Louis H. Draper Archive Portal
Reviewed August 2020
Deborah Ultan, Arts, Architecture & Landscape Architecture Librarian
University of Minnesota
The Louis H. Draper Archive Portal presented by the Virginia Museum of Fine Art (VMFA) is one of several of the museum’s growing primary source digital collections that document the history of local art and artists. Louis Draper was born in Richmond and schooled at Virginia University, which was, at the time, named Virginia State College for Negros. Louis Draper’s younger sister, Nell Draper-Winston, donated the family archives to the VMFA. In 2017, the museum received funding to digitize the collection from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Louis H. Draper digital portal does not require any specific software to access and is openly available via the museum’s archive portal. Well-produced and executed effectively, the digital archive retains the analog experience of sifting through rare and intimate materials in person, bolstered by supporting content and the fluidity of the digital design. Organized “sub-series” present the content as if the user is approaching an archival box and each item/image is able to be selected as if leafing through folders, making for coherent and fluid access to the material. Each sub-series has three components and includes a synopsis of the sub-set content in the “Collection Overview”; a dropdown menu for each “box” of material in the “Finding Aid”; and images of each document in the “folders” in the “Collection Viewer”. Using the basic principles of Universal Design, the portal is designed with a black background and white text, and the clearly organized categories are enhanced by supplementary curatorial summaries. Uncomplicated and intuitive to navigate, the VMFA design stands out from comparable digital archives that function more like web pages, such as the archives presented by the National Archives, “John R. White: Portrait of Black Chicago” or “DOCUMERA: Snapshots Crisis and Cure in the 1970s”.
The museum’s archival portal is savvy in the way it functions and situates the content so that each of the VMFA archives may be approached singularly or in interaction with their other archives and related institutional content. Carefully managed metadata provides for effective research and discovery by linking relevant and related material. The search mechanism might yield an assortment of content from publications, to personal notes, correspondence, and photos. The Draper archive is nicely complemented by the recently acquired and digitized archive of Draper’s colleague Beauford Smith. Their co-presence and connections demonstrate how the digitally structured ecosystem reinforces the efficiency and value of the digital format.
At the time of this writing, the United States is reckoning with the racially motivated murders of George Floyd and other Black men and women, and the need to activate strategies that advance racial equality. Many are seeking ways to individually and collectively embody change. An immersion in Black history through the cultural lens of artists is one way to get closer to truths and narratives. Studying the Black experience from the 1950s to the final years of the 20th century, through the life and work of a talented Black photographer who intentionally sought to document the Black experience, is one example of a means to that end. By opening up Louis Draper’s archives through a digital portal – where his journals, personal and artistic photos, publications and other ephemera may be explored and examined – is an exceptional opportunity. Fluently designed, accessible, and comprehensive, the VMFA’s portal to Louis Draper’s archive demonstrates how an intelligently prepared digital platform can be an interactive and impressionable learning tool. The outcome of having diligently pursued funding and dedicated an astute project team to the creation of the Louis Draper Archive is a timely, significant, and historically informative multimedia resource.