Friday, April 15, 2011
Members of the TPH editorial board located several examples in which history (and art) museums - Museum of the Chinese in America, the National Museum of American History at Smithsonian and Metropolitan Museum of Art have developed collections-based digital timelines & item descriptions, all with some degree of visitor responsiveness and interactivity.
A Friday afternoon conference session at Pensacola showcased a couple of projects that looked at digital media, public interaction and the delivery of program services. Michael Frisch from SUNY-Buffalo and Anne Conable from the Buffalo & Erie County Library presented work from a pilot program in public humanities that focused, first, on digitization of community-wide Depression era (1930s) collections from many institutions in the area and, second, on public access through inventive programming devices such as customized personal walking tours using the digitized materials and construction of public meeting formats structured around social
history/human dimensions of policy issues such as government's role in the arts. The quality of the images showcased was wonderful - portraits of musicians at work from the Colored Musicians Union, exquisite puppets produced during the WPA, Science Museum collections most of us would never see. Mark Tebeau discussed the regional history vignettes (using oral histories, documentary footage, historic images, voice over narration) produced at Cleveland Historical - a free mobile app developed by the Center for Public History and Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University - emphasizing, as Frisch and Conable had - the need to figure out one's audience; what do access and interactivity mean for them? Digitization is not useful if not connecting people to people. In Tebeau's view, mobile technology is an increasingly important tool in reaching audiences.
I am not doing justice to the content of the Buffalo and Cleveland images and oral histories in this brief discussion. However, both projects, along with a third quite different museum project at Connor Prairie that places visitors in the midst of a Civil War raid, grapple quite inventively with the issues of using digital technology to engage visitors and connect with them. These presenters have digitized with purpose and imagination - and a programming use in mind. To this end, they've created models well worth our collective attention.
~ Jo Blatti
Thursday, April 14, 2011
A positive review of NCPH's focus on digital history and a report on "Constructing and Circulating Historical Narratives on Stamps" by Sheila Brennan of the Center for History and New Media
Priya Chaya's two-part round-up for PreservationNation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's blog:
and her more personal reflection on food and public history in Pensacola (in which fried green tomatoes inevitably make an appearance)
Debbie Doyle's posts for the American Historical Association blog:
on the public plenary with author Tony Hortwitz
on international public history
and on the Civil War sesquicentennial plenary
Suzanne Fischer's report on THATCamp NCPH on her Public Historian blog
Leslie Madsen-Brooks's reflections on her Doing History blog about fee-for-service issues at public
Nicole Moore's ruminations on the conference on her Interpreting Slave Life blog
Monday, April 11, 2011
Word clouds are seldom terribly deep, but they're fun!
Singing "Oh Freedom!," chair Brian Joyner of the National Park Service began the session with music in the tradition of civil rights meetings typical of the Albany Movement. The importance of music to the Albany Movement continued as a theme in panelists’ answers to both Joyner’s and the audiences questions. After shortly describing this coalition of civil rights groups that challenged segregation in Albany, Georgia in 1961 and 1962, Joyner turned the session over to the roundtable discussion, asking questions about the Albany Movement both historically and as viewed and commemorated today.
The roundtable worked particularly well for this session. Panelists Jeanne Cyriaque of Georgia's Historic Preservation Division, Bill Austin of Dorchester Academy, and Marna Weston of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida ably answered Joyner and the audience’s questions and the audience eagerly discussed the issues and, with other authorities on the topics in attendance, even answered some questions! The session not only provided information about the Albany Movement, shedding light on its history and importance to the growth of the 1960s civil rights movement across the South, it also addressed some issues of particular interest to public historians, especially when thinking about race.
Discussion about connecting with African American communities emphasized building relationships. Marna Weston stressed the importance of long-term relationships and being patient; for instance, when he practicing oral history he gets to know the people he’s interviewing over a period of time, beginning by asking them questions about themselves. Relationship-building also begins within institutions. All panelists agreed that discussions about race with both colleagues and the community are hard but necessary. When approaching such discussions, be sure to listen and remember that people are people first. Through discussions and long-term relationships we can build collaborative efforts to create projects and programs that memorialize local events of particular significance to the African American community like the Albany Movement.
All panelists agreed that commemoration of local events and people is important. “People just want something,” Joyner said, and it is our job as public historians to make sure documentation is happening. We need to advocate even for simple recognition. For instance, while large projects like the National Register may be time-consuming or impossible for various reasons, we shouldn’t forget about other forms of commemoration like statues or state historic markers. The roundtable’s discussion brought to light the importance not only of learning about issues like the Albany Movement and their connection to wider histories, but also building relationships and making sure to document and commemorate local stories in order to better serve our diverse communities.
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Historic Pensacola Village is in a ten- or twelve-block area of the downtown that combines the picturesqueness of a living history site with the consumer-centrism of a tourist town. It’s pretty, but rather eerily empty except when there’s some kind of organized group activity. Lawyers’ and realtors’ offices seem to dominate, with the usual scattering of galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. The “village” moniker seems contrived; this is very obviously a historic district that’s being asked to take a lead role in a redevelopment effort.
