Wrap-Up & Final Reflection

As the semester draws to a close, my group and I are hard at work applying what we’ve learned about digital public history to our final project, an Omeka.net exhibit on vocational education in Chicago entitled “Ladies Who Sew, Men Who Weld.” In this post, I thought I’d make note of a few observations I’ve made and helpful things that I’ve learned about this aspect of the field.

On copyright, it can be better to ask forgiveness than permission. The readings and discussion on copyright issues in digital history were interesting, particularly the chapters in the Cohen and Rosenzweig work Digital History about the issue, where they assert that for many digital historians, the cost vs. benefit analysis on using material without getting the rights could often fall on the side of “risking it.” I can’t say that I have real clarity about how to handle this issue in my own work, and I do wish that there had been more discussion about it as it relates to our class projects. Since we were unable to get the rights for most of the images in our exhibition, we have decided not to publicize it. Even though Cohen and Rosenzweig suggest that digital historians should risk putting their work out there, our team felt it could be damaging to professional relationships we have, or would like to have, with the institutions that hold the rights to our exhibition’s images. I’m sure this is an issue that I’ll continue to negotiate in my future career.

With digital projects, more is not necessarily better. Given how expensive and time-consuming digital projects can me, public history institutions should think carefully about what kinds of digital projects will best serve their mission and their audience. While a robust Twitter presence or YouTube channel might be essential for a large institution that can afford to pay a staff member to maintain it, smaller institutions might choose to focus on sustaining a well-designed and helpful website, perhaps with a repository of digitized research materials. Institutions should be wary of “bells and whistles” that may look flashy but that won’t serve the overall mission.

Public historians don’t (necessarily) need to learn to code. This was a question I had been thinking a lot about at the beginning of the semester: how many technical skills should I spend time learning for a planned career as a curator or an exhibition developer? I enjoyed the coding class we took this semester, but quickly recognized how much time and effort it would take to learn a set of skills that I may not use very much. I’ve concluded that basic website building and exhibition development skills–with tools like WordPress and Omeka where coding is not involved–remain very important; even if I’m not doing that development myself, an understanding of what’s involved in a project like that is crucial for leadership.

Overall, it’s been very interesting to learn about different forms of digital projects, and to recognize the potential that things like virtual tours have to increase accessibility to museums. In the end, though, I retain what I think is a healthy skepticism of how far into the physical space of the museum and its objects digital technology should encroach. I still believe that most people visit museums to be in the presence of the past, and as public historians we should use digital technology to enhance, not distract from, that experience.



“Ladies Who Sew, Men Who Weld” Exhibit Narrative

The digital exhibit “Ladies Who Sew, Men Who Weld” is designed to contrast two high schools, specializing in vocational education, that were part of the Chicago Public School system for most of the twentieth century. Flower Tech, for girls, and Lane Tech, for boys, each featured a specialized curriculum designed to prepare students for the modern workforce. These curricula were highly gendered, with Lane Tech students learning mechanical skills like printing and auto shop, while Flower Tech students trained for careers as beauticians or for unpaid roles as homemakers.


The Lane Tech Surveyors Club gets to work, 1930.

Rather than taking a chronological approach to the histories of these schools, the exhibit is structured thematically. After an introduction to the vocational education movement and the founding of the two schools, visitors will be able to click through a page each on “Curricula”; “Inside Lane and Flower Techs,” which deals with the architecture and physical layout of the school buildings; “Athletics”; and “Graduates,” which discusses postgraduation outcomes for Lane and Flower alumni. These pages will contain images and documents relating to both schools, as well as text that discusses the history and our interpretation of its significance. Students from both school who appear in the photos and documents will feature as “characters” in this thematic narrative.

The exhibit will conclude with details about each school’s closing or turn away from the single-sex, vocational model of education, and finally with a “Join the Conversation” page. This section will include a “Further Reading” section and an invitation to to view and contribute to the exhibit’s Facebook page. We imagine the exhibit to be directed at two distinct audiences: high school students (perhaps for use by teachers as an assignment), and interested alumni of Lane Tech, Flower Tech, or similar schools. Thus the social media aspect of the exhibit will encourage student viewers to add reflections on how the information in the exhibit relates to their own experiences in high school (this way of engaging with the material could be part of their assignment). Alumni, meanwhile, will be encouraged to add memories, photos, or other materials from their time at the schools. This participatory social media strategy will hopefully increase the value of the exhibit as a teaching tool, encourage discussion among current high school students and alumni, and generate new content and information for the exhibit that could then be added at regular intervals to the original structure.

