David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Category: Museums (page 1 of 2)

Misrepresenting plantation life

Today’s Washington Post Magazine contains an interesting story about the deterioration of the mansion at Carter’s Grove, a 1750 James River plantation whose opulent mansion now faces ruin due to neglect. This story, which I would otherwise recommend, begins with wrong history that perpetuates plantation nostalgia and stereotypes about Native American savagery.

The lede describes the exquisite detail of the plantation master’s mansion, considered one of the finest examples of plantation architecture. The author then states that Carter Burwell, of the Virginia gentry Carters, wanted his mansion “to awe visitors with physical evidence of the bountiful riches that could be wrung from the New World wilderness.”

This sentence is problematic, to put it mildly. For one thing, the writer ignores and/or mistakes from what, or more accurately whom, Burwell and his fellow gentry extracted their wealth. While an English visitor in 1750 may have thought that the Virginia Tidewater was a wilderness, what could legitimately be considered that loaded term was much further west by then.

Most importantly, this statement, combined with the lede, romanticizes plantation life. Burwell wrung his wealth–note the article’s passive voice–from the enslaved persons (47 in 1783) who lived and toiled at Carter’s Grove every day for undernourishing rations and pitiful housing.

Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve seen such romanticization of plantation life in The Post‘s pages. Last year the paper ran a travel story about a 1778 plantation-turned-inn near Orange, Virginia, where the writer imagined herself and her husband as “lord and lady of the manor,” talked about the other “buildings” on the “estate,” and included a joke that a mannequin in a tux was “the original butler.” Never mind that while Virginia’s gentry fancied themselves as English, they were running (sometimes) profitable slave-labor operations; some of the buildings on the plantation may be former slave quarters, if such flimsily-built housing even survives; and that the original butler would not be the well-paid and attired Mr. Jeeves but an enslaved person.

This year’s magazine story further presents a faulty interpretation of Virginia’s past when it discusses Wolstenholme, a colonial settlement that “was destroyed during a native Powhatan massacre of English settlers in 1622.” The Encyclopedia of Virginia‘s blog tackles this point. The individual act could be described as a massacre, as it was the opening act of a war. The Powhatan leader Opechancanough led his tribe in an attack upon English settlements, killing hundreds of men, women, and children. Again, though, the context that the article’s statement lacks is important. The Powhatans’ 1622 uprising came after 15 years of continuous depredations on the part of English colonists. Omitting that portion of the story perpetuates the trope of savage Indians.

Both articles are not specifically about the history of the places. This week’s magazine story focuses on the destruction by neglect of what is not just an architectural gem but a significant archaeological site. I would otherwise recommend it as an interesting look at historic preservation issues. To be fair, the author does write further in the article about the former slave quarters, formerly maintained (along with the big house) by Colonial Williamsburg, and mentions excavations of a Powhatan village on the site.  Meanwhile, the travel story from last year is a light-hearted look at an inn.

Nonetheless, the tone of both of these stories presents a whimsical look at plantation life–a life that was hardly whimsical for the majority of a plantation’s inhabitants. The historical pictures presented in both stories lack context, perpetuating toxic myths that form the heart of this country’s fraught racial and ethnic relations.

I realize that the writers of both stories were likely working with limited word counts, and the scopes of their stories were beyond these historical statements. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb saying many more people will read these articles than will read the latest monographs on colonist-Indian relations or slavery in colonial Virginia. As such, these statements matter. It behooves any writer to get his or her history right.

Update: The Encyclopedia Virginia’s blog rightfully responded to this post by pointing out the important difference between getting history right and certain interpretations of history right. An important distinction here, and one that the Encyclopedia Virginia makes well. Thanks!

Informal education, museums, and the Peace Corps

“Peace Corps and the Alamo. I never thought I’d hear that combination.”

That was the reaction of a professor several years ago when I mentioned where I had worked. In March, when I attended the Symposium on Informal Learning, sponsored by the American Association of Museums and The George Washington University Museum Education Program, I remembered that statement.

Listening to the speakers discuss informal education and learning (related but different concepts) reminded me how much my experience in El Salvador with the Peace Corps has overlapped with the career I’ve begun in the museum world. Yet to many, this overlap has seemed surprising. Perhaps this stems from seemingly (at least to my own eyes) little overlap in personnel. In my short time in the Peace Corps, I met no one who was planning a museum or public history career. Although I’ve heard of people in museums and public history who once served in Peace Corps, I haven’t yet met any in person (although I mutually tweet with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who is in a library program).

