Documenting Modern Living: Digitizing the Miller House and Garden Collection

Alexander Girard needlepoint post

In May 2012, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the Indianapolis Museum of Art $190,000 for its project “Documenting Modern Living: Digitizing the Miller House and Garden Collection.” The Miller House and Garden Collection (MHGC) includes correspondence, drawings and blueprints, textile samples, and photographs that document the design, construction, and maintenance of the Miller House and Garden in Columbus, Indiana.

The Miller House and Garden, one of the country’s most highly regarded examples of mid-century Modernist architecture, was designed by Eero Saarinen, with interiors by Alexander Girard and landscape design by Daniel Urban Kiley. Commissioned by industrialist and philanthropist J. Irwin Miller and his wife Xenia Simons Miller in 1953, the Miller House and Garden was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000. In 2009, members of the Miller family donated the house and garden, along with many of its original furnishings and the archives collection to the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Dan Kiley landscape, locust allee post 177w, 1023w" sizes="(max-width: 262px) 100vw, 262px" />


Since September 2012, a major component of this digitization project has been the promotion of the collection through its Tumblr page. As a highly visual microblogging and social networking site, Tumblr was selected as the most appropriate platform for sharing images and descriptions of MHGC collection material throughout the digitization process. In-house design work completed by the IMA Lab team ensured that the Documenting Modern Living Tumblr page represents the IMA brand.

In the 18 months since the first Documenting Modern Living post, the sharing of digitized collection material has become an integral part of the project workflow, with all IMA Archives staff contributing to the Tumblr page. As unique and interesting photographs, fabric samples, design and construction drawings, correspondence, etc. are digitized, the digital surrogates are added to a queue of draft Tumblr posts. These drafts are completed and published at a rate of about two per week in order to keep our audience engaged with the material and updated on the progress of the project. The overall goal in promoting our digitization project via Tumblr is to capture and grow a dedicated audience with a variety of interests prior to the release of the full digital collection, which is anticipated for early 2015.

Alexander Girard's original order post

Why is this project significant? 

The application of consistent Miller House- and project-specific tags, along with special tags that reflect the content of each individual post, has guaranteed that our Tumblr reaches a variety of audiences with interests that include:

  • architecture
  • landscape design
  • interior design
  • mid-century modernism
  • historic homes
  • photography
  • archives and archival collections
  • digital projects

Throughout the duration of this project, the scope of the Tumblr has steadily evolved. Initially conceived of as a forum for sharing digital surrogates of the archival collection along with brief descriptions, more recent posts have expanded in scope to give our audience a behind-the-scenes look at a large digitization project. By first capturing an audience with dynamic visual posts, we are now able to more actively explore themes such as archival theory, preservation vs. access, digitization equipment, project workflows, and the research potential of this collection. In doing so, we are exposing new audiences to the work that museum and archives professionals are engaged in on a daily basis, with an emphasis not just on the materials we work with and what we do, but the how and why of museum work as well.

Documenting Modern Living Tumblr screenshots

First screenshot – When appropriate, we connect our project and the Miller House and Garden Collection material with museum-wide happenings, such as the opening of the Contemporary Design Galleries at the IMA.

Second screenshot – We aim to provide context for our collection material by connecting it to the physical Miller House and Garden. In one of our more popular posts, we drew connections between Dan Kiley’s master planting plan and the Honey Locust allée in the Miller Garden.

Third screenshot – In this post we explored the archival theory of “original order” as it relates to the meticulous indexing system employed by Alexander Girard while decorating the Miller House. In doing so, we not only share items from the collection, but place them in the context of their original use by their creators.