Curiouser and Curiouser...

My Adventures in blogging, digital and Public History

Saturday, February 24, 2007

From Penalties to Produce

What would Bill Barilko think? It seems that the new owners of Maple Leaf Gardens, Loblaw Cos. Ltd. (yes, the grocery store people), have plans to turn the hockey shrine into - you guessed it - a grocery store.

Of course, as one might expect, there has been a storm of controversy surrounding the proposal. Heritage properties or buildings with history are always a touchy subject when it comes to preservation, and especially in this case when the building under consideration was once the Mecca of the hockey world. But what should be done with something when it outlives the purpose for which it was built? And what if it is not a public building but owned by a private citizen or corporation? What effect does this have on history?

I am probably in the minority, but I think the owners of the Gardens should be able to use the building the way they see fit. After all, when Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment sold the building, they did so under the condition that it could not be used as a hockey arena or sports venue. Essentially then, MLSE created a situation which would inevitably change the course of the building’s history. So, rather than have it sit empty, shouldn’t it take on a new persona and be the basis of a new history?

It would be illogical to suggest that converting a building like the Gardens is selling out to corporate interests and destroying a part of Toronto’s history. The argument really has no validity considering the building was originally created to make money. In fact, the seats were moved closer together to squeeze more patrons in. So far from destroying history, a corporation like Loblaws is merely continuing the tradition of capitalism.

Architecture critic Chris Hume, the first person you might think would be against the proposed change, supports it. Hume points out that the Gardens is not architecturally unique and calls the reno a “fitting end to this dismal, unhappy place.” He is referring to the various monetary and corruption scandals and in later years, child abuse scandals, which have tainted the confines of the arena.

I think Hume makes some valid points. The arena seems to have as many bad memories as good. Why not change the use completely and give the building a chance for a new history?

Yes, the building is iconic and was the site of many memories, but the building itself is not being torn down. It will still be there as part of the history and heritage. Even The Toronto Preservation Board gave the conditional okay for the re-adaptive reuse of building. So it seems the city has given its blessing for a new chapter in the history of Maple Leaf Gardens to be written.

I recently had the chance to hear Elizabeth P. Busby speak. As former head of art conservation at the ROM she has a wealth of knowledge and experience in the art, museum and history worlds. Someone asked what she thought of the new Michael Lee-Chin crystal at the ROM. She said that originally she was unsure but that she had grown to really like the design. She said it was “of our time”.

I think Elizabeth P. Busby has put it brilliantly. Buildings, like history, are reflections of their time. They change and morph and grow based on cultural attitudes and economics. History is not stagnant It is based on the ideas and feelings of the past and interpreted by those in the present. History is created by people.

Building and structures may encourage memories, but the stories attached to them remain long after a building has been torn down, or its original use long forgotten. If Maple Leaf Gardens becomes a grocery store it will just be part of the inevitable historical change, and its impact, the basis for discussion and debate among future historians.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My Sister Hates History

My sister hates history. Not just a mild dislike. No. She hates it. This is not something I deduced on my own; she told me. Nor is this a new epiphany in her life. Nope. She’s hated history for a really long time.

For years I have been trying to get to the bottom of this hatred. It disturbs me. How could someone HATE history, especially someone who is my own flesh and blood? After all, History is what I do. I love it. I mean when I was a kid, I steamed labels off of Canada Dry bottles to send away so I could receive a full colour book of The Treasures of Tutankhamun. Uh -Huh. Moving on...

Of course I could have figured it out. This is a woman who, when we were at the Louvre and I was standing in front of Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa ( one of my favourite paintings), said ,“ are you done looking at that thing yet?” She just didn’t appreciate how I could be so enamoured with a painting. Fair Enough. Maybe art is just not her thing.

However, I do find it hard to accept that someone who lived in Paris for a year and in other parts of France for another year can hate history. She did concede once that she does not mind French history. Of course this is only because she loves the language and she feels she must know a little bit about the history and culture of the place to fully appreciate the language, its nuances and references. Exactly I tell her. Think of the appreciation she could have for so many other places and ideas if she embraced history. Nice try she said.

So, I have decided that she will become my guinea pig. ( We had a guinea pig growing up. He was of the long-haired variety. I remember that my mother gave him CPR once. He lasted a little while longer after that. But I digress...) A Public History guinea pig if you will. Or maybe it’s like rehab. Not the Betty Ford kind, more like historical enlightenment. I just know that somewhere deep down in the recesses of her dark, history-hating soul, there is something I can tap into. I am determined to help her find something about history, any era, form or genre of history, that she likes. After all, not only am I a Public Historian, I am a history teacher. In my spare time ( which doesn’t actually exist these days, but when I do have spare time) I read history, I watch history, I visit history. Really, what gives with her? You can see how perplexed I am by this hatred.

