Digital Treasure Trove: Photographing in the Sculpture Study Center

Contributed by IMLS Grant Project Team

Summer in Philadelphia may be winding down, but things at PAFA are just starting to ramp up as we begin the early fall season. There is a lot to catch up on from just the last several weeks: the moving of the outdoor sculpture Grumman Greenhouse by Jordan Griska after 11 years on Lenfest Plaza, installation and prep of our upcoming shows Evade or Ensnare and Making American Artists, as well as fall classes at the school starting back up this month. And things with the IMLS Project Team is just as busy. We’ve continued working all summer on the most challenging phase of the IMLS grant project, photographing the permanent art collection.  

We’ve changed course from photographing 2D works to taking photographs of the 3D works specifically in the Museum’s Sculpture Study Center (SSC). In this gallery, there is a wide array of objects in various mediums, each with their own set of challenges for documentation. Additionally, since the SSC is open to the public during Museum hours, we only have a limited number of days per week when things are closed to setup a temporary photography environment, work through as many objects as possible, and then break down again to make way for visitors.  

We soon realized photographing sculptures presented other challenges in our workflow. First, art handling works on paper compared to 3D sculpture was dramatically different. Some works were fragile, while others were solid and sturdy. Art handling for sculptures made from bronze, stone, plaster, terracotta, or wood all proved challenging and required us to be really careful as some works were hundreds of years old or some were very heavy. The material/color of each sculpture also required different backdrops and lighting. We ended up planning our days around dark and light colored sculptures so we didn’t need to change the backdrop often. And finally, since a single 2D image cannot fully represent all viewing angles of a 3D space, each sculpture is being photographed at least ten times: four side views, four quarter angle views, and two 1/8th angle views. The effect of this will be a very useful (approximate) 360-degree global view of each artwork.  

This workflow requires staff to move a—potentially very heavy—object, refocusing the camera by hand, adjusting the lighting, and finally, taking the image. Overall, it has been a slow but rewarding process, and we feel the finished images will provide a much more comprehensive set of digital assets—for future researchers and the general public—to view online.  

In fact, the usefulness of a more comprehensive set of viewing angles has been immediately clear as we have spent time with each object. A good example might be any of the several Abraham Lincoln life masks currently on view in SSC. Aside from being interesting objects by themselves, they—like many of the objects in PAFA’s collections—have a variety of notes, marking, and surprising armatures on their reverse sides, that might not always be visible to the public, but all contribute to the unique character and story of each work. 

We will soon be turning our attention to back to Works on Paper (WOP) and different aspects of the IMLS grant but we have enjoyed our time with the objects in SSC this summer and hope you will too the next time you are visiting the musem or browsing the new and forthcoming online collection.  

This blog post is part of an ongoing series about Digital Collections that we are able to undertake thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

About the Institute of Museum and Library Services 

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. We advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Our vision is a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities. To learn more, visit follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Digital Treasure Trove: Project Update

Contributed by Hoang Tran, Director of Archives & Collections

How time flies! It has been a year since we were awarded the IMLS grant. It seems fitting that I take this chance to provide an overview of all the changes and activities that have been completed so far.

The first major update is in regards to staffing changes. HoJun who served as the Project Museum Collections Assistant decided to leave the project early. In his place, we were fortunate to hire an amazing candidate, L Gnadinger. L is an artist, writer, and educator originally from Louisville, KT who has experience with art handling, writing, and arts administration. We’re happy to have L join the IMLS project team!

We’ve completed the first round of cataloging for all permanent works in PAFA’s collection. The main emphasis for this round of cataloging was to obtain accurate biographical information—life dates, place of birth, nationality, gender, race, etc. This round also included ensuring all objects had at least one subject access point, standardized date, copyright information, and of course, no spelling errors.

Photographing the collection has been challenging due to the staff change, technology problems, and institutional commitments. However, we managed to bounce back rather quickly when we switched to photographing 3D works (sculpture) in the second half of the summer. To date, we have photographed 82 small/medium sized sculptures (21%). In the past, we took 1-3 photos of a sculpture in a frontal view only. This time, we decided to photograph the sculpture 10 times to create a full 360 degree view of the work. We believe this added work would not only help PAFA document the work better, but also help curators and researchers view other markings such as a signature or date that is typically on the back of a sculpture.

PAFA’s legacy files are stored in a complex web of folders with tiff and jpg files intermixed with unconventional file naming standards. L has taken on the immense task of digital file management. Fortunately, L has Python programming skills that proved to be invaluable for this task. After a few weeks of brainstorming, testing, and team meetings, L was able to get a grasp of what the best approach would be.

