A review of the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center, a digital exploration of the early history of the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico, directed by Sara Woodbury
Roswell Museum Federal Art Center
Sara Woodbury, William & Mary
Meghan Ferriter, Library of Congress
The Roswell Museum Federal Art Center is a Scalar book that explores the early history of the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico and offers a preliminary effort toward the digitization of its archive. Since 1937, the Roswell Museum has enriched southeast New Mexico through its multidisciplinary collections and education programs while also holding national significance as a living legacy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) due to its affiliation with the Federal Community Art Center Project. Founded in 1935, this initiative shared art resources with communities around the country through centers that hosted exhibitions, offered free classes, and held other activities. At the program’s peak, approximately 100 community art centers operated in more than 20 states, and although most closed during World War II, a few remain open today as museums, galleries, and art centers, including the Roswell Museum.
This project explores the Roswell Museum's WPA history while also critically examining its archive as a repository. As such, in addition to offering a narrative of the museum’s early history, it examines which voices are preserved in its documents with respect to visitors, employees, and volunteers. Additionally, it attempts to highlight some of the museum's underrepresented voices, particularly its non-administrative staff members, by reorganizing the archive’s documents around the people they discuss rather than relying exclusively on chronological or thematic groupings. The project also engages with the interaction that occurs between the archive and the researcher through its nonlinear organization. Visitors are encouraged to let their personal interests guide them by clicking on links, chapter headings, and images.
This project developed out of my experiences with the Roswell Museum and Art Center. I served as its Curator of Collections and Exhibitions from 2013 to 2018 and began researching its archive in 2016. I created this project in 2018 as the final assignment for my digital humanities seminar at the College of William & Mary. I chose Scalar as my platform because I wanted to recreate the messiness of archival research. I did not peruse the documents in a systemic or consistent fashion but jumped between folders and boxes according to my interests and the amount of time available to me on any particular day, an intermittent exploration that deeply shaped my experience of the archive.
This project’s intended audience is primarily academic and appeals to researchers interested in Federal Art Project (FAP) history, New Mexico history, museum studies, or archival theory. This project is a preliminary phase in my ongoing digital humanities work and is not intended as the final iteration of this research. The documents shared here only represent a fraction of the total archive, and as a single-author seminar project it has limitations as a digital humanities initiative. My long-term objectives include not only fully digitizing the Roswell Museum’s FAP archive, but initiating a collaborative project that explores the Federal Community Art Center Project as a national art-sharing initiative.
The Roswell Museum Federal Art Center, a Scalar book by Sara Woodbury, pulls at foundational tensions within an institution's archive. The project narrates competing organizational aims, varied sponsored arts support, and archival absences. Woodbury also interrogates correspondence and organizational documentation in an endeavor to highlight underrepresented voices. Created as a seminar project derived from over 10 years of engagement with Roswell Museum Federal Art Center archival resources and history, this project is framed as a preliminary analysis and suggests many potential directions to expand.
The Roswell Museum Federal Art Center was created using Scalar to emulate non-linear archival research movement. It takes advantage of the technology’s support for digital publishing via long-form, born-digital scholarship online while also visually narrating with media from multiple sources. Visitors can select each section of the digital publication independently to experience brief columns of text and dive into galleries of digitized archival materials, especially photographs, and supplementary visualizations. Future versions of the site could better enable direct navigation to materials digitized since the first release of the project in 2018.
Woodbury’s approach is also autobiographical, intermittently mapping the “Roswell archive as historical repository and research experience,” as she indicates in the introduction, and Woodbury’s own opportunity to access the resources. While the site notes that there are “multiple ways to explore the project,” it nonetheless offers gentle signposting for those seeking a more linear narrative.
This project offers critical assessment of Roswell Museum’s institutional history and absences within its repository and points to where institutional history, regional history, labor paid and unpaid, and community archival practices are intertwined. The project raises familiar questions about archival practices and power that reflect historic and contemporary socio-cultural and political beliefs. At one of its strongest points, the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center remediates obscured pasts by naming non-administrative staff members and their labor, arranging archival resources around people “Who Worked Here?.”
Woodbury explains that this work is a preliminary attempt at digitizing the archive. Two approaches could enhance future iterations. First, the project could connect the digitized resources to digital records where they exist to catalyze movement toward other research goals, not the least of which would be reading between the lines to explore the art, community planning, and labor that intersected at the museum. Second, the project surfaces the silences and questions of equity among groups of people present and engaged daily with the institution: the staff, the community, and the artists and practitioners convened and featured in the museum. As a result, this work is rich in opportunities for collaboration with other scholars and archival and museum practitioners to inform the project’s next directions, including work related to expanding and reclaiming New Mexican art history (e.g. Nunn, 2001), or gathering and integrating oral histories to enhance understanding of the impact of the institution, or reflection on practicing critical feminism in the archives.
With this still unfolding work, Woodbury sets out a specific researcher’s view and offers an invitation, while more fully exposing a site of convening, collaboration, and competition between local, state, and federal goals.
Nunn, Tey Marianna. Sin nombre: Hispana and Hispano artists of the new deal era. University of New Mexico Press, 2001.