by Christina Zamon
Since the beginning of 2018, my team and I at Georgia State University worked tirelessly to pull together an exhibit featuring our photographic collections while speaking to the challenges of preserving the over 8 million photographs and negatives in our collections. The idea was to build a donor base and reach a broader audience beyond our traditional subject areas while garnering financial support for photographic conservation efforts.
For some background, many of our collecting areas have an archivist that serves as a curator for those collections. Our photographic collections, however, do not have a full-time professional archivist overseeing them and are heavily used by a multitude of constituencies. Our collections also contain the most comprehensive set of photographs documenting 20th century Atlanta including the photo morgue for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Many of the negatives in our collections are in fair-to-poor condition necessitating extensive conservation work. Without an in-house conservator, we must pay to send these out to a qualified conservator and generally spend $5,000 or more per year on approximately 30 negatives. We will all be dead and gone (and many of our negatives as well), if we continue at this rate.
In order to address our challenges in preserving these negatives, we decided to try many new ideas, maybe too many, all at once. This exhibit was to be only the second regular exhibit opening for the library in its history and we decided to pull out all the stops. My curatorial team worked on creating two physical exhibits, one to be housed in the exhibit gallery on the 8th floor of Library South, and a smaller “satellite” exhibit in our Clarkston Campus library. In addition to the physical exhibits, they produced a complementary online exhibit to allow us to feature as many photographs from our collections as we could. The online exhibit also functioned as a test ground for Omeka Everywhere. After advocating for over a year I was finally able to purchase technology for our gallery and worked with our administration, Digital Scholarship Librarian, and Digital Library Services Unit to purchase a touch screen table top display where we could feature the online exhibit in the gallery alongside our physical exhibit.
As if that weren’t enough, our new Assistant Director of Development for the library wanted to test out some new fundraising ideas: not one, but two! So, we launched the library’s first crowdfunding page to pay for the exhibit and catering for the opening. That campaign ran from July 1 through the exhibit opening on September 23. Besides the crowdfunding campaign, we also decided to have an “adopt-a-negative” fundraising component to raise money to have one or more negatives restored by a professional conservator. The idea was that we could launch the “adopt-a-negative” component with the opening of the physical exhibit (so go from fundraising for the exhibit to fundraising for the collections) by having a room set up with print outs of damaged negatives and examples of negatives that were beyond saving. The adoption process could then be carried on throughout the year through our Omeka exhibit.
As we have difficulty drawing an audience for events on weekday evenings, due to traffic as well as finding the location of Library South, we decided to try something different. We decided to hold the opening on a Sunday afternoon so that folks could go to church and come downtown for the afternoon. We promoted the exhibit opening wherever we could, including the Decatur Book Festival, at tables in the library, in the university calendar and the Atlanta Celebrates Photography booklet, as well as the student newspaper. Our library marketing staff was set to announce it on the Visix displays across all campuses, in community calendars, etc.
Everything was planned out and the hope was to draw new donors and folks who had never stepped foot through our doors. Now, I had been told that “no one comes downtown on the weekends” and that most people were only downtown during the week because they were there for work and school and were gone on the weekends. But the weekends also mean free parking, which was heavily advertised. We also had activities for guests including free green screen photos where you get to put yourself in a historic Atlanta photograph and either get a postcard print or email it to yourself. And of course, you could adopt a negative and get the digital files for your own personal use. What could possibly go wrong!? Almost everything…
There were things we were aware of and didn’t factor in and then there were things that did not even cross our radar. The biggest mistake? Trying to do all these new things at once. Had we thought more carefully, it would have been better to introduce these new ideas gradually. Not only did our exhibit focus on two things, collections and preservation, we decided to move the event from a weeknight to a weekend, and no, free parking did not draw the masses.
Beyond these issues we ran into other problems. Our marketing staff, as it turns out, did not do all the marketing that was discussed or expected. Our crowdfunding raised more than we had expected ( $2,000 out of our $5,500 goal), but still fell short and did not cover all expenses incurred by the exhibit, especially the catering, which cost more than anticipated because it took place on a weekend.
Ultimately, 14 people attended the event; all but two of them were friends or family of the two exhibit curators. There were only two people, both graduate students, who made their way up to the exhibit gallery because they saw the directional signage down in the library. Not one person came to the event as a result of any of our social media or marketing. There were more of us working at the event than attendees, so it was a struggle not to have five people attending to each one person who walked into the gallery.
In the end, we had zero adoptions of negatives in person and to date, none online. We did not grow our donor base as hoped and did not use our existing donor base for the library as leverage. There were several lessons learned:
- Focus the exhibit on one topic. In this case, it should have been focused solely on preservation.
- Pick one fundraising activity per event. We should have focused solely on the “adopt-a-negative” fundraiser and leveraged our existing donor base by sending out promotional materials to those donors.
- There were too many people and activities involving a multitude of deadlines. This led to people dropping the ball, missing deadlines, or failing to follow through on assignments. Had we been more focused on one activity, we would not have overburdened staff members.
With these lessons in mind, we are now planning another exhibit launch in the fall of 2019. We will continue with the two physical exhibits and the Omeka exhibit in response to requests from the library administration, but we will likely drop the fundraising component or will pick one fundraiser. We will also hold the opening from 4-6 pm on a weekday and ensure that it is promoted to all of our donors and to the larger Atlanta metro area. Making these changes should ensure a better turnout and return on investment!
Christina Zamon is the Head of Special Collections and University Archives at Georgia State University, a position she has held since September 2016. Prior to that time, she served as Head of Archives and Special Collections at Emerson College. She is the author of The Lone Arranger: Succeeding in a Small Repository. She is currently a member of the College and University Archives Section’s Steering Committee and previously served as chair of the section (2014-2015).