Thus, I share my experiences here in hope of provoking dialogue and connections between museums and the Peace Corps, both of which are engaged in the common objective of creative education outside of a classroom setting and share a lot more in common than may meet the eye.

My initial encounter with informal education

Although I had worked as a history interpreter at the Alamo for several months prior to leaving for El Salvador, Peace Corps training was the first place that I encountered the term informal education.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Peace Corps strongly emphasizes that concept. Many volunteers–in my case, all of my training class besides a 56-year-old engineer–are either fresh out of college or a few years removed. We had spent most of our lives in the formal education system, yet were going to  work with people who often had little contact with their country’s formal educational system.

In my community, many adults had not gone past early elementary school. But lack of education does not mean lack of intelligence. During the next several months I interacted with some of the smartest people I’ve met in my life. Many people–whether Salvadoran campesinos (country folk, loosely translated) or gringos with multiple degrees–do not always learn best in formal settings. Informal education does not mean dumbing down; it simply means teaching with different, “informal,” methods.

So, to reach our audiences, we had to break the habits we had acquired from the formal education system. Gone were lectures. In El Salvador, we gave charlas (“chats,” as compared with “talks”), often at meetings of various community organizations.

Although I didn’t realize it until I returned to the Alamo after early-terminating from Peace Corps, I had also been engaging in informal education there. I have done the same in my museum internships and jobs since. After all, much of what a museum does is informal education, whether it be through lectures, tours, exhibitions, new media activities, and even publications.


Thus, based on my experiences of 10 months in the Peace Corps and now nearly 10 intermittent years in the museum/public history field, I offer some more specific commonalities, with anecdotes to illustrate the points. Since my M.A. is in Museum Studies, and I have not held a specific museum education job (although my jobs have involved some of the same functions), this is by no means a comprehensive list, just some examples that come to mind.


This is the most basic, and general, idea of informal education. The talking head, in both museum settings and the Peace Corps, is the kiss of death to learning. Informal education in both settings is interactive; at its most basic, a dialogue between educator and audience. In Peace Corps, we were rightfully admonished not to be up in front of a group just yakking away, but to engage the audience. This could be through any means, but the most important thing was having a dialogue–a charla.

Guided discovery

One form of interactive informal education that I’ve seen in both museums and Peace Corps is guided discovery–the idea that we guide our audiences to the learning objectives, rather than just telling them. In Peace Corps, volunteers are trained to fade into the background and guide their audiences.

For example, in my community, people complained about how long and scattered community council meetings could be–so much so that it was a disincentive to attendance (other volunteers reported the same). So I decided to try a charla on parliamentary procedure. It was a challenge; parliamentary procedure is not easy to teach in a classroom, much less an informal setting. So, based on what I had learned in training, I worked with that particular meeting’s attendees to draw up rules for how to conduct meetings more efficiently. I put up a piece of butcher paper and worked with the community members to create two lists: essentially, characteristics of good meetings and characteristics of bad meetings. I asked some leading questions. Even when I didn’t, people came up with great suggestions. In the end, we had a list that community members, not the gringo, had created.

Just the same, in museums we guide people to come to the conclusions we are trying to teach. During a tour, rather than telling people what is on a building, we have them look for themselves. Then, we guide them to deduce the building’s history from those clues. Thus, our audience members feel like they have come up with the solution for themselves, and are more likely to have that lesson sink in.

Physical motion, even games

Peace Corps training strongly emphasizes games; I was lucky to have a program director who had co-authored an entire book on games to use in water, health, and sanitation education. What I saw there, and have since seen in museums, convinced me that games are not just for children.

In my community, I watched a nongovernmental organization worker use a game from that book to great effect to teach about the importance of preventative health practices–not always well-known in rural El Salvador. She gave each participant a certain amount of “money.” Then she read out different scenarios for the next several days, reflecting decisions people could make about preventative health. Each participant either received more money (for a day’s work) or lost money (for expenses) for each day. For example, someone did not wash his/her hands before handling food and got amoebas (not a pleasant experience). The person lost a day’s work (in a country where sick leave is rare) and also had to buy medicine. Someone else who did practice preventative health, meanwhile, gained a day’s wage. In the end, the person who had taken the most responsibility for prevention had the most money.

Sure, she could have gotten up and just lectured on the importance of preventative health. But by showing it through this game, she drove the point home; the followup discussion clearly reflected that.

Just the same, in museums we frequently have people act out scenarios. There has recently been a great deal of discussion about gaming in learning–not just in museums, but broadly. Participants in that discussion should look to the Peace Corps for inspiration; Peace Corps has been using games to teach for decades.

