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Explore C-U: Curating arts, culture, and history

It all started with the desire to make works of art and other visual works accessible to the public. Mix nearly a year of work with a dash of ingenuity, persistence, and hard work, and you have the innovative project known as Explore C-U.

Explore C-U is a website and free mobile app that allows people to take self guided tours around Champaign-Urbana and other surrounding areas. This includes not only sculptures and paintings, but also parks, buildings, and other areas of interest. “We wanted to really focus on the community,” said Sarah Christensen, Visual Resources Curator, College of Fine and Applied Arts. “It’s a library project, but we didn’t want it to be just University centric.”

According to the Explore C-U website, it “seeks to curate the arts, culture and history of Champaign-Urbana and its surrounding area through library collections and community-generated content.” Users of the website and applications are able to “learn about the region through layered, map-based, multimedia presentations, use social media to share [their] stories and experience informative tours of Champaign County.”

The website and app is funded by the University Library at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Innovation and Seed funding program, and was developed in partnership with the University Library, the Visual Resources Center in the College of Fine and Applied Arts, and the community of Champaign-Urbana.

However, all good ideas begin with a spark of inspiration. “I saw something at a conference that I wanted to replicate,” said Christensen. “I came across the Cleveland Historical project developed by the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University. It’s been really nice in that we can use their technology.”

By using this technology, which allows for designers to compile photos, videos, and documents into an easy-to-use format, Christensen and her team were able to begin work on what would later become Explore C-U. “We’ve been busy,” Christensen said. “We had a little bit of a jumpstart with A Guide to Art at the University of Illinois: Urbana-Champaign, Robert Allerton Park, and Chicago. We were able to get permission to use content in [Muriel Scheinman’s] book. We also took a lot of pictures, and did a lot of walking around campus.”

The team has also had quite a bit of help from outside organizations. Some of these include the local park districts, Allerton Park and Retreat Center, Grand Prairie Museum, Institute for Genomic Biology, and many others. “With the park districts, I took a lot of those [photos], but a lot were also given to us by the organization,” said Christensen. “We partnered with a lot of institutions. A lot of it has been [personal] research, but a lot of it has been given to us by various organizations.”

Besides looking at individual locations on the website and mobile app, Explore C-U currently has eight tours available. These include Robert Allerton Park, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Public Art Tour, Champaign Park District, Urbana Park District, Landmarks and Lore: a Snapshot of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Railways and Electric Transit, C-U at the Movies, and Libraries, Museums, and Archives.

“Well, the tours were the idea of allowing us to have a broad, thematic concept,” said Christensen. “It’s logical. Like art on campus? Just view those stories. More interested in history rather than art? Then you can look at those entries.”

The team focused on the art on campus tour first since it was the most readily available, then moved on to the park district so as to include more of a community feel. Recently, they have tried to focus on things that happen in the community, such as Ebertfest. They also plan on creating a Homecoming tour for the fall and a cemetery tour for Halloween.

Even though a majority of the content so far has been compiled and created by those at Explore C-U, they encourage people within the community to contribute as well. “Content is being developed by the community, for the community,” said Christensen. “It’s another way for the community of Champaign-Urbana and students to get involved with the collection, their local history, and culture. [Explore C-U] will evolve as the community changes, and will be a reflection of the community.”

“If there’s something in the community you don’t know about, it provides a lot of facts that you wouldn’t know,” she added. “It’s a fun read. The more you know about your community, the more invested you [become], and the more you can enjoy it.”

The Explore C-U Team:

  • Sarah Christensen (Visual Resources Curator, College of Fine and Applied Arts)
  • Merinda Hensley (Instructional Services Librarian and Co-coordinator for the Scholarly Commons, University Library)
  • Sarah Shreeves (Coordinator for IDEALS and Co-coordinator for the Scholarly Commons, University Library)
  • Alan Mette (Executive associate director for the school of art+ design and board member for the Public Art League)
  • Betsy Kruger (director of the digital content creation unit, University Library)
  • Kara Brehm (graduate assistant, University Library)
  • Ali Sunseri (art+design student, forthcoming tour for Public Art League sculptures)
  • Laura Miller (volunteer, Graduate School of Library and Information Science)

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