Liverpool’s overlooked history?

The archives and libraries were closed today, so I took myself down to the riverfront to look around some of the National Museums Liverpool, specifically the Museum of Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum. The latter is currently located on the 3rd floor of the Maritime Museum, although it will someday have its own building.

They are very nice museums. The Museum of Liverpool only recently opened, and the outside is still being completed. The Maritime Museum opened in the 1980s. Both focus primarily on the history of Liverpool since about 1850, emphasizing urban development, Cunard and the Titanic, World War II, and Merseybeat. The International Slavery Museum, which grew out of an exhibit on the Atlantic Slave trade, is by nature of its subject centered on the 18th century, although it emphasizes that slavery is not merely a historical institution.

I enjoyed nosing about the museums in a general sort of way, but I confess I was disappointed in the lack of information on Georgian Liverpool. There is a timeline exhibit in the Museum of Liverpool, but the 18th century is in the same case as the 16th, with very little space given to it. Liverpool does not seem reluctant to talk about the fact that slavery played a large role in its development into a major commercial center, but the town during that era is largely left out of most narratives. With one notable and very enjoyable exception.

When I entered the Merseyside Maritime Museum, I noticed a banner with an 18th century looking map promoting a tour of the Old Dock. Curious, I wandered over to the desk and discovered a brochure, which confirmed that the Old Dock Tour related to an 18th century dock – as I was to learn, the first commercial wet dock in the western world. The tour required a booking but no fee, so I put down my name. I expected some sort of walk around the commercial area now laying over the old dock site, with some “this was here” comments. Instead, the tour goes to one corner of the Old Dock, all of which was preserved when the dock was closed in the 1820s. It is now the site of an archaeological excavation and was apparently featured on Time Team (a British TV show).*

I had fun. The two guides were informative, friendly, and well-versed in the topic. There were only two other people, local gentlemen, on the tour. After being conducted into the dig site (through a car park, under the square outside John Lewis in Liverpool One), we were given a brief lecture and then allowed to read the interpretive panels and ask questions. This was more than the glimpses of Georgian Liverpool I’d gotten in the museum buildings, this was a visit to a remnant of it. What’s more, I know that James Maury’s consulate office was about a block from the Old Dock, so I felt like I knew a little more about the Liverpool which he experienced (by the 1810s, the Dock was full of sewage, so I imagine he was well aware of its proximity).


*I feel compelled to point out that the dock was closed because it was full of sewage, when it was re-opened as an archaeological dig there was still organic matter remaining, but the tv people didn’t show up until the professionals had dug through layers of Georgian excrement.

(Please forgive any formatting oddities – I’m using the WordPress app on my tablet for the first time)

National Museum of Iceland

I am in Iceland for roughly 26 hours (of which at least 5 are taken up with the airport and getting to/from it). Luckily, the friend-of-a-friend who is letting me stay the night lives within walking distance of the National Museum of Iceland.

My path through the museum was somewhat random, as I was doding a school group which entered about the same time I did, but the overall layout of the two gallery floors was more or less chronological as well as thematic. Themes overlapped, but everything pre-1700 was on the second floor, and everything post was on the third (the ground being for the museum shop and cafe).

I was frustrated by some things, for example the fact that it was unclear whether labels were indiciating where an item was found or where it was made. On the other hand, I thought the museum found clever ways to deal with lighting and sound issues in an open floor plan gallery. In at least two instances – medieval textiles and 18th century drawings – items were kept in plexiglass topped drawers which the visitor could pull out, but which were weighted to slide back when let go. view of a small room-like structure within the museum galleryIn addition, particularly on the second floor, the museum used partitions and coloured plexiglass to create small rooms or spaces with motion-sensor lighting. One of these housed medieval embroideries, and another included not only ecclesiastical art but a soundtrack of latin chant music, which was contained by the walls of the ´room.´Along with vertical display panels and cases, these room-like spaces created discrete areas in the museum for each theme or era.

It´s a very nice museum, with a lovely cafe on the ground floor (with free wifi!). If you have a chance to visit, I recommend it.

(P.S. please forgive any odd spellings or punctuation. I´m writing on a European/Icelandic keyboard)

Research travel: choose your tools

I will be spending the first week in June in the UK, conducting (preliminary) research. I plan to collect material related to my dissertation and also scope out the archives enough so that I can determine whether it’s worthwhile to return. This, and future trips (in state, thankfully), have me thinking about what tools I want to carry with me.

