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Best Non Fiction History Books

With history being so vast and full of exciting events, individuals and adventures, it's no wonder that millions love learning about it in their free time. Additionally, since history extends back millions of years, the amount of books on the subject is just as broad. While some books cover some of history's most well-known happenings, others cover the little details and lesser-known individuals who are just as important.

Studying history is imperative not only for children in school, but for adults alike. By understanding who made history and the events that occurred, individuals can comprehend how to create a future that avoids the mistakes and trials of the past. Any time period or civilization can lead to lessons for modern-day readers to take way with them.

Fortunately, though there are millions of nonfiction books on history, we've narrowed down the top ten history books for you to immerse yourself in. All of these works are available on Amazon, ready for you to indulge in and soak in the thrilling tales of history. From the very beginning of human civilization to the world wars, here are the best nonfiction history books:

Best Non Fiction History Books

1. The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic

The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic

If you have always been fascinated by the Roman Republic but feel you lack comprehensive knowledge of the era, you should check out The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic. This book has garnered plenty of accolades that recognize the work's blend of intricate detail and light-hearted humor. As Dan Carlin notes, it's "massively entertaining."

The book, a number #1 seller on Amazon's nonfiction historical works, covers the period of 146-78 BC, detailing the ruthless leaders, inequality and inevitable destruction of the Republic. Readers will find some of the most thrilling events of history in the book's 350 pages. If you love the book, you can also check out the author's podcasts on the subject.

PROS

  • The book is a great value for its price.
  • It is on the list of #1 Bestsellers on Amazon.
  • The work is available in a variety of formats, including hardcover, paperback and as an e-book.

CONS

  • There are some repetitive passages.
  • Some readers were put-off by humor included in text.

2. History Year by Year: The History of the World, from the Stone Age to the Digital Age

History Year by Year: The History of the World, from the Stone Age to the Digital Age

With an average 5-star rating from over 1,100 customer reviews, History Year by Year: The History of the World, from the Stone Age to the Digital Age, is a huge hit with audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Besides a rich amount of information on various periods in history, the book is also filled with beautiful imagery, maps and timelines. Even better, the book uses easy-to-understand language whether you are a beginner of studying a historical study and or if you would like a refresher on historical events.

History Year by Year covers history through eight different periods, from 6.5 million years ago to the present day. While originally marketed for children aged 9-12, adults have fallen in love with this work for its engaging content. Besides images, maps and timelines, the book also has fun blurbs, such as "children of history" that cover children who have impacted history themselves.

PROS

  • Included in the work are an abundance of maps, images and timelines.
  • The book has easy-to-understand language for both children and adults.
  • The work covers many periods of history.

CONS

  • Readers have claimed that there are some historical inaccuracies included.
  • Some readers may find language of the text not challenging enough.

3. Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece

Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece

Greek history is full of captivating characters, enthralling events and an enormous influence through the rest of time. Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece has over 500 pages worth of historical coverage and analysis of this highly important time period in history. IMHQ calls the work a "A distinctive and decidedly modern interpretation of Greek history."

What makes this book stand out is the author's interpretation of Greek history through the inclusion of analysis by modern-day historians and archeologists. You will not only learn about Greek history, but you will also be able to think critically about history and learn to develop your own educated opinions on the matter. Soon enough, you will be able to talk about Greek history as a scholar!

PROS

  • The work also has a modern-day interpretation of events.
  • The book is a broad overview of the time period.
  • There are mostly positive Customer Reviews.

CONS

  • Some readers sees the book as more of an introduction rather than a detailed account of the period.
  • Compared to similar works, the book has a high-end price.

4. Founding Fathers: The Essential Guide to the Men Who Made America

Founding Fathers: The Essential Guide to the Men Who Made America

If you loved to learn about American history in school, you would fall in love with Founding Fathers: The Essential Guide to the Men Who Made America. Not only does this work cover the most prominent figures of American history, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the book also provides insight into lesser-known figures such as Samuel Chase and Charles Pickney. In doing so, the book expands knowledge of the Founding Fathers for all kinds of audiences.

The book takes on an 'encyclopedia-approach' to the figures and events that shaped early U.S. history, with the Founding Fathers and events listed in alphabetical order for easy reference. Readers of the text appreciated this more simplistic layout and agree that the book is well-researched without coming off as tedious. If you are looking for a quicker and easier way to learn history, this is the book for you.

PROS

  • The work has a very easy-to-read layout.
  • The book is well-researched and referenced.
  • It is an shorter work compared to similar reads on the subject.

CONS

  • The writer can occasionally showcase biased views of history.
  • There is some missing historical information.

5. The Middle Ages: Everyday Life in Medieval Europe

The Middle Ages: Everyday Life in Medieval Europe

If you don't just want to learn about history but want to feel truly immersed in a historical time period, you should add The Middle Ages: Everyday Life in Medieval Europe to your list. What makes this work stand out is the details the author includes about life in the Middle Ages, including how people bathed, what they cooked, and even made their beds in the morning! Soon, you will be able to fully understand life in a different age.

Customers loved the mix of lengthy passages on history with the colored and black-and-white images of the period. They stated that they felt truly thrown back into the time period and came away with a plethora of new knowledge that they could show off at parties or trivia nights. At the same time, they were able to gain an in-depth insight into the time period.

PROS

  • The work is a unique take on the Middle Ages.
  • The work includes both text and imagery.
  • There are mostly enthusiastic customer reviews.

CONS

  • Missing some important events of the time period.
  • Some readers thought there were too many small details.

6. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings

What makes the Vikings so alluring for many around the globe is how mysterious this group of individuals was. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings is a collaborative effort by twelve scholars and their understanding of just who the Vikings were and what made them so feared during their time. While much information on the Vikings is unknown, these authors provide all the information available.

The work traces the Vikings history and its many memorable characters while sharing images of the time period. The scholars who wrote the work share their insights on the era in an encyclopedic manner, making this a great pick if you are a student of the era or are just very interested in the Vikings. The photos in the book also bring the stories and characters of the Vikings to life.

PROS

  • There are multiple viewpoints on the period.
  • Interesting photos are provided to match the text.
  • This remains a great option for students.

CONS

  • According to readers, some information is seen as contradictory.
  • Additionally, some information can be disputed.

7. The World War 1 Trivia Book: Interesting Stories and Random Facts from the First World War (Trivia War Books)

The World War 1 Trivia Book: Interesting Stories and Random Facts from the First World War (Trivia War Books)

If you're not looking for a droning work full of forgettable names and dates, The World War 1 Trivia Book: Interesting Stories and Random Facts from the First World War will spark your interest. This easy read covers little-known-facts about World War I along with stories of the time period that you definitely didn't learn in your high school history class. Readers will become inspired by this work and find themselves looking up even more trivia about the time period!

Some of the book customers were history teachers and scholars who wrote that they learned plenty of new information themselves from this handy book. Students and newcomers to this historical event were also drawn to the book's easy format and found themselves speeding through the work. They also appreciated that the work didn't just go over the typical stories known from the war.

PROS

  • Considered a very entertaining read.
  • Good for history buffs and newcomers alike.
  • A concise work.

CONS

  • Not optimal for those who want a more detailed history.
  • Some readers wanted more trivia.

8. World War II Map by Map

World War II Map by Map

Geography fans will go nuts for this work: World War II Map by Map. This extensive book is compiled of maps that trace the events that led to and made up World War II. In addition to the detailed maps, there are also plenty of blurbs that explain just what occurred throughout the era.

Besides listing off the events and figures that influence the war, the book also gives background into the social, economic, cultural and political reasons for the war and why it happened. You will be able to put yourself in the mindset of those who lived during the war and better understand this brutal time's thinking and emotions. This will help you to understand present-day events within the same context.

