David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Month: April 2012

Critique: Amber’s Final Project

When I put out a call on Facebook for suggestions on improving my final project website, Amber suggested a great idea: a mutual critique of each other’s. For me, the critiques by friends and classmates, whether in class or via social media, have been really helpful (thanks, all!). So in that spirit, my thought’s on Amber’s final project, Grand Rapids, Michigan: The Hand Is Where the Art Is.

  • The title: I like the title. I really do, especially after occasions of seeing people from Michigan use their hands as maps. However–in this iteration of the website, without the map of Michigan in the header, I’m not sure that it makes as much sense. I agree with the decision to remove the map from the header, as we talked about in class. Perhaps on the front page, “above the fold” as they say but in the content area instead of the header, include a map with Grand Rapids highlighted? That might help make the connection more clear.
  • Header art: I like the sculpture. It helps give the visitor a greater sense of the site’s content. I like how you’ve floated it so that it’s not in the header box–in fact, I was inspired by how you did that with the Michigan map, and did the same with Santa Anna for my site (coincidence: the newspapers I looked at for Santa Anna’s time in Washington also were talking about Michigan statehood). The piece needs some work to make it lighter and more visible, though (nice that you took the picture!). You could also float it over the menu bar, perhaps by decreasing the space between the items and making the sculpture larger. I think that would help it stand out more, and give your viewer the idea that, hey, there’s some cool art in Grand Rapids!
  • Nav bar: Ah yes, navigation. I think I have spent more time on this than anything else in this class! I think it works really well here to have each section under the header bar, rather than on the left side. It’s very clear what your visitors are navigating. I think it would be more clear, though, to use the font you use in the body text for the menu bar. You use the decorative font, to nice effect, for the header and for the headers in the body, so I think you can use the body font here–that might also help with opening up some space to make your great sculpture photo even bigger, for all the world to see your photography skills!
  • Color scheme: I think the gray palette works for readability, especially with the blues thrown in. However, I do think, since you are discussing art (granted, what do I know, I’m a historian rather than art historian!), perhaps you could go to using, say, the red from the wonderful photo of the Calder sculpture? I like how you put the pull quote at the beginning–I think that could benefit from a nice, light-red background to help it stand out more. I can imagine, though, that it must be tough trying to decide what colors to incorporate since there is such a variety of colorful artworks in your site.
  • Repetition: Since this flows from the previous entry, I’ll start CARP with repetition (that, and I misremembered the C and started an entry for consistency!). The site has benefitted from you using a consistent color scheme throughout. You’ve really nailed consistency/repetition with one color scheme, one header design, etc. At the same time, your use of different header images on each page adds some extra visual interest. You do this in a consistent way, a way that doesn’t distract from what you are trying to do–each piece is in the same place, and aligned the same way. The main part that could be more consistent, though: The header. It might be better to keep the site title at top, even if in some way besides the header. Otherwise, although the color scheme tells the visitor he/she is on the same site, the headers don’t as much. Tough dilemma, though, where to put the different page titles. Perhaps have them highlighted in the menu bar, and then an extra level of heading above what you have?
  • Contrast:  Your contrast is good. In each section you contrast the different elements from each other, so that they flow together but you do a good job showing your visitor what is what.
  • Alignment: Unfortunately, not all of your paragraphs in your body copy align. Some are to the left of others. Can be tough to nail in the CSS! Otherwise, the alignment works nicely. Everything flows together.
  • Proximity: You do good work with putting things close enough together that they flow, without scrunching them too closely. I think your line spacing, in particular, is good. The one place that could be improved is in your captions. Sometimes the image credit is too far from the rest of the caption.

So all in all, great work, Amber! I think this site is coming along well, and I hope that my suggestions are helpful but aren’t too time-consuming. Thanks for the thought of a critique exchange!

Final Project Revision

Based on comments from everyone last week, I’ve gone back and revised my final project. A lot. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that my wife is gone for the next week at the American Association of Museums conference in Minneapolis.