I’ve been working closely with PAFA’s Registrar, Danielle McAdams, who is assisting with the CMS implementation phase of the project. The data migration and implementation of a new CMS is largely done by the vendors. We are currently reviewing the vendor’s feedback for crosswalks that aren’t compatible with the new CMS and determining if we require anything more customized for our needs. So far, there hasn’t been any major issues.

Digital Treasure Trove: Photographing works of art

Contributed by HoJun Yu, Project Museum Collections Assistant

My first glimpse of museum collection photography began when I was employed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the Met, I worked on a similar grant funded project that gave me the opportunity to see how works of art were photographed by collection staff. I was thrilled about the possibility of doing such work myself when I was hired by PAFA.

As PAFA’s collection photographer, Adrian Cubillas has provided me guidance, supervision, and support in learning the intricate processes for photographing works of art. The first phase of the project would focus on photographing works on paper. During the first few photographing sessions we photographed unframed and unmatted prints.

It was great working with another photographer who brought his perspective and experience in collection photograph. He walked me through all the basics of photographing an artwork and once I learned the essentials, we were able to speed through the work as he and I are both photographers. Even though I have been a photographer for quite some time now, I have been learning about new techniques as most of my photographic work involves people, rather than objects.

Using studio lights to photograph works of art can take much meticulousness, as we need to accurately capture the brightness and colors. The most challenging part has been troubleshooting the glares we come across every now and then, especially with prints that have more reflective surfaces. Once again, as Adrian and I are both photographers, combining our knowledge and efforts has been helping significantly. To troubleshoot such problems regarding the glare, we adjusted the angles of the strobe lights. Rather than lighting up the artwork directly, we decided to turn the strobes around to bounce them off the walls. By doing so, we were able to reduce the glares that kept appearing especially on photographic prints.

Another obstacle that we encountered was the condition of some of the prints themselves. While most of the prints we have been photographing have been relatively flat, the rest have seemed to retain a slight curl from being previously rolled up. The curl posed a minor problem as certain parts of the print will not be not be completely sharp. To solve this, we simply went with a slightly deeper, wider depth of field to make sure all parts of the print were in focus. While convenient, changing the depth of field requires subtlety and care. If the depth of field is too deep, the ISO will have to be increased, which will consequently produce a photograph with more noise. The changes in the depth of field need to be conservative and as small as possible.

For the first month of photographing, we managed to photograph 85 works on paper.

About the Institute of Museum and Library Services

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. We advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Our vision is a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities. To learn more, visit follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Digital Treasure Trove: Project Update

Contributed by Hoang Tran, Director of Archives

We are excited to announce the official launch of the IMLS grant funded project to photograph all works in PAFA’s permanent collection up to 2018. In addition, there will be a large scale data cleanup of the collection catalog records.

PAFA is happy to introduce HoJun Yu who will serve as the Project Museum Collections Assistant. HoJun is not your traditional museum professional. His educational background was actually in chemistry which may seem odd but there are definitely overlapping skills, particularly when it comes to critical thinking and analytical skills. For instance, these skills will be invaluable for his work reviewing, updating, and creating better catalog records for PAFA’s entire permanent art collection data.

The other portion of his duties is supporting PAFA’s efforts to photograph its permanent collection. HoJun has a passion for photography which is demonstrated by his work as a photographer during his undergraduate studies as well as freelance work (

HoJun with camera

Please check back here regularly for updates on the project. 

About the Institute of Museum and Library Services

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. We advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Our vision is a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities. To learn more, visit follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

COVID-19 Updates

Next week will mark one year that the archives will be closed due to the pandemic. A majority of PAFA staff have continued working remotely, including the archives. Fortunately, we managed to remain productive during this time.

  1. The project team completed the Rediscovering John Rhoden grant project.
    • Completed the digitization right before closure.
    • Completed cataloging over 3900 items.
    • Completed the collection finding aid.
    • Completed the John Rhoden digital portal. We are currently doing a round of edits before we publicly promote and launch the digital portal and finding aid.
  2. Updated and created a number of online resources on PAFA’s history.

Goodbye from the John Rhoden papers team!

Contributed by the John Rhoden papers team, Kelin Baldridge and Jahna Auerbach

John and Richenda Rhoden, Christmas, 1984

This week, our journey with the John Rhoden collection comes to an end. A year of full immersion in the life of John and Richenda Rhoden has resulted in a project that will soon be open to the public, for researchers, the curious, and everyone in between. 