Where will I begin...
I am going to use what I have learned this year to help my sister realize that she likes history. I think I may have already started the process. I invited her to the opening of our Invention to Innovation exhibit and she said she liked it. She found some items she was interested in and was quite intrigued. Of course there was also the wine and the cheese - ah, engaging the visitor, step one in historical rehabilitation. So, more trips to museums and interesting exhibits are definitely part of the rehab. I think there may be some opportunities to use film in her treatment as well.

In all seriousness, I think she does like history and just doesn’t realize it. I guess it will be up to me to convince her that history is not a dull and dusty book, but can be active, engaging and alive. It’s going to be intense, but I am up to the challenge. I feel like Dr. maybe that isn’t the best analogy. Stay tuned for the updates.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Invention to Innovation

Interested in the strange and quirky? Or perhaps you are interested in technological advances which have changed the way you live your life? Then check out what my UWO Public History colleagues and I have been working on. Invention to Innovation looks at the evolution of technology from the 19thC to the present. The exhibit runs until August at Museum London so check it out if you are in the area. You can visit the virtual exhibit also created by the Public History class at

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

W3 Schools Tryit Editor v1.4 - Fun Stuff! Really!

I was thinking about all the things I wanted to learn about HTML. W3 Schools Tryit Editor v1.4 is great for that. It gives you basic code which you can then play around with and edit. After you have what you think will amount to something, you simply click the “Edit text and click me button” to see how you did.

Skimmed fairly simple things and selected a number of tutorials relating to things I wanted to learn or things I thought would be useful for the creation of a website.

Tried caps - no changes to the text. Added a 'b' tag next to the paragraph text.(Also figured out I can't use the <> when I use examples because Blogger reads them as tage too! How to get around this? hmmm...). Anyway when I added the 'b' tage I got the following:


This is a paragraph.

Paragraph elements are defined by the p tag.

Hmm - forgot to close the 'b' tag and everything after it was bolded, not just the line I wanted. Okay, lesson learned.

Here is something handy, the 'br' tag. It breaks the text into lines. Excellent if you need to fit something into a small space or copy down a few lines of poetry. I created this awful little piece while practicing:

The snow
is absent
but it is Christmas.
Who cares?
not the people who have to drive.

Headings - It was fairly easy to figure out that the heading number dictated the size of the heading’s text in relation to the other heading numbers. So, the lower the heading number the larger the text. This would be good for titles and subtitles throughout a large text document. If I wanted a heading further down in the text to be larger, I just had to make the tag correspond with another heading tag which was the appropriate size.

Number 1

Number 2

Number 3

Number 4

Some thoughts on posting this stuff -people probably won’t care about my learning curve ( or is it a straight vertical line upward?) But I will give a plug for the W3 Schools Tryit Editor v1.4 because they are so easy to use and you can always refer back if you need them. Plus they are free!

In the beginning...

In terms of learning how to build a website, I knew I was going to have to start at the beginning. Off to school, W3 schools that is, and the web-building primer for the beginner. I have to admit I felt a bit out of my element. I had no clue about any of this. Would it be ‘beginner’ enough for me? Well, it started with a definition of the World Wide Web - I was cool so far. Moved on to a description pf HTML - again, good to go. Even though I wasn’t great at using the mark-up language at least I knew what it was. Big shout out to Bill Turkel and his Digital History class at Western! Hmm, then CSS - I was a little foggy in this area but had some rudimentary understanding. The next definition on the list was JavaScript. I’d heard of it and knew it had to do with programming which completely freaks me out. The description
used terms like “client-side scripting” and document.write(some crazy code). I shuddered and moved on. A little definition on XML which was understandable. Then some more stuff on server-side scripting and Structured Query Language. Quoi??

Okay, definitions out of the way, I wanted to get down to the nuts and bolts of it. I always understand better by ‘doing’ so I was ready for the challenge. My first task was to work through the HTML Primer - very exciting! I dutifully typed the suggested HTML into Notepad and this is what i got:

This is my first homepage. This text is bold

Pretty simple and it was easy to understand using such a limited amount of text.The explanation portion of the tutorial gave me a step by step run-down of what each of the tags did. Beautiful. The tutorial was very easy to understand and I was ready to tackle something a little more challenging!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Museum of Perception

The Museum of Jurassic Technology would probably not be considered a museum in the traditional sense by any number of people. In Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, Lawrence Weschler describes the museum and its exhibits in all their ‘kooky’ glory. He explains an exhibit featuring Geoffrey Sonnebend’s strange ‘memory’ theory which actually deals with forgetting. Further, Weschler describes another museum inhabitant, the Megaloponera foetens or Cameroonian stink ant which can emit a cry audible to the human ear and who also sprouts a horn out of the top of its head after inhaling a certain fungal spore. Perhaps one of the most unbelievable exhibits is a collection of letters to government officials, detailing ‘actual’alien abductions or invasions.

