Rachel Winston: Archives as Activism

"Archives in their very nature are political," says the inaugural Black Diaspora Archivist at the University of Texas

Rachel Winston, Black Diaspora Archivist at the University of Texas

Rachel Winston is an Austin-based activist, curator, and archivist. She graduated with a BA in anthropology with a minor in French from Davidson College and received her MSIS with a portfolio in museum studies from University of Texas Austin. Winston has worked in numerous museum positions, including with St. Louis Soldiers Memorial and Military Museum and Black Studies at UT Austin, and has held the inaugural Black Diaspora Archivist position with LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections since 2015. She is an American Library Association Spectrum Scholar and a Society of American Archivists Harold T. Pinkett Award winner.

I chatted with Rachel recently over coffee.

Kaila Schedeen: We were first introduced when I was doing work for the John L. Warfield Center for African & African American Studies, which was about two years ago at this point. I became aware pretty quickly that you were an active voice both within the university and the Austin community, especially when thinking about underrepresented histories in Austin. What drew you here initially, and how did you start getting involved with community activism projects?

Rachel Winston: What brought me to Austin was grad school. I knew I was interested in museums and had a pretty good idea that that was the field I wanted to enter. Before that I was doing stuff that I loved—working for museums, doing public programming and outreach—and that commitment to the untold story and the underrepresented communities was there. That’s always kind of been what I’ve done. I was in the museum and thinking about the parts of the exhibition that don’t really get told, or urging visitors who might not normally come to come in, or designing curriculum for school groups that focus on not the old masters.

I try to use archives as activism. I was able to do that in practice for the first time in awhile with the show I did at the Carver museum last year with Alan Garcia.

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KS: That was the Juntos/Together exhibition? Can you tell me a bit about that show and how it came together?

RW: So Alan and I had both been in talks with the Carver Museum about doing a show, and the museum asked us to work together. Alan runs an Instagram page, ATX Barrio Archive, so we used that as a springboard to think about how we could leverage visual archives, things that are accessible to people, while not focusing just on the hardships. Our communities have been working and fighting together for decades. A lot of the issues that we’re working against now are not new. They may be dressed a little differently, but they’re not new. That show had a lot of heart to it, and one of my intentions was to encourage people to look at what’s been done and to feel empowered and encouraged.

KS: That’s something I’ve always seen in your work that you try to focus on in all of your projects. I was at the screening of the film “Reflections on a Legacy: East 12th Street” that you worked on with Stephanie Lang and Funmi Ogunro, and I thought that was a wonderful project coming at an interesting time for Austin, when there are all these conversations around gentrification, but the actual people it affects are often ignored.

RW: I’m glad that came through. One of the challenges with that film was our desire to say it plain and put it out there for people to see — the pain that gentrification has caused, how displacement hurts — but we didn’t want it to be a painful film. We wanted to celebrate. So that’s part of my angle with things, to celebrate what was and what we have accomplished, and use it as a way to be inspired and encouraged to move forward, and think new things, and dream, and be creative. It was an interesting project in doing those oral histories and it all got very emotional. It was really powerful to be a part of that, but then presenting that in a way that didn’t objectify people’s pain, or put it on display for consumption, and still celebrate.

Robert Pruitt, (African American, b. 1975, Houston, TX).”Star Pilot,” 2012 [54/60]. Offset lithograph, 30”x21″. Brandywine Art Prints, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin
KS: I’ve also noticed that you seem to do a lot of collaborative projects. As someone in a collective, I’m very interested in collaborative work and the possibilities it presents beyond what one person can do on their own. How do you think about your own collaborative work?

RW: I love collaborations. I really value relationships, just as a personal value, so I think that my inclination to collaborate is a result of that. Just thinking to some of my most meaningful projects, it’s come because I’ve had an opportunity, or a friend or a colleague has an opportunity, and then we’ve invited others to join in. With Reflections, that project came to me, and I said I’d do it if my colleague Stephanie could do it with me. I’m also an extrovert, so I like to talk things out and get people’s opinions.

In the field that I work it’s never just about me. I’m trying to tell stories and facilitate and make connections, so the more perspectives I can get on that, the better. It’s always fun to achieve something with people.

KS: I do think collaboration is more an acknowledgment that everyone is really building off of work that other people have done, even if it’s an individually-led project. There’s always people along the way that are helping you, or have inspired and influenced you.

RW: Yeah. In cultural and memory work, no one person knows anything. We’re all piecing things together, and making things accessible, and reaching out, and the more energy and ways you have to do that the better.

