The Living New Deal

Reviewed by:
Jennifer Tobias
Catalogue Raisonné/ Provenance Researcher
Roy Lichtenstein Foundation×22

By initiating “a national database of information, documents, photographs, and personal stories about the public works made possible by the New Deal,” The Living New Deal is building a comprehensive registry of projects completed between 1933 and 1942. Currently, over 17,000 entries represent “hundreds of thousands” of public works, from heroic murals to humble sewers, making it the only reference source of its kind.

Researching New Deal projects can be a challenge. Multiple agencies were involved, and the records are spread among federal repositories (National Park Service, National Archives, Library of Congress, and National Gallery of Art) as well as state and local agencies. Navigating these primary sources can be daunting, while secondary works tend to be either very broad or highly specific. Living New Deal edits this material into concise narratives organized geographically—much like the WPA American Guides series published under the Federal Writers’ Project.

For an average researcher, the Living New Deal website is a good place to get oriented to the era, with a companion iPhone app handy for searching on the move. Users will need to download the app directly from the Apple App Store, since no link is available on the website. Donation-driven, there is no paywall or account to create. The About section outlines the organizational structure and includes contributor biographies as well as annual reports. home page showing seven navigation categories at the top (About Us, Map & Sites, The New Deal, Resources, News, Press & Events, Get Involved) and a red donate button. Below text reading “New Deal Map” is a grid of images, text, and links to pages on the website and external sites such as Instagram
The home page features seven categories.

The interface is basic: a simple header with seven categories and drop-down subsections supplemented by a keyword site search. For reference purposes –the focus here – the meatiest sections are Map & Sites and the confusingly titled The New Deal, which features substantive entries on programs as well as a timeline, glossary, and footnoted interpretive essays. The index of agencies is especially useful, as is another grouping projects into categories such as Historic Preservation and Labor Law. A timeline and list of landmark acts situate the programs in world events and domestic legislation. The biographies section features concise and sourced entries, with helpful cross-referencing to particular projects. Wikipedia and other sources (National Archives, DPLA, for example) cover many if not all of these topics, but Living New Deal provides welcome focus on material culture.

Map interface showing a beige map of the United States covered in dots representing New Deal Sites. On the left, a light yellow rectangle with search bar and a link back to the homepage is overlaid
Living New Deal map interface

Interactive mapping standards are getting higher by the day, but here the Mapbox and OpenStreetMap platforms work well enough, with standard click and zoom features, as well as searching by location (city, state, zipcode). Unfortunately, the standard search box includes unrelated locations and no artist index, making map searches indirect. This means that locating works such as the South Side Community Arts Center involves clicking through a state and city index, then manually paging through alphabetical listings.

A zoomed-in map view of Chicago streets shows South Side Community Arts Center’s location. On the left, a sidebar contains  information about the center and a black and white photograph of a crowd of people
Map view showing the South Side Community Arts Center location with text in sidebar.

Another workaround: exit the map, do an advanced search, and click through the results to get back to the map. Moreover, the database structure includes categories for artist, contractor, and architect, but not engineer, photographer, or writer. Use of these fields appears to be up to the contributor, so that even if mentioned in the descriptive text, figures such as Hilyard Robinson or Louis Kahn are not indexed and therefore  can only be found by keyword searching the whole site.For future iterations, the organizers might look to the integrated design of sites such as Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America, and consider releasing Living New Deal as an open-source dataset to make the material portable, interlinkable, and open to wider interpretation. In the meantime, Living New Deal’s 17,000 entries are a unique and valuable compilation.

Art Institute of Chicago Online Collection

Reviewed by:
Peter Klubek, Reference and Research Services Librarian
Edith Garland Dupré Library, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

The Art Institute of Chicago online collection is a freely accessible web-based platform that provides access to the most complete virtual version of the resources and collections of the museum. The site is full of detailed visual, textual, and multimedia material for more than one-hundred and sixteen thousand objects, showcasing the best possible representation of the museum’s holdings less a visit to the museum in person. This resource offers many opportunities to explore various aspects of individual artworks and the museum at large, including research guides, teaching resources, bibliographies, links to the museum’s library and archives, and other tools for exploration and learning.