Untraditional in its approach, should David Wilson’s collection still be considered a museum? I would say that it should. A museum isn’t just a collection of artefacts which are the accepted ‘norm’. In fact, I would argue that any collection which makes the patron think critically about artefacts, ideas and theories has value as a museum. In fact, Weschler seems to have spent a great deal of time trying to validate the authenticity and the accuracy of the Jurassic’s exhibits. He seems to have been confused by the ‘legitimacy’ of the exhibits themselves as well as the aim of the curator. Ultimately, after much research and thought, he has come to the conclusion that the exhibits hold snippets of the ‘truth’ but that the museum itself is much more than a collection of strange artefacts.

I would argue that The Museum of Jurassic Technology is a museum of perception. The exhibits are part of the curator’s perception of reality. Whether the viewer or patron believes this reality is a choice he or she must make. Maybe the patron has a different interpretation. Or maybe the exhibits force the viewer to think critically about the exhibit or even its creation on the first place. And just maybe, this is what Wilson intended. It seems to me that his creative and fantastical approach generates feelings and emotions, and I would imagine, more than a little bit of controversy. In regard to his approach, I would say, isn’t that the point? Why go to an exhibit if you are going to leave without having had some response to what you have seen?

Wechsler’s search for the ‘truth’ also brings up another fundamental question, that being, who is really qualified to be the purveyor of ‘truth’? Again I would say that ruth is a matter of perception and interpretation. Truths have an inherent bias or point of view that is not always shared. There are of course facts that are not generally disputed. However, the interpretation of the facts is often different and therefore, potentially constitutes a different truth for each individual.

As Public Historians it is not really our job to be purveyors of ‘truth’. Rather, I think we collect, interpret and present evidence. Of course, although we may try to avoid it ( or maybe not), our personal biases may be evident. I think the best we can hope for as Public Historians is to engage our audience and have them leave a museum with something more than a t-shirt.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Some Thoughts on the Evolution of the Museum...

They lumber into the building. Some are speaking loudly, others touching things they ought not to be touching. They seem crass and boorish, some would call them Neanderthals. Behind the glass, a panel of experts observes these uncultured primates. Their goal: a civilising mission. Their venue: a museum.

A Museum? This may sound like a post-apocalyptic vision, but as Tony Bennett ( No! The OTHER Tony Bennett) describes in The Birth of the Museum, the social need that led to the creation of the modern museum was no less than a civilising mission. He cites Foucault’s theory that museums and prisons are comparable in their ultimate goal: social reform and order. It seems a strange comparison, yet when one looks at the history of museums and their present incarnation, there are some similarities. However, I would also say that the 21st century museum has a more practical vision, that being the enticement of a paying audience. And if this is the case, museums should, at least on some level, accommodate the interests of their audience.

The inception of the museum as a public space and one to be used as a ‘reforming’ measure for the masses began in the latter part of the 19th century. The idea was for the upper classes to model the behavior they wanted to see in the working classes. No more brawling in taverns and unruly demonstrations in the street. I would say to some extent the experiment worked. People in the 21st century go to a museum and they know how to behave. We browse the artefacts in an orderly manner, we speak in hushed tones. We know not to touch the ancient parchment or the priceless oil painting. And we certainly don’t brawl or create an unnecessary ruckus. But should we? I don’t really mean a brawl per se, but should we be questioning what museums are doing for us? After all, we follow their prison-like rules and we conform but if it weren’t for us, the public, museums would not even exist in the first place. They survive , at least in their present state, because we attend. We are the paying customer and I think it would be naive to suggest that exhibits are not designed to draw in the crowds. Government funding and private donations can only go so far.

In some ways , things haven’t really changed; some museums are designed to be the great equalizer in terms of social class. For instance, the glass and steel structure that is Centre Georges Pompidou is situated right in the middle of Paris. It is designed for one to see and be seen. I suppose, had it been around at the turn of the century , it would have been the optimal building for the “ clear inspection of artifacts and each other.”[1] Patrons of lower social classes would have felt on equal footing with those of the higher classes and would have felt the pressure to display the morals and manners of the upper classes. And today? I think it there are some definite similarities. As a foreigner, I think you feel some of the same pressures the working classes may have felt; you want to see the art and the culture of the city, yet you don’t want to stand out as an oddity yourself. You want to fit in because the idea of being a Parisienne, even if it is just for a little while, is romantic and empowering.

I think that on some level exhibits themselves still reflect a tradition of public spectacles, fairs, executions, and exhibitions; draw the crowds in with the oddities so you can keep them for the permanent collection which may, at first glance, not be quite as interesting or engaging for the general public. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. As I have said in previous posts, I think it is the job of the Public Historian to make history ‘sexy’ for the public. A museum setting offers the perfect opportunity because the historian has access to artefacts which automatically encourage interest; I think we would agree that a visual is always a better ‘hook’ than a written description.

