Mobile Museum Stops in Chicago to Preserve Family Histories


One person places an image on a photo table. A second captures the image with a digital camera, and a third sizes it. In three swift motions, someone’s family history has been preserved.

The Community Curation Program at the National Museum of African American History and Culture is working to preserve family histories across the country, and the latest stop on their tour is Chicago. In partnership with more than 20 Chicago organizations including the DuSable Museum, they’re able to salvage both still and video images.

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“We’ve seen everything from etchings from the late 19th century,” said Dorthea Williams, program manager for the Robert F. Smith Fund. “We’ve seen membership cards from the Pullman porters, membership certificates from fraternities and sororities, we’ve just seen so much. And to not just see the items, but to actually interact with the individuals bringing those items in and seeing their eyes light up to talk about their family members and their ancestors.”

Dorthea Williams, program manager for the Robert F. Smith Fund.Dorthea Williams, program manager for the Robert F. Smith Fund.

Before the images hit one of the “still image stations,” they’re categorized by size and labeled by the owner. That’s where we found retired Chicago Public Schools teacher Marcia Ewell.

She shares an article about her family featured in Ebony magazine. She’s not only digitizing the magazine’s article, but an original family photo that was also captured for the magazine.

Ewell is eager to explore her family tree with her grandchildren.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Ewell said. “It’s my roots. I’ve never taken one of those DNA tests, but I know I can go back to my grandparents.”

If you’re interested in digitizing some of your family’s history, no problem: They’ve got a museum on wheels with everything you need to preserve those home videos.

It features a video rack with every machine possible to capture film and audio. They transfer videos to a flash drive folks can then take home. Candace Ming, media digitization and conservation specialist for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, says she enjoys preserving videos. She says they capture something photos do not.

“Seeing that person, hearing their voice, it’s a lot more moving than a still image,” Ming said. “Not that a still image is also not important but, hearing my dad’s laugh. I can’t hear it in a photo, but I can hear it from home movies.”

The Community Curation project is just one part of the Smith Fund’s “Great Migration” program. Memories are digitized daily at the museum in Washington, D.C., for anyone who makes an appointment. But not everyone can make it to the nation’s capital.

“We can get to places that museums can’t go,” Williams said. “We can be the museum on the road.”


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The Community Curation Program is in Chicago through Saturday. Still and moving digitizing sessions are available at Evanston Township High School and Chicago State University by appointment. The next stop on their tour: New Orleans.

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.


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