Technology in Education: Preserving Pomona's Theatrical History with Technology

ITS had the pleasure of working on two digital image collection projects with the Theatre and Dance department this summer. The collections are conclusions of longer term projects and the result of collaboration between Theatre and Dance department chair Sherry Linnell, Instructional Technologist Jason Smith, and two Pomona College students, Lailah Meyer and Michael Mao. The images generated by the projects are now in digital image libraries via online image hosting software LUNA.

The Theatre Archive Collection

ITS has been working with the Theatre and Dance department for several years to digitize and preserve their photographs of past productions. We initially received several thousand physical items which were then digitized by ITS staff and student workers.  Where possible, we associated each image with production programs that accompanied them, noting year, location, director, and other metadata. This work spanned several summers.

The sheer size of this collection, however, rendered it practically unusable.  There were clearly too many images per production and ITS staff were not the best arbiters to determine which would serve as the best representation of each. Enter Lailah Meyer ‘20, and Professor Sherry Linnell, who, under a Hahn Grant this summer, assisted in the arduous undertaking of refining this massive collection. 

After orientation in how to use LUNA from Jason Smith, Lailah spent much of the summer painstakingly going through the thousands of images in the collection by production, selecting a handful for each that best represented significant aspects of the production details such as staging, set, lighting, costuming, etc.

She met with Sherry once or twice a week to confirm her selection and to gather additional information about the production. Sherry’s excellent personal memory of the department’s recent production history served as an invaluable resource, and Lailah was able to also significantly improve upon the metadata for each production from what we had initially been able to gather via programs.

From the over 6,000 images that she was given to work through, Lailah produced a curated collection of just under a thousand images that span in production date from 1969-2004. These images are now not only a usable teaching collection for the department, but also provide an invaluable record of Pomona College’s theatre and dance history. Sherry views the collection as a living one and the department plans to update it in the near future to include more recent production photos that are already in a digital format. 

The Theatre Garment Collection 

With Sherry Linnell serving as his advisor, Michael Mao ‘19, a History major and Theatre minor with a specific interest in costume design, combined his fields of study into a SURP project that spanned two summers.

The aim of the SURP was to create a digital archive of over 150 historic garments that are held by the Theatre and Dance department’s costume collection. The garments are primarily women’s clothing, date from the 1920’s through the 1950’s.  While the department actively used them in the past, some are now beginning to deteriorate, making this an important and significant preservation effort.

Michael spent much of the first summer of his project, summer 2017, researching the background of the garments and comparing them to historical catalogs and books about typical women’s fashion during the decades the garments span.  He also noted, where possible, important metadata such as the style of the garment, fabric material, construction, and trim details. 

The second phase of the project, photography of the garments began in 2017 but was primarily completed this past summer. In documenting the garments, Sherry says she wanted Michael to consider them as three-dimensional objects, much like sculptures. This posed a significant photography challenge and Michael enlisted the help of Jason Smith to determine the best approach. Jason helped Michael with acquiring equipment—a manual camera with a timer, kit light reflectors, and lightboxes and together they assembled a pop-up ‘studio’ with white and black backdrops against which to photograph the clothing.

Each garment was photographed in the front back, and from the sides in quarter turns, with additional photographs for any interesting details or trims. After taking the photos, Jason spent significant time editing them to ensure their visual quality. The result is as close to a 360-degree and close up views of each garment, capturing as much detail as possible.  

The digital image database now provides a resource for Theatre and Dance students to continue to engage with the garments, despite many of them being too delicate to continue to pull out in person. The project  has also given Michael the opportunity to strengthen his understanding of historic clothing construction and design as well as the opportunity to develop photography as a professional skill. 

Both the Theatre Archive and Costume collections are completely accessible to the public.