I guess what I am saying then is that museums need to both keep their traditions and adapt to the changing times. We could probably do away with museum security hurrying people through exhibits like prison guards, but I like the idea that museums can create an accessible environment where any person can feel empowered by an exhibit . Bennett suggests that in the early days of the museum the idea was that culture would be used to transform the lives of the population.[2] I think in the 21st century this is still the case. However, rather than the social reform sought during the 1800's, our new museum culture should yield an intellectual and creative transformation for museum patrons.

1. Tony Bennett, “History and Theory,” The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, and Politics (London: Routledge, 1995)

2. Bennett, The Birth of the Museum.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


It’s November 11th. The haunting sound of the pipes playing Highland Cathedral and The Maple Leaf Forever resonates. I saw the veterans today at the Cenotaph full of pride and pain, poppies displayed prominently as a sign of remembrance. There were others too. People like myself who came to pay respect and to reflect. Of course, this day more than any other, I find myself reflecting on the sacrifice so many have made. And this year, more than any other in my lifetime, the reality of that sacrifice is evident. 43 Canadians have been killed in Afghanistan since the mission began. My generation now knows the costly reality of war and the ultimate sacrifice many are willing to make for freedom.

I don’t think of Remembrance Day as just a commemoration of long ago wars. It is also a time to reflect on the sacrifice so many have made and a time to wish for peace. There are those who feel that there should not be a Canadian presence in a war, in a country, half a world away. Pacifism is more the norm than the exception now, and we as Canadians seem to have strong aversion to being involved in foreign conflicts. But, even if we don’t believe in war, can we respect the ultimate sacrifice these human beings made?

I try to rationalize what Canadian troops are doing overseas. For me, they are essentially freedom fighters, defending and trying to secure the basic human rights that we, as Canadians, sometimes take for granted. It is a noble mission. When I see the faces of so many who have been deprived of these fundamental freedoms, I understand why the soldiers had to go. It is not about politics or alliances. It is about humanity.

Reflecting on the impact of war and conflict is an individual thing and on November 11th especially, I do think about the thousands of Canadian troops who have died and continue to put their lives at risk . Whether I agree with the politics of war or not is irrelevant; this is a debate for another day. On this day, those individuals who gave the ultimate sacrifice should be remembered for their bravery and courage.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Why Historians Drink Beer

I was at a party with a number of history grad students and one young innocent commented to a rather jaded 5th year PhD student that historians like to drink beer. I wonder why that is, he questioned. The answer, given swiftly and in a matter-of-fact tone which can only come from a 5th year PhD student was simply, “because otherwise we would have to read.”

He was right of course. Reading and reading and reading. I need new glasses and I’m only 2 months in.

I started thinking about why historians, and history Grad students in particular, drink beer and this is what I came up with:

• In a word, Foucault!
• It gives you something to blog about. You may have an epiphany or pick up a unique insight or two from a colleague.
• They don’t really make martinis at the Grad Club. (actually, they don’t make martinis because they don’t have olives!) Stick with the beer.
• Dotplot Visualisation Technique - ????
• Lorcan Dempsey - again I say - ????
• It’s social. When we crawl, mole-like, from our windowless hovels at the end of the day, it’s nice to share a pint with someone who understands.
• It’s the less expensive option. Who can afford single-malt on a student budget?
• Research! You never know when you will get an Archives assignment that requires you to research the brewing industry and the evolution of beer and ale.
• Artificial Intelligence - It freaks Bryan out!
• Digitization of historical sources. What ever happened to good ol’ dusty, allergy-causing, hold- em’- in- your- hand books?
• Books and articles - Why can’t people get with it and digitize sources so that we can access them online?

So maybe we drink a little beer. Truth be told, however, it’s the collegial aspect of getting together and chatting over a pint that is the real draw. When you’ve spent hours by yourself , reading article after paper after monograph, it’s nice to blow off some steam with like-minded individuals. Procrastination? Maybe. But it’s no different than say, blogging about strangely random topics when you should be reading!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

"Just Watch Me": Digital Moving Images and Historical Research

Digital Moving Images are a great resource for historical research. They often allow a researcher to see, hear and almost feel the action which has been recorded. Of course, as with any historical evidence, the researcher must be critical in her approach to understanding and utilizing the sources. I looked at four sites which provide digital moving images and each provided me with a little more understanding of the positives in using this type of resource as well as underlining some of the drawbacks.

The CBC Archives had a great combination of T.V. and radio stuff. There are some great clips of Tommy Douglas giving speeches and many examples of the well known footage from The October Crisis. The clips were easy to find - you just typed in the Keyword or term in the Search Box and you ended up with a pretty nice selection of moving images.

