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.

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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

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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.