Final thoughts

I hope this post might provoke dialogue between museums and the Peace Corps, two of the most established types of informal education institutions. In my brief experiences, I’ve seen a lot of connection between their methodologies. Museum educators would make great Peace Corps volunteers, and vice versa. Both have a lot to learn from each other. I hope that both will do so.

I hope that in the future, people won’t be so surprised when I say that I’ve served as a Peace Corps volunteer and made a career in museums.

Do you have experiences in informal education, whether in the Peace Corps, museums, or another setting? Please share those in the comments. I would love for people with more experience in both to compare notes.

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.

Making information accessible

As we’ve discussed throughout the semester, design is not just about making things pretty, but also functional–to go back to my former classmate’s telling, the crossroads of art and engineering. This week’s web visits focused more on the functionality part, specifically making websites accessible to people with disabilities, and the reading (Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations) on making information and arguments accessible in visual form.

As I’ve worked on my website and blog, I haven’t been as cognizant of accessibility for people with disabilities as I should have. Dr. Petrik has alluded to methods that she uses on her own sites for screen readers. Although I could have just plucked her code, I had not yet done so. I also sometimes have put in alt-text for my images, and admittedly barely so. After using WebAim’s Screen Reader Simulation, I’m going back and making sure that my pages are more accessible, particularly to visually impaired people. If you haven’t used it, I strongly recommend you do so.

Maggie makes the point that, at its base, the Internet is a fundamentally text-based medium–even when it comes to images. This makes it more accessible, and shows that the main thing is conveying information. Now I see another reason for Steve Jobs to take on on his seemingly now-successful crusade to destroy Flash: it does not help to convey information for those unable to see it, because it obscures text from screen readers.

This does not mean, of course, that images do not have their place.  This is where Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations comes into play. Sometimes a visual simply makes an argument better–as long as it is done correctly. Lindsey’s post has a great synopsis of some of the book’s more salient points.

Map of Washington, 1846. Map shows the squares and streets of the city, but not where the actual buildings are.

Map of Washington, 1846. Map shows the squares and streets of the city, but not where the actual buildings are--perhaps giving the impression of much more urban development than in actuality.

How a visualization is done, of course, makes a difference in what information it conveys. To complement Tufte’s brilliant examples, I’d like to add early maps of Washington. Often we see the original L’Enfant-Ellicott plan of streets. Later maps of Washington show the same, such as the 1846 map that I show here. But then consider the Boschke map, produced just before the Civil War (and confiscated upon war’s outbreak because of its possible value to the Confederacy). The mapmaker meticulously detailed each building in the city, not just the streets and squares as most previous maps did. This map shows just how undeveloped the planned area of the city of Washington was, seven decades after L’Enfant, Ellicott, and Banneker laid it out. The streets were there, but many blocks were undeveloped. One would not gain that impression from the 1846 map.

Boschke map of Washington, 1857, showing where the buildings are. A close look reveals most development concentrated around the Capitol, White House, and 7th Street--but most of the L'Enfant-Ellicott plan remained undeveloped.

Boschke map of Washington, 1857, showing where the buildings are. A close look reveals most development concentrated around the Capitol, White House, and 7th Street--but most of the L'Enfant-Ellicott plan remained undeveloped.


Along the lines of accessibility: not only are some arguments more accessible via images and visualizations, but some people learn better via images. I, for one, tend more to remember seeing a picture of something than a written or auditory explanation. The graphics in this book are absolutely stunning, and demonstrate–not just tell–how images can be used to convey meaning. By working in new media, we now have greater abilities to communicate with more than words. Our visualizations can reach all the more people.

So, then, we have a juxtaposition here in this week’s readings. The Web allows us to communicate using not just text but also images, movies, sound files, etc. But at the same time, it makes our content more accessible to audiences that rely on the text. So, then, what to do?

In the public history world, we design exhibitions and educational programs around different learning styles and different physical abilities. I remember many times walking a space with my exhibit designer former boss and measuring out accessibility requirements, and discussing different learning styles with educators. Just the same, in the digital world we must design to be accessible not just to people with physical impairments but different learning styles. So we must incorporate both greater explanatory text and explanatory images into our sites. The images are there for those who can see them; good descriptions help convey textually the messages we are trying to convey with the images.

Is this hard? You bet. In public history, it is. But it is also necessary. It is in digital history, too. Thanks to this week’s assignments, I’m going to make a point to be more conscious of making my work and its arguments accessible–in all the many shades of that word–to various audiences.