The BBC Motion Gallery had many clips but it was somewhat difficult to find what I wanted because the internal search didn’t always come up the what I wanted. For instance when I typed in World Cup Soccer or Football I ended up getting clips of the F.A. Cup final and various other competitions. However, this ‘detour’ led me to a really sweet clip of an over-exuberant fan storming the field after a goal.

Hurray for the Prelinger Archive and their dedication to the Creative Commons. This site is dedicated to archiving moving images which include advertising, educational, industrial and amateur film. There is a lot of off-beat and unique pop-culture material here. I even found a video documenting a day at the beauty parlour circa 1941! Great for my research on the Permanent Wave Machine. The best part about the items found at Prelinger is that they are under a Creative Commons license so there are no pesky copywrite concerns to worry about.

The American Memory project at the Library of Congress has collections ranging from Presidential Inauguration Speeches to Coca-Cola advertising to Vaudeville Stage Shows. The great thing about his collection is that there are also written descriptions and some great stills which supplement the moving images. Access to these materials is for educational and research purposes and there are some copywrite restrictions.

Some of the problems I can foresee when working with digital images are not very different from those encountered when working with other images; you have to be conscious of copywrite. How can you, the researcher, use the footage? Is it in the public domain or would it cost a small fortune to get the rights to use it?

Even though the moving images are digitized, there are concerns over quality of the visual image. The older footage such as some of the Vaudeville acts and the soccer match had a grainy quality which made it difficult to see the content. I would expect that in some research this may pose some problems because the images may be misinterpreted or a researcher could miss key information for which she was looking. This could also happen as some of the older footage does not contain an audio component which contextualises the visual image.

On the other hand, you could also avoid the bias of personal opinion or slant of the creator by not having the audio component. It would be up to the researcher to provide narrative and context.

The loading time for some clips was very slow. This probably isn’t too much a of a concern when it comes to research, but it was slightly annoying. Once loaded, the clips moved along at real time speed which is great for overall impression but I had to stop and re-play many of them to get the detail I was looking for. This could be very time-consuming for a researcher who had to go through many different clips to find what she was looking for.

The upside - there are innumerable strange and wonderful little clips such as the square-dancing cigarettes from the Lucky Strike cigarette commercial( not very P.C. but hilarious!) and some fantastic footage many of the key events and individuals which have shaped history. Not to mention a few crazy soccer fans...

Monday, October 30, 2006

Canadian History: That’s ‘Hot’

Thanks Paris Hilton. Those are three words I’d never thought I'd write. But her little mantra circa 2004 seems an appropriate response to Kevin Marshall’s post “Is Canadian History Sexy Enough?”. Marshall admits that what he calls ‘the inherent sexiness factor’ is wildy subjective. I would say then that his assessment that Canadian history is not sexy might be subjective too? And if Canadian History is not as ‘hot’ as it could be, isn’t it the job of Public Historians to ramp up the heat meter?

First, I think we need to define the difference between the sexiness of an object and an historical event. Sure the iron lung may be more ‘sexy’ than the apple corer but I will stand by the idea that the American Revolution is no more interesting than what Louis Riel did. If Granatstein thinks that we should be interested in history because it defines who we are as Canadians then what better example than a Metis leader fighting for his cause. And dying for it. Marshall says “the focus on social history does not give us that definition; hence, the lack of interest.” I would contradict this statement - it is the very focus on social history that engages the public. These are the histories that pique the interest of the vast majority of people.

But what makes an historical event sexy? Yes some stories or events are more engaging than others. The funny thing is though, it seems to be the social histories, the human interest stories that have that inherent ‘hot’ factor. The big picture, national history, nation-building stuff - these are the things we need to make ‘hot’. This is our job as Public Historians. Marshall also says “Would I be wrong in suggesting that, quite frankly, no one cares about the Canadian fur trade?" in response to my statement that the public is interested in Canadian History. I think a person would be wrong if he suggested that no one was interested in the fur trade and if that were truly the case, then it becomes yet another challenge the Public Historian should welcome.

I would agree with Marshall’s assessment that the iron lung has a sexiness factor because it saves people’s lives. However, he goes on to say that “No matter how much effort we put into a treatise on the apple corer as savior of mankind, its inherent sexiness deficiency means there exists less of a hook for the public to retrieve that information.” First of all, as historians we would probably never do this. Trying to prove that the apple corer is at least as sexy as the iron lung would be a ridiculous undertaking. The fact of the matter is that yes, some artifacts are inherently more sexy than others either because of their physical or functional characteristics.