PROS

  • There are visually appealing and informative maps.
  • Included are easy-to-dissect historical blurbs.
  • Takes a thought-provoking approach to the period.

CONS

  • Some reader complaints about the physical binding of the book being weak and easy to fall apart.
  • Some of the maps may be very complex for newcomers to the era.

9. Ancient Asian History: A Captivating Guide to the Ancient Civilizations of China and Japan

Ancient Asian History: A Captivating Guide to the Ancient Civilizations of China and Japan

Asian history is extensive, going back thousands of years as portrayed in Ancient Asian History: A Captivating Guide to the Ancient Civilizations of China and Japan. If you're intrigued by present-day China and Japan, you will enjoy this look into the countries' extraordinary pasts. The combination of both China and Japan's coverage will save readers from having to buy two whole works as well!

The first part of the book details China from its birth to inventions that the Ancient Chinese people introduced to the world. The second part of the book discusses the origins of Imperial Japan to an overview of Japan's traditional culture. Even better, the book features information on much-loved aspects of Chinese and Japanese culture, such as information on swords, samurais, martial arts and much, much more!

PROS

  • Covers two countries' histories rather than just one.
  • Good price for hardcover copy compared to similar books.
  • Includes blurbs on cultural aspects compelling to modern readers.

CONS

  • The number of dates and names of individuals may be overwhelming for some.
  • The focus can be confusing at times and seen as "all-over-the-place".

10. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

As written by an expect on the subject, Egypt is found to be a fantastic read, as is proven by The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. This work covers ancient Egypt from its origins to its eventual takeover by the Romans. The amount of detail included in this work continues to astound and compel readers.

If you want to learn more about Egypt besides the usual pyramids and hieroglyphics as covered in school, you can't miss this work. Readers praised its engrossing material and ability to draw in even the most skeptical reader. Your knowledge of Egypt will extend far beyond the usual scope understood by many of this intriguing region that continues to dazzle to this day.

PROS

  • This book has a lengthy exploration of the time period.
  • The work gives attention to lesser-known details.
  • The author is clearly passionate about text.

CONS

  • Some readers claim there is unnecessary bias from author.
  • More important events can be skipped over to focus on less important topics.

Final Verdict

The above books remain some of the most-purchased and well-loved on Amazon. While the books vary in format, layout and kinds of details shared, there is bound to be a perfect fit for every type of reader, including yourself. Whether you want to go all the way back in time or learn about wars of the last century, there is a book here for you.

Learning about history isn't only fun; it's important to understand how people built the world and why it works the way it does. From children to adults alike, everyone will benefit from examining the figures, events, and decisions that shaped the world and will continue to shape the world for the future by learning more about the past.

Lastly, there are plenty of works on history, and it can be confusing to pick which one is best for you as a reader. What's most important is to pick a book that not you can not only learn from, but also become inspired by. Whether it's a 600 page intensive look at one civilization or a work that is filled with pictures and maps, you should always feel that you are having a great time learning about history!

The Best History Documentaries Of 2021

"The Last Days Of Anne Boleyn"

The Last Days Of Anne Boleyn

In my opinion, I have to say that this is a superb documentary. It's a BBC documentary that was made in 2013.

It features commentary by several well-known experts on the subject of Anne Boleyn. This documentary is loaded with historians such as Suzannah Lipscombe, who is the author of five history books, including three about Henry VIII. She is currently writing a book about the Six Queens of Henry VIII.

David Starkey is another historian that comments in this documentary. He has written several books about Henry VIII.

Other historians include George Bernard and Alison Weir, who has also written several books about Henry VIII's queens.

Although this documentary focuses on the last days of Anne Boleyn, it also describes her life in general.

History Documentaries

January 7th, 1536

Catherine Of Aragon Dies

January 7th, 1536

Anne Boleyn Has A Miscarriage

April 18th, 1536

Eustice Chapuis is forced to bow to Anne Boleyn

April 19th, 1536

Thomas Cromwell Leaves Court, Citing Illness

Late April 1536

Rumors that Anne Boleyn is an adulteress Begin To Circulate

April-May 1536

Thomas Cromwell puts Anne Boleyn and Several Men On Trial

May 19th, 1536

Anne Boleyn is Beheaded

History Documentaries

Here is a synopsis of the documentary:

Anne Boleyn was executed on the 19th of May of 1536. She was the first Queen ever to be executed in England.

On May 2nd, 1536, the King's Guard and some members of Henry VIII's Privy Council arrived at Greenwich Palace with a warrant for the arrest of Anne Boleyn. She was charged with committing incest with her brother George. She was also charged with Adultery. In addition to that, she was charged with conspiring to kill Henry VIII.

Several men, including her brother George, were tried with her. All them, including Anne Boleyn, were imprisoned at the Tower of London. They were all executed there as well. The English people had never seen a Queen arrested, let alone executed.

The reasons behind her execution have been a subject of many debates over the centuries.

Many historians think that Anne Boleyn was framed. They take into account the speed with which her downfall happened. They also consider the nature of the charges against her. They argue over why she was framed and who framed her.

1536 Started Well

History Documentaries

The year 1536 started off well for Anne. Catherine of Aragon, who had been Henry's first wife, died on January 7th of that year. With Catherine's death, Anne felt she would be recognized by everyone as the Queen.

By that time, Henry had cut England off from the Catholic Church and formed the Anglican Church. The reason he did that was because he wanted his first marriage to be annulled by the Pope on the grounds of a Biblical passage in Leviticus. The Pope refused.

Henry was so desirous to marry Anne that he split from the Catholic Church and formed the Anglican Church when the Pope refused to grant the annulment. With Henry as the leader, the new Church agreed that the marriage to Catherine was invalid.

Anne Boleyn had been a Lady In Waiting for Catherine of Aragon. She was stylish. She was intelligent. She spent time in France. She impressed Henry's Court. She impressed Henry as well. Some considered her to be ambitious. It was said that she wouldn't settle for anything less than being Queen.

From Mistress To Queen

History Documentaries

When Henry married Anne, she went from being his mistress to being the Queen. This was shocking and extraordinary, especially in Tudor times.

When Catherine Of Aragon died in early 1536, Anne saw this as a good thing. She would now be the undisputed Queen of England. Prior to Catherine's death, it was feared that Catherine's nephew, Charles V of Spain, would invade England to save his aunt. With her death, that threat was removed.

Miscarriage

History Documentaries

Anne's joy would be short-lived. On the same day that Catherine of Aragon was buried, Anne suffered a miscarriage. The unborn child was a deformed boy. Henry VIII was furious. He had desperately wanted a son. After several years of being married to two wives, he had two daughters who had survived. There was no male heir. Eustace Chapuys, who will be mentioned later, had this to say about the miscarriage: "On the day of the Interment, the Concubine had an abortion which seemed to be a male child...at which the King showed great distress."

Henry began to think that he had been the victim of witchcraft and was tricked by either that or magic spells into marrying Anne. Adding to this was the belief that was held back then that a malformed baby was a clear sign of sin or witchcraft. Henry was convinced that God did not approve of his marriage to Anne.

Some historians think that the downfall of Anne Boleyn was the result of a power struggle involving Anne, Henry VIII, and Thomas Cromwell. It has been said by some historians that there was animosity between Anne and Cromwell. Some disagree.

An Ambassador Is Forced Tow Bow

History Documentaries

What is known was that Eustace Chapuys, who was an ambassador to Catherine of Aragon's nephew, Charles V at Henry VIII's court, was forced to bow to Anne on April 18th of 1536.

Chapuys had disapproved of Anne. The fact that he bowed to Anne was taken as a sign that he had recognized Anne as the Queen. This was seen as a diplomatic victory for Anne. Paul Friedman, in an 1884 book entitled "Anne Boleyn", wrote that a "good many people who had hoped that Chapuis would be rude to his former enemy were grievously vexed, and Mary herself was astonished when she heard that the ambassador has bowed to 'that woman'."