Map in the Wilderness Road Blockhouse Interpretive Center, blown up from a .jp2 file from the Library of Congress.

Map in the Wilderness Road Blockhouse Interpretive Center, blown up from a .jp2 file from the Library of Congress. Wound up crystal-clear.

What a Tool: As part of our blog posts this week, we’ve been asked to mention a digital tool that we find useful for historians. Because I have a hard time making decisions sometimes, I’m suggesting two:

  • Instapaper: This app, for iPhone, iPad, and for web browsers, is wonderful for saving things that you want to read, but for which you don’t have time at that moment. I use it most often to save articles off of Twitter, particularly ones that I see during my commute. It’s also nice to have for said commute, or for time at the gym. In fact, last semester I read most of my articles in that way.
  • Library of Congress Map Collections: The Library of Congress has one of the world’s most amazing map collections, and has digitized a bunch of it. Not only is it digitized, but with super-high-resolution, .jp2 files. Meaning: When I worked for the exhibition design firm, I downloaded a .jp2 version of a late 18th century map of Virginia (sadly I forget which, so I don’t have a link to it here), made some tinkers (Photoshop did not at the time read .jp2, something that has since been corrected), and blew it up to a 8.5 foot tall wall mural at the Wilderness Road Blockhouse Interpretive Center in far southwest Virginia. Amazingly, the map at that size is crystal-clear. I’ve also taken a neighborhood view from an 1884 birds-eye of Washington–I was able to get such detail because of the quality of the scan. And I previously wrote about how the serendipitous discovery of an 1819 map of Mexico and the southern United States led me to a person to include in my dissertation (alas, someone else has already written an article on him. Harumph.) Not only are these maps great for display, however; they also are wonderful primary sources. Something indispensable in any historian’s toolkit.

Photoshop for history

This week’s assignment, working with images, is up.

As others have commented, it is amazing how addictive working with images in Photoshop can be. Thankfully I got a plenty early start on it!

I chose to give my page a name: “Retouching the Capital City.” I was particularly excited about a Library of Congress painting of Washington in the 1840s–I used that as my banner header for the page (and cleaned up, but some blemishes remain). I chose the name because I chose images of Washington from different times–particularly one landmark in Washington, the historic Adas Israel synagogue, of which I give tours regularly as part of my job.

I gave myself a bit of a challenge. The one extant image of the sanctuary from the building’s synagogue period (1876-1908) came out of a 1903 newspaper. The original does not exist. The newspaper copy was essential for restoration in the early 1970s, and we frequently show it to visitors. So I tried to see if I could restore. I think I accomplished some, but it’s still most definitely a newspaper photo. I also tried a hand-coloring of it, to give perhaps a better view of what the interior originally looked like.

I also hand-colored an exterior shot from the same newspaper article. I think that turned out better, largely because the walls were not painted white, as the interior ones were! But if you want to see a really, really good colored image, I suggest you visit Megan’s page.

To get more practice, particularly with actual photographs, I restored two 1960s color photos of the former synagogue–by then three storefronts, including one with a barbecue pork sign. This proved significantly easier, and I hope helps bring greater understanding of that building’s history.

For matting an engraving, and for vignette, I used an image of Washington from 1832, showing the Capitol with the old dome. This one also proved easier to work with than the two newspapers, although it seems that some of the best methods for dealing with engravings work on images without the heavy gray dots that this one has.

The page for the assignment has more about what I did to achieve (or not) the various effects.

So all in all, an enjoyable assignment. I’m learning, as others have mentioned, just how time-consuming, frustrating, and yet absolutely amazing Photoshop is. I have already used it some in my nascent (public, thus far) history career, and am glad to know it much, much better.

Putting the assignment online gave me the opportunity to play with my webpage somewhat. On the image assignment, I got rid of the sidebar, which had been cluttering up the homepage and type assignment (I left the sidebar on those pages, though, as that would bring about a near-total reformatting). Because the image assignment page is so long, I added a navigation menu at the bottom. I’ve put that on the other pages, too.

I’m considering changing the crimson-and-yellow color scheme of the overall site, but for now I’ve decided to keep it. If anyone has suggestions there, I’m all ears.

My classmates may appreciate that for this page I didn’t use ornaments all over the place!

In order to show captions with the images, I put them into their own divs. Originally I had floated them left or right, but I realized that it would make the most sense to display before-and-after shots side-by-side. I also wanted to have the captions under each individual image.