I do think however, that an artifact can be made somewhat ‘hot’ by placing it within a narrative and relating its provenance. The apple corer, although not a life saver, could be made sexy by telling the story of its ownership. Perhaps it was owned by someone famous. Maybe it was used as a murder weapon? These are the things that can be used by the Public Historian as hooks to get people interested. The artifact on its own is somewhat inconsequential unless it has the narrative or context to make it relevant in history and isn’t it the job of the Public Historian to make these stories interesting? I am in no way advocating that we make things up or infer an excitement that just isn’t there. But I will suggest that many historical narratives have to be told in an engaging way to make them relevant and ‘sexy’ for the general public.

People are interested in history. Look at the wide variety of museums, historical sites, television programming and web sites which are dedicated to historical topics. Would there be such a thing as The Bata Show Museum if there wasn’t a market, an audience? What about Hockey: A People’s History? In some presentations of history, Public Historians open themselves up for attacks from other scholars and purists, but as Public Historians with a mandate to bring history to the public, we have to be content with the choices we have made. This doesn’t mean the historian should ‘dumb down’ Canadian History, but it should be made accessible and it interesting. Initiatives also have to come from the government and cultural agencies too. The populace needs to see that the people who run the country place value on our history and heritage.

Ultimately, I don’t think we need to make the apple corer sexy. There are enough great stories and artifacts in Canadian history, which if presented in an intriguing way, will have a whole new audience saying “ Canadian History? That’s Hot!”

Friday, October 27, 2006

History Websites: Less is More

As the title of this post suggests, less is definitely more when it comes to design
for history websites. Of the five websites I looked at, most used an investigative or inquiry approach to engage their audience. I think this is key if you are going to have an effective site. Strong visuals also help but you never want too many so that the user is overwhelmed or the text is lost in a sea of over-the-top graphic images.

Aurore: The Mystery of the Martyred Child

This site presented an historical mystery through narrative and primary source investigation. I think the overall goal of this site is to engage students in Canadian History. I wouldn’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this site because that would be the wrong descriptor for a history site that deal with the death of a child. I was, however, impressed with the presentation of the historical evidence. It focuses on the investigation into the death a young French girl in 1920. The idea is that the site user is the detective and has to use the primary sources provided to solve a mystery. This is a great hook and there are a lot of primary sources provided regarding the original investigation and subsequent trial. The documents are also provided in translation because most of the originals were written in French.

There is a lot of text, but the simple presentation makes it easy to read and the creators have already supplied some analysis of the sources. From an analytical standpoint I am not sure I agree with this approach but in this case the sheer volume of information necessitates condensing the information in this way I think. There are still many primary sources within the site archive(trial transcripts, newspaper articles etc.) which have to be evaluated and understood by the user. This use of primary sources is a great tool for teaching historical research and critical thinking. Tabs across the top highlight the main topics in relation to the site and once you have clicked on a topic further options are offered along a side menu. This was probably the best way to arrange things given the volume of information and length of the explanatory narrative. By breaking it down into pages, I don’t think the user will feel overwhelmed by the information.

A few issues I had with the site: I definitely would post the warning about the content of the story at the top of the page. It also needs to be larger. Some of the facts of the case are disturbing and if you are going to have students navigating the site they should be prepared to read some of the content.

Because this is essentially a teaching site, the creators also have a login for teachers which provides a Teacher’s Guide for the site. This is a great tool to help educators and to enhance the learning of their students.

History Wired
The premise of the Smithsonian’s History Wired website is great: Taking exhibits from its collection which are currently not on display and creating a virtual tour using these artifacts. It allows access based on item, topic and theme. You can also click on multiple themes which will then allow you to see objects which fall under a number of different categories. Many of the items have strong social history or pop culture implications which I think Is a great fit for a virtual exhibit. They are essentially the hooks that will draw people in and keep them engaged in navigating the site.

The site provides access to many items which are not always seen in the museum and access for those who cannot travel to Washington. The cross referencing tools and the time-line search also make it a valuable research tool.

However, there are a few issues with the design. For instance, I will echo my classmate Kevin Marshall’s statement that the interface is not very user friendly. The tiles are small and it takes a little bit of reading before you can navigate the site successfully. Essentially you have to play around a bit in order to figure out what the site can really do. In saying that however, the lines linking the object to the genre or theme are a nice touch because they show the historical link between items and ideas.

One interesting item was the rating scale that users could access. Basically a user could rate his or her level of interest in the object by rating it on a scale of one to ten. The rating will influence the layout of the object map. At first I was unsure what the point was but the museum could use it as a reference tool in determining which artifacts are most interesting to its users. Ultimately the results of such a survey could influence the creation of virtual and real exhibits.