Thomas Cromwell

History Documentaries

A few weeks later, Anne would be dead. Some historians argue that Thomas Cromwell may have engineered Anne's demise. Shortly after Chapuys had bowed to Anne, Henry VIII gave Cromwell a severe reprimand during a meeting between Chapuys, Henry, and Cromwell wherein they discussed a reconciliation with Charles V.

The day after that, Cromwell claimed he was ill and left Court. Right after that, rumors began to circulate about Anne. Her Ladies In Waiting began to talk. Mark Smeaton was mentioned and interrogated by the now suddenly healthy Cromwell. Smeaton confessed to having relations with the Queen. It was not known whether or not Smeaton was forced to confess this, but Cromwell reported this confession to Henry.

Henry VIII felt that he was betrayed by Anne. He had her arrested. He ordered Cromwell to begin a full investigation. Within a few days, people were arrested.

"Dead Man's Shoes"

The most monstrous thing she was accused of allegedly happened during a conversation she was said to have had with a Henry Norris. She asked Henry Norris why he hadn't gotten married. He told her he wanted to wait a while. Her response was that she thought he looked for a "dead man's shoes" because she thought he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn and would eagerly do so if Henry died.

Envisioning Henry's death was Treason. Many thought this meant that Anne was telling Henry Norris she wanted Henry VIII to die.

Cromwell Organizes A Trial

History Documentaries

As a result of these accusations, Cromwell was ordered by Henry VIII to organize a trial. Some think Cromwell masterminded the whole thing. Some don't agree. It simply isn't known whether Cromwell was masterminding the whole thing or merely following orders.

The Tudor Court played a game that was known as "Courtly Love." This involved flirtations. Some historians argue that the "dead man's shoes" accusation was nothing more than a game of Courtly Love gone horribly wrong.

The end-result was that Anne Boleyn was executed on the 19th of May of 1536.

Anne's Guilt

History Documentaries

Anne's Ladies In Waiting made statements about Anne. It is the opinion of many historians that these statements were a sign that Anne was guilty.

There is also the matter of Mark Smeaton's confession. It isn't known with certainty if he was tortured into that confession or not. The other men denied any guilt regarding affairs with Anne Boleyn. Mark Smeaton never denied it.

It is known that Henry VIII married Jane Seymour 11 days after Anne's execution.

Thomas Cromwell became a Baron in 1536, but he was executed in 1540 after being charged with Treason.

I think this documentary misses on one very important point. In 1536, just before Anne's miscarriage, Henry was badly injured in a jousting accident. His horse fell on him. He was unconscious for two hours.

There was a great concern that he might not survive. He suffered severe injuries to his leg and head.

Many people said that Henry VIII was not the same after that injury. His behavior certainly changed, and many people attribute that to his head injury. Whether or not this had any effect on what happened to Anne Boleyn is a matter of conjecture.

This documentary, in my opinion, should have at least mentioned that incident.

This is, however, an excellent historical documentary that is fast-moving and will be informative and interesting to many people. I highly recommend it.

Bob-Lo

History Documentaries

"Bob-Lo Memories" is another historic video that I love. This wonderful video is look at the history of an island in the Detroit River that is well-known to Detroiters who are old enough to remember when it was an amusement park. I think you will enjoy it as well.

The History Of Bob-Lo

Early 1800

Catholics build and Indian Mission on Bois-Blanc Island

Early 1800s

British build an Outpost on the island

1815

Bois-Blanc Island is declared to Be Canadian Territory

1834-1865

The island is part of the Underground Railroad

1898

Bois Blanc Island opens as a recreational spot

1902

The Steamer Columbia starts taking passengers to the island

1906

The island gets a new carousel

1909

The name of the island is officially changed to Bob-Lo

1913

A Big Dance Pavilion is opened

1920s

Prohibition starts. Gangsters use the Bob-Lo Boats as shields

1929 and 1930

The Ambassador Bridge and the Tunnel to Canada open

1944

The Bob-Lo Boats Are Converted to Oil from Coal

1949

The Browning Company Buys Bob-Lo

1979

Bob-Lo Is Sold

1983

AAA Buys Bob-Lo

1988

Bob-Lo Is Sold To IBC

1993

Bob-Lo Closes

History Documentaries

Bob-Lo is an island in the Detroit River. It's across from Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada.

Catholic Missionaries established and Indian Mission on that island in the early 1700s.

In the early 1800s, a British Outpost was built there. One of the blockhouses that was built at that time is still there.

A famous Indian Chief named Tecumseh held Counsel Meetings on Bob-Lo Island.

In 1815, the island was officially declared to be in Canadian Territory.

In 1839, the British Government built a lighthouse on the island.

Between 1834 and 1865, Bob-Lo Island was a part of the Underground Railroad. A woman who was a slave named Eliza came across the Detroit River and went through Bob-Lo Island with her baby. This was during the winter time. She was being chased and ran across the frozen river, carrying her baby.

The island is best known as having been an amusement park. The amusement park started in 1898. It was then known as Bois-Blanc Island. That was its French name. On June 20th of 1898, it opened as a recreational spot. Passengers boarded a ship in Detroit called "The Promise" and cruised the 19 miles to the island, which featured several attractions.

Many church groups and other conservative organizations loved to go there because alcohol was not allowed. Companies also held company picnics on the island. They all loved the idea the alcohol was not permitted.

In 1902, a new pavilion was opened in Detroit that the ferries docked at. A new steamer, the Columbia, started making its runs to Bob-Lo in 1902 as well. This boat would be known for almost a century to Detroiters as one of the two Bob-Lo Boats. The other, slightly younger boat was the "St. Claire."

In 1906, an amusement building that was designed to house the new carousel was constructed. It housed the carousel and provided shelter for patrons when it rained. The hand-carved carousel had horses, goats, deer, and even chariots to ride on.

In 1909, the ferry company officially changed the name of the island to "Bob-Lo." Patrons had found it too difficult to pronounce its French name.

The "St. Claire" was built in 1910. Both the "Columbia" and the "St. Claire" had 3 decks and featured hardwood dance floors on the second deck.

In 1913, a Dance Pavilion was built on the island. It was the largest such pavilion on Canada. In the United States, there was only one dance pavilion that was larger. The pavilion on Bob-Lo was a 39,000 square foot building. When the bands weren't playing, a German-made organ kept people dancing.

When the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect in January of 1920, the Prohibition Era started. By 1924, laws in Canada changed and made it legal to produce liquor in some areas. Gangsters used the Detroit river to smuggle alcoholic beverages into.

Michigan. In the winter, they drove across the frozen Detroit River. In the summer, they sailed their boats close to the Bob-Lo Boats to avoid the Federal officers that were pursuing them.

The "Detroit and Windsor Ferry Company" suffered a major set-back when the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel were opened in 1929 and 1930, respectively. The company owned the Bob-Lo Boats and Bob-Lo Island. It also ran a ferry service between Detroit and Canada. The Ferry service was devastated by the bridge and tunnel.

The Bob-Lo boats kept sailing because they were not affected by the bridge or tunnel.

The Browning Company Took Over In 1949

History Documentaries

In 1949, the Bob-Lo Boats and the island were sold to the Browning Company. The made it into the famous amusement park that everyone in Detroit has heard about. The owned it for over 30 years.

One of the most popular rides that they added was the Wild Mouse. Two of the owner's sons rode the Wild Mouse 72 times the day it was installed. Their "reason" was that they were testing it.

Bob-Lo was a popular destination throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The Browning Family sold Bob-Lo to "Cambridge Properties" in April of 1979. They added a theater with a Broadway-style review. They added a giant 180-degree movie screen.