Anyone who works closely with a human subject – archivists, curators, historians, authors, researchers – can relate to the level of attachment that we, the John Rhoden papers team, feel towards John and Richenda Rhoden. 

As sad as we are that our journey with the Rhodens has come to an end, we are immensely grateful to have had the opportunity to work so closely with their remaining legacy. Working with their archives, we get a glimpse of how charming and interesting people they truly were. They both lived fascinating lives together.

The physical remnants of one’s life can be incredibly powerful. Though it will never be the case, we feel we knew them personally after connecting with the records they left behind. From the collection, we have been fortunate enough to learn that John Rhoden was a sharp businessman, resilient, joyful, and aware of how he could use his skills to help others. He created a path and a career for himself in an America that did not lend itself to his success. 

John Rhoden with Drago Trsar, Ljubljana, Slovenia, circa 1958-1959

The documents and the photographic materials come together in this collection to create a full picture of who John Rhoden was. The papers are deeply rooted in his professional life, but photographs of him smiling and of the way he interacted with those around him hint at the kind of man he was. Like many of us, John loved to document his travels by taking photographs. Browsing through the images, one not only gets transported back in time, but also gets to view the world through John’s lens and perspective–underexposed and all.

The records revealed how kind, joyful, and charismatic both John and Richenda were. They seemed to be the type of people who commanded the attention in a room, and whose presence lifted the mood. What seems to have struck people about the couple was their warmth, openness, and generosity. Both were successful artists and professionals, but what seems to have stuck with people most was their character. 

Another notable aspect of this collection is its expanse. Not only does it tell the stories of John and Richenda, it offers a full-color glimpse into the world in the 1950s, it tells the stories of many artists, lost and forgotten to time, it creates connections and networks among people, places, and things that might otherwise have nothing in common. In addition to telling the story of its primary subject, it contains seemingly infinite threads and tangents waiting to be fully explored.

John Rhoden drinking from a porron, France, 1952

As we now open the collection to public use, we wanted to thank the NEH and the incredible support system at PAFA that not only made our work possible, but downright enjoyable, through a global pandemic no less. Furthermore, we want to thank Hoang Tran and Dr. Brittany Webb for being the most incredible collaborators and leaders that two young professionals could ask for. 

Though our official work with the Rhodens is ending, we are looking forward to using Hoang’s Rhoden portal and visiting Brittany’s John Rhoden exhibition many times when it opens! 

John Rhoden and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, 1991-1992

A note from Assistant Archivist, Jahna Auerbach:

The portion of the John Rhoden papers that has had the biggest impact on me is contained in just one box, Richenda Rhoden’s personal papers. From the beginning, I had a personal connection to Richenda because of all of the incredibly endearing photographs of her posing with her various cats. 

Richenda Rhoden, 1930s-1940s

As we started digitizing her records, we discovered that this one box of papers is connected to many different parts of history, as discussed in previous blog posts and on the Rhoden portal. Richenda’s parents met at the Carlisle Indian School and her father was the first Native American judge in the state of Washington. Her first husband, Lawrence Lew Kay, who was tragically killed in WWII, has a rich family history rooted in China, and the Chinese community in Seattle, WA.

Richenda was not just defined by the men in her life. She was an incredible person in her own right. She has been described as head-strong, wanting to do things on her own terms, chic, and striking in beauty. John and Richenda never had children, but they dedicated their lives to the community. They always welcomed people into their house whether it was for an annual Christmas party or for the public to see their studio and art that was constantly on display. 

Richenda Rhoden, circa 1951-1959

Richenda was an artist like her husband. She only showed a few times in her life, but she painted every day.

Richenda’s portion of the archive has made me question a lot about evidence in the archive. What is present, what is missing, and what does that mean? Richenda lived alone at 23 Cranberry Street for almost 15 years, and yet, we have very little of her own records. Despite all of this we have been able to find a rich history of a woman. Without a doubt, Richenda’s presence is evident and her history is recorded throughout the archive, whether it is in photographs, or labels she put on travel slides. 

As Kelin and I wrap up this project, we are floored by the people on our team and members of the community that have helped us. From co-workers, family members translating Mandarin for us, to neighbors of the Rhodens sharing their stories. Lastly, huge thank you to Hoang Tran and Dr. Brittany Webb, who have been helping us and guiding us from day one.

Richenda Rhoden, Indonesia, 1963

This project, Rediscovering John W. Rhoden: Processing, Cataloging, Rehousing, and Digitizing the John W. Rhoden papers, is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency.


Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: