Digitized collections unsettle the role of tangible objects, like these antique duck decoys. Photo credit: Marcus Jeffrey
I’d never held a duck decoy in my hands before and certainly not one that was important enough to be in a museum’s collection. It was my first day as education curator at the Tuckerton Seaport Museum in Tuckerton, New Jersey, and along with Jackie Stewart, the director of the folklife center (it was her first day, too), I was organizing a small exhibit for the nature center. We arranged objects into a narrative about cultural experiences of nature, wrote labels, and tried to tell a story–albeit a short one–in that one vitrine. Even though this was the mid-2000s, it never occurred to either of us to go back to our desks and scour the Internet for photos of decoy carvers or ducks. We were focused on the physical objects housed at the museum.
What a difference a decade makes. Theresa Koenigsknecht’s recent posts on this blog, ”Surfing with purpose: Online collections as exhibit resources,” discuss how the availability of digital historical resources, particularly from the Internet Archive, shape how exhibits are created at the Indiana Historical Society. That digitization is the way of the future seems incontrovertible. In the ten years since that decoy exhibit, the amount of cultural heritage material that has become available on the Internet has exploded, giving small public history institutions access to resources that were previously unimaginable and helping museums make better use of their own collections. According to the New York Times, only two percent of a museum’s collections are on exhibit at any time (“The Good Stuff in the Back Room,” March 12, 2009), mostly because of issues of space. There’s just not enough room to put out all the interesting stuff. In that case, digitization seems like a godsend: take photos of it all and upload them to the museum’s website and, voilà, instantaneous access!
Or is it? Physical objects have a different aura than their digital counterparts. And despite the sense of ease that “plug and play” technologies often give us, serious digitization projects are neither easy nor cheap. Continue reading
Editor’s Note: This is the third piece in a series on the “crisis” in the humanities. A post introducing the series can be found here.
This wordle shows the most common words in state humanities council mission statements. Image credit: Mary Rizzo.
When the American Academy of Arts and Sciences makes the case for federal support for the public humanities in its Heart of the Matter report, it relies on arguments about the potential for civic engagement. AAAS contends, for example, that the humanities encourage “civic vigor” and prepare citizens to be “voters, jurors, and consumers.” A recent report by the Kettering Foundation agreed, calling civic engagement the focus of the state humanities councils.
But this hasn’t always been the case. When the state councils were created, they were mandated to utilize the humanities to understand and shape public policy. As we know, historians did something similar in creating the field of public history. Spurred by the academic job crisis, PhD historians worked for federal and state government agencies, created lobbying organizations for history, and partnered with humanities councils. By examining the shift from public policy to civic engagement in the public humanities, we can begin to write a genealogy of civic engagement, which has become, over the last two decades, a catchphrase repeated in endless grant applications and mission statements. What do we mean by it? A Google search on “definition of civic engagement” turns up more than 29,000 results. Skim those and it quickly becomes apparent that when you’ve read one definition of civic engagement, you’ve read one definition of civic engagement. Continue reading
Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg church and neighbor, Brussels, 2008. Photo credit: Eddy Van 3000
At this spring’s National Council on Public History annual meeting in Monterey, California, outgoing NCPH President Bob Weyeneth proposed that it was time for historians to let the rest of the world in on our trade secret about history: that it isn’t a static set of facts, but a matter of “interpretive fluidity” that demands a continual reassessment of what we know about the past. This way of understanding history is something that Weyeneth, like many of us fellow historians, took for granted until he was faced with public pushback and legal challenges when his work unsettled deeply held local narratives. Faced with the recognition that most people have no idea how historians approach learning about the past, Weyeneth came to think that it was time to “pull back the curtain” and be more transparent about what we do.
You can read the full text of Weyeneth’s presidential address here. Over the next few weeks, History@Work will present responses from public historians who reflect on the implications, opportunities, and dilemmas of letting the public in through the door usually reserved for the staff. What this series reveals is that the organization taking this approach is changed by the experience as much as—or more than—the public. Continue reading
The turn to spatial history has been aided by the explosion of digital mapping tools. While there are many options for mapping out there (including HistoryPin as described by Aaron Cowan in a History@Work post earlier this year), one look at the projects being completed by leaders in the field like the Stanford Visualization Lab is both inspiring and terrifying. How did they do that? Could I do that?