The Decline Starts

History Documentaries

Attendance started to fall off in 1980. That was partly due to the fact that the Republican National Convention was held at Detroit's Cobo Hall, which was right where the Bob-Lo Boats docked at the time. The boats were not allowed to run during the convention for reasons of national security.

In 1983, Cambridge Properties filed for bankruptcy. AAA bought Bob-Lo in 1983. They started a 5-year plan to improve the amusement park by adding roller-coasters and other attractions.

The island was again sold in 1988 to the International Broadcasting Corporation. They added new shows and updated the attractions. That company filed for bankruptcy in 1991.

The island was sold in 1993 to two brothers. Unfortunately, one of them suffered severe injuries in an auto accident in December of that year. The company that was backing the brothers took over ownership of the island and sold it. The rides were sold off individually. The two Bob-Lo boats were sold.

The island was sold to a developer in 1994, who has since been building homes on the island for residents.

Bob-Lo was a special place for those who remember it when it was an amusement park. To me, this video was a wonderful, nostalgic look back at a bygone era.

Outstanding public history project award: Histories of the National Mall

Editor’s Note: This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s awards for the best new work in the field. Today’s post is by Sheila Brennan, project co-director with Sharon Leon of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s Histories of the National Mall mobile website.

Histories of the National Mall map slice. Image credit: Sheila Brennan

Every year, nearly 25 million people visit the National Mall and wander from monument to museum vaguely aware of the rich history of the space. Histories of the National Mall is a place-based public history mobile website designed to allow visitors to access that history while on the Mall itself. Created primarily for tourists and a secondary audience of history enthusiasts not physically in Washington, DC, Histories is accessible from any web browser on any phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop. The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University developed this site with support from a grant in 2012 from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The National Mall has a history of its own that is nearly invisible when walking its paths, and there is very little interpretation available on the Mall. Most visitors see what appears to be a finished product: a deliberately planned landscape with memorials, monuments, and museums symbolizing the history and values of the United States. The Mall, however, is a contested public space and its meanings, uses, and purposes have changed over time. In its earliest days, the Mall was a messy place where transportation arteries and commercial markets existed and was bordered by lively neighborhoods. Visitors, and many DC area residents, have no knowledge of the unregulated zone of muddy grounds, vegetable gardens, grazing cattle, or the slave pens that existed before the completion of the Washington and Lincoln Memorials.

Mobile view of the site’s homepage. Image credit: Center for History and New Media

Our key strategy for making the history of the National Mall engaging for tourists was to populate the website with surprising and compelling stories and primary sources that together build a textured historical context for the space and how it has changed over time. Drawing on the extensive range of primary sources available at DC cultural heritage institutions, we assembled a rich documentary record of the many historical facets of the National Mall. Then, we added a layer of rigorous historical interpretation to those sources, synthesizing the most recent public history scholarship, raising provocative questions about the space, its role in national life, and the expressions of American ideals that have taken place there–questions that have engaged scholars for decades. Importantly, Histories uses the Mall to connect the development of Washington as a residential city with its role as the nation’s capital. For users interested in digging deeper into the secondary material, we created a public Zotero library and link to it from the Project Development page in the About section.

User Experience

The mobile-optimized website allows users to engage in a self-guided exploration of over 440 items, including people, sites, past events, and primary sources, with 40 inquiry-based explorations. We created four different entry points that are place-based, thematic, chronological, and biographical, connecting the physical space and its development, together with the social, cultural, and political events that have transpired there.

  • Maps offer a wayfaring guide to today’s Mall and eight historical maps that depict the Mall’s features and environment at different points in time. Historical events and sources appear as pins on the maps. Choosing a historical map layer then reveals to users events and sources from that time period located near them.

    Map filters on the mobile site. Image credit: Center for History and New Media

     

  • Explorations are short episodes about the Mall’s history that begin with a leading question, such as: Were slaves bought and sold on the Mall? How have protests on the Mall changed over time? Why is there a lockkeeper’s house on the Mall? Each question is answered with historical sources from DC area libraries, archives, and museums. Users may browse by question or theme (including politics & protest, design & monuments, work & play, commerce & trade, and ghost Mall).
  • Past Events offer users a chronology of significant Mall-related events, grouped in eras of roughly 30 years. Users may jump to time periods that interest them or scroll chronologically from the pre-1800s to the present.
  • People provides short biographies of individuals who shaped the Mall’s past and present. These elements highlight the contributions of lesser-known individuals whose impact would be impossible to find anywhere on the Mall itself.

Design and Outreach

Histories runs on the Omeka open-source platform developed by RRCHNM, using a custom responsive design theme. We built a custom map layering plugin that uses the leaflet.js libraries for tiling and serving historical map layers that works together with Omeka’s Geolocation plugin. We created the Explorations using the Exhibit Builder and the About sections with Simple Pages. The Simple Vocab and Search by Metadata plugins allowed us to create controlled vocabulary for linking items through metadata fields, such as eras, event types, and occupations. Our decision to design for the mobile web, and not develop an app, is tied directly to our goal of reaching the largest percentage of visitors to the Mall over the long term. Histories of the National Mall is not constrained by the quickly evolving world of mobile application development protocols, making the project easy to maintain after the grant period ends. Importantly, this means the content is accessible to the broadest audience of users and mobile devices, including international visitors who can use the free wifi available on the Mall and in the Smithsonian museums. This approach makes the content more discoverable because it is indexed by major search engines. We have noticed that local journalists use Histories for their research, and links to the content have appeared on Politico,Curbed DC, as well as on individual blogs interested in special topics.

An active and on-going outreach plan is central to our efforts in attracting visitors to Histories. Colorful brochures containing the site URL and a QR code are available at DC visitor centers, including the White House Visitor Center and Walter E. Washington Convention Center, as well as at the Historical Society of Washington, DC, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library. We hosted a scavenger hunt and a MeetUp to interest local residents and digital cultural heritage professionals in the project. Also, we regularly share content from Histories on Facebook, tumblr, and Twitter, which is often shared and recirculated by cultural institutions located on the Mall. The social media strategy has cultivated a following of return visitors to the site. These combined outreach efforts contribute to a steady increase in site traffic each month.

The results of our design and outreach decisions suggest Histories of the National Mall has struck the right balance between the accessibility of the mobile-first design and the engaging historical content and interpretation. Woven together, these elements create a digital public history project that will enrich the experience of the Mall’s visitors in years to come. RRCHNM plans to continue adding content and to continue our outreach efforts beyond the grant period, which ends officially in the summer of 2015.

~ Sheila A. Brennan is Co-Director of Histories of the National Mall, and Associate Director of Public Projects and Associate Research Professor at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University

Digital history for undergraduates….without the coding

The digital humanities are rapidly transforming both the discipline of history and the pedagogy of public history.  When I taught my first Introduction to Public History course six years ago, my course schedule had two weeks devoted to digital history; today it occupies more than half of the semester.

Digital history presents several obstacles for introductory-level students, though.  For all the claims about the millennial generation’s tech literacy, they are more adept as consumers than creators.  This is perhaps even more true at institutions like my own – a mid-size state university with a student body drawn largely from the suburban and rural counties in a 100-mile radius.  More than half of them are first-generation college students.  These supposed “digital natives” use smartphones and Twitter with relative ease but rarely have had access to the educational enrichment programs or expensive technology that might give them familiarity with computer programming.  Within the confines of a 15-week academic term, learning the intricacies of Javascript or Google Earth databases from scratch AND deploying those for a digital history project seemed unrealistic.

And yet, just telling students about all the possibilities of digital history and demonstrating some tools on a classroom screen seemed flat and sterile.  I wanted more experiential learning and some way to allow undergraduates to understand the potential of digital history and create a presentable public history project, without the technical skills proving an insurmountable barrier.

