Funding is Fundamental #1: Chicago History Museum

24 Apr 2017 9:31 AM | Erin Matson (Administrator)

Many of Chicago’s cultural institutions have used grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services to preserve, promote, and provide access to their collections. In response to the proposed elimination of funding for these federal agencies, CAA asked members to submit stories highlighting the projects that their institutions have undertaken with support from the NEH, NEA, and IMLS. We hope these stories will inspire a dialog among Chicagoans about how we can advocate for and better protect our cultural heritage.

Today’s story comes to us from the Chicago History Museum, who received IMLS funding in 2016 to digitize and upgrade the storage of its historically significant yet rapidly deteriorating cellulose nitrate negatives. Expected to conclude in 2018, the project’s goals are to implement urgently needed steps to arrest the degradation of the Museum’s nitrate holdings while also improving CHM’s overall physical, intellectual, and administrative control over these materials.

Containing over 35,000 negatives in more than 70 individual collections, CHM’s nitrate holdings document Chicago and its neighboring communities, as well as select people, places, and moments in American history, from the 1890s through the 1950s. These materials help us connect with the history of Chicago’s steel and railroad industries, social service agencies, and built environment; the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and 1933-34 A Century of Progress International Exposition; Chicago neighborhoods including Pilsen, Lincoln Park, the Loop, and the Near West Side including Maxwell Street; the 1919 Chicago Race Riot and Republic Steel Strike of 1937; and a broad range of other newsworthy topics, people, and events represented in the Chicago Daily News photographic archive. The vast majority of these materials do not exist in any other format.

The project is the third and final phase of a multiyear effort to identify and address the challenges posed by CHM’s nitrate holdings. Project activities have included digitizing the negatives to reduce the potential of damage due to handling; making the digital surrogates available for use; enhancing information in electronic records to improve access; and upgrading the storage environment to achieve preservation conditions. IMLS funds have been used to purchase the equipment necessary for rapid capture digitization and the freezer storage required to house the original negatives and arrest film base deterioration.

Through the support of the IMLS grant, the project will ultimately result in:

  • Nearly 28,000 new digital files with embedded administrative and descriptive metadata

  • Approximately 376 enhanced catalog records will be available in ARCHIE, CHM's online public access catalog, and the corresponding digital images will be accessible in CHM's Collections Online portal.

  • Over 35,000 nitrate negatives packaged and transferred into long-term preservation storage in safe laboratory-grade freezers.

Image Credits (Left to right, top to bottom): 1) Conservation Lab, Chicago History Museum. © Chicago Historical Society; 2) The World's Columbian Exposition dedication, 1892. Copyright Notice: No known copyright restrictions; 3) National Sewing Machine Company, circa 1923-1936. Copyright Notice: No known copyright restrictions; 4) Near North Side general views, Chicago, Illinois, 1932. © Chicago Historical Society; 5) Nitrate Storage, Chicago History Museum. © Chicago Historical Society; 6) Construction, Wrigley Building, Chicago, Illinois, 1888-1950. © Chicago Historical Society.

Do you have a story about your federally funded project and its significance to your community? Submit your stories to

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