The UI’s Alma Mater statue – with its welcoming outstretched arms at the corner of Green and Wright streets – is the most widely recognized and photographed campus icon.
The 82-year-old Alma Mater statue is showing her age and desperately needs renovation. The statue is just one of many endangered campus treasures identified for renovation by the Preservation Working Group. | UI Public Affairs photo
But without preservation efforts, the green-streaked and deteriorating statue is in jeopardy.
“It’s falling apart right in front of our eyes,” said Jennifer Hain Teper, a conservation librarian and the chair of the UI’s Preservation Working Group. “It’s one of those things that we assume people are caring for.”
The statue – erected in 1929 in its “temporary” location on the south campus behind what then was called the Auditorium and moved to its current location in 1962 in Urbana – is part of a long and growing list of endangered campus treasures the group has identified for preservation work.
And, members say, time is of the essence.
“We take things for granted,” said group member Jack Brighton, the director of new media and innovation at Illinois Public Media. “We tend to not think that some of these things require care over decades.”
In 2005, the group conducted a campuswide Web survey that identified preservation projects across 25 units. In 2009, members conducted in-person interviews and a more-detailed survey with respondents. While the Alma Mater ranked high on the list, dozens of other projects remained.
The group formed in 2003 as part of the chancellor’s Cultural Engagement Council and became autonomous in 2006. Around that time it was also awarded a $250,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, based in Washington, D.C. A portion of the grant was used to set up a Web-based audiovisual preservation self-assessment tool for use by any campus unit and the public.
Since that time, members have gone back to the responding units to try to solve some of the preservation challenges – but the list keeps growing.
“We know we didn’t get everything (on campus),” Teper said. “It’s just a tiny scratch of the surface. But we knew there were some practical things we could start doing.”
She said several factors make the task difficult, and most of them are directly related to funding.
Many times a unit simply may not have the storage space needed to preserve objects, or the collection in question requires a controlled environment.
Some projects present their own special problems – like the 380 string-based mathematical models from the late 1800s kept by the mathematics department, the largest public collection outside of Gottingen, Germany. Repairing the models, used at the turn of the century to diagram three-dimensional surfaces, requires someone with the expertise to clean and replace the strings.
And what does one do about the 40,000-plus world soil samples dating back to the 1800s, currently stored at the South Farms? Mice have eaten off many of the labels and no one is currently in charge of caring for the collection.
Or the 40,000 Pennsylvanian Age fossils, also stored in a crumbling South Farms warehouse? The plant biology curator who looked after the fossils retired.
Or the donated, one-of-a-kind, collection of 50,000 butterflies at the Illinois Natural History Survey? The collection includes several extinct Illinois varieties.
“The university is now responsible for the preservation of these specimens, the only ones of their kind on the planet – and no longer available in Illinois or nature,” says an entry about the butterfly collection on the PWG website.
Teper said the problem goes beyond the simple existence of a collection.
“Sometimes it is a matter of not knowing that something they have has value or not knowing that certain things even exist,” she said “Sometimes, things get lost when a unit moves into a new building. Often, saving information about the collection is as important as saving the collection itself, and that just complicates matters. There is example after example of historical artifacts that have simply disappeared over the years or which we no longer know why they were important – except that they were.”
According to Brighton, the saving of analog, digital and Web-based information has become a historical preservation issue the group must tackle as well.
“The big question a lot of times is, ‘If you don’t need something, what exactly do you do with it?’ ” he said. “It’s in our best interest to take care of this stuff.”
Teper said the working group’s membership is broad enough to cover several areas and is offering members’ expertise to campus units looking to preserve their collections. She said the group offers storage or collection-saving advice. The group’s members include employees from a variety of campus units, including Spurlock Museum, Krannert Arts Museum, Illinois State Archaeological Survey, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University Library and Illinois Public Media, and they’ve formed partnerships with various state and federal historical preservation agencies.
“The survey gave us good data about the artifacts we have,” Teper said, “but we can’t provide funding, we can only help with grants. We can, however, provide expertise. We’re already making an impact.”
Brighton said one of the group’s biggest successes has been to bring the issue of preservation to the fore – and enlisting everyone with an interest.
“This has been the catalyst for a lot of collaboration,” he said. “We are a place where a lot of these conversations can start.”
Teper said the group is seeking grant opportunities for itself and to aid other campus groups looking to preserve important materials. It also has hosted preservation workshops, including an annual event aimed at teaching people how to preserve their family heirlooms and home movies, and plans to conduct more outreach.
She said members also would like to see the university, which regularly commissions art with new construction, to adopt language for its ongoing maintenance.
And what about Alma Mater – will it be saved in time?
PWG members are hopeful and say they have gotten the attention of campus administrators, who are studying what to do next – and trying to figure out where the money will come from.
“It has percolated to the top of our to-do list,” Teper said. “They recognize this is a need.”
She said the last time the statue was renovated was in the 1980s. Since then rain has penetrated the statue. The cost and extent of the needed work is still unknown.
“All of that dripping and running indicates advanced bronze disease,” said Christa Deacy-Quinn, a PWG member and collections manager at Spurlock, “but there is still hope.”
By Mike Helenthal
“We don’t know what it is, we don’t know where it is.”
That’s the assessment of Colleen Cook, digital media coordinator for the Office of Online and Continuing Education, of the Urbana campus’s vast, yet undiscovered, multimedia collection.
Cook, who works in the office’s ATLAS Digital Media Division, also is a member of the volunteer-based Center for Multimedia Excellence, a group trying to identify digital and analog-based research and historical treasures before it’s too late.
“Nobody knows how much media is even out there,” she said. “We just want to find out what is here.”
To help campus units identify their important collections of audio, film, video and still images, CME began a “population census” this semester.
“Everybody has stuff but a lot of stuff just stays in the closet and never sees the light of day,” said Annie Peterson, a student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
The results of the census will be used to help develop a “long-term media strategy” for the Urbana campus.
“We’re asking people, ‘How much do you have and what is it?’ ” Cook said.
Just finding the proper recording format for materials can be tricky, Cook said, and there are fears that information collected and stored on many of the older information formats already has already been lost.
“In many cases, we’re not just talking about a box of information – we’re talking about a whole room or a whole floor,” she said. “What we’re trying to find out with the survey is, ‘Who is in charge of it?’ ”
Cook said developing a better tracking system now is important because data, both analog and digital, “is being created faster than it was in the past.”
Once the campus survey is completed, she said the CME will use the collections on the list to establish best practices criteria for keeping them – and any newly identified collections – intact.
Having more complete information also will help with the storage and reformatting process.
“We get some formats that we just have no idea (what it is),” Cook said. Another prevalent problem is digital photos that don’t have individual file information,” she said, meaning no identification or other important information is included.
“Instead of reinventing the wheel,” Peterson said, “we’re hoping that by doing this all together, it will go more efficiently. We need more education and to get the message out.”
Cook said, while it’s still early in the survey process, the word is starting to get out.
“The people who have responded so far are very excited about it,” she said.