 

I found a workable solution via the site HistoryPin.com.  HistoryPin is operated by a nonprofit organization, We Are What We Do, and the site enables users to “pin” historical images to their original geographic locations via Google Maps and then add historical information to those images.  Visitors to the site can participate by making comments, suggesting more accurate historical information, and pinning their own images.  HistoryPin also has mobile apps for most platforms.

My Introduction to Public History undergraduate course partnered with the Lawrence County Historical Society in nearby New Castle, Pennsylvania, to select, research, and upload historical images to HistoryPin.  Lawrence County Historical Society, like most of the public history institutions in our area, is understaffed and underfunded even though their historical resources are amazing.  They need to create greater community investment and engagement and to connect with younger audiences.  Students worked in groups of three, divided by subject areas (Immigration, Sports, Labor & Industry, etc.) with each group member performing specific roles – as editors, digital technicians, and community liaisons. After selecting images from the society’s digitized collections, students researched the event or place in each photograph, wrote 150-200 word “exhibit labels” for each image, and then uploaded the photos to the proper location in HistoryPin.[*]

HistoryPin screenshot, taken by Aaron Cowan.

The project was great for teaching students research skills.  Even some of our History majors found local history research to be a new challenge – rather different from writing a standard term paper where they could pull together some books and journal articles from the library and synthesize those into an essay. One advantage we had is that the city’s main newspaper has been digitized and available through NewspaperArchive.  Keyword searching is a wonderful thing!  Still, the challenges were also instructive.  After one student’s attempts at researching a 1930s photo of the town’s police officers ran into a dead end, he visited the police station and found a wealth of institutional knowledge in the long-time members of the staff. As he later commented in class, “I learned the value of getting away from my computer and talking to people.”

HistoryPin screenshot, taken by Aaron Cowan.

Beyond the digital aspect, students were also practicing core skills of public historians.  Selecting the images became a basic practice in curation.  The Sports group, for example, was adamant about showing the local high school’s sports teams across a wide range of decades because the group wanted to demonstrate the gradual integration of African Americans as teammates.   In addition, students had to tailor their image labels to a public audience.  Finally, they had to consider how to handle sensitive and potentially controversial subjects.  What to do, for example, with the 1927 image titled “Darktown Minstrels in Blackface” or another, also from the 1920s, of a Ku Klux Klan picnic in the town park? It was rewarding to see students debate this and make decisions that we too often only discuss in the abstract.  Furthermore, HistoryPin is interactive, allowing viewers to comment, suggest more correct information, or post their own pictures and interpretive information, which provides a model for how interactive media allows for conversations, debate, and shared authority. Reflecting on the project at semester’s end, one student commented that

the HistoryPin project was my favorite project I’ve completed in college because it showed me just how much work a public historian truly does. Public historians conduct a great deal of research, which is not always easy. Sometimes, they must do some digging to find that missing element that brings the whole project together…the experience also showed our group just how much collaboration needs to be done for the end result to be successful.

In large measure, students took ownership of the project.  They were very enthusiastic about the fact that their research was going to be publicly presented, not simply submitted to the professor at the end of the term and never seen again. As another student reflected, “For the first time in my four years as a history major, I felt like a historian and not just a history student.”

HistoryPin screenshot, taken by Aaron Cowan.

Of course, there are limits to conceptualizing such a project as “digital history.”  Students aren’t learning much about the technical infrastructure behind a site like HistoryPin, and, because the format and structure are predetermined by HistoryPin, the use of the site narrows the options for students to consider entirely different interpretive methods.  Still, for introductory students, I’m satisfied that most came away with a much clearer grasp of how geospatial technology, digitized collections, and good historical research can be combined to present local history in new and engaging ways.

~ Aaron Cowan is Assistant Professor of History at Slippery Rock University. His research interests focus on modern US history, urban history, and public history.  In addition to his teaching duties, Dr. Cowan also serves as curator of the Old Stone House, a reconstructed 1822 stagecoach tavern museum owned by Slippery Rock University.

Introducing History Communicators

Just as science has Science Communicators, I’ve proposed that history needs History Communicators. The idea of History Communicators, and how public historians may fill these roles, will be discussed in a panel at the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Nashville.

History Communicators, like Science Communicators, will advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted.

Public historians are well-positioned for this role, as we do much of this work already. Academic historians within the American Historical Association are also looking in this direction, and the recent AHA conference in Washington, DC, featured several panels on historians as public intellectuals, including Yoni Applebaum, Peniel Joseph, Eric Foner, and Michael Kazin. These historians frame issues of politics, race, power, and civil rights in a historical context. But while they may sometimes speak out against history that is oversimplified or dishonest (Foner, for example, was critical of the way that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln), they generally do not devote time to communicating the value of public history institutions to the public at large. They are also not in the business of conveying basic historical concepts to mass audiences. This is where History Communicators can make enormous contributions.

Many public historians do currently engage in public outreach of various kinds, of course. But the goal of such outreach is often narrowly-focused on increasing visitorship or engagement rather than aiming for larger, society-wide goals. History Communicators will focus their work on behalf of the field as a whole rather than just for specific institutions.

There is clearly much scope for action here. For example: at AHA, a colleague mentioned to me that she recently overheard congressional staffers in Washington ask one another, “What’s an archive?” She was appalled that the staffers helping to write the legislation of our country do not know what a modern-day archive is, what it entails, and what value it has to historians, policymakers, and the general public. She presumed they had never visited an archive, either. I would hazard a guess she’s correct and that this is also true of the great majority of Americans.

In our hearts, public historians feel passionately that part of our job is to ensure Americans do know what a modern-day archive is and how it serves its function–as well as what museums, historic homes, government history offices, and historical research have in service to history and the public. But what public history is, and that public history (and history more generally) is a space of interpretation, nuance, and continual reassessment based on new information, remains opaque to most Americans. Among the public, there remains a perception that public historians only safeguard antiquarian objects and perpetuate accepted narratives. Joyce Appleby’s observation in 1997 that historians who choose interpretation over perpetuation of traditionally held beliefs are chided by political and popular forces still rings true today. Part of History Communicators’ charge will be to evangelize and popularize our message. It is a natural extension of the work we already do.

Participants in a 2012 symposium at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science are part of a growing movement in science communication. Photo credit: Virginia Sea Grant

The science community has cultivated a generation of such people–Carl Sagan, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Brian Cox, David Grinspoon, Bill Nye, and Alice Robert. Science also has invested resources to train a new generation of communicators. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science is one example of such an investment, and scientists have teamed up with communications departments at universities to produce media training and communications protocols for scientists who wish to engage in public debates.

Public history should do the same. We have sharpened our methods over the years, but they can be sharpened further. We must strengthen media and communications training for public historians to enhance the receptiveness of our message. As NCPH President Bob Weyeneth said in his 2014 Presidential address, which sparked a discussion of these topics here on History@Work, we need to “let the public in on the trade secrets” that historians share and take for granted. We must develop household names and engaging personalities who communicate about public history in popular culture and who have credibility in communities beyond our own. We must develop a cohort whose specialty is not to communicate within public history, but on it, mastering all media available to us, television, YouTube, Vine, Podcasts, radio, music, print, social, and Web. This is part of the vision for History Communicators.

So are History Communicators actually History Mediators, as Jim Grossman and I wrote in November? Are they History Advocates? History Popularizers? History Evangelists? The answer is all of the above, in my vision. And if many questions feel unresolved in this short blog post, it is because they are. Is History Communicators simply an attempt to put a new, more intentional spin on the kind of work that public historians already do? Is it merely an advocacy campaign–and how does is it differ from advocacy work done by NCPH, AHA, the Society of American Archivists, and others? What actual positions can public historians hold in order to function as History Communicators? Shouldn’t academic historians be History Communicators, too?