At least, I’ve been revising the design. At first, I was reluctant to depart too far from the Omeka template. Now that I have, though, I’m happier with the result. I made the header and footer fit within the center, rather than take up the whole screen. I also used the border-radius command in the CSS to round out the edges of each of those portions.

I also took Santa Anna out of the header image itself, and placed a different picture of him–in civilian clothing (taken from an 1850 book)–floating over the header map and the primary navigation bar. I chose this particular image because he would have traveled in civilian clothing, not his uniform. Also, it depicts Santa Anna as a younger man (he was 42 at the time of the journey) than any other images that I could find. His look in this image is comparable to that in the previous image of him in a military uniform.

Because I changed the overall color scheme, I also got rid of the color filter for the header map. Instead, I simply lightened the map quite a bit from the original, and changed the color of the route.

Perhaps the largest change, though, is how I got rid of the borders, and indeed the left and right colors. Now the entire background is a lighter version of the faded yellow that I used before. In the end, I’m happy with this change. The bold color on the sides distracted from the content. I hope, however, that this has kept its 19th-century feel.

The lack of borders made the secondary navigation more difficult. After first removing the bottom borders and experimenting with, essentially, buttons, I simply made the secondary navigation into a list, with the active page highlighted the same way the active section is in the main navigation.

So, this is where I am at this point. Please feel free to give me your thoughts! I’m always looking for feedback.

And now, on to putting in more of the content. I also need to figure out skip nav in Omeka. And add an about page…

Preliminary final project

My preliminary final project is live: http://davidmckenzie.info/projects/exhibits/show/santa-anna-goes-to-washington

I feel like it’s coming along. It’s coming along a bit more slowly than I had hoped, but it is coming along. Thus far I’ve found working with Omeka both challenging and rewarding. Rewarding, because it’s taken a learning curve to crack, and because it will give me more flexibility to include more items, particularly as the design solidifies. Challenging, for those same reasons. I have gone back to my CSS repeatedly, as I’ve added more items and realized, oh wait, that didn’t work so well. Not long ago, I expanded my main content container to give everything more breathing room.

A couple continuing issues:

  • The secondary navigation, i.e., the left menu bar. Overall I’m happy with how it’s turned out, except that some page titles get cut off. I’m not sure if it’s an issue with my padding and margins; anyone have thoughts?
  • I may need to go into Omeka’s exhibit page layouts and make some alterations. I haven’t been happy with how some of the layouts are turning out, such as this one. It’s meant to have two columns worth of items on the right side. Right now, it’s only displaying one, but some room for a second. I may need to make it so that it just wants to display one, as I feel the main text is too narrow.

Because of my continuing tinkering with the design (which has been really helped by blog comments from Claire and Lindsey, Twitter comments from program classmates Lynn and Erin, and in-person comments from my wife), I haven’t put in as much of the content as I’d like. There is more to come–but I hope where I am now gives a taste of what will be there.

I will look forward to receiving feedback from my classmates tomorrow night (or tonight, now that I’m writing past midnight). Anyone else that cares to comment, please feel free!

Critique: Design Assignment

For class we are each offering friendly critiques of one person’s design assignment (here is Claire’s insightful critique of my assignment). I am critiquing Amber’s assignment, about sites in Athens.


  • This is, overall, a really nice site. The color scheme works extremely well here–it’s muted, thus not taking away from the content. It matches well with the bust that you have at the top.
  • Your header font works well. It immediately invokes Greece, without exoticizing it too much. The headlines are consistent throughout the page. Although it’s a fun font, it’s also readable.
  • Your font throughout the page works really well, too. The serif is a nice choice, particularly since you are emphasizing ancient Athens. Also, you leave plenty of space between the lines.
  • Good choice of pictures. I especially like the bust hanging over the header.
  • The margins are nice–there is enough “white” space, without it being overwhelming. All in all, things are nicely spaced.