The landing page features images of some of the most famous items in the Art Institute’s collection, tiled below a search box and a row of small clickable thumbnails to browse the items by genre, era, subject, object type, or medium. The larger images of artworks are displayed four images across with roughly 50 artworks per page, with lesser-known works shown on numerous following pages. When a user clicks on a thumbnail of an individual artwork, they are taken to a page displaying a brief written piece that covers the artist, history, and content of that particular work, with links to museum audio tours, more detailed information on artists and artworks, and personal reflections by museum staff and others. The writing throughout is clear and accessible, and could be used as a starting point by researchers at any level. Item-level metadata is more extensive than comparable museum collection websites, and a wide set of criteria on the left column allows users to filter and sort items. Users can toggle to display only items currently on view in the museum or in the public domain, among other selections. Some metadata is searchable but not displayed; for example, a search for “rabbits” reveals some items that depict rabbits even though the word “rabbits” does not appear in the public display of the corresponding item record.

An example of brief text in an artwork item record.

Users that could benefit the most from this resource include historians and arts educators, as well as artists and art students needing high-resolution images to explore technical aspects of an individual work. Scholars of art history will find useful the downloadable high-resolution images, exhibition histories, provenance details, and lists of publications related to each artwork. Developers can make use of the museum’s public API. Arts educators will appreciate the option to check the box in the filter menu that reads “Has educational resources available,” which displays over one hundred items with attached Educator Resource Packets to help with classroom instruction. Multimedia resources linked from artwork item records include videos and audio tours, along with links to past exhibition websites that include a wide range of materials.

Accessibly options could be improved, as it is difficult to locate the alt text of an image and keyboard control options appear limited. Despite these factors, the website is easy to navigate, with a logical delivery method and good performance on all tested browsers. The mobile version of the site is seamlessly adapted from the desktop version, offering the ability to enhance a museum visitor’s experience in the physical space of the museum, while also thoroughly serving users who are accessing the collection as a virtual-only experience. In the COVID-19 era, virtual options for using and viewing the museum collection are invaluable, and the AIC online collection is well-designed to meet the challenges brought by the pandemic.

On the whole, the structure of the online collection is coherent, well-organized, and suitable for both non-expert and expert users. The Art Institute of Chicago online collection provides an enjoyable and comprehensive virtual experience that exceeds the virtual platforms of comparable museums. The St. Louis Art Museum virtual collection offers many of the same features, including downloadable high-resolution images, but it does not share the additional in-depth written material included in the Art Institute of Chicago online collection, nor the extent of cataloged objects (about 6,000 objects). The Museum of Fine Arts Boston virtual collection is also similar, but is chunkier in its execution and usability. Overall the Art Institute of Chicago online collection is an excellent tool that could be useful in any art or research library.

Monument Lab Podcast

Kathy Edwards, Librarian
Emery A. Gunnin Architecture Library, Clemson University

The Monument Lab podcast is a podcast about public art and art history that reimagines monuments as tools for social and cultural change. The Lab has produced twenty-seven podcast episodes since its launch in 2018, ranging in duration from thirty-five minutes to nearly an hour and a half. Each podcast is available directly from the website or is downloadable to mobile devices via the Apple, Google, Spotify, and Stitcher podcast platforms. 

Produced by a collective of artists and activists, the mission behind the podcast is to “disrupt the status quo of how monuments are made, preserved, and interpreted,” in order to lay the foundations for a more just, artful, and “joyful” future society. It covers all aspects of the evolving monument landscape and public history activism in the United States (and sometimes beyond our borders). The conviction driving these allied artists, historians, curators, educators, and students is that monuments represent systems of power as much as public memory. Monuments’ meanings are dynamic rather than frozen in time, rendering them open to interventions through collaborative public engagement. The Lab’s territory is the landscape of public memory in the United States, but their vision that “Monuments must change” is not limited by official borders. 

Podcasts serve up content with mobile convenience and the immediacy of voices inside one’s head.The subject is as timely as it is fraught–socially, culturally, and politically.

