“Unpacking Manuel’s Tavern preserves the organic archive of Atlanta’s political left that has been inscribed on the walls of this local restaurant and bar over the past half century.”
This project treats Manuel’s Tavern, a dive bar in Atlanta, Georgia founded in 1956, as an archive in and of itself. In contrast to intentional, curated archives that exist as part of an institution, we are presented with an unplanned, accidental, “organic” collection of material. This material is sourced from the walls of the bar, on which hang an amalgamation of ephemera, politely referred to by the New York Times as “junk”.
The bar was once owned by Manuel Maloof, who was a major figure in local politics. The bar played host to many characters, mostly from Atlanta’s left leaning/democratic political scene. Local academics began the attempt at digitizing the walls before a 2015 renovation triggered by a new developer buying up neighboring properties.
The objects include photographs, neon signs, posters, advertisements, paintings, an entire bicycle, and many odds and ends that hint at the political action being undertaken by the patrons such as this fundraising flyer for a local politician’s campaign.
Presentation & Audience:
The website of this digital archive is in three main sections or “portals”: immersive media, walls, and artifacts. The most exciting portion, in my opinion, is the walls portal which has 360° panoramas of each wall in the bar. Users can click on items to learn more like titles and descriptions, though some of the descriptions are lacking. It is clear the context for some of the more personal items has been lost to time (and maybe alcohol). In the “artifacts” section of the website, each item is listed so that you can browse without using the panorama feature.
This project seems to focus on use for teaching. The website suggests using it for classes in history, english, political science, art, policy, and beyond. A portion of the site is dedicated to showing how the archive/objects from it have been used in assignments by local institutions like Emory University. Some student work has been incorporated into the public exhibit. For example, when browsing the artifacts portal, the description of a 1998 Atlanta Falcons pennant is accompanied by a Georgia State University student essay on a short history of the Atlanta Falcons. This helps provide some context to the meaning of the item to locals, and suggests why it hung on the wall of the tavern.
This project has made use of virtual recreations of spaces and objects. High-res panoramic photographs which were created with gigapans, or gigapixel panoramas. These are digital images with billions of pixels and usually consist of hundreds of single images stitched together.
The archive includes three videos—one which includes an interview with the current owner and original owner’s son conducted by the lead Academic on the project, Ruth Dusseault. This is a nice bit of oral history
Finally, the actual website was put together using Omeka.
What can we learn from this project?
If there is one thing that this project makes clear, it is the fact that we can look for archives in unexpected places. The website uses words like “unintentional”, “organic”, and “accidental” to describe the collection, emphasizing the fact that the material was not sought out or looked for but rather gathered in the bar “like driftwood on the beach”. Additionally, the material is left alone, physically and figuratively. “More product less process” indeed.
I think this project shows some of the issues with archiving/curating ephemera. Though the website says this archive “speaks for itself”, some objects have very limited information and I’m left with more questions than answers. The nature of ephemeral objects can mean that the context is easily lost. I don’t think that this makes this material useless or not worth saving, but it begs the question of how to deal with ephemeral material in the interest of giving it meaning. In this case, it looks like student work is used to provide some of this context.
The bar was opened in 1956, meaning that there are potentially still those alive who can provide some of that context. I think some sort of oral history initiative to hear from people who were there would be a wonderful accompaniment to this.