Curating an Online Archive: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive
by Norton Owen
One of the main goals of any archive is to provide access to its treasures. If any individual item, no matter what its supposed value, can never be viewed or studied or shared, what is its ultimate worth? We all know the question raised by a tree that falls in the forest. Namely, did it make a sound if no one could hear it? So what about a video on the shelf, regardless of whether it falls or not? What is its value if no one ever sees it?
Happily, the materials contained in the Jacob’s Pillow Archives have been available to the public since 1996, and thousands of people havesampled its riches in the years since. As Director of Preservation for Jacob’s Pillow and custodian of these Archives, I’m pleased to say that we have a uniquely accessible presence during our summer-long season. Our resources are visible to Pillow patrons of all ages from a wide range of backgrounds, and our user-friendly and inviting setup makes it possible for serious researchers and casual theater-goers alike to view any of our 6000 videos on a drop-in basis. Moreover, my year-round presence onsite makes it possible for the Archives to be available by appointment at any time, even outside the season.
That having been said, there are countless videos in our collection that have never been viewed, and it’s part of the Pillow’s mission to share more of these unique resources with the outside world. Part of the challenge is letting people know that we have something that might interest them, especially when the mere mention of a phrase like “archival videos of dance performances” sends some people running in the opposite direction. We have tackled this problem onsite by positioning our video monitors so that their enticing images may be easily glimpsed by the hordes of visitors who pour into Blake’s Barn, a popular exhibition center and event space adjacent to the Archives Reading Room. And we make sure that interesting and relevant videos are playing whenever our doors are open. If the Mark Morris Dance Group is performing, for instance, it’s of enormous interest for visitors to catch sight of the company’s earliest performances, or an interview with Mark Morris himself, or a class given during one of the Mark Morris Workshops organized by the School at Jacob’s Pillow. Displaying these videos prominently onsite is a great advantage in making our visitors’ experiences more meaningful.
This quest to derive greater meaning from our archival resources while cultivating a wider and more engaged audience for dance motivated us to create a new window into the Archives, launching a group of online initiatives under the umbrella title of Virtual Pillow. Offerings include excerpts from public talks, a range of short subjects presented under the collective title of PillowTV, and insights into the artistic process packaged as DanceClips.
An exciting new component of Virtual Pillow was launched at the end of March, known as Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive. A clean and straightforward interface allows any online visitor to look at brief performance excerpts from as long ago as 1937 or as recently as last summer, all shot onsite, with the most recent footage rendered in High Definition. Navigation to these clips is simple through the name of the artist, by the date of the performance, or by selecting one of six dance genres such as ballet, contemporary, or tap. Many users exploring the site for the first time choose the “Dive In” option and let the system show a clip at random. Each clip is presented along with two or three brief paragraphs of information about the artist. Links within the texts discovering new connections and unexpected juxtapositions. One such link appears in the text about Beth Soll, whose Shaker Dance shares a theme with the Shaker-inspired Borrowed Light as presented by Finland’s Tero Saarinen. An especially popular feature of Dance Interactive is the “Guess” function, which displays a clip at random and invites the user to choose among several options of possible performers.
We are delighted that Dance Interactive has already garnered thousands of views in a few short weeks, and promises to exponentially expand the audience for these videos. As a curator, I have taken great delight in serving up some of my favorite moments from almost 75 years of dance films in our collection. And my job is not over, as this is designed to be an ever-expanding resource, with plans to add at least 50 new clips each year. There’s a “Sign Up” button on the site that allows visitors to receive a monthly bulletin with alerts about the new selections added to the site in recent weeks. The possibilities are truly limitless, and we’re not going to rest while any video on our shelves remains unseen!