n 1997, Milwaukee artist Paul Druecke began going door to door asking local residents to contribute a snapshot of a “social occasion, public or private, current or historical” to his project A Social Event Archive. He acquired 731 photographs over ten years. With this exhibition, the Archive is on view for the first time in a museum in honor of its twentieth anniversary.
Drawn from disparate family albums and shoeboxes, the photographs in the Archive—removed from their original context and stripped of any personal associations—suggest universal stories and a larger narrative about cultural modes of socializing. And because the photographs are presented in the order in which Druecke received them, there is no linear historical progression: a picture from 1996, for example, might appear before a picture from 1942. This random sequence exposes the relative arbitrariness and subjective nature of an archive: what of the images people chose not to include, what might these reveal?
A Social Event Archive predates Instagram and Facebook and the blurring of private and public that such social media platforms allow. Our posing for the camera has since become practiced and conditioned by the knowledge of a wider audience. Druecke’s project encapsulates an American past, just before this dramatic cultural shift.