Capturing a legacy

Capturing a legacy

The Pan American World Jet Flight board game was photographed as part of the collaboration between UML and HistoryMiami Museum.

From HistoryMiami's Pan American World Airways collection.

By Cory Czajkowski

The Pan American World Jet Flight board game was photographed as part of the collaboration between UML and HistoryMiami Museum.

From HistoryMiami's Pan American World Airways collection.

Capturing a legacy

By Cory Czajkowski
Three institutions partner under grant to digitize Pan Am materials.

A series of lights click on to illuminate a small model airplane. White-gloved hands adjust the model precisely, rotating it a few degrees toward one of the lights. The focus is set, and all hands exit the frame. A camera’s shutter is heard as it opens and closes to capture another image for a project to digitize 500 objects from HistoryMiami Museum’s Pan American World Airways collection.

Once a week since the summer of 2019, the University of Miami Libraries’ Digital Production Lab (DPL) team members Veronica Cabrera, John Hay, and Robert Largaespada have traveled from Otto G. Richter Library to HistoryMiami, a Smithsonian Affiliate and the premier history museum in South Florida, to work with their staff on this photography project.

The collaboration, supported by a two-year grant called Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives from the Council on Library and Information Resources, is made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Also as part of the grant project, the University of Miami Libraries (UML) is digitizing 65 boxes of Pan Am’s corporate records, housed by UML’s Special Collections, and Duke University is digitizing approximately 11,000 Pan Am advertisements from collections at the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History.

The project represents a “digital reunion” of Pan Am’s artifacts, corporate records, and promotional materials, with the three institutions linking their collections through an aviation-themed portal hosted by the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), the nation’s largest aggregation of digital content. The aviation portal will also connect the Pan Am resources with content from DPLA’s vast holdings chronicling the history of commercial aviation, serving as an innovative model for bringing together disparate collections to foster discovery and access for researchers in both public and academic domains, and across borders.

“We’re forging new pathways of discovery together,” explains Laura Capell, head of Digital Production for UML, who is responsible for planning and managing digital projects and coordinating electronic records archiving activities. “This type of open accessibility will enrich the research experience, allowing users with access to the internet to virtually visit our Pan Am collections from anywhere in the world.”

The partnership between HistoryMiami and the UML Digital Production team was spurred in part by current UML Course Reserve Supervisor and local aviation researcher, Drewry Wofford, who was hired by HistoryMiami as a consultant to identify Pan Am artifacts for digitization. “With Drewry’s help, we are digitizing materials based on their high research value, their potential for digital scholarship, and their relevance to current research trends across a wide variety of disciplines and communities,” says Capell.

Arriving at HistoryMiami for each photo shoot, the DPL team meets with Kristen Lachterman, registrar for Museum Collections, to begin a new day photographing objects from the Museum’s Pan Am collection, which includes uniforms, amenity kits, dining sets, lapel pins, airplane models, luggage tags, and even a board game.

The first order of business is to repurpose HistoryMiami’s archival space into a photo studio. Closely following a master spreadsheet maintained by Lachterman, the team arranges the room according to the format and size of the objects for each day’s photo session, which informs their camera and lighting settings.

Once the camera and lights are in place, one or two members of the team become “display artists,” working in front of the camera to stage each object for digital capture. Small artifacts, such as lapel pins and medals, can be photographed relatively quickly due to their size, but larger objects, such as uniforms and textiles, need to be dressed on mannequins before they are imaged. For more complex objects, such as a Pan Am travel bag with toiletries inside, the team first photographs everything together and then separately. With the end user’s experience in mind, each new setup requires close attention to consistency in lighting and angles, while being mindful about handling artifacts that are sometimes fragile.

Above: A travel bag and amenity kit from HistoryMiami's Pan Am collection.

“This photography project has been highly collaborative from the start,” says Lachterman. “Whether we’re staging objects under the lights, switching camera lenses, or simply working behind-the-scenes to ensure that each day’s goal is met, this sort of hands-on work requires us to be thoughtful, flexible, and efficient.”

The blend of promotional materials, operational records, and artifacts selected for digitization during the grant project highlight the complexity of Pan Am, which was a leader in globalizing aviation and shaping public perceptions of air travel. The materials also illustrate Pan Am’s influence on aviation, operating as a “chosen instrument” for American economic, diplomatic, and military interests abroad, while also reflecting its carefully crafted public image.

“It’s amazing how much you can learn about topics like gender and race during the evolution of air travel just by handling these artifacts,” says Cabrera, manager for UML’s Digital Production services. “Every visit to the museum is like opening a time capsule of American aviation history.”

UML recently welcomed German Ruiz as a technician. His area of expertise is in photography and he has been alternating visits to the Museum with Hay, a technician on the project since day one. “It’s been exciting to hit the ground running on this project,” says Ruiz. “Engaging with 3D objects from the Pan Am era is such a treat.”

As they approach the project’s finish line, the team is equally enthusiastic about their upcoming visits to HistoryMiami’s offsite storage facility to photograph full-scale cross sections of airplane models and the desk of Juan Trippe, Pan Am’s visionary founder who led the company from 1927 to 1968 and revolutionized commercial aviation. “The opportunity to handle and document the actual possessions of Trippe is humbling,” says Hay, as he considers the next chapter in the project. “This is someone who transformed the way we experience life and connect with others.”

A behind-the-scenes look at the photography project. Photos: Digital Production Lab, University of Miami Libraries

Above: A behind-the-scenes look at the photography project. Photos: Digital Production Lab, University of Miami Libraries

About the University of Miami Libraries

The University of Miami Libraries (library.miami.edu) provide faculty, students, researchers, and staff with the highest quality access to collections and information resources in support of the University's mission to transform lives through research, teaching, and service.

About CLIR

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning. To learn more, visit www.clir.org and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.