Episode 15: Erasing the Border and the Wall in Our Heads with Social Sculptor Ana Teresa Fernández

The podcast presenters are a diverse and inclusive roster of artists, activists, educators, historians, art curators, and civic organizers, among whom BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ voices predominate. But it’s the breadth and scope of Monument Lab’s discursive interrogation of what and how we commemorate human experience that is most exhilarating:

  • Paul Ramírez Jonas, untangling the symbolism of the equestrian monument through a participatory project on New York City’s High Line, 
  • The ceremonious removal of a Christopher Columbus statue from Los Angeles’ Grand Park in 2018
  • Artist Partirica Okoumou’s protest climb of the Statue of Liberty in 2018, to draw attention to inhumane Trump Administration immigration policies.
  • Syrian-led technologists archiving images and video of the war in their country, as testimony for future war crimes prosecutions. 
  • A teach-in at the university of Mississippi honoring Ida B. Wells.
  • A public display of the Confederate Army’s flag of surrender at Appomattox.
  • The MADAD collective’s critical mapping of the monuments of St. Louis 
  • A dive into the psychogeography of Emancipation Park in Houston,
  • The evolutionary arc of the Museum of Capitalism, from an installation in Oakland, CA, to a traveling exhibit.
  • A photographer’s harrowing documentation of California wildfires.

On the website, listeners can adjust the speed of the audio stream, and a full transcript for each podcast is the accessibility icing on the audio ‘cake.’ To add images to the mix, each podcast introduction links to  websites of featured artists, activist groups, and their projects.

Monument Lab podcasts are consistently well-produced, intellectually engaging, provocative, and potentially change-making. These resources are highly recommended for any culturally curious audience.

Book cover with "Past Due" inscribed over a map of Los Angeles.

Past Due

Reviewed October 2021
Alison Quirion, Associate Archivist, DZConnex/Sony Santa Monica Studio

PAST DUE: Report and Recommendations of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office Civic Memory Working Group is the culmination of 18 months of discussions on how to think about existing and future civic memory projects. The 40-member group included historians, artists, architects, curators, designers, civic leaders, cultural leaders, and Indigenous elders and scholars. Their work is presented as a report with 18 key recommendations alongside supporting supplemental material. The website provides multiple ways to consume the final report with varying levels of user engagement. Originally designed and delivered as a printed publication, the full report can be viewed as a PDF in single page or spread format. For a quick takeaway, the key recommendations are accessible from the home page. A map option allows geographic exploration of notable events from the report, or, the user can take a non-linear tour of the report by browsing each piece of content, displayed in a visually appealing grid format.

For users interested in the role of public spaces in reinforcing or acknowledging social and racial injustices, PAST DUE complements sites such as Paper Monuments and Monument Lab. While those sites recap actions taken to address controversial monuments and build new, inclusive markers and memorials, PAST DUE focuses on the difficult questions and complexity leading up to taking action. Users, especially those belonging to the groups represented in the Civic Memory Working Group, will find valuable insights in the Roundtable Discussions and the Sub-Committee reports. The content of PAST DUE will also appeal to users interested in the history of the city of Los Angeles and the individuals whose contributions have been underrepresented or ignored. 

The organization of the website encourages the user to browse and explore, but at the sacrifice of the narrative structure of the report PDF. The PDF leads readers through the discussions, interspersing the case studies, photos, and excerpts between each sub-committee report. The website is organized by content type, with no cues as to how each piece supports specific areas of discussion, placing the burden on users to make the connections. Consuming the content in the same order as the PDF is beneficial to creating deeper understanding. While site users will appreciate each piece on its own, they are missing out on how it impacts the larger discussion.

Navigation menu, featuring three large boxes with text below.
PAST DUE Contents Display.

There are a few missed opportunities on the website. First is the limited search functionality. Expanding beyond the eight available filtering terms or including a keyword search option would allow for collating specific content. Linking important subject terms and references to other content would help to create a sense of story. The lack of language options is another missed opportunity. With the exception of the Spanish and English options on the Key Recommendations page, the content is only available in English. Considering the Working Group’s focus on highlighting the impact of white power structures in civic memory projects and the diversity of users interested in the content, the site could be more accessible and discoverable.

To fully appreciate the content of PAST DUE, I recommend  users ought to first view the double-page PDF of the full report. Each piece of content makes more sense within the linear structure of the book versus the semi-unstructured website. In website form, PAST DUE is a complete representation of the Civic Memory Working Group Report, but with room for improvement and growth. Just as the report is a starting point for discussion and reflection, the website is also a starting point for engaging the community, as long as they can make their own sense out of it.