I was initially planning to only carry my iPad and its keyboard case to take notes and run a spreadsheet of photos taken which I could use when I got home. However, I will now also be Skyping in to class one night, and I’m a bit concerned about backing up my photos. I know that I can download the SD card onto my iPad and then upload them to Dropbox, but I have yet to figure out a good way of selecting 50-100 photos at a time on the iPad.

I could, of course, bring my laptop. My 15 inch, 6 lb, late 2008 MacBook pro which slows down running Chrome and TweetDeck at the same time. Now that I have a desktop (long story), I’d like to replace this with something lighter and more portable that I can use in archives or around town, but which doesn’t need to be able to run large-scale software programs. If I had a fairy godmother, or a winning Powerball ticket, I’d get a MacBook Air. It’s not that I’m wedded to Apple as a company or even as an OS, it’s just that I dislike Windows OS and have been using Apple products since the mid 1980s.

A much cheaper alternative would be a Chromebook (probably the Samsung model XE303C12). It’s got a small, solid-state hard drive, only 16GB, but it also has two USB ports, which would allow me to transfer files from my SD card to cloud storage or even an external drive. In some ways, especially given the limitations of the Chrome-based OS, it might seem little different from the iPad. On the other hand, it does have USB ports and file selection using a mouse rather than a touchscreen.

I’m open to advice from computer geeks, fellow researchers and digital humanists. What do you take when you travel, and what would you take if someone gave you a winning powerball ticket?

Digital Project History Final Project

For the final project for the direct readings in digital public history, we were asked to create a response to the answer “What difference does digital work make for Public History?” I think digital work allows us to add layers to public history and make it easier for the public to pull back the layers to look at them individually or see how they all work together.

The idea of layering is something I first consciously encountered when I attended as session at the annual meeting of the Virginia Association of Museum and attended a session given by the creators of the digital comic book “The Secret in the Cellar,” part of the Smithsonian exhibit Written in Bone. At the bottom of most pages of the comic, there are links to articles and other websites with contextual information. The speakers talked about providing these links for people who wanted to ‘dig down’ into the information.

During this past semester we’ve talked about the challenge of not only conveying history in an interesting fashion but also teaching people about historical thinking, about how historians get from a whole mess of documents in archives and books on shelves to a 20 minute tour or a 100 word label on your smartphone. You can show the process in real life, to be sure, but digital makes it possible to pack a lot of information into very little physical space. Moreover, it makes it possible for someone to go from the 100 word interpretation to the vast array of primary sources very easily and quickly. Rather than leaving the historic site, finding a library, finding books, maybe trying to locate an archive, it can be as easy as following a series of breadcrumbs which go deeper into the past with every click.

It is not that I think the only differences that digital makes for public history is to add complexity to layering and make primary sources easier to reach. These are, however, the aspects which caught my attention and I thought I could work with. Which leads me to the concrete example: the project. Continue reading “Digital Project History Final Project”

Evaluating Digital Public History

When I was in middle school (at a private school), we had to do these self-evaluations at the end of every quarter, for every class. I think each on was about 3 pages long, and they asked about how we thought we were progressing, and what project we liked best, and what we thought our strengths and weaknesses were. No one I knew liked doing them. It wasn’t that we were 10-14 year olds being asked to evaluate our own performance, it was that we neither saw nor knew how they were used. As far as we knew, they just went and sat in a file, maybe emerging for parent-teacher conferences, but we could not see any impact the evaluations had on our daily lives at school.

I mention this because one of the main impressions I got from this week’s readings was that evaluation processes need to have and be driven by Purpose. Evaluations should contribute to the ultimate goals of a project in some and not just be another hoop to jump through. The feeling of throwing data down a hole is discouraging; returning with useful data which can improve your project or show that it’s being used is rewarding. Evaluation should be a means as well as (or instead of?) an end.