Imaging the French Revolution
This site focuses mainly on the scholarship concerning the French Revolution. There are essays, images and discussion regarding this topic. Mainly for academics and students, this site has a fairly simple layout and is easy to navigate. There are only four sections( Essays, Images, Discussion and About) and each has links to the various areas of scholarship it represents. There is a good use of white space so that you are not overwhelmed by text and the images used enhance the subject matter. The one issue I have is that there is a tile presentation that you must wait for every time you go to the website home page. A skip button would be a great addition to this site so that you can immediately get to the information if you have been to the site before.

The collection of these resources on one site would be very valuable in terms of doing research in the area of the French Revolution. The images section provide links to essay and discussion so that the image was contextualised by scholarly arguments and writing.

National Geographic: Remembering Pearl Harbor
First impressions are lasting and my first impression of this site was not good. I don’t particularly like sites that are a crazy mess of moving images, pop-ups, visuals advertising etc. They always make me feel that someone is trying to cover up the fact there is not a lot of good content; a smoke and mirrors type of thing. Turns out I wasn’t that far off the mark.

The site uses a multi media approach, which includes, oral histories and strong visuals. It includes a multi-media Attack Map which uses sound and images to take the viewer through the entire attack on Pearl Harbor. In terms of content, this is probably the best part of the site. There is a narrative which plays while the viewer navigates through a set of aerial maps detailing the positions of the Japanese in the Pacific. You can click on icons which then give you further details and you also have the option of listening to first hand accounts of those who were there. Transcripts of accounts of Japanese sailors are also included.

The problem that I had with this part of the site was that the zoom function made navigation of the map a difficult. I was also unable to maximise the window which would have made viewing the map easier.

The section Pearl Harbor Ships and Planes, World War II Time Line, and More was full of information but at times it was too much and perhaps overwhelming. This is an area of the site that could have benefitted from more visuals and less text.

The Memory Book was probably conceived with the best of intentions but turned out to be a disaster in my opinion. The premise was to have veterans of Pearl Harbor and their families post tales and remembrances of the event. There were a few remembrances but there were also numerous anti-Japanese sentiments and just overall ridiculous comments. Personally, I felt it undermined the serious nature of the event and the sacrifice made by so many. My advice would be to get rid of this section altogether or have the site administrator change the remembrances and not allow them to be accessed by the general public.

The Valley of the Shadow
This site, detailing life in two Civil War Communities( one in the North and one in the South), provides archives of primary sources which can be accessed and analysed. The organization is fairly simple in its use of titles and white space which is a good thing because there is a huge amount of information on this site.

The one thing that was distracting however was the sort of metaphorical floorplan or repository that was used as a map to the site. The floor plan looked like a honeycomb and was strictly text, no images. I thought it a little dull and sort of incongruous to the powerful photos and images presented on specific pages of the site.

The site does provide access to great primary sources such as newspapers, letters and diaries, census and veterans records which would give a researcher an excellent comparison between attitudes in the North and South during the war.

After looking at these websites I have come to the conclusion that a history website should be user friendly, engage an audience( whatever that target audience is) and provide sources which will allow the user to analyse history without too much bias. Site developers also need to consider the medium and plan the site so that it is compatible with web access.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Lost in Translation

My apologies to Alan MacEachern. In my post Bringing History to Life: The Attraction of Oral Histories I said that Alan MacEachern gave the analogy that oral history is like the colour commentary and written history is the play-by- play. Apparently he was not defending the use of oral histories in this manner and was using this example to question how the history was being used. To be fair, after some discussion this week, I did recall the questioning tone in his voice. So for implying that his words constituted a concrete statement rather than a question, I apologize. However, I think this underscores one of the real issues when dealing with oral history and that is the fact that when oral interviews or statements are transcribed or made visual, no matter how well- meaning the author, meaning and context can be lost. Tone, inflection, emphasis and emotion are often lost when oral interviews are put to paper. The subjectivity of the interviewer or listener can also play a part in changing the meaning of what the speaker has said. That being said, I still feel that oral histories are an important part in the telling of history and in historical research although it is up to the interviewer to ask for clarification and the researcher to use a critical ‘ear’ when dealing with these sources. Now I know how Bill Murray felt...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Bringing History to Life: The Attraction of Oral Histories

Why do we do oral history? Essentially I think it gives us that touchstone to the past. Many people look at oral history as ‘ the real deal’, the idea that if the telling of history is coming from a living, breathing source it must be valid or true. This interpretation is problematic in a few respects. First, memory is faulty; people often misinterpret what they see and hear and believe that interpretation as valid fact. Second, time and experience can taint or distort memory. A person’s versions of an event can change over time based on what they have seen, read or experienced in their life. Does this mean then that oral histories are not valid as a source or that they should be considered the ‘benchwarmer’ on a team that stars written history? How do these interpretations make good history if both the validity of the source and information are called into question?