Downtown Improvement Board, writing in the free paper (Downtown Pensacola Crowd, April 2011, p. 4), it has been relatively successful in doing that, despite the ongoing implosion of Florida’s real estate market and general economic woes. He points out that the new residents in the downtown skew slightly female (56%) and older (a third are retirees). Race was not mentioned, interestingly, but I feel pretty confident predicting that it would also skew white. 88% have been to college; a third have completed some grad school. Polled about their reasons for moving downtown, they mentioned convenience; proximity to the waterfront, cultural attractions, and restaurants; and walkability (although 87% do own cars). Ads and articles in the paper, and a few days of walking around the neighborhood, reveal a now-standard repertoire of strategies for encouraging this new population trend: performances and festivals (jazz, crawfish, wine, and goombay), open-air markets, and various other activities that turn the preserved and renovated historic environment into a space for recreation and consumption (for example, a cell-phone-powered treasure hunt using neighborhood clues in search of a $10,000 diamond ring).
None of us likes to think that we’re a party to gentrification, but you know what, folks? This is what gentrification looks like, and there’s no getting around public history’s central role in helping it happen in Pensacola. At the two conference sessions focusing on gentrification and public history, which others have also blogged about here, the focus was on what we might do to counter the powerful push toward the upscale, the professional, the white, the middle-class.
But…its potential is limited by its location, and the fact that it’s now likely to be seen only by those already within the same demographic stratum that the redevelopment project overall is trying to attract (professionals, museum-goers, public historians and archaeologists themselves). How might we move these critical conversations into other venues and connect them with discussions about housing, jobs, environmental responsibility, and other pressing issues? In other words, how might we introduce a bit of needed grit into the redevelopment machine to buy some time for more widespread reevaluation of what it does?
Saturday, April 9, 2011
Horwitz was refreshingly candid about his own fears that he’s oversimplifying history in his efforts to tell a story that will “hook” readers and make them want to read more. While he’s an undeniably good storyteller, I do find him a little too willing to emphasize the colorful at the expense of the truly complex; his characterizations of Civil War reenactors in his best-known work, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, sensationalize a complex community in ways that I’ve always found troubling. Both journalism and scholarly writing have their own straitjackets that can keep us from finding more original paths through a subject as we write about it, and while I think Horwitz is right to note that scholars can’t usually bust out of their constraints, he also still seems bound by his own—the “lead, “hook,” “kicker” pattern that becomes second nature in journalistic writing. It was good to hear him talk about the importance of communicating “the strangeness of the past,” but that strangeness sometimes demands forms that are themselves strange and new—a challenge to all of us who labor with words and stories.
This year, for the first time, we introduced a level of friendly competition into the event. We hope that the promise of broader recognition will entice more students to participate and attract more people to the session.
Eighty-Seven conference attendees cast votes for the three posters they believed had earned special recognition. While voting patterns indicated that all of the session presenters had made important contributions to the field of public history, three posters were clear favorites:
In third place, "Restoration Invasion: The Yankee Re-creation of the Southern Plantation" by Jennifer Betsworth, University of South Carolina, explored the ways in which wealthy northerners participated in shaping the popular memory of slavery by purchasing and restoring plantations.
In second place, "Localizing the Kids' Meal: Using History to Preserve Regional Food Culture" by Chanda M. Nunez, and Kristin Wanek, University of New Orleans, explored relationships among race, gender, region and food.
The winning poster, "Interpreting the Lives of People of Color at Arlington House" described work by American University's Alexandra Lane, Katrina Lashley, and Will Tchakirides to integrate the interpretive programming and popular memory at Arlington House.
Please congratulate these students if you run into them at the conference. We'd also like your feedback: What do you think about transforming the poster session into a competition?
Not only that, but while the fort was being built, there was not a massive amount of slave labor present, only about 60 at a time. The amount of time that the slaves put into the brickwork on the fort almost forces one to look past the fact that these men were slaves and look at them as an artisan, especially when cutting the bricks to fit into the arches just so. The attention to detail and recognizing the effort that the slaves had to put into the construction of this fort and quite honestly, any building constructed during the period of slavery makes me wonder how could anyone want to hide this portion of our history?
Leaving Fort Barrancas, we headed over to the very overwhelming Naval Aviation Museum. I grew up admiring the Blue Angels and to see some of the planes there was breath taking, as well as a little scary. I was walking around looking up at the planes above and suddenly, it hit me. I know that these planes are secured to their tethers and that they are NOT coming down but the random thought that they could come down was comically paralyzing. As I tiptoed from underneath the aircraft, it gave me the opportunity to look at the detail of the planes and realize that for years our military has depended on these machines to complete missions and protect our country.
Overall, wonderful trip with the most knowledgeable guides in Tim and Nancy and if ever I am in Pensacola again I would return to NAS Pensacola to dig a little deeper into their history.