June: Going home…to Ecuador


Cuenca, Azuay, Ecuador

I have a long history with Ecuador, and it’s a place that, with each time I am here, it feels even more familiar. It’s home. However, I can’t lie, it was so, so very difficult to leave Mexico a few days ago. I’ll be going back soon enough though, for a few more months of work and reflection. But June is dedicated to my other home, Ecuador. After leaving Mexico City bound for a quick overnight stay in Miami, I hopped on a plane bound for Quito, where I spent a deliciously chilly night under the watchful eye of the Cotopaxi volcano. After three days of travel, I finally arrived at my final destination, the charmingly colonial southern city of Cuenca, where I will be based for the next few weeks working with my friend, colleague and leader of the Archivo Cultural de Cañar project, Judy Blankenship.

I’m here in Ecuador to work. And to process all the incredible and transformational things that happened in the past year in Mexico. Even though I didn’t plan it this way, I think it’s better that I am doing this in Ecuador, rather than the United States. It’s hard to explain, but having a third place to work out all the complexities of my time in Mexico is turning out to be a wise way to decompress.

So what will I be doing here for the next few weeks?

  • I plan on spending a lot of time in Cañar, an Ecuadorian province about an hour north of Cuenca. Judy and I will be working on developing documentation and training for digitization and metadata workflows for the Archivo Digital de Cañar. The digital archive will serve as a platform to document primarily the visual and oral heritage of the town of Cañar and the Cañari communities nearby. I’ll be writing more in detail as we begin work in earnest this week about the community’s involvement in the project, Judy’s role as founder and director, and my role as consulting archivist.
  • Networking with local archivists and librarians in Cuenca, and celebrating International Day of Archives on June, 9.
  • Workshopping with local cultural heritage institutions on building sustainable digitization and digital preservation programs and initiatives at their archives and libraries.
  • Presenting on my Fulbright experiences in Mexico alongside Fulbright scholars in Ecuador at an event sponsored by the Fulbright commission in Quito.

It’s a lot to do in three weeks, but I am looking forward to sharing my experiences in Mexico and the knowledge I’ve gained while working and living there with the Ecuadorian library and archives community. You can say it’s all coming full circle.

Eating a bolón de queso and eggs at the Quito airport before setting off for Cuenca. Quite a hearty breakfast!

Eating a bolón de queso and eggs at the Quito airport before setting off for Cuenca. Quite a hearty breakfast!


Salimos de la bóveda / Out of the Vault: 50 years of the Archivo Histórico UNAM

I only went to the Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Artes (MUCA) at thSalimos de la bóvedae Ciudad Universitaria campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México by accident. It was an unplanned visit during a day meandering the campus with a visitor, taking in the rhythms of university life and stopping by the ofrendas set up around campus for Día de los Muertos. What a pleasant surprise to see that the current MUCA exhibit celebrates the 50th anniversary of the foundation of UNAM’s university archives (AHUNAM), aptly titled Salimos de la bóveda: a 50 años del Archivo Histórico de la UNAM.

Many people don’t know what an archive looks like, what’s in an archive, and what kinds of work goes on in an archive. This exhibit is a creative teaching tool for getting a sense of what’s at the Archivo Histórico de la UNAM, and what’s going on behind the scenes, in spaces where regular users and visitors might not usually get a chance to see. Each of the fondos, or collections, held at the AHUNAM is featured with selections of documents, photographs and objects on display alongside a brief collection description (a scope and contents note, for those familiar with archival lingo), the size (or, extent) of the collection, the date ranges for the collection, and some information about what type of inventory or finding aid is available.

A full-scale representation of the Ignacio García Téllez demystifies the life of an archives behind closed doors.

The displays are mounted on walls of boxes, provoking our imaginations of what we perceive an archive to be and transposing that alongside exhibits that actually show us what archives are and what they look like. One example is the exhibit area featuring the Ignacio García Téllez papers. A full-scale representation of the papers of the former University rector demystifies the life of an archives behind closed doors. We usually think of archives as resting inertly behind closed doors, somewhere deep and unseen inside a locked vault. But the door is open to us, and we are invited in to take a look, to see where a living archive waits for us to come and ask of it our questions. The boxes are ordered on the shelves, just like the actual collection that is housed at the AHUNAM. We learn about the García Téllez’s life and his archive, but we also learn about the acid free boxes, the organizational structure of the archive, and how all the boxes look together on the shelves, and even how the archivists use the stepping stools to reach the top shelves to pull boxes for the researchers, like us, who come to consult the archive. Now, we know the archive, where it lives and how it lives. Because archives are alive.

Preservation lab exhibitArchives need routine maintenance and regular preventative care, just like any living creature. We see preservation tools and explanations of the preservation and conservation techniques employed by the AHUNAM to care for its collections displayed dynamically, giving us the sense that the conservationist has just left the lab for her lunch break. We get the feeling that it is an active space, a space that is constantly in motion, with a purpose to ensure that future generations will be able to visit and make meanings from the materials residing within the archive.

And finally, there is the acknowledgement of the role of the digital through online Digital collections AHUNAMcatalogs and finding aids, and digitized collections. We can consult the online catalog and the digitized collections, and prepare for our very own visit to the AHUNAM to see some of the materials we learned about in the exhibit. While not much was referenced regarding born-digital materials and current collecting efforts of born-digital faculty papers, I hope to find out more about these types of projects during my Fulbright research in Mexico.

Perhaps one day we will figure out a way to transmit the wonder and complexity of the digital realm into an exhibit that plays to our wonder of and fascination with the physical traits of archives, as we know them in our imaginations. Salimos de la bóveda is an enormously creative work of outreach and advocacy. It gives us a glimpse into the secret lives of archives–archives that are living, rich and complex. The invitation has been extended to us to come and get to know, and tell, the stories that are playing out behind open doors.

Salimos de la bóveda: a 50 años del Archivo Histórico de la UNAM is on display at the Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Artes at the Ciudad Universitaria campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Mexico City) until December 5, 2015.