Just a few areas for improvement:

  • The bust, unfortunately, hangs over a little too far, obscuring some of the text. I know that’s a tough thing to control–perhaps shrink the bust a bit in Photoshop (or specify a smaller footprint in the HTML or the CSS)?
  • The spacing underneath the headline for the Parthenon was smaller than the spacing underneath the other headlines.
  • The captions could be distinguished in some other way from the main text. They are close to the images, and in a smaller font, so that certainly helps; perhaps also italicize, or even put a different color box around the images? That might help them stand out more. Perhaps use the same nice color that you use in the header and the footer?
  • That same color may work better for the pull quotation, as well. However, nice work in putting the pull quotation above the fold!
  • The left menu could be more aligned with the header background. Also, I think it would work to get rid of the left and right margins in both the header and the footer.

So, all in all, nice work! Is your final project going to be about Athens? Looking forward to seeing it!

Design Assignment is Live

You can find it here. Not so coincidentally, this is also the address of my final project. Because I am using Omeka for the project, I went ahead and got the whole site ready–at least with fillers for the pages, to give an idea of the site structure and the navigation.

Working with Omeka for this assignment was a trying but will be, I think, ultimately a rewarding experience. It was trying because I haven’t used PHP before, so I was flying partly blind. That led, for example, to several hours of me trying to figure out how to make my exhibit sections menu my primary menu, while also including a link back to the homepage. I ultimately gave up this pursuit, instead manually putting in each exhibit section into the PHP–hence why every page also shows the homepage as the current section (if anyone has any suggestions for this, please do let me know!). Thankfully, the Omeka Codex came to my rescue more than once.

To create the design for my site, I began with Omeka’s From Scratch theme. After some time, though, I gave up with it; I discovered that it was not structured for the most up-to-date version of Omeka. I also realized that I did not have the most up-to-date version of Omeka.

So I upgraded, and while that was happening I made my header graphic. For that, I took a Library of Congress map from 1837, did some necessary repairs (large parts of Illinois were missing, for example), and recolored it. I then cut out Santa Anna from a background and placed him on the side of the map. Finally, I traced the route of the journey, and added the lettering.

While I made the header graphic, I gave more thought to the color scheme for the overall site. Generally picking colors is not my favorite thing, and I’m not so confident in my skills; when asked to do a poster at work recently, I was relieved when asked to match a certain branding! For this, I was looking for something that evoked early 19th century, and also the United States and Mexico. However, I did not want a Southwestern theme a la Omeka’s Santa Fe theme (which I did use for my final project last semester–the database from which my project this term is drawn). The reason: this project doesn’t specifically focus on the Southwest, and indeed, my dissertation will likely leave out the borderlands (focusing on the “cores” of the United States and Mexico).

Especially after I discarded that “usual suspect” color scheme, I found that picking a color scheme for a transnational project is difficult! Like Beth, I didn’t want to exoticize Mexico, so I didn’t want to go with the national colors or anything that looked like it came from the tourism board. So in the end, I went back to the color scheme I’ve used for the rest of my portfolio: a mellow yellow with a dark red. I added a darker blue, which I hope helps evoke the Early U.S. Republic, and generally that period’s aesthetic, without being overly “patriotic.”

Once I had upgraded Omeka, I went into one of the four themes that came with that new installation: Seasons. I duplicated the folder for that one, and went to town creating my own theme, which I called “Santa Anna Goes to Washington” (creative, I know). I went into the CSS and modified. After a while, a design scheme started to come together. I kept the same fonts that I used in my type assignment, and even used my favorite (one) ornament!

Like when I did my portfolio page, I had trouble getting the menu bar as I wanted it; perhaps I’m overly picky with those? I hoped to have a border between each of the items, but because of my lack of knowledge of PHP I couldn’t figure it out (that awaits next semester). And there is my aforementioned issue with the start page remaining highlighted, no matter what page someone is using. I’m also debating whether I want the secondary navigation (the pages of each section) to have a different background color–I’m unsure whether my ornament is enough division.

