exploration?

Illustrated map of the Swag, with vignettes of related scenery The Swag, Google Maps street view

Ken’s maps take weeks to layout and still more to illustrate, even with his use of software tools for data and design. Just take a close look at the vignettes embedded in the maps and you’ll understand - there is so much to enjoy!

Painting of the Great Smoky Mountain Elk     Painting of a Summer Garden

Click a vingette to view its Artifct

For each map, Ken goes out to first experience the site and engage with local environmentalists who might guide him to a location or sketch out important features to explore. How else can he produce an experience in 2D that’s not only beautiful, but also savvier than a simple machine or Google Map?

At the end of the day, you might guess correctly, this is a work of passion. Ken’s lucky in this work and plans to continue it for years to come. “I guarantee I’m never bored. I’m always seeing something new."

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