To do that, I experimented with creating a second div, to wrap the two divs. After much, much difficulty and attempts at coding, I seem to have gotten that to work. At first the images displayed side-by-side, but the height was inconsistent, leading to some strange word wrapping. I then tried setting a background color for the large div. That didn’t display. Finally, after some trial and error I got that to display–but one caption hung over. So in the end, I just cheated the shorter caption, adding line breaks to make it even.

If anyone wants to look at my CSS and tell me if I should be doing something else with that portion, I’m all ears! Like with Photoshop, there is still a great deal to learn…

Addendum: This week I commented on Claire’s and Richard’s blogs.

The Importance of Design for Historians

A Museum Studies classmate turned exhibition design firm colleague once remarked that she pursued design as a career because it combined her interest in art with an appreciation for engineering inherited from her engineer father. This is the best definition I’ve heard of design and its importance–it’s not just about making things pretty (the art side), but functional and usable through visual and physical cues (the engineering side).

That is the main point of this week’s readings (for the two of you following at home, scroll to January 30): design creates the form and function of everything, and sends its own cues. This is an important lesson for historians, particularly in a climate where our work will increasingly be on the Internet or in other media, and where we will be interacting frequently with designers, if not designing ourselves.

In history, we are used to privileging text, as can be seen sometimes when historians review museum exhibitions and focus solely on the text. This means they miss the messages sent by the space, which is planned just as meticulously to convey the exhibition’s messages and themes. For an example of this, see the back and forth between Alan Singer and Richard Rabinowitz over the New-York Historical Society’s Revolution! exhibition (an exhibition I loved, for what it’s worth)–Singer’s critique focuses almost exclusively on the exhibition’s text. While the text is an important component of the exhibition, it is merely a component.

From left: American Historical Review, Public Historian, Museum. Each conveys the message of its organization.

No matter what, the design of something contains a message. Let’s look at the main publications of the three professional organizations with which I associate myself: the American Association of Museums (disclosure: my wife works there, but not on the publication), the National Council on Public History, and the American Historical Association. Each reflects its organization and its audience. AAM’s Museum is glossy, with numerous color photos and a magazine-style layout. The American Historical Review, by contrast, conveys heft both by its bulkiness and its design. The cover is plain, with one image and serif type on a white background. Public Historian falls in the middle: It contains photos on the cover and more color.

What messages do they convey? Museum serves a field where conveying messages visually in physical and digital spaces is paramount. Public Historian serves a field with similar concerns, albeit one where text is more privileged. American Historical Review, by contrast, serves a field whose traditional means of communication–at least those that advance one’s career–consist of monographs and article. In other words, text is privileged.

When we historians are communicating with others who privilege text, perhaps a design like that of the American Historical Review makes sense. It conveys extreme seriousness, perhaps even turning off others outside the profession (and, I suspect, many within). But as more of our work goes online, and as even those in academia (those few who get jobs on that path, at least) hopefully work with museums and historic sites, we need to have a greater understanding of design.

As B.J. Fogg’s report on website credibility notes, design is the first cue of credibility for many, not just on the Web. Even if we are not actually the people designing our own websites (or museum exhibitions), we need to be aware of the language of design for communicating with designers. The era where we could not be concerned with design is over, if it ever existed. We convey meaning through more than our words.

What Difference Does New Media Make to Doing History?

It makes me sad to say that this is my last blog post for Clio Wired I. I have learned a great deal, and really enjoyed learning both the bigger picture of digital history, and some hands-on skills with it.

So, we come to the final post for class. What difference does new media make to doing history? The short answer: a great deal.

As I reflected in my first blog post, written at Charlotte airport on a hot day as I came back from an unexpected trip to Texas (and was stewing over my Steelers’ opening-day loss), coming into the class I thought that the main difference new media made to history was in its dissemination. New media makes it possible to reach broader audiences with the results of one’s historical research.

Now, as I sit under a blanket by my newly-decorated Christmas tree and the TV flashes NFL playoff scenarios (thankfully including the Steelers), I know that new media makes all the more difference to doing history. As Lev Manovich argued in The Language of New Media, new media, unlike previous technological advances, changes everything.

In the dissemination realm – the realm that previously concerned me more as a public historian – new media allows us to reach broader audiences. But the nature of the digital medium also forces us to conceive how we reach those audiences differently. As Sheri eloquently states in her post for this week, “Learning how to think in multiple formats and to structure information so viewers can navigate through information forwards, backwards, sideways, and otherways requires vision and planning similar, but also quite unlike the standard two-dimensional outline.”