These are among the questions we’ll debate in April. This post merely serves to open the conversation and to get us thinking about the possibilities. I hope the conversation expands in many directions and takes what is at present a germinating idea and turns it into a fully viable concept. I invite you to comment below with your initial reaction and to join us in Nashville to discuss further.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

~ Jason Steinhauer is a public historian in Washington, DC. He works and blogs at the Library of Congress, and he sometimes uses Twitter: @JasonSteinhauer.

The Ruskin College records: Destroying a radical past

In the course of moving Ruskin College, the trade union and labour movement college founded in central Oxford in 1899, from its prime location to a site on the outskirts of the city, the college has been re-branded and much of its archive destroyed or dispersed to other institutions. Most importantly, thousands of historic student records from the first years of the college until the last few years have been shredded.Activist students came from working class backgrounds without formal qualifications–many then became labour leaders such as Lord John Prescott, the former deputy Labour prime minister. Information on students’ backgrounds, their application forms, progress and achievements has now gone. No records have been scanned and the barest details digitised. Only some from the 1950s remain.

Also destroyed are the records of the Ruskin students’ union and undergraduate projects that frequently drew on students’ own working experience. Collections of note, recorded on the register of nationally important archives, together with material culture such as some paintings and photographs have been given to other institutions. Traces of history work in the college have gone. The records of the History Workshop together with the postgraduate work of recent graduates of the MA in Public History are now safe in the Bishopsgate Institute in London. (The MA was closed down this year). The Institute offered to take anything–and everything–the college did not want but this was turned down.

The principal of Ruskin has insisted that legally the records of students should have been destroyed–under data protection legislation–despite repeated advice to the contrary from experienced archivists and internationally prestigious historians. However last week Nicholas Kingsley, Head of Archives Sector Development & Secretary of the Historical Manuscripts Commission at the National Archive, confirmed ‘it would have been acceptable to retain these records indefinitely for historical purpose’.

Valuing materials

Over 7,500 people have signed the petition to immediately halt the destruction and to transfer the remaining records to an institution committed to preserving the recorded experiences of working people.* Some refer specifically to their anger at the loss of material about the lives of their ancestors who studied at Ruskin:

My father was one of the early Ruskin graduates. He attended through a Worker’s Educational Association scholarship, after having started as an apprentice welder in the Chatham shipyards. He graduated and went on to be selected for a social work post at Toynbee Hall. WW2 intervened (he joined the RAF). I cannot conceive, as a historian myself, that such destruction is justified…

As another argued, ‘These records are irreplaceable, they show the lives of our ancestors. They give meaning to their lives and show what they went through and what became of them’. Some talk about the nature of labour and working class history: ‘The records and voices of working class people matter as much today as they ever have,’ says one. Others encompass the archives of Ruskin within the national heritage: ‘I see little difference between archive destruction and book burning. I find it difficult to understand why this can happen in a civilized nation.’ Some relate the archives to their own lives and experiences, for example as former students at the college: ‘Bishopsgate would be the best place: as the late Raph Samuel’s archives are kept there. He taught and loved Ruskin. I was lucky to be at Ruskin 1995/96. I can’t believe the vandalism of such important archives’. As one movingly describes, ‘My father was lucky enough to gain a scholarship to Ruskin, from the NUM after WWII. His studies there are a large part of the reason why I am not now a miner. Or at least an ex-miner. These records are of international importance.’

Latest attempts to save remaining historic student records

We have had no confirmation from Ruskin management that the remaining historic student records from the 1950s will be saved.

We have had no expression of regret about the destruction of records relating to so many people’s lives.

In order to save the remaining student archives and to ensure that no further destruction takes place we are lobbying the next meeting of the Ruskin College governing executive on Friday 30 November from 10.30 am outside the Rookery entrance, Ruskin College, the new Headington site, Dunstan Road, Oxford, 0X3 9BZ.

We will be presenting the petition. We will also be laying a wreath in memory of the achievements of students whose lives have been eradicated from the records.

Please send a short email to the governors asking them to accept the advice of the National Archives and to save the remaining student records. For a list with contact information, click here [PDF].

~ Dr Hilda Kean FRHistS
Honorary research fellow, Ruskin College

—–

For press coverage see articles in the Telegraph, the Times Literary Supplement blog, and the Guardian. Also see various letters in the Guardian including from academics and the leaders of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union. For articles on the background see a range of articles in History Workshop Online:

  • Come on Ruskin: Do the Right Thing (Nov. 5, 2012)
  • Thoughts & Questions of a Ruskin Graduate on the College Archives
  • Losing the Memory of Generations
  • Whose Archive? Whose History?

*Signatories include Sarah Waters, Alan Bennett, M Lewycka, Sir Brian Harrison former editor of the Oxford DNB; Dr Nick Mansfield former director of the People’s History Museum; Dr Eve Setch History publisher at Routledge; Professor Alison Light (widow of Raphael Samuel); Professor Jonathan Rose author of The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes; Stewart Maclennan, chair of the Scottish Labour History Society; Harry Barnes, former Labour MP and former Ruskin student; MPs John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn ;Professor Geoff Whitty, former director of the Institute of Education; Professor Pat Thane, co-founder of History and Policy; Alice Kessler-Harris former President, Organization of American Historians; Dr Andrew Foster, Chair of the Public History Committee of the Historical Association; Professor Geoff Eley, Chair of the History Department at the University of Michigan; Dr. Serge Noiret, Chair of the International Federation for Public History, Italy; Dorothy Sheridan, former archivist of the Mass Observation archive; Dr. Roger Fieldhouse, joint author of A History of Modern British Adult Education; Keith Bilton on behalf of the Social Work History Network; Bob Price, leader of Oxford City Council; former governors including David Buckle and Brian Cohen; and hundreds and hundreds of former Ruskin students and staff.

NCPH 2013 Project Award: The power of place within us

Editors’ Note:  This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s annual awards for the best new work in the field.  Today’s post is by Yolanda Chávez Leyva, co-director of Museo Urbano at 500 S. Oregon, the winner of the 2013 NCPH Public History Project Award.

El Paso is a windy city. Its dusty winds blow noisily into homes and offices, tear shingles off roofs and lift trash swirling up into the atmosphere where papers and plastic bags dance with desert sands that hide the mountains beneath a hazy cloud.  Most El Pasoans dread the wind but I am grateful for it because it helped me learn what a public history project could mean to a community.

One summer day in 2011, I woke up early and on a whim decided to take a drive to Museo Urbano, a community museum I co-directed in El Segundo Barrio, one of the most historic Mexican American neighborhoods in the United States, located in one of the poorest zip codes in the county. When I arrived, I noticed a group of men sitting on the stoop of the turn of the 20th century tenement building where we were located. For over a hundred years, men have gathered on street corners in El Segundo waiting to be contracted for work so I wasn’t surprised to see them. What did surprise me was what they had to say.

Housed in a building over a century old, we often had to deal with windows that didn’t quite shut and doors that didn’t quite lock. The volunteers who had staffed the Museo the day before had not yet learned the intricacies of properly locking the heavy brown doors. Overnight, the winds had blown open the old wooden double doors. When a neighbor noticed the open door when he looked out at sunrise, he came to guard the museum. Soon, others joined him. As I looked inside, nothing was missing. The cash from the donation jar was still there. The televisions and digital frames still hung on the walls. The neighborhood men waited for me while I inspected everything and locked the doors. We all laughed at El Paso’s famous windstorms. I stood there for a second astonished at their actions. More so than any survey, evaluation tool or comment card, this generous act by men whose names I did not know taught me the importance of history.

In 2011, the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) opened Museo Urbano.

Opening day at Museo Urbano, May 2011. Over 600 people attended. On the walls you can see the murals painted by residents of El Segundo Barrio, including the United Farm Workers eagle.