So, I’m open to any suggestions! As part of this week’s assignment, we are each critiquing one of our classmates. So tomorrow, I will do my critique of Amber’s. Claire, go to town on mine!

What a difference a detail can make…

Right now I’m sitting by a microfilm machine at George Mason University’s Arlington campus library, looking at a microfilm–retrieved via interlibrary loan–of the journal of Calista Cralle Long. Long’s grandson published it in 1940, but it is hard to find–indeed, no Washington-area libraries, not even the Library of Congress, have it.

Long travelled with her husband and family from near Lynchburg, Virginia, to Union County, Kentucky, in late 1836 and early 1837. My reason for looking at her diary: On December 29, 1836, the party passed through Lexington, Kentucky. They stayed in the same place as Antonio López de Santa Anna, Juan Almonte, and three Texas Republic officials, who were traveling from toward Washington. Long described what happened:

We are now in Lexington, Kentucky, one of the handsomest places I was ever in. The surrounding country is highly cultivated and very neatly managed, the woodland enclosed and all the undergrowth cut down. This enclosure serves for stock. The grass, I am told, is nearly eighteen inches high on average.

Mr. Henry Clay has a most beautiful residence near town. We reached here about dark. The candles were burning on either side of the street and the reflection gave everything an added beauty.

There is a little confusion in town tonight on account of the heartless cruel Santa Anna’s arrival here. There is some little talk of a mob tonight. He has two gentlemen with him, his aide-de-camp and Major Somebody, I have forgotten his name. We are all lodged under the same roof. We took tea with the latter gentlemen at the same table.

The Mexican is a very genteel looking man, of low stature, dark hair and eyes, and rather sallow complexion. They are on their way to Washington, as they say, to see the President of the United States, (Jackson). I did not learn their business, neither did I see the General as he was ill and did not leave his room.

Santa Anna kept his room closely and very much wrapped and muffled up to prevent the effect of the keen air. His aide says he longs very much for his lost Paradise, Mexico.

Image of Juan Nepomuceno Almonte

Likely Long took tea with Juan Almonte, a Mexican army colonel who served as Santa Anna's translator during the journey to Washington.

I found this diary through serendipity when searching on ArchiveGrid for references to Santa Anna a while back. In the libraries that hold the published version of this diary, most catalog entries for this diary (at least not the ones I have seen) do not mention Santa Anna.

However, the catalog, uploaded to ArchiveGrid, from Madisonville Community College in Kentucky does. I haven’t seen this diary cited anywhere in accounts of Santa Anna’s voyage to Washington, and might not have known of its relevance otherwise. This diary entry will be a great source for my upcoming class project site about Santa Anna’s trip to Washington, and will eventually roll into my dissertation.

So to whoever that cataloger was, I say, thank you for adding that little detail! You never know what may help a future researcher.

Interactivity: Best Friend and Worst Foe

As the Clio Wired sequence draws to a close (except for those of us doing a minor field in digital history), and we move toward the sequence’s end product–a full digital history project–this week’s reading and web visit considered interactivity.

Ah yes, interactivity. The best friend and worst foe of exhibition developers, informal educators, and web developers alike. The hardest thing to accomplish in museum exhibitions, educational programs, and digital media–and one of the most pedagogically effective. How do we turn our audiences–whether in our physical spaces or in front of their screens of whatever size–from passive consumers of information to active and attentive learners?

In my past life as a content developer at an exhibit firm, how to make our exhibitions more interactive was the question with which the designers and I grappled most. When the firm’s design principal took his kids to a nature center we were contracted to redesign, he noticed they ran to the main interactive activity–a card catalog filled with specimens. Why? It gave them something to do. Even inelegant solutions like flip doors helped in many exhibitions. We often felt like we could do more–but what? Even flip doors–not to mention a pinball table explaining checks and balances–added greatly to the fabrication cost and complication.