Video Production at the Mütter Museum

For this post, I returned to the online presence of the Mütter Museum, which I used to evaluate online exhibitions back at the beginning of the semester. I recalled that the site hosted an extensive series of videos, posted through their YouTube channel and linked through a special section on the museum’s homepage. The museum uses video quite effectively, posting a mix of exhibition companion and standalone videos of with variations in tone, length, and scope.

For example, museum director Robert Hicks hosted a mini video series that serves as a companion to the exhibition “Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits,” which investigates the experiences of Civil War wounded who were treated in Philadelphia. These sophisticated videos, which average about 10 minutes in length, feature narration and museum played over photos from the Civil War era; commentary from the museum’s director, who stands in the galleries; interviews with historians and experts from other institutions; and even actors dressed as historical figures, such as Walt Whitman. This video content extends the exhibition experience beyond the museum in meaningful ways; by presenting it in a mini series, moreover, the museum could keep its audience returning to the site to catch the next installment.

The museum also features a couple of other video series, including “Mütter Minute,” very short videos posted weekly that again feature museum director Hicks (who must be very committed to the video content!) showing and describing an object from the collection. Another series is “Guess What’s on the Curator’s Desk,” in which curator presents a “mystery object,” sometimes to a special guest, and that person and/or the audience tries to guess what it is.

The museum’s choice to use YouTube to host the content is a sensible one for museums, since that format will likely continue to be supported into the future and videos can be linked to and embedded without resorting to plug-ins that may quickly go out of date or require considerable maintenance. I speculate that the Mütter Museum has invested time and resources in producing this video content because the relatively small museum can only accommodate so many visitors at once, and because the often gross, creepy, “disturbingly informative” medical specimens that it displays lend themselves well to visual presentation and exploration.

Digital Storytelling and Gaming


A still from Rome: Total War.

In his 2011 book The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media, Bryan Alexander explores the connections among what we might think of as “traditional” storytelling–a sequence of content, centered on a conflict or problem, that engages its audience–and the “new media” forms of gaming and social media. He’s interested not just in critiquing these forms, but in teasing out what innovative techniques they may have to offer for others interested in digital storytelling. In Chapter 7, “Gaming: Storytelling on a Large Scale,” Alexander looks at the world of massively multiplayer online games, console games, and large-scale PC games: forms of storytelling that take advantage of technological tools to present complex narratives. He focuses on three games: Bioshock (set in an underwater alternate-history dystopia), Fallout 3 (a postnuclear adventure game set in Washington, DC), and Rome: Total War (a historical strategy game).

In terms of structure, Alexander observes that these games mostly follow a linear structure, with a few exceptions. The allow “do-overs” in ways that other stories do not: for example, players can choose to re-fight a monster or revisit a saved game, a process that allows for the possibility of new outcomes. Sometimes these games exhibit a form of “fragmented storytelling,” a more open form of the linear structure in which players have some guidance to piece together the narrative without compromising its structure. In addition, in some instances, flashbacks or conversations with other characters in-game can deliver more information about the game’s backstory.

Because of the resources available to these game designers and the complexity of the in-game worlds, this form of storytelling also usually includes a number of secondary characters. Some, as in Fallout 3, are more fleshed-out individuals who participate in the protagonist’s experience of the game and to whom the player may begin to feel emotionally attached. Others, like the vast cast of supporting characters in Rome: Total War, are likewise given deep characterizations despite the fact that there are so many of them. Alexander speculates that this may be a nod to history pedagogy, which identifies individual historical actors as a way of making large-scale processes more human and relatable and therefore more memorable (114). This method should be of interest to public historians engaging with digital storytelling.

Finally, Alexander write that though these games may appear to exist only on one platform, they in fact fulfill the “multiple proscenia” principle characteristic of much digital storytelling. Players often post “play-through” videos to YouTube, complete with voiceovers narrating their gameplay experience; other users can post comments. There is a vast amount of secondary literature on each game in the form of wikis and commentary from video game critics. Still images and videos taken from gameplay can be remixed and reused to create new stories.

