David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Category: Public History (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.

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.

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.

Blog title angst, or, crowdsourcing a new title

I’d like to change my blog title, but am having a hard time deciding what I want to call it. So I’m asking you, all two of you (if that) who read this blog, your thoughts. Some criteria and titles that I’m considering:

  • I’ve never really been sold on “McKenzie’s Musings,” as I’m afraid it sounds too pretentious. I’m not someone with enough gravitas to be “musing” on various subjects. I mainly came up with that name as a temporary title. Simply changing it to “Musings” wouldn’t work, as my Museum Studies M.A. program uses that. I’m debating whether to include my name, as it (for better or worse) doesn’t lend itself to good puns, a la Greg Weeks’s “Two Weeks Notice.” But I’ve also seen advice to title the blog as simply your name, or some variation that you use frequently, e.g., a Twitter handle–to “brand” yourself consistently.
  • Another thought: Something that reflects what I’m studying–a combination of North American and Latin American history, particularly 18th and early 19th century (i.e., history of the Americas or hemispheric history). I like the title of Colin Snider’s “Americas South and North.” Chad Black’sParezco y Digo” is cleverly based on a saying he found in Spanish colonial legal documents from Ecuador that he studied. I’ve thought about something along the lines of “Straddling the Rio Grande.”
  • At the same time, the subject matter on which I’m planning my dissertation is not most of what I’m writing about in the blog, or reflective of my current public history job for that matter. So I’m also thinking of some variation on the theme of history, as many of my classmates use. What that would be, I’m not sure.
  • Perhaps something a bit more general but still evocative of the era of study, like Kenneth Owen’s “The Committee of Observation and Inspection.”

Some notes about my intent with this blog: I initially started it for a class, but I had considered blogging for a long time. As a public historian beginning to get my feet wet in the digital history world and pushing into the academic history world, I plan to continue it, not just for my classes but to comment on, for example, current events and my own research.

So, crowd, what are your thoughts? If you were me, what would you call this blog?

More Photoshop play

This week’s reading and video assignments cover more about the magical world of Photoshop, particularly how it can be used to restore historic photos to their former glory.

As Dr. Petrik noted in our class discussion last week following the class’s lively blog exchange (read the awesome posts by Sheri, Geoff, Lindsey, Celeste, Megan, Beth, Stephanie, John, and Jeri, all responding to each other), images start changing the moment they are created. They deteriorate; they change. In order for us to get the utmost information out of them–and for our audiences to get the most information–we need to modify them. This week’s assignments show just how powerful of a tool Photoshop is for accomplishing such tasks.

Like Claire and Maggie, I have dabbled in Photoshop through the years for various tasks, mostly learning what I needed to in order to complete the task at hand. Like them, I’m happy to have some more formal training, as the sheer power and complexity of the program has long intimidated me. For example, I did the header image of my Clio 1 proof-of-concept project in InDesign rather than Photoshop. Although InDesign worked well for simple tasks, like fading the background map, I couldn’t do nearly the effects I could with Photoshop.

The more that I’ve read and watched the past two weeks, the more in awe I am of Photoshop; as Robin Williams (not the comedian!) and John Tollett note in The Non-Designers Photoshop Book, the thousands, even millions, of options this program presents are just amazing. I’m still a bit intimidated–I’m glad to have these books and videos as references–but am glad to know what can be done. If you are looking for a book on Photoshop, I’d recommend this one.

While last week’s Lynda.com video (“Photoshop CS5 for the Web”) was helpful, like others I watched it passively. With this week’s (“Photo Restoration with Photoshop”), by contrast, I’ve been dabbling in using the techniques on my own photos and images.

As Claire and Maggie said, if only I had known about some of the options when I had something I needed to accomplish.

Unrestored version of 1884 Sachse map of Washington, zoomed into present-day Penn Quarter/Judiciary Square/Chinatown neighborhood. Note the under-construction Pension Bureau (today the National Building Museum).

1884 Sachse map, partially repaired. It is still obvious where the rip was because of the differing tones from left to right. Next step...

I especially wished I had known how to repair rips and folds when I worked on a brochure about Jewish sites in downtown Washington in 2009. I found an 1884 birds-eye view of Washington. Thanks to the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division’s compression technology, I was able to download an extremely high-resolution version of this map. I then zoomed into and cropped the neighborhood that the brochure interprets, roughly today’s Judiciary Square, Penn Quarter, and Chinatown area. The problem? The original map had been folded, and thus partially dissolved, right where I needed. Being clueless about Photoshop, I didn’t think there was much I could do except move part of the map closer to the other, to at least close part of the gap. Nonetheless, the gap was still there.