For public historians perhaps that isn’t so much of a leap, since we already need to think of structuring information differently if we are presenting it in an exhibition, walking tour, brochure, lecture, film, interview, podcast, article, or book. Yet, as we discovered in week 9, all but two those types of products don’t often get one tenure in the academic world. Many of those outputs don’t leave much room for long-form argument or in-depth analysis. New media does, but just structured in a different way. What that way is, as we learned, is yet to be determined.

So, the main difference that new media makes for historians of all stripes output-wise is learning to think in different ways about how we structure our work. An exhibit is not a book, and a digital history project is neither.

For me, the most enlightening part of this semester has been learning more how digital media changes the process of producing history – not just the quantity of primary source material now available, but the means we have of approaching that material. As I mentioned in my post for week 10, we still need to rely on the oldest tool in our arsenal, the human brain, to come up with our questions and make sense of what the tools tell us. Yet, various tools and technologies allow us to ask and answer different questions than we could before.

As someone who has long desired to keep one foot in the academic history door and one foot in the public history door, but has been more in the public history realm the last several years, this class has been a great start to my Ph.D. Indeed, as this semester concludes, I find the main appeal of the digital for me is that it helps me straddle the (unfortunate) divide between academic and public history. It has helped me bridge the divide I was feeling between my academic and public history interests, particularly in the structuring of my career.

At this point I’m not sure if I will try for a digital dissertation, but I am more open to the idea than I was previously. At the very least, I plan to have an online archive to accompany my written dissertation – an archive I have begun for my final project in this class. I will look forward to learning more hands-on technological skills – many of which I lack beyond a rudimentary level (and some not even that advanced) – in Clio 2. In the meanwhile, I am thankful to Sharon and my classmates for great discussions and the new things I have learned, and the new tools and ways of thinking now in my arsenal as I proceed in my historical career.

Opening up–or locking down–scholarly communication

This week’s readings (Week 13) focused on the interrelated, sometimes opposed, issues of copyright and open access in scholarly (and other) communication.

I greatly enjoyed all of the readings, but the one that resonated with me most was Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture. This well-written book–so well-written that in spite of having plenty of other readings, I didn’t do the graduate student skim (much to my chagrin on Sunday night!)–discusses the formation of the United States’s scheme of copyright, its recent abuses, and presents a moderate, well-reasoned solution to recent issues. In keeping with the Constitution’s original intent (yes, that loaded term) of promoting creativity by both granting and limiting copyrights, Lessig suggests allowing one fifty-year copyright term, renewable. That way, non-commercially-viable works will lapse into the public domain–allowing them to be used and built upon–while forcing registration of still-commercially-viable works. In the meanwhile–particularly after his unfortunate loss in Eldred v. Ashcroft (discussed in-depth and well in this book)–Lessig has promoted the Creative Commons licenses that have recently taken off.

This book resonated with me because of my experiences as a public historian, particularly as a content developer sourcing images for several museum exhibitions while working for The Design Minds, Inc. Because of the current 95-year copyright term, many of these exhibitions took on added expenses–expenses that could be crippling for many of the small museums for which we worked. In a couple of instances, we (or the client, depending on the nature of the contract) coughed up four figures for images. Because we had used largely public-domain images, or images from the clients’ collections, otherwise, in these cases the clients were able and willing to pay those costs. But other times we found ourselves having to substitute inferior images.

This is to say nothing of cases where copyright is uncertain–an issue rearing its head lately in regards to Google Books and the Hathi Trust, or old recordings.

I got lucky the one time I tried to do track down copyright for an old recording. When I was working on the Gold Mining Camp Museum at Monroe Park, I emailed Dick Spottswood of WAMU’s Bluegrass Country (whose delightful show I’m listening to right now) to ask what sort of music might have been heard at a mining camp in Fauquier County, Virginia, in the 1930s–the time and place we were interpreting. He was nice enough to reply and suggest John Ashby, a musician performing around Fauquier at that time. Thankfully, I was able to track down the copyright holder for Ashby’s music after only going through a few people, and gain permission–the person was even happy to provide me a digital file. This worked well for him–it exposed new audiences to Ashby’s music–and worked well for the county’s park authority (owner of the museum), allowing the featuring of a local artist.

But what if I had not been able to track that rights holder down? Would the client and I have decided to take the risk of playing that recording? Or would we have lost that local connection, choosing to play, say, jazz from that period (which Spottswood said would have been heard in Fauquier from Washington radio stations)? I’m guessing the latter, since we would have feared the repercussions of someone coming after us for breach of copyright–that is, if we could have even found Ashby’s recordings.