Metadata: Two Case Studies

As Murtha Baca points out in the edited volume Introduction to Metadata, good metadata is an investment that ensures that your resources can remain useful and accessible through all the changes in hardware and software that are still to come. While I personally have not given this topic much thought in the past, it is clear that metadata planning and updating is an essential part of online collections and exhibition design that many public historians must become familiar with. To get a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, I took a closer look at two online exhibits to compare their use of metadata.

As might be expected, recent online exhibitions mounted by the National Archives are comprehensive in their use of metadata and thoughtful about its presentation. The exhibit “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” has as its dual mission the preservation and presentation of materials relating to a now nearly vanished Jewish community in Iraq, which were discovered in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service’s building by the U.S. Army in 2003. Photos of items in the exhibit are uncluttered by too much metadata–usually just their date, creator’s name, and a brief description–but they link to a single record for each item with much more detailed information organized in the categories “Bibliographic Information,” “Format,” “Preservation,” and “Metadata.” The archive also provides a helpful guide to searching the collection that notes what kinds of information each object was catalogued with. Because the goal is to make this large archive as accessible and searchable as possible, the investment in extensive metadata makes sense, but I also appreciated how that information did not clutter the exhibit pages themselves.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has an online exhibit on Nazi propaganda that is decent, but not as comprehensive. The artifact gallery allows you to search by year, format, and theme (out of a list provided), but the artifacts themselves do not display a full complement of metadata when clicked on. In addition, I wonder about the choice to set up a predetermined list of themes by which to search: it seems somewhat restrictive for such a gallery. In developing our online exhibit, my group will have to think about how much time we want to devote to metadata, and how much of it we want to directly display alongside the artifacts.



Networking at NCPH 2016

Rather than describe a single informational interview, for this post I wanted to discuss my first experience at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History, which took place this week in Baltimore. I chose to attend the conference to get a better sense of developments in the field and the range of jobs and projects that public historians engage with; I also hoped to meet a few new people and talk to them about their work. On both counts the conference was a success. I left feeling inspired by many of the thoughts, ideas, and questions I heard, and I got a better sense of what the opportunities and challenges of certain types of positions might be.


For example, I spoke to a young woman who works in exhibitions at the 9/11 Memorial Museum—the institution about which I wrote my undergraduate thesis, and which I find fascinating. She came to the job with an MA in international history, not a museum studies or public history degree, and explained that much of what she enjoyed about her job came from the excitement of welcoming hundreds or thousands of visitors every day and getting to see how the museum’s displays affected some of them. Since exhibition development is an area of the field I am considering, it was helpful to hear that her history background had prepared her well for the job—I hope that mine will do the same! I am also hoping that my future positions will include a variety of types of work, something else that she confirmed is part of her current job.

In addition, I have been considering ultimately pursuing work in the federal government, perhaps with the Smithsonian or the National Park Service. Based on presentations at sessions and on a couple of conversations, I have been thinking more about the limitations that can be placed on historians working at federal sites, particularly when such sites are controversial. Some of the presenters were reporting on jobs that they no longer occupied, and indicated that they could now speak with more candor than would have been possible while they were federal employees. I also wonder if I have the temperament for the diplomacy that can be necessary for these types of jobs, especially if the topic area they deal with is controversial. The former historian of the Nixon Presidential Library, who oversaw the transformation of the Watergate Gallery there from a largely false presentation that excused Nixon of responsibility to a more accurate and damning portrayal, described receiving complaints every day of work about his oral history project, his exhibition development, and even his clothes.

Overall, I found that my first experience at NCPH was a valuable one both in terms of learning about some timely issues and problems in public history, and in terms of illuminating my vision of what kinds of positions I might be best suited for in the future.



