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

Plugging back in to the sustainability conversation (and ungating our digital publication)

report coverConference-goers at the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting in Monterey, California, last March were given an advance look at a digital anthology compiled to complement the conference theme of “Sustainable Public History.”  Containing some materials from this blog, some from previous conference working groups focusing on environmental issues, and some new materials, the anthology, called “Public History in a Changing Climate,” was an effort to gather together some of the threads of what is still an emergent discussion within the field. Continue reading

Surfing with purpose: Online collections as exhibit resources (Part 1)

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Digital collections like those of the Internet Archive have drastically expanded the resources available to exhibit creators. Photo credit: Internet Archive

Thanks to the exponential increase in availability of digitized collections, possibilities in exhibit research have drastically expanded. Digital collections have become essential tools that help ensure the success of projects with limited budgets and tight deadlines, which most public historians might agree is just about every project. At the same time, it is often overwhelming to sift through the wide range of options. How can researchers, curators, and designers best utilize and understand the many resources provided through digital repositories and open access collections?

I recently responded to a tweet by Mary Rizzo asking for examples of people using the Internet Archive, an open access digital collection, in their public history work, and she suggested I write a blog post about using tools like this. As an Exhibitions Researcher at the Indiana Historical Society, my initial reaction was to think “I don’t know much about open access collections, I just use them.” Considering again, however, I realized that even though I was trained during the era of digitization and I use these resources as second nature in my work, I’ve still gone through a learning process in my job. Continue reading

Project Showcase: “The World Wars”

world-wars-headerThe TV network HISTORY announces a three-day series premiering this Monday (Memorial Day in the US) which treats the two world wars as a linked event—what Winston Churchill called “the second Thirty Years’ War.” Narrated by actor Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), World Wars tells the story of three decades of conflict through the eyes of political and military leaders like Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt, Tojo, and Mussolini. It will air on May 26, 27, and 29 at 9 pm Eastern Time. Later in the summer it will also appear in more than 160 countries and on H2, the cable channel formerly called History International, which now airs much of the documentary content once shown on the History Channel before its rebranding as HISTORY.

Dirk Hoostra, Executive Vice President and General Manager for HISTORY and H2, notes that the series keys off the start of the centennial of World War I and presents an opportunity “to tell one of the greatest stories of all time in a different way.” The episodes will draw on original footage, computer-generated imagery (CGI), and commentary from Senator John McCain, General Colin Powell, and others.

The series also incorporates a robust social media experience, with live-tweeting from @HISTORY during the episodes and a “War of Wits” trivia competition in partnership with QuizUp. The series hashtag is #WorldWars.

Projects in the print-digital pipeline

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Sketch for a key element of the “Slavery in New York” exhibit, found in the Public History Commons collection relating to the exhibit.

Regular visitors to the Public History Commons may have noticed that we’ve undergone a slight facelift recently.  The History@Work blog, initially the sole occupant of this site, has gradually been joined by other projects:  the News Feed, The Public Historian’s digital space, and now our new Library. To try to keep our interface clear and easy to navigate, we’ve bumped the blog down a little bit on the page and simplified the navigation bar.  We hope readers are finding their way around without too much trouble.

We’re also excited to introduce the Library to you.  Although still in its very early stages, it represents an important step in a larger project of creating flexible platforms for publication and communication and ways for our print and digital projects to cross-pollinate more easily.  We’re starting to get a sense of the possibilities through two recent collaborations, one of which revolves around Richard Rabinowitz’s award-winning article “Eavesdropping at the Well: Interpretive Media in the ‘Slavery in New York’ Exhibition.” Continue reading

“Seeds of Change”: A pop-up museum for Monterey

plantsHeading to Monterey for the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting next week?  Don’t forget to pack your contribution to NCPH’s first pop-up exhibit, “Seeds of Change:  Public History and Sustainability”!

Generated entirely from participant contributions and built onsite at NCPH, “Seeds of Change:  Public History and Sustainability” will examine how issues of sustainability converge with the work we are doing in public history.  We hope that the exhibit will facilitate conversation and serve as a forum for discussion about the conference theme.  We invite conference attendees to share their experiences with sustainable practices and to brainstorm creative ways that historians can help general audiences comprehend, historicize, and complicate discussions about sustainability. Continue reading