Kevin McMahon: MIAS Alumnus’s Class Project Becomes SCI-Arc Media Archive

McMahon's on-the-job expertise and innovative education from MIAS helped him create a comprehensive archive for the renowned architecture school.

When Kevin McMahon (Class of ’11, MIAS)  enrolled in the Moving Image Archive Studies (MIAS) program in 2009, he hoped it might help him at his job at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), but he didn’t realize that one of his first class projects would lead directly to the successful creation of the SCI-Arc Media Archive. Launched last September – just in time for SCI-Arc’s 40th anniversary celebration this year – the archive houses more than 3,000 topics covered in more than 1,000 hours of audio and video, dating from 1974 to the present.

McMahon has been the manager of the Kappe Library at SCI-Arc since 1987, where he works with fellow Department of Information Studies graduate Rachel Rohac (Class of ’12, MLIS), the Kappe’s assistant librarian. In addition to other duties such as serving as editor of the school’s newsletter and as accreditation liaison officer for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), McMahon is now co-manager of the Media Archive project. He says that his education in the Department of Information Studies at GSE&IS prepared him for the massive undertaking that creating a comprehensive archive was – and continues to be.

“In media archiving, there isn’t a massive body of written literature, of theory and history, and material,” he says. “But to make up for that, in the [MIAS] program we were constantly learning about how things were done at different media archives; seeing presentations by people at different places and hearing about how they did it, and then interning at different places. So when we embarked on this project, it isn’t like I knew all the answers, but I had a sense of what was possible. It made the whole thing less frightening.

“It’s a huge project, and it’s not really done. Since we went live, people have been sending us stuff that we didn’t know about. We’re already thinking about the next stage and what we want to add. It never ends. But from the MIAS program, I got the confidence [to know] that it was a big job, but it was doable.”

Founded in 2002, UCLA’s Moving Image Archive Studies (MIAS) program is the first and most comprehensive in North America, and is rooted in historical, practical, and theoretical study, assigning equal importance to heritage collections and emerging media types. The program redefines archival study in its examination of the aesthetics and history of film, video and digital media; the cultural responsibilities of selection and curatorship; access and public exhibition; collection management and cataloging; and, the technical aspects of preservation and restoration. The program’s expanding educational goals are made up of core and elective seminars, directed studies, and hands-on practicum taught by an innovative combination of UCLA faculty, visiting professors and archival specialists, guest speakers, and leading mentors from the archival profession itself.
In all its forms, moving images were the defining media of the 20th Century, as works of art, historical documents, popular entertainment and cultural artifacts that provide a distinctive records of human history. Many of these artifacts have been lost and will not be replaced, while many others await physical preservation and restoration, critical rediscovery, study and appreciation. Democratic and unfettered access to these vital resources will depend upon the skills, ethics and commitment of new generations of archivists, as educated by the MIAS program. As in the case of McMahon’s class project that became SCI-Arc’s Media Archive, new forms of access will be developed and critically validated by an evolving partnership between the archive and emerging media scholarship of all types.

McMahon, who created the archive with colleagues Reza Monahan and Aaron Bocanegra, presented their work at the Association of Moving Image Archivists’ (AMIA) Reel Thing XXIX conference last August. Of their talk titled, “1 Short Lecture About 629 Longer Ones,” McMahon says that AMIA “framed our presentation as an interesting model for other small independent institutions with media resources that don’t know what to do with them.” He notes that MIAS graduates should be aware of the career potential for consultants that would be able to build similar resources for small and independent institutions.

As a working professional while a student, McMahon says that he was pleasantly surprised of the flexibility and willingness of faculty in the MIAS program to meet his needs and support the development of his proposal for SCI-Arc’s archive. He received the good news that the Getty Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts decided to fund the SCI-Arc archive a couple of days before he took his comprehensive oral exam.

“It was perfect timing,” McMahon laughs. “I had something to talk about.”

An expert on architectural research with a bachelor of arts in classics from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, McMahon is one of four guest curators featured on the SCI-Arc Media Archive. He says that along with SCI-Arc’s international stature as a school of architecture, the archive, which receives approximately 8,000 visitors a month, represents the most comprehensive look at the profession in Southern California.

“SCI-Arc is a small independent school, but it has an enormous global reputation,” McMahon says. So after 40 years, we’ve had basically all the important architects in the world pass through and give lectures. But even more so, what I find really interesting is how there are a lot of [speakers] who aren’t so famous but [provide] very intensive coverage of the Southern California scene with architecture, planning, urban issues, and a lot about downtown Los Angeles.

“[There] is really interesting material for anybody interested in the history of L.A., whether they are specifically interested in architecture or not,” he says. “We’re setting up the cataloging and the interface… so that it would not be just for scholars – a high school or middle school student could use it – but so that it would be interesting and accessible to anyone who is interested. They’re going to find information about their city, their neighborhood, proposals that have been made about where they live, and how decisions got made that determined and built the environment they live in.”

In addition to working at SCI-Arc, McMahon has worked as a library consultant for the architecture collection at the University of Limerick, a record conversion project editor at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, and a copy editor for Verso Press. He is a member of the American Library Association and the Association of Architecture School Librarians, serving as national conference coordinator in 2000 and president, 2000-2001.

McMahon will present “Appropriating moving image archives architecturally,” at the 66th Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, which takes place April 10-14 in Buffalo this month. In March, he spoke on “Fighting video extinction locally,” at annual conference of the Association of Architecture School Librarians in San Francisco. McMahon also contributed “Guerrillas, Architects & Cable TV: SCI-Arc’s videos in context” to the catalog for the SCI-Arc exhibit, “A Confederacy of Heretics: The Architecture Gallery, Venice, 1979,” which is part of “Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A.,” an initiative of the Getty.


Above: Kevin McMahon, library manager of the Kappe Library at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), in the school’s Robot House, a center for experimental design and fabrication. Photo by Rachel Rohac