Opening day in May 2011 witnessed hundreds of visitors to the tiny museum. Over the next few months, a thousand visitors walked in our doors. We did not advertise much. People walked in after church on Sundays or on their way downtown to shop on Saturday afternoons. Teachers brought their classes and youth attended cultural workshops provided free of charge by artists, musicians and dancers.  Visitors brought items to display—boxes of Mexican tea for our traditional medicine table, a wrinkled image of the folk saint Don Pedrito for our home altar, plants to enliven the patio. Every day at Museo Urbano was hard work—we had no staff and we did everything from writing text to cleaning the bathroom. And it was magical to see community people relate to the project. It meant something to them and to us.

Graphic artist Adrian Lopez and five- year old volunteer Joaquin Leyva mounting the exhibit in the Teresita Urrea room, March 2011. All ages participated in creating Museo Urbano.

Why did the public history project mean so much to the people who visited and who volunteered there? I believe it had to do with the project’s values: respect, reciprocity, responsibility and social justice. We did not “give the people a voice,” we listened. We did not “teach them their history,” we worked with the community to understand where their lives and ours fit within the larger context. We did not “give back,” we acknowledged our shared history living on the border and what that meant to us and to the generations to follow.

Rubí Orozco and Leo Martinez provide a son jarocho workshop to area youth in the courtyard of Museo Urbano. Son jarocho is the regional music and dance of Jalisco, Mexico, based in African and Indigenous rhythms. In the background is the “Pachucos Suaves” mural.

And significantly, Museo Urbano created a space where people could connect across generations and across time, through eliciting and sharing memories, stories, and histories. When middle-aged Mexican American couples came to our grand opening, they told us stories of the African American jazz greats who performed at the bar across the street from the museum in the 1950s. When residents walked by the museum, they noticed the striking mural highlighting Pachuco culture that had emerged in the barrio beginning in the 1920s that became part of popular culture in the 1940s with the million selling album, “Pachuco Boogie.” The many murals portraying the United Farmworkers eagle, car clubs, and scenes of downtown El Paso that had been spontaneously painted by neighborhood youth drew pedestrians into the tenement courtyard, prompting stories of decades past. High school students from one of El Paso’s iconic high schools, “la Bowie,” interviewed their teachers who also had attended Bowie to learn what life was like for them twenty and thirty years earlier. Eighty- and ninety-year-olds stood in the museum with tears in their eyes that someone valued their stories and their lives. Undergraduate, MA and doctoral students experienced the profound power of history and place as they worked as volunteers or through public history classes to make the Museo a reality.

Volunteers supervised by muralist David Flores (in blue jumpsuit on left) paint an iconic image of the pachuco. Pachuco youth culture emerged in El Segundo in the 1920s and spread throughout the Southwest in the succeeding decades. The zoot suit, as seen in the image above, was emblematic of pachucos. The word “pachuco” has its origins in the slang word for El Paso, El Chuco.

Early in 2012, we were forced to leave our beloved space because of rising rental costs. More than a year later, the landlord has painted over the murals with a dull black coat of paint, hiding the once vibrant colors that drew so many into the tenement courtyard. Supporters have expressed anger and sadness to see the last vestiges of Museo Urbano at 500 S. Oregon erased.

Visitors to the Teresita Urrea room. La Santa de Cabora, as she was called, lived at the site in the 1890s, seeing anywhere from 200-250 people per day who came from Mexico and the United States seeking healing. Quotes from Teresita were painted on the walls of the tenement apartment.

However, something has remained with us that goes beyond the power of the physical place to the power of place within us. Physical place is fleeting. Buildings are torn down or decay. Even the beautiful mountains of El Paso change as the rock is quarried for buildings or new developments spread across the landscape. But within us is the place of memory, of history, of connections to others. Within us is the place of work, of energy, of creation and beauty. Within us is the power of reflection and of seeing ourselves in each other. That summer day as the men guarded Museo Urbano, not knowing whether any of us would show up or not, that power of connection was clear even through El Paso’s dusty winds.

~ Yolanda Chávez Leyva is a Chicana historian and writer who was born and raised on the border.  She is Associate Professor and currently Chair of the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Post Conference Review 3 Horaceville

Editor’s note: This post continues the series of conference city reviews published byThe Public Historian in the Public History Commons

Horaceville: Pinhey’s Point Historic Site, April 20, 2013. NCPH Annual Meeting, Ottawa, Ontario. The Pinhey’s Point Foundation. Tour leader: Bruce Elliott.

Horaceville, looking down on the Ottawa River. (Photo courtesy of Annie Muirhead.)

At Pinhey’s Point Historic Site, the house takes center stage as storyteller. Hamnett Pinhey started construction in 1820 and continued to expand throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. He named the house “Horaceville” after his eldest son, whom he hoped would inherit the property as a member of the landed gentry. When responsible government[1] wrested power from the old regime and granted it to the common people, the house’s increasingly dilapidated state expressed that failed colonial dream. Today, the Pinhey’s Point Foundation’s (PPF) approach of minimal intervention allows the house to speak for itself, enabling the visitor to glimpse moments from Horaceville’s entire life span.

Nine of us made the forty-five minute journey out to Pinhey’s Point on a surprisingly wintry Saturday, the last day of NCPH’s 2013 annual meeting. Presented with the exciting array of field trip options, my fascination with empire and colonialism steered me toward Pinhey’s Point. I wanted to see how Canada interprets its colonial past in the setting of a historic house museum. In addition to the usual visitor experience, we were also able to see behind the scenes with Bruce Elliott of Carleton University, who often uses the site in his courses.

A brief stop along the way helped place Pinhey’s Point in the larger context of the March Township, a settlement once divided between military gentlemen along the shore and Irish immigrants farther inland. By settling on the hill overlooking the sheltered harbor of Pinhey’s Point, Hamnett Pinhey declared his place among the former.

The sheltered harbor that made Pinhey’s Point an ideal spot for Hamnett Pinhey. (Photo courtesy of Annie Muirhead.)

He applied a stone facade to the front of Horaceville, where it faced the Ottawa River, but contented himself with faux finishes on the less visible walls. The public spaces within the house contributed to Pinhey’s gentlemanly presentation. Painted grain patterns gave plain pine floors and doors the appearance of more expensive woods; and Pinhey laid out rooms on the ground floor as an enfilade,[2] probably inspired by Europe’s great palaces.

Hamnett Pinhey’s lordly aspirations were cut short by circumstances beyond his control. Soon after his initial investment, the advent of responsible government curtailed the power of landed gentry in Canada. Moreover, his fashionable parcel of land on the riverbank would never produce as much as the fertile inland farms. The Pinhey family quickly fell into decline and never found the resources to replace all of Hamnett’s original decorations or furnishings.

The Pinheys’ loss has proved a boon to the PPF. Architect Julian Smith took charge of the restoration, choosing the path of minimal intervention. The visitor is treated to glimpses of Hamnett Pinhey’s mansion alongside the deteriorating home of the twentieth century Pinheys. The house retains much of its original contents, albeit some in a much-altered form. A once-fine drop leaf dining table now resides in the kitchen, covered in canvas, and the room Hamnett once used as a study remains in its later incarnation as a dining room—complete with linoleum from the early twentieth century. A text panel explains the room’s earlier use.

The kitchen, stripped of its modern remodeling. Just behind the spinning wheel is the drop-leaf dining table covered in canvas. (Photo courtesy of Annie Muirhead.)

Hamnett Pinhey’s library, transformed by later generations into a dining room. (Photo courtesy of Annie Muirhead.)

 

Throughout our tour, I could not identify a central narrative. Some rooms contained period artifacts and depicted the space’s use, while others function as exhibit space for rotating displays, often produced by college students or volunteers with funding from small project grants. Temporary exhibits from past years have been repurposed and displayed in many of Horaceville’s rooms. A few panels in the parlor tell about Hamnett Pinhey and the house’s construction, a single placard interprets the unusual second-floor privy, posters in the upstairs dining room detail the restoration process, a trellis in the master bedroom holds information about Pinhey’s gardens, and a meticulously reproduced 1880s gown occupies a place of honor in the sitting room. Most of these projects demonstrate excellent scholarship, but they stand independent of one another. Bruce Elliott did a great job guiding us through the house’s past, but on my own I would have had a difficult time piecing the story together from these scattered displays.