As Lessig brings up, digital technology is making copyright a bigger issue than before, as the technology allows for easier duplication and derivative works. As we have discussed through the semester, it also opens up new doors for scholarly communication. We can more easily find sources–presuming they are not locked down. Recently I followed a Twitter discussion suggesting that more historians will choose to study the 19th century, because so much 20th century material is locked down due to copyright, thus much harder to digitize and distribute–and not for technical reasons.

We also can disseminate our work in different ways, the subject of the Scholarly Communications Institute’s eighth session. The report–a nice summation of issues we have discussed during class–talked about different ways scholars can communicate using digital technology, going beyond the monograph-article model, and what the implications of those new means are. What of peer review? What of writing for a broader audience? Two lines about that subject particularly resonated with me:

To date, scholarly communication has privileged authors over audience, and many scholars carry this presumption of precedence into the digital realm (10). […] Which audience will take precedence–fellow specialists or the general public? Or if that dichotomy is itself a false distinction in the digital environment–as seems likely–what does it mean for scholarly communication? (11)

Indeed. Is it a false distinction in the digital environment? If it is–and I think it can be–that explains what attracted this public historian with academic leanings toward digital history–the ability to bridge that dichotomy, to fulfill my goal of having one foot in the academic history door, one in the public history door.

This and the other readings also raised the important issue of open access. Since we can, should we make our work readily available? I’m leaning toward yes. While some might worry about plagiarism, the technology makes plagiarism easier to detect. I’d like to hear what others think about this, though.

So digital technology has put us at a crossroads. Will our sources and the products we produce from those sources be locked down and controlled, or will they be open? What are the implications from each of those paths? Thoughts?

Popularizing the Historical Process

This week’s readings (Week 12) focused on what can broadly be called “citizen history” or “crowdsourcing”–inviting public participation in the process of creating knowledge, not just waiting to receive the end product.

The four articles, Roy Rosenzweig on Wikipedia, Jeff Howe’s Wired piece on crowdsourcing, a Smithsonian report [PDF] on the Institution’s collaboration with the Flickr Commons project, and a History News forum, all discuss issues with various aspects of crowdsourcing, but ultimately come to the right conclusion: the positives outweigh the negatives.

Crowdsourcing–whether a transcription project (like Papers of the War Department and the New York Public Library menus project), a research project (like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Children of the Lodz Ghetto or the National Postal Museum’s Arago portal), or a collaborative project (like Wikipedia)–can certainly have inaccuracies. But you don’t have to crowdsource for inaccurate information to get out there–even scholars, not to mention firebrand political commentators (couldn’t resist…) or textbook writers, can get history wrong.

But the above projects have tapped into the passion and knowledge that we can find dispersed in the public, and have used it to answer questions and, more broadly, produce knowledge. In 2008 I attended a session on crowdsourcing projects at the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums conference. The two projects discussed, NPM’s Arago (presented by my friend Christine Hill Mereand) and the Library of Congress’s participation in Flickr Commons, took different approaches. Arago relied on a registration system before a researcher could begin contributing. LOC, by contrast, opened up the photos to all sorts of comments on the Flickr Commons.

Both projects relied on staff interaction, to filter comments and provide resources–indeed, if I remember correctly, that was Christine’s main job. Nonetheless, both projects greatly stretched the capabilities of the institutions, answering research questions much more quickly than they would have been answered by staff members or other researchers. The example I remember best from that presentation was a LOC photo of a tea house in an unknown town: someone recognized his/her hometown in Massachusetts. Now that information is available to researchers–someone researching the history of that town would never have found that photo, because it would not come up in searches for that town on LOC’s catalog. From what I remember of this presentation, they had to deal with little in the way of inaccurate information.

Perhaps more importantly, crowdsourcing projects are not only building on the knowledge of the public, they are inviting public participation. As my friend and former colleague Elissa Frankle, who works on the Children of the Lodz Ghetto project, stressed in her Ignite Smithsonian presentation, museums (and probably even more so academics) too often assume people will, and must, be passive consumers of information–and in the end, will get turned off by history. But as all of these projects show, there is a way to harness this passion. The Papers of the War Department reports 356 registered users in the past seven months–some (like me) who have done one or two documents, others who have done many more. Now all of these people have a connection to history.

So, then, what of expertise in a crowdsourced world? Why are all of us in this class pursuing this advanced degree? If anyone can do history, what is our role?

