Making of Largest Photo Archive Showcasing Russian History

PHOTO by russiainphoto.ru / Screenshot
Over 70,000 scanned photographs, taken between 1860 and 1999, are collected in an immense online archive

The Multimedia Art Museum of Moscow launched its new website, The History of Russia in Photos, last week. Afisha.Daily talked to the project manager and found out how this library was created and is maintained.

Rashel Zemlinskaya, Project Manager for History of Russia In Photos

Offline Beginnings

The History of Russia in Photos began life as an editorial project: in 2007 the Multimedia Art Museum of Moscow (MAMM) published the first book in its series “20th Century Russia in Photos”. Naturally, publishing a book is never easy: it took nearly ten years for the museum to publish the third book in the series (Russia from 1941 to 1964). The fourth chapter is due out this year.

Making an online database, accessible to everyone, was always the endgame. Even though Olga Sviblova (the director of the MAMM, who spearheaded the project at the time) had a hard time using email back when the first book was launched into production, it was her visionary idea to bring the project to the public via the digital medium. All the copyrights and agreements secured by MAMM in order to print the books always included web distribution rights from the very beginning.

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First Steps to Digitisation

The first version of our website was designed in-house, and was very conservative from the user experience standpoint. We are, after all, a museum. We then developed a prototype which we showed to various governmental organisations and tech companies, looking for support. Our resources and budget weren't sufficient to get this project off the ground. A museum is not well suited to create web projects on its own.

Finally, Yandex came to the rescue. They did what we could not: the company created a convenient archive with a hundred thousand photos, a fast response time and which was easily scalable – essentially, the product our users see today. The content consists primarily of photos provided by MAMM and our partner museums, which participated in this project. Thanks to the support provided by Yandex, the museum can focus on further project development: archive digitisation, proper photo attribution and categorisation, as well as the search for new partners.

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From Archive Photos to Private Collections

We always wanted to tell a story through photos. I believe that it’s a worthwhile endeavour. There are a lot of archives in Russia which may never become public, unless someone deliberately makes it their mission to seek them out. It’s one of the primary tasks of our museum. A team of our photo editors constantly look through photo archives, photo galleries, search engines, trying to discover these collections.

Aside from the official archives, we want to utilise private photo albums. Every user is welcome to add their own photos to the History of Russia collection. For example, I have a photo of my grandfather, taken during the construction of the Baikal–Amur Mainline (a large-scale Soviet undertaking, the creation of an alternative route to the Trans-Siberian Railway).

Even though I have this one picture, someone may have other photos of the same construction site. This sole photo becomes part of something greater – a unified history, created from millions of small individual pieces.

Moreover, users can message us if they see description errors, misattributions, typos, etc. They have already provided valuable feedback. Oftentimes users have more knowledge about particular photos than we do. We used several photos during the presentation of our project. One of them was entitled “A view of an unknown city”. One of the cameramen shooting the event realised it was his hometown, and we added a proper title right then and there.

Our goal is to show that national history is not limited to heroic photos and official records: it’s made of the personal photos of its citizens, it’s the history of our grandfathers and grandmothers. It’s not just the river of official historical data, it’s a collection of small private streams. When you discover things that you have a personal connection to, it’s always an emotional event. This is what we aim for.

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User Interaction

At this point we don’t know anything about user behavior, and what kind of photos should we expect. For now we have pre-moderation for user submissions, and mandatory input fields for descriptions, tags and geotags. If users have no idea when or where a photo was taken, they can tag objects depicted on the photo. Other users can contribute by tagging the location and year for each photo. If user-uploaded photos don't find their way into the common historical canvas, then at least they will remain in their profile as important pieces of personal history. We don’t expect that a valuable historical narrative will be created overnight.

We do have a timeframe. We will only publish photos from the date the technology appeared in Russia to the year 2000. We don’t have a lot of archive photos from the 1990s, as MAMM is currently focused on earlier periods, but we’re looking forward to user submissions.

Perhaps we will have separate databases for the museum collection and user-generated content. We want our users to create small personal historic archives from their own photos and those uploaded by their peers, we want them to create collections which will tell their own stories. We want users to talk about their albums, their families: this is the history we’re looking for.

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Further Development

History of Russia in Photos is a noncommercial project. We don't sell anything and the quality of photos available online does not lend them to commercial use. If someone wants to print a book, they have to come to the museum. We work as an intermediary between the archives and the end user. For example, a photo editor may request a high-res photo from the regional lore and history museum located in Chelyabinsk. We would assist in creation of a contract, and the museum would get paid for it.

I hope we will pursue other projects with other institutions. Lately I’ve become quite interested in all things to do with remembrance, whether personal or historical. For example, we’re closely cooperating with prozhito.org, a website dedicated to digitising 20th-century Russian diaries. If they discover diaries with photos, they hand them over to us. Together, we recreate history.

Author: Anna Savina