So Many People To Meet: Shiloh Museum shares newly digitized photos

So Many People To Meet: Shiloh Museum shares newly digitized photos
April Wallace

The photo collection at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale is massive, one that both locals and people from across the country make use of for all manner of things.

With more than half a million images, it is also the largest historical photo collection in Arkansas.

Now the museum staff and volunteers have a way to properly preserve the entire collection and more easily share it with the public by digitally archiving everything. A recent grant from the Institute for Museum Library Services is aiding the process.

The current exhibit “Digi Know?” shows a small cross-section of that enormous and still-growing collection, as well as how to begin digitizing images yourself.

“The grant was a pretty big deal to help us with our digitization, which we had already started,” says Angie Albright, Shiloh Museum director. The collection has photos, negatives and daguerreotypes, all in various states of preservation, some in disrepair. “They’re really sometimes fragile. They devolve and disappear and so what museums, and we’re certainly working on, is digitizing those in several formats so that we’re preserving them.”

“Digi Know?,” like many of Shiloh’s past photo exhibits, takes up the hallway space of the museum. Roughly 10 of the photos were blown up and printed on vinyl to cover the walls, bringing life to elements that would be difficult to catch in their original, miniature condition.

A typical portrait, likely a wedding portrait, of a married couple greets visitors near the front desk. The image is one that Albright says is endlessly interesting.

“The man has this glint in his eye, mischievous, while the woman looks very serious and a little stern,” she says. The original daguerreotype is next to the huge photo and is just a little thing. But “blown up, you get to see the personality in these people.”

A photo cross-section that enlarges the man’s eyes even further is overlaid on the left side. “If you look closely, you can see the silhouette of the photographer reflected in the subject’s eyes. What other details can you see?” the description reads.

Albright’s personal favorite is another of the enlarged photos further down the hall of a World War II ship full of soldiers heading back to the United States. She likens it to a Renaissance painting, where a lot of people are shown doing a variety of things.

“It fascinates me,” Albright says. “It’s black and white and started as a negative. If you glance at (the negative), you won’t realize the depth and richness of the photo. But digitize it to look at it, and you’ll see all these men doing all kinds of things— chatting, playing cards, smoking and sleeping.”

Having so many photos means that many are in various stages of deterioration. Museum staff and volunteers try to digitize them before they’re too far gone, but some formats are especially fragile. Albright says special storage to keep the photos at a cooler temperature to decrease the rate of decay is something the museum doesn’t have just yet, so staff members feel an urgency with this process.

With so many photos to get to, it can be difficult to decide where to begin. Research specialist Rachel Whitaker and Bo Williams, a former Shiloh employee, were the first two to take on the digitization, working with one collection and group at a time to save and preserve the images, and then to make them accessible to the public.

Eventually the collections will be searchable on the Shiloh Museum website, then visitors won’t be so tied to making appointments during business hours if they’re looking for something in particular.

One place they started was a collection gifted to them by the Washington County Historical Society. Visitors can view several images from that collection in an interactive photo album, a touch screen display in “Digi Know?”

“The photos are just remarkable and of course span a lot of different decades,” Albright says. “There’s real diversity in those photos too. … We’re talking about the whole history of a county, so you’re finding photos of every kind of person and every situation, lots of different economic classes. Those are fun to scroll through and get a glimpse of what life was like.”

Another of the interactive digital photo albums is actually akin to a late 1800s/early 1900s version of a funeral or memorial slideshow. Flipping through the pages of this album gives viewers a look at this family’s life thanks to the album that the deceased’s brother put together in memory of him.

A copystand between the digital albums shows guests how to digitize images themselves. Those interested should plan on returning to Shiloh Museum next year for a planned workshop that will explain what digital deterioration is and how to preserve your own physical images.

Albright imagines that completing the museum’s digitization process will take years, but she admits that it’s always going to be ongoing, given the fluctuation of donations made to the museum. They’re always receiving new-to-them photos. Now, with social media, the museum staff can crowd source identification of photo subjects at times, but otherwise they use the context of the photo to help date it — by clothes, farm equipment, etc.

There are plenty of unknowns in the collections, as with any family’s — those vacation and road trip photos as people pass through, those people you never really understood ending up in the box. That lends some excitement to the process of sharing it with the larger community, Albright says.

The large photo of the newlywed couple is one that remains unidentified.

“I hope someone walks in and says ‘That looks like my great-great grandfather,” she says. “We think it would be fun … to have a hint.”



‘Digi Know?’

WHEN — On exhibit through Feb. 28, 2023

WHERE — Shiloh Museum of Ozark History, 118 W. Johnson Ave. in Springdale

COST — Free


BONUS — All elements are presented in both English and Spanish.

Categories: Galleries