Papers of the War Department

One of the projects I work on at RRCHNM is the Papers of the War Department. I’m fond of it because it was the only project I worked on my first year, it falls within my temporal period of study, and I’ve discovered some very entertaining letters which generating metadata and summaries for it. Lately I’ve been working on trying to increase the project’s visibility, especially as other crowdsourcing projects like the Smithsonian Transcription Center and projects out of NYPL Labs take off.

To that end, I wrote a guest post for the 18th Century Common which has, thus far, been very well received. Digging into the stories of Corbin, along with individuals like the Mrs. Greatons, Samuel Hodgdon, and Isaac Craig (who has lovely handwriting), has been one of the pleasures of working on the Papers project.

Some of the tools I use

My work life this summer has been predominantly focused on two summer institutes, one for art historians and one for historians, which give the participants an introduction to concepts and methods in digital (art) history. It was a lot of information to pack into two weeks per institute, and very thought-provoking for everyone involved.

As the title of this post suggests, the participants’ questions and concerns made me think about my digital workflow(s). Not only in the archives (I’ve been chewing on that for a while), but in the day to day. There are a lot of tools – mostly software or software-as-service – which I and other graduate students use on a daily basis that were completely new to many of the participants.

What follows are just the things I use frequently and how I use them. When I need a new tool, I usually ask around on twitter and check out the archives of GradHacker and ProfHacker, especially their categories/tags for tools, technology, and software. Continue reading “Some of the tools I use”

SVG and WordPress

Palladio is a lovely visualization tool, with the ability to export graphs to svg and save your work. But using it posed a new question: how the heck do I display an svg file in a WordPress post without digging into the CSS or php?*

I tried installing two plugins, one of which allowed me to upload an svg file as media but did not make it appear when added to a post. The other plugin broke the public side of my WordPress install. So then I uploaded the file to my server space outside of a CMS and copied the html code from a support forum post, which displayed the image but at very large size:

<object width=”300″ height=”150″ type=”image/svg+xml” data=”[url]”>Your browser does not support SVG</object>

I went poking around and found a list of ways to add SVG to a web page. As I’d already uploaded the svg file somewhere other than WordPress’ media library (since svg isn’t an allowed type), I tried just using an img tag. Reference this list to see which browsers and versions support svg in the html image tag. And success, of a sort. The image at least scaled down (the large amount of white space at the top is part of the original image).

It’s not exactly elegant, but it worked. Next test is to re-install the plugin which allows me to upload svg files and see if hand writing the code instead of using the Add Media function will work.

*Although I am capable of editing core files, I wanted to see if there was a way of displaying the svg file without having to mess with those files, for a variety of reasons.

Teaching History to Captain America

I started thinking about this post in 2011, Captain America: The First Avenger came out. The movie came out the summer before I started my PhD program, and Clio Wired in particular made me think about how digital tools could make history education more accessible on the move.

It was a sort of thought experiment: how would you catch Captain America up on the years he missed, when he’s presumably constantly running around saving the world? Assuming S.H.I.E.L.D. would fill him in on the basic geopolitical and military information, how to do you get across the facts of the national and global social and cultural changes of the second half of the twentieth century in a way which is both relatively bite-size and captures the nuance of current historical interpretation?

At the time, I was inspired by the work of my colleague Richard Hardesty, whose project that semester looked at the intersection of baseball and civil rights activism in Baltimore (he probably would say this better). I wondered about the possibility of doing the major events of a decade built around baseball as a video, allowing for responses and remixes, all of which would be on YouTube or some other public platform.

Three years later, we have the second installment of the Captain’s story. One of the things which delighted me about Captain American: The Winter Soldier was Captain Roger’s list of “things to look up,” and moreover the fact that the film had different items depending on which the country of release. This choice by the directors and/or designers shows an awareness of the different important cultural moments for different nations. K-pop or the Beatles? The World Cup or the Superbowl?

What do you think? What would you put on that list for Cap? What podcasts or blogs would you tell him to check out?

 

Compare and contrast

On my way back from Poughkeepsie, I stopped in New Paltz to visit Historic Huguenot Street, which popped up on my twitter feed on Sunday evening. Once I arrived, I realized I’d been there once during my college career, but only to wander around outside, never in the buildings, and moreover they’re in the process or renewing their interpretation.

