Illuminating the Archives through Art

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Guest post from Erin Peel, MS, Coordinator, Library Operations: FLENH at the University of South Florida Libraries, Tampa campus.

Example of materials out during the instruction session, including Diane Pierce artwork that is featured in the Florida Breeding Bird Atlas II . The atlas will be hosted through Digital Collections at USF Libraries and is currently under construction.

In the Fall of 2022, the University of South Florida LibrariesFlorida Environment & Natural History (FLENH) team helped the Florida Ornithological Society (FOS) celebrate their 50th anniversary by highlighting some of their donated archival materials in a curated virtual exhibit. Concurrently, the FLENH team designed a matching physical exhibit to be displayed within USF’s Tampa Library. These efforts to promote the FOS and the importance of ornithology in the archives did not go unnoticed. In Spring 2023, the FOS archives caught the eye of an art professor, George Ferrandi, the 2023 Kennedy Family Artist In-Residence at USF. Ferrandi was teaching “The Conference of the Birds” that semester and was keen to expose her students to examples of human fascination with birds, whether in the form of art, poetry, journals, documents, photographs, or music.

The vinyl record played while students explored the ornithological materials.

This learning objective was perfect for featuring FOS archival materials, as well as other Audubon collections within FLENH as one-third of the FLENH holdings are ornithology based.

Glimpse at the FOS exhibit that was displayed outside of USF’s Special Collections department.

When the class visited Special Collections, they were greeted by tables of ornithological materials. The students eagerly explored the selection, flipping through books and journals, studying photographs and lanterns slides, and listening to mockingbird calls from Samuel Grimes’ The Vocally Versatile Mockingbird” record. The students were to immerse themselves in bird culture and find inspiration for their final project for the semester: creating illuminated bird sculptures using traditional, Japanese Nebuta techniques. After engaging with the materials, the students brainstormed ideas for their projects and asked if they could borrow the mockingbird soundtrack for their live performance. Subsequently, the Digital Collections team digitized the entire record and made it available on USF’s Digital Commons for the students’ performance piece. The students’ projects were displayed at ArtHouse on campus and were such a success that they were also exhibited at the Dunedin Fine Arts Center during the summer.

Nebuta sculptures of spoonbills in flight over a nest of eggs. Used with permission: George Ferrandi.
The students’ individual illuminated sculptures line the walls of the room, along with their sketches. Used with permission: George Ferrandi.

Because Special Collections and FLENH usually receive instruction requests from History, English, or Science professors, this instruction session was a first for both the students and library instructors. However, this experience continued to show the expansive applications of FLENH materials and new avenues for instructional outreach with Special Collections’ archival materials.

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