While watching the video, I decided to try some of the techniques suggested, including the clone stamp, patch tool, and spot repair tool, on that map. I’m showing my result here. It’s far from perfect, and indeed I’m not sure I would use this in the brochure; it was too difficult, and possibly impossible, to fill in some of the gaps with precision because of the map’s extreme detail. Nonetheless, in a 3-inch-by-4-inch (or something along those lines) map in a brochure, that might still work. Perhaps for the next print run I’ll use it…

Faded picture of my grandfather and uncle, late 1950s.

Not perfect, but getting there. Doesn't look like such an old picture.

Meanwhile, during a segment on restoring life to a faded black-and-white photo, I took a photo of my maternal grandfather and uncle. The Curves and Levels techniques that the video suggested worked; here I’m also showing before and after. It’s still not perfect, nor as good as the one the presenter showed. This image was more difficult because the left side was extremely dark; perhaps I will need to crop it.

While the restoration was far from perfect, I was able to see so much more detail. Thus, the ability to restore images is invaluable for us as historians. Images show a lot, but deteriorated images also hide a lot. If we want to use images more effectively, both in research and dissemination of our work product, it’s important that the images be up to par.

So as I spend my “spring break” (said using quotation marks since it’s still a normal work week!) working on the image assignment, I’m feeling less intimidated by Photoshop. Still a bit intimidated, but glad to be dabbling more in this powerful, and amazing, software.

Addendum #1: Geoff and Megan both have great posts about the staging of photographs and how discerning we need to be toward photographs as historical resources. Read them.

Addendum #2: This week I commented on blog posts by Richard, Megan, and Beth.

Fun with fonts and styles

As I’ve read the book and watched the video for this week’s assignment (scroll to February 13), I’ve been dividing my attention: I’ve succumbed to the temptation of continually modifying my portfolio site, based on the inspiration and new skills that the video and book have afforded me.

This shows one of the many ways that doing history on the web is different, and raises a question for students in digital history classes. For last week’s assignment I sent Dr. Petrik a link to my portfolio homepage. If this were a paper, I may have done as I have in other classes: when I came up with another idea, thinking, “I should have done that! Too bad it’s too late,” during the following week. But unlike with a paper, I’m actually doing something: modifying the CSS for the overall site–at this point, I’m using the same CSS for the start page and for each of the assignment pages. But I’m not sure if I should be doing that, or if I should just leave it as-was. For example, last semester, after our proof-of-concept assignment was due, I had ideas for things to add to it. But I held off until I was sure that Dr. Leon had graded it (granted, I wound up simply holding off, period. Eventually I’ll get back to it!).

So I suppose I’ll be asking Dr. Petrik a question on Monday (unless she is reading this before class and wants to comment :)): Should I leave the portfolio homepage as-was (i.e., separate the CSS for that page from that of the rest of the site), or is it okay to keep modifying the style as I modify the rest of my portfolio site?

Through this exercise, I’m learning just how great CSS is. I can modify the one file, and it’s reflected on all of the different pages of my site. Nice.

Meanwhile, as I moved through the font video, I also began to switch around the fonts in my CSS and think about the type assignment for next week. In searching for an appropriate font, I came upon one called “Texas Hero.” Curious, I checked out the backstory: the font designer’s mother was a volunteer at the University of Texas Center for American History (where I once conducted some research for what will likely be my final class project and eventually part of my dissertation). He designed fonts based on letters in CAH’s collections. As it turns out, he based the Texas Hero font on the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson Rusk–recipient of a letter I included in my final project last semester.

So, I had to have this font (yes, such things are the objects of this history nerd’s coveting). I downloaded it. Then I got to the part in the video about how not all fonts are licensed for web use. So I read the end-user license agreement. Just to be sure, I emailed the creator. He kindly emailed me right back (on a late Saturday afternoon, at that!) and clarified the agreement, which indeed does not allow me to use the font in the text of the site. This makes sense; if I uploaded the font to my server to use with the @font-face command, someone could easily download the font and not pay him for his hard work.

Therefore, although I may pay the extra fee for web use in the future, for now I will just use the font in my header graphic (which the creator said was fine, as the font is not actually uploaded to the server). Indeed, in the end the header will probably look much better than it does with the convoluted way I centered my name on top of the map. Don’t ask me how I did that, as I’m not sure I could tell you!

I should add, the site where I bought Texas Hero has some other great fonts for historians. Check it out.

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.

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