This not an either-or proposition. What we, as professionals, must do is provide the context, provide the guidance. We are the ones whose jobs (at least when we can get them!) include keeping the bigger picture in mind. As Rosenzweig noted, many Wikipedia articles focus on the minutiae–questions that we often deem to “small” to research. The Smithsonian report notes a seemingly low participation rate–one comment per 2,089 views. This raises the point that for us, being a historian is a job, not just a hobby on the side to juggle while we otherwise work, have family and social lives, etc.

We are the ones who have the time and the obligation to keep the bigger picture in mind, and to convey it. As I’ve found in working at museums and historic sites, questions from visitors have helped me hone my own interpretation, tested my own knowledge, and even helped lead me to new questions to research. Visitors at the Alamo asked me about Antonio López de Santa Anna’s visit to Washington in 1837. When I decided, several years later, to research just that, I stumbled upon a dissertation topic–and here I am, pursuing it.

It can be much the same with crowdsourcing. Seemingly inaccurate information or questions, whether they’re said online, in a classroom, or at a historic site, can provide “teachable moments.”

At the same time, opening our process up for scrutiny and participation brings a wider understanding of what we do. Crowdsourcing is no panacea for the troubles that ail history in the United States today. But even with its drawbacks, it offers a glimmer of hope, and can be part of the cure.

The Deerfield Raid, in Multiple Forms

I looked forward to this week’s reading, about creating the websiteRaid on Deerfield: the Many Stories of 1704,” because it connected the strands of my career to-date in academic, digital, and public history.

When I took David Silverman’s Colonial North America seminar (syllabus in Microsoft Word format) in spring 2005, we read a scholarly monograph on the same subject: Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney‘s masterful Captors and Captives: The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield. As I read the article and explored the website, I thought back to that book and the resultant class discussion, particularly what the differences in format say about history in digital versus book form.

One of the similarities that struck me was the quest of Haefeli and Sweeney–both involved in producing the website–and the creators of the website to tell the story from multiple perspectives. This reflects a positive trend in recent historiography on Colonial North America. Richard Melvoin followed a similar path in his 1992 New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield, which differed from traditional New England town studies in that it begins with a Native American settlement, then the succeeding English settlement.

The website and Captors and Captives, due to their technology, approach this quest for multiple perspectives in different ways. The book follows a more traditional narrative strategy. With chapters on New England towns, New France, mission Indians, and independent Indians between New France and New England, it brings the reader to the time of the raid by discussing the development of the societies that clashed on that fateful day in February 1704. Then it interweaves the stories of the multiple groups into a cohesive narrative of the leadup to the raid, the raid itself, and its aftermath.

The website, meanwhile, allows visitors to explore the different perspectives separately. Instead of the multiple perspectives being narrated together, as in the book, the site provides the multiple perspectives through tabs, combined with an overview of each vignette.

Each approach, besides being suited for its technology, offers certain advantages and disadvantages instructive for any public digital history project.

The separation of the perspectives in the website can be both an advantage and a handicap. An advantage, in that each site visitor can more thoroughly “immerse” himself or herself in each side of the story. Indeed, one could follow the entire story from one perspective, then shift over to another perspective.

Or the person could follow the story from just one perspective–and leave it at that. As we discussed in class recently, such a layout makes it easier both to present and ignore multiple perspectives. When a visitor videotaping my history talk at the Alamo wanted to ignore the Mexican government side of my interwoven narrative, he had to make the effort to turn off the camera. Presumably his video appeared choppy.

A visitor to the “Raid on Deerfield” website does not need to make such an effort to ignore the other perspectives presented, whereas a reader of the book would have to make an effort similar to Jefferson’s with the Bible to do the same.

These caveats not meant to disparage the effort made on the website. They should only serve to remind us of an issue that we as digital historians should address; that said, we may just need to “let go” and allow visitors to do what they will with the content we put out there.

Thus, I concur with my classmate and fellow public historian Chris that “Raid on Deerfield” is what digital public history should be. As he notes, the website erases some of the issues that we public historians face with limited space for exhibitions: the Web allows us to go in-depth, as we would in a book, while presenting the story graphically and in digestible chunks, as we would in an exhibition. Rather than the “taste” that history exhibitions are supposed to provide (hoping visitors will then go buy the book in the gift shop), the website allows both for tastes and for in-depth looking.

The website also brings this story to many more people. The book, while widely available, has presumably not reached a large audience. It is not available online through the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association–creator of the website–nor Historic Deerfield (although a companion book is), and it ranks number 896,523 on Amazon.com. I was unable to find visitation numbers for the website, but I think I’m safe in assuming many more people have seen it than have read the book. Even if visitors to the website chose to ignore other perspectives, they were at least presented with them–and with a memorable, educational, generally neat website, at that.

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