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Category: Courses

Posts related to my work as PhD student.

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.

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).

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.

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)

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.

Digital Public History Week 1

Roy Rosenzweig & David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (1998). For me, one of the most important pieces of information to take away from this work is that people, in general, approach the past in relation to themselves and their families, not from a class, gender, or ethic standpoint. Americans can and do relate to major events in national history, but often through the access point of a family member or personal connection. In the afterthoughts, Thelen notes that respondents liked history museums because they could approach the content on their own terms and create their own narratives (195). My question is how one goes from encouraging people to see the connection between their personal history and, say, the WPA to understanding the connection between their history, the WPA, and the history of the stranger standing next to them in the museum. Is it even possible?