The Getty Foundation has awarded the USC Libraries and the USC College Center for Religion and Civic Culture a grant to host the Switzerland-based Basel Mission Picture Archive.
The archive’s 29,000 digitized images reveal dramatic changes in the everyday lives of missionaries and many cultures in Africa and Asia between 1850 and 1950.
The Basel Mission was one of the most influential early Protestant societies and its photography collection is renowned for striking images of early contacts between missionaries and local populations. The archive will join the 14,000-image Internet Mission Photography Archive (IMPA) developed jointly by the CRCC and the USC Libraries with initial support from a 2002 grant from the Getty Foundation.
“The Basel Mission was highly dispersed geographically,” said USC College sociology professor Jon Miller, director of research at the CRCC. “They had stations in Africa, India, Southeast Asia and China. Starting in the 1850s, the Basel Mission recognized the communications potential of the new medium of photography. As a result, missionaries were often highly skilled photographers.
“The pictures the missionaries captured were among the earliest in existence for many parts of the world. They add a distinct category of information to the more familiar text-based materials that are usually the primary sources for scholars.”
The Basel archive offers a vivid, searchable record of the past for researchers in fields ranging from art, cultural history and religious studies to ecology, musicology and zoology.
“The images make it possible to do research that simply could not be done before,” Miller said. “Scholars can do focused, comparative studies of any number of topics across space, time and the faith traditions represented in the Basel archive and IMPA. The pictures document complex processes of social change in intimate ways.”
Once missionaries returned from assignments abroad, their photographs were used for everything from fund-raising to training new missionaries. In addition, Miller said, “Documentation of their experiences was essential to the missionaries’ faith, as a way of tracking their spiritual development. Photography became part of that process and helps to account for the investment they made in it.”
Archivists in the Basel Mission were among the first to identify the historic significance of such images. A 1995 Getty grant funded the initial cataloging and digitization work, enabling them to create the pioneering online resource, which is used by historians and scholars of religious studies worldwide.
“Their pictures are remarkably well-preserved and organized,” Miller said. “One challenge of working with photographs held by missionary societies is that they are usually fragile, unorganized and difficult for researchers to find. Without proper cataloguing and digitization, many historic pictures are in danger of being lost.”
The $100,000 Getty Foundation grant will help improve the Basel Mission archive Web site and enable it to accommodate more digital images. The Basel archive will remain an independent entity supported by the USC Libraries and the CRCC, but scholars will be able to simultaneously search the Basel Mission photos, IMPA and the USC Libraries’ Digital Archive.
Former Basel Mission archivist Paul Jenkins pointed to technology as both a key challenge in maintaining the photo collection and another benefit of the new collaboration. “Because of our partnership with USC,” he said, “we’ve gained guaranteed digital-archive security and the necessary technical upgrades to continue operations.”
The Basel Mission Picture Archive complements the expanding digital resources at the USC Libraries and the CRCC’s exploration of the role of visual culture in faith and social change. The CRCC recently mounted photography exhibits about the Rwandan genocide, immigrant religious cultures in Los Angeles and other gateway cities in the United States, and a visionary religious movement in the Mojave Desert.
With support from the USC Libraries, the CRCC plans to digitize additional missionary-society archives. Miller said, “As other organizations follow Basel’s example and join the project, the Web site will display greater representation across geographic regions and chronological periods. Within three years, we expect to have more than 100,000 photos.”
Todd Grappone, associate executive director of information development and management at the USC Libraries, pointed to the university-wide potential of this standard-setting project.
“Through this collaboration with the CRCC, we’ve established the gold standard in online missionary photographic archives,” he said. “We’re building on the success of IMPA by adding archives from more missionary societies. At the same time, we’re creating a model for other campus researchers who wish to use USC Libraries services to assume leadership roles in building digital archives of scholarly materials.”