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Why the Hammer Museum’s new free digital archives are a game changer

Museum archives are historically places that draw only the most dedicated researchers to poke through boxes of files, trays of objects and piles of ephemera generated by exhibitions. But the Hammer Museum is aiming to change the way museum archives are accessed and organized.

The Hammer, with the aid of a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is in the process of producing a series of digital archives that will allow researchers and the general public to access information related to some of its exhibitions for free online. The first of these, tied to the museum’s 2011 show, “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980,” part of the Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions, debuted online this summer.

The project goes beyond just creating a bells-and-whistles exhibition website. The archive features important essays generated by the show, links to outside coverage, as well as documentation, photography and other research material.

“You have symposia, you have lectures, you have gallery talks, you have essays, all of which advance knowledge of this work,” says Cynthia Burlingham, the museum’s deputy director of curatorial affairs. “You learn so much during the duration of the exhibition that you weren’t able to put into the catalog or even the exhibition. It might include additional works of art or things that have different kinds of audiences.”

The digital archive includes all of these things — as well as multimedia elements such as video.

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It even includes photography from the different versions of an exhibition as it travels. “Now Dig This,” for example, originated at the Hammer and later went on view at MoMA PS1 in New York and the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts.

“Each institution worked with curator Kellie Jones,” explains Burlingham, “but the galleries were different, some of the exhibition checklists were different, so you get to see how all of that played out.”

The Mellon grant, which made the archive possible, allowed the museum to bring on archivist Phil Leers to organize the material for online presentation — and help create the digital architecture that would house it.

The Hammer also has plans to create online archives for some of its other shows and collections. This will include the creation of an archive devoted to “Take It Or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology,” a 2014 exhibition about institutional critique co-curated by the Hammer Museum, and the upcoming “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985,” which will be the museum’s contribution to Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles and Latin America next year.

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The museum will also create archives tied to the Grunwald Center Collection, which features more than 45,000 works on paper, as well as one devoted to its extensive collection of pieces by California artist Corita Kent.

“Instead of just putting all of her works online, we’re telling stories,” says Burlingham. “It will be a monographic treatment of Corita Kent.”

And all of it will be available online for free.

To see the archive for “Now Dig This!,” visit hammer.ucla.edu/now-dig-this.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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