In 2016, the King County Archives produced an oral history project and online exhibit documenting Seattle-King County Department of Public Health’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in King County. The exhibit was published on its own website. Over the summer, to make the exhibit easier to manage in the long-term and easier to connect back to our collections, archives staff migrated the content of the exhibit to a page on the archives website. Below, read a question and answer style blog with Assistant Archivists Jen Peters and Emily Cabaniss about why archives have exhibits, what archives and archives exhibits can teach us about our communities, and how archives can be used to illuminate and connect the past, present, and the future.

Visit the exhibit online here.

What was Responding to AIDS about?

Jen: The exhibit was about the Seattle-King County’s Public Health Department response to the burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic and its impact on the county throughout the 1980s – mid1990s. The exhibit focuses on the challenges and perspectives of the Public Health staff.

Emily: The exhibit was part of a project to collect oral histories from public health department employees during the HIV/AIDS epidemic about their memories and experiences of combatting the epidemic. The oral histories have their own page in the online exhibit, and audio clips from them are inserted throughout the online exhibit.

Why are you migrating the exhibit to the archives’ website?

Jen: We wanted to have a little more control over our projects that have been developed over time. Plus, maintaining the existence of this exhibit is important as it provides additional access to these collection materials. And, we’re happy to make a new home for it through our main Archives website.

I didn’t know archives created exhibits! What’s with that?

Jen: The Archives does occasionally create exhibits using materials we have in our collections. Because we don’t necessarily have a physical space that is accessible to everyone outside of business hours, the Archives has focused on creating space online to showcase collection materials for browsing and research. Ideally, those interested in material seen through the exhibits can find additional resources in our database. Some materials are already digitized and available, while requests can be made to access items that aren’t already online.

Emily: One of the most important things is providing access to our records, but if people don’t know they exist, they don’t know to ask for it in the first place. Exhibits are a way to highlight the breadth and potential of research in our archives.

Why is it important to keep this exhibit online?

Jen: Between the oral histories gathered in development and support of the exhibit and the records of the AIDS Prevention Project, it is vital to maintain this cohesive resource for public access. Our collection does reflect additional material that goes beyond the date range of the exhibition, and this exhibit exists as an invite for those to inquire further or learn more for the very first time. Many of the resources, including the exhibit itself, are continuously called upon or referred to for more information about the region’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Requests and questions about the migration have been coming in, so we are excited to get it back online!

What does it take to move this exhibit to the archives’ main website? Did you have to learn anything new?

Jen: To migrate this site and all its resources, we’ve been using our main website infrastructure to build out a new home for the exhibit. Our website relies on using a content management system that I had not used before, so I participated in a bit of training on utilizing the system. After that, I’ve been calling on my beginner skills working with HTML to hit the ground running and begin migrating the website along with Emily.

Did you learn anything new about the subject of the exhibit—Seattle’s HIV epidemic—that you didn’t know before?

Jen: For me, I’ve learned quite a bit about Public Health’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the area. Being a little kid at the time, I didn’t have much knowledge of what everything meant to me and certainly not others who were experiencing the epidemic directly. Going through materials about a more localized response has helped me begin to fill in many gaps of information I’ve gathered over my lifetime about the national response. The exhibit itself does not comprise all the materials we have in the collection, so, I anticipate that I will continue to learn more from these collection materials.

Emily: I did not know how hard our Public Health Department worked, and how many avenues they used to educate people. The interviews with employees reflect compassion and a conscientious building of trust between people being affected by HIV/AIDS and Public Health, and those were not entirely separate groups. The concept of harm reduction in public health was a notion I had taken for granted, but these interviews demonstrated how groundbreaking that framework was for thinking about public health.

Has anything you’ve learned, discovered, or thought about while migrating this exhibit changed the way you will work as an archivist going forward?

Jen: Yes, it certainly has affected my approach. Specifically, I’m interested in how we interact with information online and how we improve access in general. I’ve been thinking about how I access and consume information online and how that might compare with friends, colleagues, and the general public. Working on migrating this exhibit has made me think about how we can use our web content management system to improve our main website to better respond to users needs for locating information about the Archives, the collection, and so on. So, I’ve been thinking more about how we use images, videos, text, and links to not only describe an exhibit but also to better describe how a user might search for recorded documents or other unrecorded or archival material. For example, where can we use less text in favor of a short video or series of images explaining a how-to of searching for documents while also keeping in mind that not everyone reads, hears, or sees in the same way. So, where can we enhance image, URL descriptions, and/or document descriptions to get the right information across? I am also exploring how I can provide more access to our collection material, especially if it’s remained relatively static in its access to internal and external researchers.

Emily: I knew this, or would have agreed with it if someone had told me, but this project really drove home for me that the past is not long past. The connection of these files from public health with the past employees’ oral histories conducted just a few years ago in living color reminds us that the effects and ramifications of events in history last much, much longer than the stage where you’re thinking about the event every day, or actively responding to it. And that thought the people involved move on, they don’t necessarily disappear. As an archivist, when I describe and arrange records, I would like to make choices that I would feel comfortable making if the subject of the records was staring over my shoulder—because they could be. 

What’s the most interesting thing in the collections that were used in building this exhibit?

Jen: The sheer amount of posters, flyers, and other graphics kept over that time has been one of the most interesting things to view in the collection. And to know that what makes up the exhibit is only a fraction of the related materials in the Archive. Honestly, the breadth of the collection as a whole is truly fascinating. Because of this project, I’ve been searching through a lot more scanned material than exists on the site. As it stands, the exhibit has given me an opportunity to see this common thread of information describing the HIV/AIDS response. I feel lucky because I’ve been able to take a few more steps into parts of this exhibit that I didn’t realize were here. I’d been walking past these boxes almost every day. So, to see so much of it out in front of you, even digitally, is amazing. I can only imagine what it was like to locate these items in their boxes and get them all set for scanning.

Emily: My favorite documents are the Stella comics, which are featured in the exhibit, but honestly the oral histories are really compelling, and I would take the time to watch all of them if I were you, a reader and fan of archives.