One interpretive choice they’ve made is to pair two 18th century houses. One is unfurnished, so you can see the architectural features and the way the construction progressed over time. The other house is fully furnished with pieces that are (mostly) appropriate to the period interpreted. Our guide was explicit about the comparison, particularly when we were in the basement kitchens of the two houses. In the unfurnished house, the kitchen felt smaller, there was less natural light and little artificial light, and the overall feeling was depressing. The kitchen in the furnished house had more light, natural and artificial, and seemed almost cheerful in comparison. However, our guide reminded us that the space would have been smoky and smelly, and that in the 18th century the people working in the kitchen would have been enslaved African Americans.

I appreciated the contrast as part of an overall effort by the site to make the act of interpretation transparent. Both guides I had explicitly stated “we have decided to interpret” and we were even asked if we thought the comparison of furnished and unfurnished was helpful. When I was working in a historic house in Virginia, we often talked about whether to interpret areas for which we had little or no documentation, in particular the upstairs bedchambers. Do you fully furnish a house, even without evidence? Or leave rooms empty, knowing that visitors often expect to see “what it was like”? And if you are guessing, what do the guides/docents tell the visitors? Historic Huguenot Street has the advantage of having multiple houses, but they could have chosen to interpret them all one way or the other. I think the decision to show the two paths interpretation can take, and in sequence, not only helps visitors think about the past but also how the past is presented to them at historic sites.

I look forward to returning for a more leisurely visit the next time I’m in the area. I’m curious to interact with the first person interpreters, and see where else the education and interpretation goes. My experience was a little off the usual, because I had a guide for all of the houses, when some of them usually have first person interpretation (they started the tour a little early for me since I had to drive back to Virginia).

Reunion

Last weekend I attended my 10th college reunion. In addition to seeing people I haven’t seen since our 5 year, enjoying the annual alumnae parade (headed by a woman from the class of 1934!), and generally indulging in nostalgia, I had a chance to reconnect with two aspects of my undergraduate experience which helped shape my scholarly life: the History Department and the Vassar College Costume Collection (VCCC). Continue reading “Reunion”

National Park Service’s LBGT Theme Study

On Tuesday, I attended the Department of Interior’s inaugural panel discussion for the new theme study on Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) history in the National Park Service (NPS). The study is part of a larger effort within NPS to ensure that the histories of minority Americans are included and communicated in their sites.

NPS Director John Jarvis and Panelists on stage, seated.

The panel opened with remarks by the National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, followed by Secretary of Interior Sally Jewel and John Berry, who is Ambassador to Australia and one of the first openly gay ambassadors in the United States. In her remarks, Secretary Jewel stated that “place matters” but LGBT communities have not had places to mark their significance to the larger American story. She talked about the need for young people who are struggling with their identities to hear their story told in a way that helps them realize that they are not alone.

Continue reading “National Park Service’s LBGT Theme Study”

Belle

I recently saw Belle (2013), a film based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a woman of color and status in late eighteenth century England. While the film diverges from the actual facts, it does so to underscore the messages of the film.

Some reviewers have pointed out the “Austen-esque” nature of the story, focusing as it does on marriage as a goal for women, and the conflict between marry for station and marrying for love. While I acknowledge that modern viewers may feel it’s a very Austen story, it also accurately reflects the concerns of women, in this case elite women, of late eighteenth century Britain. Their choices were, as presented, marry or serve the family as spinster chatelaine.

I can see this film being a useful resource for teaching late 18th century British/Atlantic history. The characters discuss, through the course of the film, that trifecta of modern historical analysis: race, class, gender. The film would also be useful for a course on material culture, as it highlights the way people of color were portrayed in paintings of the era (slight spoiler at that link, but only slight). I was occasionally reminded of the blog People of Color in European Art History while watching, and this poster stating that representation matters. The film of course speaks to the present as much as the past, but not in a way which diminishes either message. I look forward to reading more responses to the film.

two women in formal attire.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin.

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).

20130602-210448.jpg

*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)