That said, I don’t know that I’m ready to run complex evaluations on my own. One of the projects on which I’ve been working at RRCHNM has included periodic testing, which I count as a sort of ‘formative’ evaluation (to use a term from Birchall et al). Periodic in-process evaluation helps us make sure we’re heading in the right direction and readjust course as needed. Watching the evaluation process, sometimes participating, is helpful for me, at least. Think of it as the lab half of a science course, conducting experiments while still reading the texts.

From this week’s readings, I have an idea of what makes for good evaluations, both in development and use. Keep the goals of the project in mind, think about outcomes not output, look for your strengths as well as weaknesses when reading the data (Preskill). Bear in mind the variety of user experiences before, during, and after interacting with your project (Kirchberg and Tröndle). Consider how you’re planning to use the evaluation findings when deciding what sort of evaluation(s) to conduct (Birchall et all). Make sure the findings are readable and accessible to the people who need them, up to and including training people how to read them (Villaespesa and Tasich). These are only soundbites, obviously, but they capture some of the ideas I’m storing for future use.


Mobile (Digital) Public History

Between my final project for Clio Wired, one of the projects I’m working on as a GRA at RRCHNM, and the fact that I rarely go anywhere without my smartphone, mobile digital public history has been percolating in my brain for a while. I really enjoyed this week’s readings for pushing some new ideas and approaches I hadn’t previously considered. Like many digital historians, I think there’s a great deal of potential in mobile implementation, as well as some serious challenges.

Obviously, one of the best aspects of mobile is its ability to explicitly link history and place. Some people, myself included, wonder about historic landscapes when we look around, whether abroad or at home. Not only can mobile-based public history answer the questions of those of us who already wonder, but it has the potential to get others to start thinking about the history of the places they see. It can ask and answer (at least in part) the question “What was Here?”

I capitalized those words not because I’ve been spending too much time reading 18th century documents but because each of them is important to the question, and, I think, to mobile public history. What (or who) asks about buildings that have been removed, landscape features built over, communities and individuals who have moved out or passed on. Here says “in this place, right where I am currently standing” and creates a connection between the past people or places and the user/visitor. The Past in Place has resonance, which is why people visit battlefields and there are so many signs that say “Famous Person Lived Here Briefly.”

Another potential for mobile, which I hadn’t thought of until this week’s readings, is providing another access point for institutional collections which aren’t on display. In the galleries, it could be a “see more items like this one” which shows you all the other teapots in addition to the one in the vitrine in front of you. (( Yes, teapots again )) You can also enhance what people are seeing by giving them more information than you can fit on label text – particularly useful if your label is simply the genus and species of a plant. Even more exciting, to me at least, is taking material from archives and digitally putting it in place in a city, as PhillyHistory is trying to do. Not only does that really put the collection items “out there,” but I would hope it also lowers barriers between the user/visitor of the website and the institution or archive which contributes the material. Historical societies and archives can feel restricted and unwelcoming; putting their collections virtually into the hands of visitors/users may be a good way to lower access barriers.

There are, of course, challenges to making mobile public history. The CHNM report lays them out quite well, but I think some of them bear repeating. The major question is, of course, whether you want to build a responsive website or a native mobile app. Personally, I prefer responsive websites, at least for building, because you don’t have to deal with two (three?) different sets of specifications for native apps, nor do you have to worry about updates to the operating systems. Also, I don’t have to remember my password and type it in to get to the content. You do, however, have to make sure your design choices work as well on a full-sized screen as a mobile screen (this can be a bonus, it just takes some thought). On the other hand, there are also benefits to building native apps, and I have downloaded some apps that I enjoy. The next time I go to Baltimore I intend to try out the Baltimore Heritage app.

On the whole, I find mobile exciting. In my head, it’s like having a museum, tour guide, and history book with me at all times. I carry my smartphone everywhere and use it all the time anyway, so having historically focused content, whether native or web-based, is an added bonus.


Digital Archives

Before these readings, the limit of my expectations of archival finding aids was simply that the full text be online. Having a few items digitized, like the handful of Maury letters at the Swem Special Collections, was a bonus. There are, after all, a number of archives where the most you can hope for is the title of the collection and the number of boxes. Now I wonder why it never occurred to me to think about the potential of linked data for physical archives’ catalogs.