KS: I know you have an upcoming exhibition of Brandywine art prints that similarly collaborates between the Art Galleries at Black Studies (AGBS) and the Benson Latin American Collection. How did you come up with that idea, and how are you going about that project?

RW: The Brandywine art prints were the first acquisition purchase that I made as the Black Diaspora archivist at LLILAS Benson. Brandywine has been around since the 70s and works to develop artist talent and to promote diverse media techniques. Over the course of their existence, they’ve amassed this incredible archive. They have artist fellowships, so artists come and produce prints with them and leave some behind. Brandywine was looking to their next phase of existence and trying to think of ways to make their archive accessible to more people. That’s how UT entered the conversation, and I’ve been helping to establish one of Brandywine’s premier satellite archives here in Texas. We acquired 99 prints in 2016. At that point I thought we should do a collaborative project.

Janet Taylor-Pickett (African American, b. 1948, Michigan) “Hagar’s Dress,” 2007 [20/20]. Offset lithograph, 50”x38”. Brandywine Art Prints, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin
KS: Is there one over-arching idea connecting the two exhibitions?

RW: The collection represents a wide variety of what Brandywine has to offer. So I asked myself what layers of interpretation I could bring…how could I make the works in this collection speak to each other? The overarching title of the show is “That Which Surrounds Us” — at the Benson it’s “Surrounded by Space,” and at the Idea Lab of AGBS it’s “Surrounded by Time.” We all have encounters with space and time, so people can make connections with that, and the prints spoke really well to those ideas.

Right now the opening is set for Thursday, February 14. We are having one opening in two parts- so on the 14th we’ll have a morning opening at the Benson with breakfast bites, and then in the evening will be at the Idea Lab.

KS: I’m always really curious about the creative voices or voices from people’s personal lives that sustain and inspire them. What figures have you looked up to in your life and in your work?

RW: I come from a close family, and they’ve always been supportive of me being who I am. I’ve always been emotive, and an empath, and caring towards other people, and I’ve always been interested in using what I do as activism with a social justice slant. They’ve never doubted me, and they’ve provided me opportunities to be this person.

Creatively, I’m a reader, so folks like Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, the greats; their works and the worlds I have been able to imagine because of them have been instrumental. Also our freedom fighters, people like Angela Davis. I’m inspired by people who act out of care. That’s a trait that I feel like is easy to identify. Currently I’m reading “Emergent Strategy” by Adrienne Maree Brown, and there’s so many moments in the book where I see the work I’m trying to do, it’s put into words.

KS: Do you have any advice for someone who is just starting out, who’s interested in archives and museums but doesn’t really know where to get started, or doesn’t necessarily see themselves in a museum, either visually or in the kind of work they want to do?

RW: The first thing is to always be open to the possibilities. I would not be where I am today if I wasn’t open to receiving new ideas, or imagining myself trying things that weren’t on the path that I thought I was following. I’ve had the most beautiful and productive distractions in my life that have led to some of my biggest accomplishments. Allowing yourself the space and the grace to follow your interests and be distracted when opportunities come up is a big thing. Making real connections with people is another. I couldn’t see myself here without the small acts of love and kindness that have helped me make leaps and bounds.

When I work with students now, especially undergrads, I ask, for who is it their first visit to the archive? Most students raise their hand. I’m like, that’s great, you’re ahead of me. I never went into an archive when I was in college. If you told me in college I would be an archivist, I would laugh in your face. That alone shows to be open and flexible, and try to have a good attitude. And take care of yourself.

KS: Yeah, that’s extremely important. Self-care is something that often gets left out, it’s something I often see as a graduate student.

RW: And even thinking about the types of materials that you work with. I was working with some undergraduate students, and I was talking a lot about slavery records, and helping students locate the enslaved within this body of records. One of the students said, this is really hard to read emotionally, and they asked if I did this all the time, if it gets easy. I told them it never gets easy, but it gets easier. The emotional labor that this work sometimes has is significant.

The responsibility of an archivist now is greater, because people have come to acknowledge the impression that archivists leave on the record. Before it was easier to assume that collections were just that way, and archivists were unbiased. But archives in their very nature are political. The responsibility and the job of an archivist now is so much more than just processing papers. There’s more social accountability and responsibility.

KS: There seems to be a similar accounting happening within museums — the Museums Are Not Neutral movement is that exact sort of thing.

RW: Right. For me, I feel urgency in the work that I do. Stories are lost every day. Everyone has a right to be forgotten if they choose, and I get that, but when we can save, preserve, and protect, we have to. And the work I do translates to any avenue. You can care about the histories, people, and experiences that have come before you; you can question narratives, you can push back in whatever field you’re in. That’s what I really want people to take away from that work that I do.

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