Curiouser and Curiouser...

My Adventures in blogging, digital and Public History

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).

Monday, October 09, 2006

Saving Canadian History

Reading Granatstein’s “What History? Which History?” and “Professing Trivia: The Academic Historians,” from Who Killed Canadian History?[1] reminds me of Cassius’ line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘The fault dear Brutus is not is our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.’ I guess I think Granatstein is saying that the demise of Canadian History is not due to American television, or the school curriculum, or the move away from political and national history at the Universities - I get the sense that he thinks it is a combination of all these factors. That it is indeed the fault of academia and the government(federal and provincial) and the media that Canadians have no sense of a common past.

Granatstein also says that “incorrect history is worse than no history”. I would agree with this assessment in general. He gives the example of Maggie Siggins, who, “... in her biography of Louis Riel at times favoured imaginative writing over historical accuracy.”[2] This was apparently done in an attempt to avoid the dry academic histories which do little to engage the public. I do not support the telling of untruths or giving incorrect factual evidence. However, some would argue that a ‘correct’ history is very subjective. For instance, Granatstein uses the of The Valour and the Horror as perhaps incorrect and claims this series “ pretended to be a dramatized documentary”.
I would say that it is more of an interpretation. I think Granatstein just has a problem with this particular interpretation of the facts. Just because the evidence does not suit your cause, or offends or embarrasses a particular group, does not mean that it is not historically valid. If we are going to tell a history which allows Canadian to know themselves, then all interpretations must be considered.

Rosenzweig and Thelen[3] would probably argue that without interpretation, maybe even a grassroots or personal interpretation, that political or national history is unimportant. I suppose this links to my thoughts from last day’s seminar about the creation of museum exhibits. I think as Public Historians we always have to ask ourselves “Why are we doing this exhibit?” I believe that an individual must have a connection to the artefact for the exhibit to have meaning. Understanding the past is one thing, but in order for it have importance or relevance a person must relate to what they are seeing, reading, experiencing. That said I don’t think that every artefact needs to invoke passions or emotions but there should be an overall sense that the exhibit matters. People need to be touched by what they are seeing in some way, otherwise, what is the point?

I guess what it comes down to is the idea of connecting historians with a larger audience. Oftentimes political and military history seem to be niche genres which, at first glance, just don’t appeal to everyone. The idea that people can bring to bear on history their own memory and experience and make it personal, makes history relevant. It is the personal narrative which enriches the public’s history. There needs to be balance between fact and experience.

Granatstein’s book was published in 1998 and I have to believe things are changing. The public is interested in Canadian history, we just have to give them the tools to allow them to access it.
Applied learning and technology really help. In last day’s seminar we discussed whether historians should go to the public or whether the public should come to us.I think that the public would be willing to meet us half way if we are willing to go where they are. If this means making historical sources available online or creating television programs, or even creating a contest like CBC’s Greatest Canadian (Tommy Douglas!), then this is what we should do.

Granatstein says history should help people know themselves. I think if history can’t be made personal to them , then they won’t engage. I would argue that this would do more to “kill Canadian history” than never learning dates or facts.

1. Granatstein, JL. Who Killed Canadian History? (Toronto: Harper Collins, 1998)
2. Granatstein, p.12.
3. Rosenzweig,R and David Thelen.“Introduction” and “The Presence of the Past,” The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Unemployed Blogger

The Juan Cole case presents what I think is a central question in academia right now: can blogging derail your career? After I read the article, “Can Blogging Derail Your Career?” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 Jul 2006) I couldn’t help but go back to the title. I don’t think in any way blogging derailed Juan Cole’s career. The content of his blog, although controversial, did not seem to differ that much from his traditionally published writing. Ultimately, Juan Cole already has a career - he was just looking for change of venue so to speak. The fact that he was denied tenure at Yale because of what he wrote in his blog, probably only brought more attention to him and his ideas.