Currently, PPF and the City of Ottawa share responsibility for Pinhey’s Point. Ottawa owns the house and land, while PPF retains ownership of the collections. Most of the exhibits and interpretation come from the Foundation, which directs its efforts towards adult visitors. Ottawa runs the site during its open season (May through September), focusing their programming on children’s activities. The two organizations form a symbiotic relationship through which they successfully balance good scholarship with public interest, though neither party receives sizable funding. The PPF’s most recent exhibit, “Whose Astrolabe?” presents an excellent examination of the origins of a seventeenth-century astrolabe, facilitating discussion of cultural ownership and contested memory. PPF uses this single artifact to interpret key issues of post-colonial narrative, incorporating primary source research to confront old assumptions.

The concept of minimal intervention that guided Horaceville’s restoration has bared remarkable aspects of the house’s original construction. Julian Smith removed twentieth-century remodeling from the attached stone kitchen revealing the original hearth. He chose not to repair the walls and ceiling, leaving the structural underpinnings exposed in several places. This space may look “ugly” to some visitors, but permits a range of interpretive possibilities. In the sitting room, a single wall retains the remnants of original wallpaper while the other three bear relatively new coats of paint in a complementary green. In this particular space, I think the intervention has been a bit too minimal. A section of floral wallpaper border at the top of the wall looks like it could peel off at any time, crying out for a conservator to stabilize it.

For the most part, PFF has used conservation very strategically. A handful of artifacts have undergone full restoration, including the oldest piece in the furniture collection—a chest of drawers from the eighteenth century. Others, like the repurposed kitchen table, contribute to interpretation through their decay. This balance effectively allows the visitor to encounter Horaceville in several times at once.

The oldest piece of furniture in the Pinhey collection. (Photo courtesy of Annie Muirhead.)

Horaceville survives as a ghost of Canada’s colonial past, encompassing a myriad of might-have-beens. I could see Hamnett Pinhey’s hopes for greatness in the traces of luxury and attention paid to appearances. At the same time, his family’s failure to fulfill that promise emerges in the nineteenth-century furnishings that saw regular use until the 1970s. Although Bruce Elliott’s tour guided us skillfully through this dynamic interpretation, I think the installation of a cohesive narrative should be a priority to improve Pinhey’s Point interpretation for unguided visitors. Due to the snow, we did not get the chance to explore the grounds, but even without that additional attraction, I wish we had spent longer at Pinhey’s Point. I’m sure Horaceville has more stories to tell than those we had time to hear.

Genealogy from below

Editor’s note: In “On Genealogy,” a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of mass amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might “investigate, theorize, and interrogate” the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion. Paul Knevel is the second of these scholars.  We hope you will post your comments to add to this discussion. 

The largest family tree in the world, as claimed by the International Family Museum in Eijsden, the Netherlands. Photo credit:  International Museum for Family History

As could be expected by the author of the broad and lucid Consuming History, Jerome de Groot demonstrates in his article in The Public Historian an amazing ability to discuss thoroughly topics and themes that would for others take book-length or even career-length considerations. “Genealogy and Public History” thus not only deals with the various ways that genealogy and family history could be undertaken and imagined by various people and groups but also with such large and profound issues as the impact and construction of “knowledge infrastructures” in a digital age, the silencing character of the archive, the ethical sides of dealing with the dead, the neo-liberalisation of public space generated by commercial websites, “digital labour,” and many other themes and ideas. The result is a clever, multi-layered, insightful, and thought-provoking essay that challenges public historians to rethink today’s digital historical culture and practices, their own role, and the activities of millions of people (see the stunning figures mentioned by De Groot) who are doing genealogy and family history and thus trying to connect themselves with the past. Consequently, it is impossible to address in this short reaction all the topics and themes raised in De Groot’s article.

Instead, in the following, I would like to concentrate on a theme hinted at in various places in the article but not really dealt with: genealogy and family history as a social activity. In his article, De Groot rightfully underlines and clearly demonstrates the necessity for public historians “to recognise, theorise, and understand the various ways in which Genealogy and Family History work, the local, national, and international contexts for such investigation, and the consequences for this practice on the historical imagination.”  Not surprisingly, De Groot’s article proves to be an excellent starting-point. He makes many insightful remarks about what it means to do genealogy and family history. But most of his valuable observations and conclusions are not based on “inside” information but on his well-versed knowledge of historiography, cultural studies, digital humanities, and philosophy. The ordinary practitioners of genealogy and family history themselves are remarkably absent in the article: we never hear them talk and reflect in their own words about their own activities, the limits and possibilities of the Internet, the lure of the archive and documentary evidence, their horizon (local, national, international), and their connections with the past.

This view “from above,” so to say, seems to be dominant. In his useful overview of Dutch popular historical culture, A Contemporary Past, the Dutch historian Kees Ribbens, for instance, also deals with genealogy as a historical activity.1  His approach is more down-to-earth than De Groot’s:  Ribbens summarizes the history of genealogy in the Netherlands, quickly describes the methodology of doing genealogical research, and writes about the possible motivations of the practitioners. In the end, however, they, the practitioners, are as silent in his study as they are in De Groot’s article.

Whatever the importance of critical reflections and analyses, like the ones presented by De Groot and Ribbens (and they are manifold!), it seems to me as necessary and rewarding to redirect our attention now and then more exclusively to the people whose activities we are studying and dealing with. In our aim to understand the practice and consequences of genealogy and family history, public historians should not only write about the practitioners in the field but also talk with them and listen to them. What I am missing, in other words, is a participatory study of genealogy and family history, a project that starts by studying the various ways that genealogy and family history are undertaken “from below,” by the actual people involved. In a field as rich of local, national, and, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, indeed international organisations, communities, centres and bureaux as genealogy, such research is easily organised at various levels, even as a series of master’s theses. By combining a series of surveys in the tradition of Rosenzweig/Thelen’s The Presence of the Past with more anthropologically based observations, like the ones done by Hilda Kean in her London Stories,2 we could try in more detail to understand the ways in which people are trying to bring the past to the present and how the changes in the technological infrastructure indeed have affected their practices and modes of dealing with and thinking about the past.

I would like to learn more about the affective and emotional dimensions of their activities, about their collaborations and sharing of information or “spirit of volunteerism,” as De Groot calls it, and about their ideas of doing research and thinking about history. How, indeed, is the content design of websites like Who do you think you are? story affecting and influencing their narratives of family history? How does the experience of keeping personal belongings of a family member–a photograph, a ring, a badge, a record–affect the forging of connections between the past and the present in a digitized world?

Such a project (or better: a series of projects) should also encompass genealogist’s activities in and contributions to crowdsourced initiatives, like the recent one organized by the City Archive of Amsterdam around militia registers.3  More than in any other field of history, as De Groot convincingly argues, the interface between “amateur,” “user,” “fan,” and professional and institutional bodies is troubled in the world of genealogy and family history. What that means has still to be analysed, described, and understood fully. By looking critically at the “digital labour” done by volunteers in the various institutional crowdsourced projects, the content and role of what Raphael Samuels once dubbed “unofficial knowledge” come into our view, the kind of information generated by people who see genealogy and family history foremost as a social activity, not as a professional calling. How do people rate these experiences and what are the institutions involved and the professionals working at them really learning (or trying to learn) from the input of practitioners? As such, taking genealogy “from below” seriously could be a fruitful starting-point for a dialogue about what it means to share historical information and knowledge and to try to make the past live in the present. Jerome de Groot is absolutely right: genealogy matters.