If you’re me, the answer is “not yet” (and not without a team and funding). But I’m increasingly interested in learning to make maps as part of my professional and scholarly work and wanted to stretch my digital muscles in some new ways. I just needed some data and a story that would be best told through a map. Continue reading
A few weeks ago, I asked readers of History@Work to nominate articles on historic preservation and place from The Public Historian for a yearlong conversation in honor of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 2016. Several of you submitted nominations via the comments on that earlier post (thank you!). More of you contacted me directly. There’s still time for those of you who haven’t made your nominations yet to do so—but not much. The deadline is this Friday, November 1.
Many people have asked me how it’s going so far. How hard is it to create a curated list of 15-20 articles on historic preservation and place from one journal? Pretty tough, as can be seen from this chart, which I created using JSTOR’s Data For Research, a great tool for those who are interested in light data mining within scholarly materials. Continue reading
The wreck of the wooden cargo ship Australasia on the bottom of Lake Michigan is one of the recent new listings in the National Register of Historic Places. (Image: National Register)
In the nomination form for the US National Register of Historic Places, one of the main criteria excludes “structures, sites and objects achieving historical importance within the past 50 years.” Using this criterion, if the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which authorized the National Register, were a building, it would only become eligible for inclusion in 2016. But as one of the most important pieces of legislation affecting historic preservationists and allied public historians in the United States, the NHPA has already proven its substantial contribution. As NCPH President Bob Weyeneth wrote in the June 2013 issue of Public History News , this upcoming golden anniversary is an appropriate reason “to inaugurate a set of conversations over the next three years to assess the history, impact, and legacy of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.”
To that end, History@ Work and The Public Historian are teaming on a project designed to spur those conversations, and we need your help. Continue reading
The New York Times blog recently posted a piece about the recent AHA conference in New Orleans. Touching briefly on panels about horses and trash in history, the author pauses momentarily to describe a discussion about “The Public Practice of History in a Digital Age.” While debate ensued over the status of narrative in the discipline, the academic monograph as “fetish object” in Claire Potter’s words, and how what counts for tenure may be hamstringing the profession, the panelists came to agree on one thing: Jon Stewart is a public historian.
Why? Because he is good at “confronting politicians with inconvenient truths about the past.” Continue reading
Public history has been at the forefront of democratizing historical knowledge and utilizing nontraditional modes of inquiry—from oral history to personal archives—since its inception. In that time, it—we—have substantially affected the larger practice of history in the academy. But, to vastly oversimplify, the promises and possibilities of the digital have risen as a challenge to all historians to rethink how we disseminate our work and, at the same time, to spur conversations that question and critique the role of technology in the 21st century. Continue reading
(Continued from Part 2.)
(Photo: Mary Rizzo)
During a slow moment on the Love Letters tour, while the couples snuggle each other casually, I ask Barbara to talk more about the effect of the murals. A nurse by training, she tells me that she sees them as having a public health impact—images of hearts helping people’s hearts—and improving people’s attitudes. “I’ve seen the neighborhood change for the better,” she contends, “but I can’t put my finger on it.” No one else asks a question. The murals, she adds later, are not loved by everyone. Some people don’t want them in their neighborhood, though she doesn’t know why. Others have critiqued MAP for their process and expense.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of any public tour is the possibility for unexpected interactions and how these are or are not incorporated coherently into the tour itself. Continue reading
“There was this young man from West Philadelphia,” our tour guide, Barbara, told the group of us assembled on hard plastic chairs. “He was a tagger, a graffiti artist, kept getting in trouble. He finally got sent to jail, and when he got out his girlfriend told him she didn’t want him around their baby anymore. But he was determined to win her back and since she worked at SEPTA [Philadelphia’s transit authority], he painted the murals that we’re going to see today along the train line to prove his love.”
We all knew that, strictly speaking, this wasn’t true. As described in my last post , Philadelphia’s Love Letter murals were created by Steve Powers as part of the renowned Murals Arts Program (MAP), not as some romantic gesture. But Barbara was following the first rule of being a good tour guide–don’t just tell facts, tell stories–and the baker’s dozen of us gathered for the Sunday tour were rapt. Continue reading