As the Walker celebrates its 75th anniversary, we’ve inaugurated the Walker People’s Archive (WPA), a crowd-sourced compendium of Walker history from the ground up, where visitors can see what others have to share and submit their own photos.
Alycia Anderson, WPA intern, recently sat down with Jennifer Stampe, WPA project manager, to talk about the project. Jennifer has a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Minnesota and has taught Museum Studies at New York University and Anthropology at Brown University. She was recently co-curator for an exhibit marking Brown University’s 250th anniversary at its Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Anniversaries seem to be her thing.
Alycia Anderson: What is the WPA? What’s its status today? How do you see it growing and developing in the future?
Jennifer Stampe: The WPA is a crowd-sourced, online compendium of people’s photographs and, just as important, stories about the Walker over its 75 years as a public institution. Over the summer, Education and Community Programs staff members began soliciting photos and stories from visitors at scan days held during Free First Saturdays and Target Free Thursday Nights. We also reached out to staff, volunteers and members who were likely to have great photos. The photos we collected allowed us to build a small archive and experiment with ways organize it.
For the Walker’s anniversary kick-off celebration, Walktoberfest, we launched a website where people can view the archive. More importantly, they can upload photos, caption and tag them, and tell their stories. This is an exciting time: now that we’re online, the archive will really start to take on a life of its own. We also want everyone to know that they are invited to participate in this project. For those who don’t yet have a relationship with the Walker, this is a chance to begin building one. New members of the Walker community are as important to us as long-standing ones.
AA: The WPA is a project created by the people of the Walker as a reflection of themselves, their relationships and their memories. How would you describe the Walker community?
JS: I see this project as an opportunity to learn about the Walker community, so I wouldn’t want to try to answer that question yet. But I will make a couple of guesses about what we might find. First, I think we’ll see that there is not any single Walker community, but rather many, overlapping communities. Second, I think we’ll see affiliations that disrupt the usual kinds of associations we think of when we hear the word community. So beyond expected communities — of staff, artists, or neighbors, for instance — I think we’ll also see clusters of people who share something based on where the Walker fits into their lives. I’m thinking about those who’ve gotten married in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, students who have visited the galleries on a field trip, or fans of the Internet Cat Video Festival. Or something else we don’t imagine at this point. I’m hoping that responses to this project will surprise us, and that we’ll learn something unexpected about the Walker and its people.
AA: The WPA is designed to be a place where the past and present mix, with polaroids and iPhone snaps illustrating decades of Walker experiences. With all of that potential diversity and change, do you expect visitors’ stories will have a theme which connects them?
JS: The main thing the stories we’ve heard so far share is an emphasis on family and friends. We don’t always think of it this way, but museum-going is a social experience: the people we’re with matter as much as what’s going on within the museum’s walls.
We’ve heard a few stories about moms, in particular. Carol Lichterman, a charter member of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, gave us this photo and told us about attending the Garden’s opening in 1988 with her mother, Sylvie Lichterman.
As the morning’s ceremonies drew to a close, Carol asked Sylvie to pose in front of her favorite piece. Without hesitating, Sylvie chose Claes Oldenburg’s Spoonbridge and Cherry. Once the photo was taken, Sylvie exclaimed, “All of a sudden I feel like having an ice cream sundae with a cherry on top!” and proposed that she and Carol told Carol skip their planned lunch and proceed directly to dessert. Carol says, “Every time I explore the Garden now on my own, I think of [my mom] and how we enjoyed the Garden’s opening together.” The opportunity to make that kind of memory, based on spending time together exploring new ideas, is a thing the Walker has been able to offer people in its capacity as a public institution.
AA: What attracted you to the Walker and the WPA? Has your work in anthropology influenced your perception of the project and its goals?
JS: I’ve lived in Minneapolis (or had it as my home base) for a long time and I’ve been a Walker member for several years, so coming to work here was attractive. The project is particularly appealing because it’s multidisciplinary, as so much at the Walker is, with its archival, curatorial and outreach components. The way I think about the WPA is definitely informed by my background in anthropology. My research to date has examined the ways that people understand new kinds of museums, like those oriented to serving specific communities, so this project is right up my alley. Beyond that, I see the submissions we’re getting as a kind of data; my role is to analyze that data and to create opportunities for others to do so, and in creative, expansive ways. Fortunately, my training in the social sciences equips me with the tools for conducting ethnographic interviews and oral histories, and those have been useful in the conversations I’m having with people who are submitting photos and stories to us. Most importantly, anthropology is interested in describing social worlds in ways their participants would recognize: I’m hoping that people will see themselves in the WPA.
AA: The next question you may have seen coming: what’s been your most vivid experience at the Walker? And do you have a favorite contributor story or photo you’ve encountered so far in the archive?
JS: My most vivid Walker experiences don’t have photos to go along with them. I’m a fan of the Out There performance series, and I always attend the annual Choreographer’s Evening. I have had my mind blown during these and other performances over the years. And I loved visiting the Walker when the expansion opened in 2005. I remember wandering the new spaces wondering at the then unfamiliar building materials, and thinking about how that was a very different experience than looking intently at works in the galleries.
I have clear mental images of these experiences, but nothing I can share with the archive. That’s probably true for many potential contributors, so we encourage creative solutions: submitters with a memory but no photo could make a drawing to illustrate their story in the archive. Or they could get their friends together for a photo re-enactment of an important moment.
As for favorite submissions, I get the feeling that I will always love whatever photo has come in most recently. We recently finished scanning a binder of photos from Bob Teslow, a longtime art instructor at the Blake School’s Kenwood Campus, our neighbor on Vineland place. Bob was on the scene as the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden took shape in 1988, and he took wonderful photographs of many of the sculptures being installed. This one shows Mark di Suvero swinging on his sculpture Arikidea.
Or there’s this photo, submitted by Peter and Peggy Georgas. Peggy made her own gowns for the Walker exhibition openings she attended with Peter, who was the Walker’s publicist from 1964 to 1979. Peggy made this dress for a reception held for Andy Warhol in 1968. She told us that she routinely finished the (sometimes very short!) hems of some of her creations in the car on the way to the party.
AA: Personally, I can’t wait to see a collection of awkward family portraits or visitors’ first impressions of the Walker. What kind of kinds of submissions will you be most excited to see?
JS: I’m most interested in seeing those that include rich, reflective stories. Don’t get me wrong: we do want absolutely want photos of everything and everybody, snapshots and selfies, from serious to silly. But there are some particularly compelling shots and narratives out there, and those are central to the archive. I’m looking forward to seeing them.
As for genre, I’m partial to photos of people taking photos. I could say it tells us something about the ways we use photography, but really they just make me laugh. I also like mysteries, shots where we don’t know what’s going on or who is pictured, and I hope that people will help us identify unknown subjects and activities in others’ photographs. Over the coming months, we’ll hold events at the Walker that will give WPA participants a chance to meet and respond to one another’s photos.
AA: Have you taken the obligatory selfie at Spoonbridge and Cherry?
JS: I have to admit I haven’t, yet. Let’s go take some pictures. We can start making #OurWalker memories today!
Questions about the WPA? Contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org