“The Vault” and the History Web on Slate

The popular generalist online magazine Slate has a robust presence on what scholars Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel J. Cohen have termed the “History Web.” Slate frequently publishes posts that place current events or popular culture in historical context. With Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump apparently reluctant to distance himself from the endorsement of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, Slate posted a long account of the eradication of the first Ku Klux Klan in the 1870s. The success of the Oscar-winning movie The Revenant prompted a piece about Americans’ long fascination with the myth of Hugh Glass, which the film retells. The site even hosts a paywalled online course on the “History of American Slavery,” a collaboration of Slate writers Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion with renowned scholars of the Civil War. A subscription gets you nine podcast episodes; primary and secondary sources on the topic; excerpts from books by leading scholars; and a private discussion group for participants to engage with each other and the material. The Slate Academy material combines all the genres of the History Web mentioned by Rosenzweig and Cohen; archive, secondary source, educational, and discussion. More traditional textual material is accompanied by innovative maps and timelines that take advantage of the potential Cohen and Rosenzweig saw, in 2006, for digital history projects.

Since Slate Academy is behind a paywall, I’ll also discuss an open-access area of the site’s history content, the blog The Vault, another project of writer and American Studies PhD Rebecca Onion. The Vault (tagline: “Historical Treasures, Oddities, and Delights”) is at first glance a collection of historical ephemera, well-conceived to appeal to Slate‘s regular audience. With short posts and catchy headlines, the blog usually features an image, map, document, or other artifact that readers might find odd or interesting to glance over, accompanied by a write-up that places it into historical context.

However, the Vault accomplishes more than just sharing “historical oddities.” By linking to the online databases where she finds her material, and often featuring whole collections or innovative digital history projects, Onion helps to aggregate and share the work of a diverse “History Web.” In addition, the blog boasts features that are designed to make it useful as a cohesive learning tool, or a jumping off point for future research. For example, Onion recently added a timeline that displays all the documents the Vault has posted in its three-year existence, in chronological order.

Each entry links to the archive where it’s hosted, and also to one or more “related” posts, making chronological and thematic connections easier. The goal, in her words, is to combat the fact that the Internet is a “relentless decontextualizer.” In her post introducing the new tool, she writes that she found the process revealing: for example, a preponderance of posts about the late 19th and early 20th centuries corresponds to her own academic interests as well as the availability of public domain material from that era. This kind of analysis is exactly what Cohen and Rosenzweig point to as the great potential of digital tools for historians: the ability to aggregate, rearrange, and therefore gain new substantive insight into historical materials that are themselves the same.

Photoshopping History: Lane Technical High School

Since our project group has decided on a topic for our exhibit, this post will discuss images that we might use for that project, rather than those I took on my initial archive visit. Our exhibit will compare the histories of Lane Tech (a technical school for boys) and Flower Tech (for girls), their gendered approaches to technical education, and the ideas about men’s and women’s roles that these approaches reveal. The images below are from the Chicago History Museum’s collection of photos from Lane Tech, taken in the early 1900s for the Chicago Daily News. I am a Photoshop novice and can’t claim any expertise about how the tool is used, or even about what it might be capable of, but this post will discuss a few ideas about how these photos could be edited in Photoshop in preparation for display in our online exhibit.


Baseball player Jake Sommerfield of Lane Tech High School (1928). Image from the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

As you can see below, the collection contains several images of sports teams, an integral part of education at technical schools like Lane. For this image, I would most likely crop the edges where writing and holes in the photo are visible, to keep from distracting from the dynamic main subject.


Lane Tech football players standing on an athletic field (1913). Image from the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

This image of football players is a nice group shot, while still having few enough subjects that it retains a portrait-like quality. I might increase the contrast between the sky in the background and the players’ faces so that their expressions are clearer.


Lane Tech football players standing on an athletic field (1913). Image from the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

Here’s another shot of the football team from the same day. In Photoshop, I might crop the edges where white strips cover the images, and/or I might try to zoom in a little on the shot so the viewer could see the subjects’ faces more clearly.


Lane Tech basketball players posing in a gymnasium (1929). Image from the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

Finally, here’s another group shot, this time of the basketball team standing single file in height order. Again, I would crop the edges so that the writing is not visible. Perhaps there would be some way to draw attention to the “Tech” sign in the upper left corner, a good visual indicator for the photo.

I’m excited to see what’s actually possible for these images in Photoshop–though I’m still wondering about copyright and permissions. Even if these images are used with permission, is editing of this kind allowed? How do digital historians work within the limits of “fair use” when editing photos for this kind of project? Those issues will have to be explored as we continue in the process.