I’m intrigued by the potential of the Social Networks and Archival Context project, if only because I like the idea of any database which helps track historical social networks. The prototype holds promise, especially in the multiple ways to browse and explore, but wandering through it I found I wasn’t always sure where I was going. Picking one name from a list of correspondents seems to display “what collections has this name” rather than that person’s contextual data, which I find frustrating. Still, it is a prototype, and they seem to have found a way to deal with the multiple name iteration issue (Dolley Madison vs. Dolley Payne Madison vs. Dolley Payne Todd, etc).

Continue reading “Digital Archives”

Thinking about digital exhibits

This week’s readings encompassed the idea of digital exhibits. If nothing else, I now think that anyone working on digital exhibits should have on hand a copy of the Curator article “Digital Storytelling in Museums” by Wyman, Smith, Myers and Godfrey, as well as the evaluation section from Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think.

For this post, I am going to take Conn’s title question, Do Museums Still Need Objects? and ask it of digital exhibits. Do digital exhibits need objects? Yes, I think so. However, I also think it’s important to define what we mean by an object. Digital exhibits don’t have vitrines to fill; Most of the time you’re dealing with a two-dimensional representation of any three-dimensional artifact you want to include, unless you’re willing to use fancy code or use a video (not always a bad choice). On the other hand, a decent quality digital image of a document or artwork might make it easier for visitors to see the details or read the very tiny handwriting than it would be in a traditional exhibit. Moreover, we also have video, audio, map, infrared scan, and other sorts of objects to use in a digital exhibit. You could undoubtedly make a digital exhibit without any historical ‘objects,’ but I suspect in that case you’d end up generating your own images or video, which are objects of a sort in their own way. I, for one, think the historical object can still be useful in a digital exhibit.

Continue reading “Thinking about digital exhibits”

The Importance of Conversation

If I had to sum up this week’s readings in one word, it would be Conversation. Whether trying to create a digital strategy for a museum, create content strategy for a digital public history project, or shift any project from pure broadcast to more participation, the people behind the project need to talk with (not to) their audience and with each other.

It is important to be in conversation not only with your audience but with the staff. The organizations described in both “Navigating the Bumpy Road” and “Social Media and Organizational Change” engaged people outside the social media departments, either to create a digital strategy or to create content for social media. Not only did this allow them to better represent the institution and its mission, but it seems to have facilitated commitment to social and digital media by people who otherwise might have considered it outside the scope of their work. National Gallery (UK) staff who participated in the internal workshops said they felt “respected” and apparently the inclusive process “greatly helped to legitimise” the digital strategy (Royston and Sexton, 2012). Internal communication matters because it isn’t just the audience who will ask “Why wasn’t I consulted?” (Ford, 2007 & 2011)

Continue reading “The Importance of Conversation”

Participation, Crowdsourcing, and Digital Public History

(A post for the second meeting of digital public history; readings are at the bottom of the post.)

Ai Weiwei installation at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C., Feb 2013
Ai Wei Wei installation at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C., Feb 2013

Last weekend a friend and I went to the Hirshhorn Museum to see an installation by Ai Weiwei titled “According to What?” There were a variety of pieces, but two sections features large-format photographs of construction in Beijing displayed not in frames but on the floor and walls of the exhibit space. In order to see the mounted black and white photographs (just visible on the left of my cell phone picture) and to move through the installation, you had to walk across these photographs. I took a deep breath before I took my first step onto the printed image; Even knowing it was meant to be walked on, it felt wrong somehow. After all, everything else in the installation was clearly Do Not Touch, with the beeping alarms and everything.

I wouldn’t call the installation participatory by any means, but it did make me think about expectations. When I go to an art museum, at least one of those on the National Mall, I expect the art to be on the wall, inaccessible. Standing on a photograph isn’t interactive, but it made me feel like I was in the work of art, not outside it. Somehow, walking through the photographs, looking down as well as left and right, was part of the art as long as I was there. I have no idea if it’s what Ai Weiwei intended, but that’s how I felt.

I think engaging in participatory public history, at least as an institution, is a bit like taking that first step onto Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Stadium. It’s scary, like any moment a security guard or division head is going to appear and tell you off for doing the wrong thing. You have to reevaluate how you think about the relationship between the institution and the audience  Or rather, to use a phrase Clay Shirky borrows from Jay Rosen, the People Formerly Known as the Audience.

Continue reading “Participation, Crowdsourcing, and Digital Public History”