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.

The Burning of Washington is a mobile-first Omeka exhibit centered around providing a tour of key sites of destruction in the British invasion of Washington, DC, in August, 1814. Wait, I hear some of you thinking, hasn’t she done this before? Yes and no. I tried to build something like this at the end of Clio I in December 2011, but the focus of that project was entirely on the content of “what happened.”

What I’ve tried to do with this new site is limit the amount of interpretation I provide. I conceptualized the tour, which is the core of the site, as accompanying real-world signs like the various Heritage Trail signs which can be found all over Washington. Those signs are generally interpretation-heavy and not transparent about the historical process. In contrast, the website (linked by the much-maligned QR code?) would focus on the primary sources and encouraging historical thinking.

Every stop on the tour (page in the exhibit) has a brief description of what historians now know/think happened. The items for each stop are excerpts from original sources giving quotes specifically relevant to that location. I tried to keep the quotes under 100 words, so that they each one would fit on my phone screen, but 19th century writers aren’t known for their brevity. Clicking on the representative image of a text takes the visitor/user to the item record, which includes some context about the source and a link to its full text.

I wanted to provide different primary sources to show how they conflict and get the visitor/user thinking about historical sources. The most successful of the sites, to me, is the Sewall House. Every single account I have found says something slightly different about that encounter. Did the shots come from behind the house or inside it? How many shooters were there? Does it matter? Because this is the first stop on the tour, the conflicts between sources would hopefully have visitors questioning the other sources they encountered as they moved forward.

There is more I would like to do with the site, if I had the time/skill/expertise. Somehow I would like to get the tour to work with the map, which would mean adding geolocation to exhibits. Somehow. My “further reading” section is lacking in general books on the War of 1812, given that most of my reading has focused on Washington or the rhetoric concerning impressment as a cause of the war. I would probably add a non-tour exhibit discussing the ways in which the “Burning” has been described, especially the behavior of the British troops. For the most part, the British limited their destruction to public property; damage to private property was done by Americans who remained in the city when others fled, and by a tornado which struck on the 25th.

I was the kind of kid who went on a field trip or hike, learned a little about something, and spent my next trip to the library trying to learn more. With digital work, and the prevalence of digital devices, I think we can make the space between Learn and Learn More a lot shorter and the results much richer.