The same conundra–cost, complication, and method–face developers and designers of digital media, as Joshua Brown’s 2004 article “History and the Web, From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace: Visual Technologies and Interaction in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries” discusses. Nearly eight years later–even after the advent of mobile technology–his article remains relevant, as the technology of the so-called 3-D Web has seemingly advanced little (for that matter, I had to use my laptop to access Lost Museum since it is Flash-based), and public historians and informal educators are increasingly discussing ways to “gamify” history learning, not just in a digital setting but physically in museums and historic sites as well.

Brown, who worked on some of the earliest digital history projects, assesses the faults and successes of those projects, from the HyperCard-based Who Built America? to the Flash-based, highly graphical Lost Museum. In particular, he focuses on the successes and failures of the Lost Museum site, saying that the game context overly limited the freeform learning that could take place (Lindsey offers a well-done critique of his critique). To increase that learning, the developers added a searchable database of extra information–in other words, they used the 2-D Web to make up for the education that the 3-D Web could not provide.

Looking at Brown’s article and at the Lost Museum site made me think about what I could do on my Omeka-based site, a draft of which is due in a mere two weeks. How do I engage my visitor to learn more about the 1837 visit of Antonio López de Santa Anna and Juan Almonte to Washington, an admittedly esoteric, yet I think (hope) important, topic?

As we’ve frequently discussed, a Web visitor, like a physical visitor to an exhibition or historic site, will not have the same tolerance for passive consumption as, say, a book reader sitting in his or her easy chair on a weekend afternoon. So how do I hook them and get them to learn not just about that trip, but what it reveals about perceptions of Mexicans in the United States a decade before the two countries fought a major war?

How to make this site more interactive–particularly within both the limits of the technology and, more relevantly, the limits of my own technological expertise–is daunting, to put it mildly. I’m having flashbacks to my exhibit firm days. Thus far, my solutions are limited. Is it enough to allow users to click through different levels of information–is that enough interactivity? I’m not so sure.

As Brown asked of the Lost Museum site, for mine, how do I “allow users to intervene in that narrative, to create their own pedagogical pathways and intellectual connections?” Since my site chronicles a journey, my thus far main–and far from original–idea is to allow the user to follow along the journey by including an interactive map. The user can click on different locations on the map to learn more about Santa Anna’s and Almonte’s stops in that place.

I also plan to include space for comments. The site will be structured in a nonlinear way, allowing users to access the images and text in which they are most interested. In some of this, I will take inspiration from 239 Days in America, which chronicles the visit to the United States of a man named ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1912 (and which I have eagerly followed on Twitter)–perhaps at the end of this year I will even tweet day-by-day accounts of Santa Anna and Almonte’s journey 176 years later (I missed the boat–no pun intended–on the 175th).

I would, however, like to move beyond these baby steps. It is far beyond my technical capability (not to mention budget!) to do anything with the 3-D web (whatever is coming of that), so no following the journey in one’s own virtual steamboat or carriage, but I do wonder what else I can do. Quizzes? Polls? How can I transform my passive consumer of information into an active learner? And how much do I need to? That remains to be seen, and suggestions are most welcome!


This week I commented on Richard’s and Celeste’s posts.

Starting to bring it together

At the end of last semester, Dr. Leon asked us to comment on a general prompt: What difference does new media make to doing history? After a course that had some hands-on elements combined with a lot of exploration of what others have done (and even some new media theory), we all commented that it makes a large difference, particularly in how we, as historians, present our work. Now, in this course that strongly emphasizes the hands-on, nuts-and-bolts of basic digital history (the advanced coding awaits many of us next semester), I’m really seeing what a difference the digital makes.

This week’s readings and TED videos (scroll to April 2) really help drive the point that historians–and everyone else–have a wide range of new tools at our disposal. As my classmates and I have previously commented, that also means we need a range of new skills and new considerations in doing our work.