In keeping with the sports theme, I’ll use Alan MacEachern’s analogy; oral history is like the colour commentary and written history is the play-by- play. The oral history gives you the flavour and the depth that a written text record simply cannot. Sports colour commentary is full of subjective opinion, it’s often over-the-top and sometimes totally off base - but where would we be without the Harry Neales and John Maddens of the world? Sports commentary would be just be a bland and monotonous appraisal of the action. The spice which engages and holds an audience’s attention through anecdotes, humour and controversy is a necessary part of the sports media just as it is a key ingredient in engaging history.

Portelli in “The Peculiarities of Oral History” confirms that it is indeed the idiosyncracies and originality in oral histories which make them a valuable part of historical research.[1] Historians are trained to be critical and analytical and thus the subjectivity in an oral history should be not be considered problematic in using the interview as source material. Fritsch supports this idea in the introduction of “A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History”, saying that oral history is evidence of memory, an information source to be confirmed by scholarship.[2]

Public Historians also have the added impetus to bring history to a wider audience and oral history is often engaging for a large segment of the public. Oral histories can often give a voice to an individual or group that has been marginalised and ensure that their histories are heard. This inclusiveness validates oral histories as a democratising force within historical research.

Portelli also discusses the need for oral histories to remain oral. By transcribing them and turning them into a visual representation, much of their power is lost.[3] He cites things such as intonation, volume and dialect which are all lost once oral speech has been transcribed. The passion of the story is lost if the person listening to the story cannot hear the ‘real’ voice of the narrator. The voice can show passion, excitement , sadness; overall, a personal involvement in the story which makes history more attractive to people. The public wants to feel like there is a link to the past and oral histories have a way of doing that through anecdote and emotion. Some would ask why this-keeping an oral history in the oral state- is important? The information is still accessible and the words have not changed. I would say that oral history represents that intangible that you feel when you see or hear the real thing. Perhaps it is not unlike the feeling you have when the colour commentator describes the winning goal or a bone-crunching tackle; maybe it brings you just a little closer to the action.

[1] Alessandro Portelli. “The Peculiarities of Oral History,” History Workshop Journal 12 (Autumn 1981), pp.96-107. [DR]

[2]Michael Frisch, “Introduction” and “Memory, History, and Cultural Authority,” A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (New York: SUNY Press, 1990), pp.xv-xxiv and 1-28.

[3] Portelli. “The Peculiarities of Oral History”

Historical Research in the Digital Realm

In his interview with Fox news, Allen Renear describes the Internet as a ."revolutionary historical event". He goes on to say that we basically have a tool that fundamentally affects how we think, communicate and experience our world. What then are the implications of this tool for teaching and learning history and how do we configure the net in such a away that it is most useful for this purpose?

If we are going to use the Internet to do history, we first have to think about what makes good digital history. For me I always return to the consideration of‘audience’. Who will this web history be for? Who will be reading it, watching it, interacting with it? The answers to these questions should determine the content and the layout for the page or site.

The content also has to be appropriate to the medium If you are putting up a museum website or writing history for the net, you need to be aware of the restrictions of the medium. Smaller chunks of text and some visual representations on each page seem to be the favoured style as many of my classmates in Digital History will agree.

Does the average high- school history student want to read a 259 page monograph online? Probably not. Does this person want to look at a site that is a complementary combination of text and visuals? I would suggest that this is the approach that will engage students who access history on the web. Students want to ‘do’ history. They want to be engaged because fundamentally they are interested in discovery. Sites that offer an interactive approach are a good hook for many users who will then, hopefully, engage in active learning of history and historical research.

I am not saying there is not a place for lengthy online historiography, but if you are wanting to engage a younger audience in the study of history, digital history must be as engaing as utube, online gaming and the host of other sites which have become mainstays for the next generation. Of course access to historical information and as Levesque describes it, decentralization of knowledge [1], are fundamental if the web is to become important in teaching hisory. There must be digitization and open access to archival collections, historical journals, and museum collections.

I go back to Manan Ahmed’s thoughts in The Polyglot Manifesto regarding the idea of historians as interpreters. If the role of the public historian is to facilitate an understanding of history - “interpret” history for the public- then I think you have to ‘speak the language of that public.’ If people are accessing information through the internet and virtual sources more and more , historians need to become part of that world or risk losing relevance in the public sphere.

Combining the ideas of understanding and access, there must be some discussion of mark up languages. Mark up of digital text is key if historical research on the net is to be wholly beneficial to the researcher. Admittedly, I don’t have the best grasp of the technicalities of this process, but I do see that effective mark up will allow historians , whether they be students or academics to find more meaning in internet texts and allow them to structure their inquiries so that they are getting the most from a particular document or search. Mark up languages will allow individuals to search in different ways, making history in the digital realm a stronger resource for researchers.

1. Stéphane Levesque. “Discovering the Past: Engaging Canadian Students in Digital History,” Canadian Social Studies 40, no. 1 (Summer 2006).