Moms at the myth (Part 1)

album cover

Moms at the ‘Mich’: Cover of the mysterious “lost” Moms Mabley album. Photo credit: Rateyourmusic.com

There are layers of history contained in the album cover for Moms at the “Mich.” Jackie “Moms” Mabley’s career ran from the queer Harlem comedy clubs of the 1920s to early race films, from the mid-century “chitlin’ circuit” to the family-friendly late-career movie Amazing Grace (1974). But this… this is a doozy, closer to the porn-comedy LPs of Blowfly than the lyrics of earlier lesbian entertainer Gladys Bentley. Continue reading

All that is solid? The politics of digitization

Digitized collections unsettle the role of tangible objects, like these antique duck decoys.  Photo credit:  Marcus Jeffrey

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

Tools for digital history: Google Map Engine Lite

Google mapThe 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

Deadline is Nov. 1 for TPH/NHPA nominations

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

An invitation: Help us identify the top 15 articles on preservation in The Public Historian

ship on lake bottom

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