Among those skills is design, so this week we revisited the book White Space Is Not Your Enemy. This was after a near-semester of not just reading about design but doing our own and critiquing that of others. Having picked up some design principles by osmosis previously, but not in a structured manner, I found this book valuable–not only from a “wow, was I doing that wrong!” perspective, but mainly because it offers a lot of good pointers in an accessible way. If anyone is looking for a crash course in design, I’d strongly recommend this book. Being the in-house designer for basic things at my office, I feel like my “eye” has improved over the course of the semester.

Design is not just about making things pretty, but making them accessible–meaning making them approachable by people of all sorts of cognitive and physical abilities. The other readings focused on doing just that. One of the most important pieces of advice is dealing with links, making sure they are obvious through underlining and using a contrasting color.

People of all physical and cognitive abilities, meanwhile, will lose your messages and content without proper information architecture. As we’ve discussed frequently, just as we organize information differently if we are creating a museum exhibition, academic monograph, documentary film, and lecture, we organize it differently for online presentations. In this case, like with any of those others (possibly excepting monographs, although we all complain about how ghastly so many of those are!), we only have a certain amount of time to hook our audience, whether that audience member is reading, watching, listening, or interacting. The articles we read (here and here) gave some good tips for how to organize information, and present visual cues, in an online medium.

The two TED videos we watched, meanwhile, showed us some of the possibilities that new media raise for our work as historians, through using different means to convey our information. Lawrence Lessig talks about how digital technology, in a reverse of a century of technological advancement, is allowing us to bring back what he calls read-write culture. The problem he rightfully identifies, and indeed on which he has hung his shingle, is that copyright law has not kept up with the technology.

As some of us commented last semester, what historians have done all along is a form of read-write culture. We’re taking our sources–be they documents, books, recordings, material culture, or what-have-you–and remixing them into an analysis/narrative to answer a question. We, like other creators, have greater tools now not only to do so, but to do so more transparently. For example, when we create archives and exhibits with Omeka, we are essentially remixing materials to create something new. As we discussed last semester, that act of arranging is in itself making an argument, not to mention whatever interpretation we put on top of it, in whatever form that interpretation takes.

Picture showing full pick-up truck on dirt road in rural area, versus wealthy neighborhood, in El Salvador

One of my favorite portions of Rosling's talk came when he broke out wealth within various countries. Here's my not-so-good visualization of El Salvador's wealth disparity: Top is a scene from my village, San Lorenzo (taken by me in 2003). Bottom is a scene from La Zona Rosa, one of the wealthiest areas of San Salvador (taken by me in 2005).

Digital technology allows us to interpret our primary sources, data, and analysis in more dynamic ways, as Hans Rosling demonstrates brilliantly in his TED talk about debunking myths of the Third World. I was mesmerized watching this video, not only because of an interest in the subject but because of how Rosling conveyed his information. I learned a lot in a short time through his dynamic presentation and impressive visualizations. I can see these statistics in my head. I’m more likely to remember them from his way of presenting than from, say, having them written up or put in tables in The Economist.

The animations to show change over time were, in particular, valuable to us as historians. Although I’m with Claire in not necessarily wanting to spend all the time on the calculations and programming that must have gone into Rosling’s presentation, I nonetheless found the talk inspirational. In giving tours at the Alamo and the historic Adas Israel synagogue, I’ve struggled to convey change over time. Pictures help; but nonetheless, I’ve wondered if my visitors have been able to visualize the spaces at different periods. In these cases I’m only trying to convey change over time in physical structures; what about change over time of concepts, of historical processes? This presentation showed some ways of making those changes visible, and thus more accessible to broad audiences.

As I work toward my final project, due in draft form in three weeks, I know that I have a lot to consider. Besides the project’s integrity as a piece of rigorous history, I need to present it in an accessible, appealing way. When we write even term papers, we have to consider how accessible we make our information. New media adds new challenges of accessibility to consider–but also new promises of access by a wide range of people. These are challenges I’m looking forward to tackling over the next few weeks.

Belated Addendum:

This week I commented on blog posts by Megan and Claire.