The Lessons of Goodreads for Public Historians

The book sharing and cataloging site Goodreads has unexpectedly become an important part of my social media use over the last couple of years. Having always been a voracious reader, I initially saw little use for the site, because I wasn’t sure what it could add to my reading experience. I decided to give it a shot on a whim in 2013, however, and nearly three years later I’m still a regular user. In this post I’ll briefly sketch the history of Goodreads and offer some thoughts both on why I’ve found it useful and on what it might have to offer to public historians.

Goodreads was founded in 2006 by entrepreneurs Otis Chandler II and Elizabeth Chandler in order “to help people find and share books they love.” Otis Chandler describes his inspiration for the site as a virtual version of your friend’s bookshelf, which has always sparked readers’ ideas about what they might like to read next.You can befriend or follow other readers on the site and see updates about what they’ve read recently and what they thought of it.

books-vs-computersIn 2011, Goodreads expanded the “friend’s bookshelf” model to include something more contemporary: algorithms. The company acquired the recommendation engine “Discovereads,” which analyzes the books on your lists and how you’ve rated them and offers you recommendations about what similar titles you might like–perhaps the equivalent of a knowledgeable librarian. By 2012, Goodreads membership was growing rapidly. The site reached 11 million members in October of that year, and had hit 12 million just one month later. In 2013, it was acquired by Amazon.com.

My own enjoyment of Goodreads is due to the way it combines its cataloging and organizational functions with the social angle. I use it to save books I want to read in an easily accessible place, and to keep track of what I’ve read in the past and what I thought of it. I could easily keep an Amazon wish list or my own personal journal of books instead, but the ability to share my list with my reading friends and see what they’ve enjoyed enhances the experience. Perhaps most importantly, while Goodreads offers many more avenues for participation (book clubs, writing detailed reviews, making more use of the algorithm’s recommendations), I am able to engage at the level I find necessary and pleasant, and no more.

What can public historians learn from Goodreads? Probably many things, but its dual nature as a personal archive tool and a social media site comes to mind. Perhaps museums and archives with well-trafficked online collections might consider adding some social functionality to their sites, to encourage researchers and casual viewers to engage both with the materials and with each other. Most important to the success of this or any social media site, however, is understanding the audience’s needs and how you might best meet them. Goodreads took advantage of the algorithm technology without allowing it to overwhelm its original mission, to allow users to more easily share their love of reading directly with one another.

This article relies on information from the Wikipedia article on Goodreads.

Online Exhibits: Some Thoughts on Process

One thing that has become clear from my recent perusal of some different digitization projects by museums and archives is that “online exhibitions” of text, images, and objects should not be created equal. While digitizing documents and images and making them available in a repository or in a curated online exhibition can be very successful, museums in particular need to think more carefully about whether it is worth digitizing the objects in their collection. After all, what museum professionals and visitors have long understood is that there is something about sharing the same physical space as an artifact that gives it power; it’s what draws audiences to museums in the first place.

With that in mind, I have been thinking about the process of developing an online exhibition that does not merely offer a recreation of physical galleries, but that takes advantage of technology to do something new. Having looked at the Mütter Museum’s Online Exhibition offerings and considering what is successful about them, I can share some thoughts.

onlineFirst, the project must be well-conceived and its purpose well understood. What void would a digital display of materials fill? Who is the audience? It’s not worth the expenditure of money and staff time if the exhibit doesn’t add much to the museum’s current offerings. The Mütter’s digital exhibitions, such as this one on astrology and medicine, seem designed to highlight a few documents and images from their collections along a certain theme that would be too small for a physical gallery but that is appropriate for their website.

Second, where do the images in the exhibition come from? For a curator based at a museum, perhaps just from your own collections; but for an independent researcher or a scholar looking to draw materials from various sources, it is important to make sure that you can get the rights to use the materials you want (or that you are comfortable with the risk of not having the rights, as we discussed in class the other day).

Third, how will the logistics of the project get done, and how much will that cost? That includes the cost of scanning or photographing materials; building an infrastructure for an exhibition; publicizing it; and perhaps maintaining it into the future. Particularly for small, underfunded institutions whose audiences are mostly local, it is important to weigh whether a digital exhibition is more valuable than, say, more public programs.

With so many museums suffering from a lack of funding, it is crucial to consider what online exhibits can offer that make them a worthwhile expenditure, and whether the institution has the technical and social media savvy to make them pay off.