As Bill Turkel pointed out though, what about non-Juan in our midst? I think blogging can definitely derail a career, or at least be a setback for someone who is not established. If you are going to blog under your own name and have not yet “arrived” you need to be careful what you write about. As seen in the Juan Cole case, employers have the power to hire or not hire based on what you write. If your ideas conflict with an organization’s mandate chances are you may find yourself overlooked.

Some may argue that controversial opinions expressed in a blog are no different than those written in a scholarly journal or book. Fundamentally, yes, the ideas are the same, but it is the ease and speed of accessing the information over the internet which makes blogging tenuous ground.

Josh Greenberg in his piece “On Leaving an Academic Blog Fallow,” Epistemographer (1 Sep 2006), comments that you are what you publish. He believes that writing, and especially writing a blog, is an act of identity construction. This is probably close to the truth. When people read your writing, more specifically your blog, they get a pretty good idea of who you are and what you stand for. Or do they? I think there must be some discussion of public versus private life. If a historian wants to blog about non-scholarly ideas, then they have to expect a certain response from academia. This is not to say that I don’t think you should blog about personal things, or insert humour or creativity into your writing. I think that you just have to consider your public and private personas.

What is the answer to this conundrum? A professional and private blog? The more I learn in Digital History the more I think this is not really the answer; there seems to be so maybe ways that people(employers ) can tie you to your blog even if you are writing under an assumed name. Truly I don’t really see the point in non-professional blogging anyway. Although, this isn’t quite what I mean either. For example, I have a friend who is off traveling far and wide( lucky boy) and posts on his blog to let family and friends hear about his great adventures. I’m glad he does it! I have to differentiate this type of personal blogging from the kind of posts which list what one’s dog had for breakfast. Do millions of people really care about what my dog ate for breakfast? I don’t think so. Perhaps I am in the minority about the personal blog. My point is though, that no matter what you write for public consumption on the web, you have to be aware that someone, somewhere is reading it and forming an opinion.

In terms of derailing a career, even with valid arguments and ideas( as in the case of Cole) I think the historian has to decide what she wants to accomplish by blogging. Yes, the job, the career, the tenure are important, but what are your willing to compromise to achieve these things? Will you have to compromise if you are truly creating your professional identity through your blogging? Ultimately, an increasing number of historians are reading and creating blogs and if your ideas are influential or important, chances are someone will be interested in reading what you have to say. Essentially, I see academic blogging as a giant networking opportunity, which allows for constructive discourse between historians and the distribution of historical ideas to a larger audience.

Monday, October 02, 2006 Inventions!

When I first started the week three lab exercise I was excited to look at these various social tagging sites with very cool names. I love the name ; I think of good food and great wine. In saying this however, I was a little intimidated - I am a relative newbie to all of this and I thought that the information might be a tad overwhelming. Rather than sign up right away for a account, I spent some time cruising through , Flickr and Technorati. Based on their promises, I thought that one or all three of these might just be helpful in organizing the research for our Archives and Public History classes. will allow me to post and view favourites, bundle tags into categories and have entries posted to a blog containing the latest links. The idea that I could access the links from any computer, which I didn’t realize before, was a revelation. I think this will definitely come in handy when the class is trying to collaborate on our Museum London project or any other group initiatives.

Since I use Firefox as my browser I had to install the buttons and do a bunch of clicking and agreeing, which I am never comfortable with. I always think I will end up doing something that will make the computer crash - so far so good though!

When I was reading the help section in I was really thankful to read the line “if you don't get it right away, that's OK -- you don't have to. Tagging is pretty intuitive and can take some practice to fully understand.”( Hurray! The people at had seen me coming!

I actually chose to search for and tag some items that we might be using in our Museum London exhibit. The sites include a variety of images and information but I thought it might be a good place to start and I can share it with everyone in 500F! Check it out!
My tags are a combination of names, usually the inventors and/or the name of the object, and the function of the object.

I have decided that I love and not just its name. It was really easy to bookmark and tag items and it will help keep me organized; Anything that can do that is worth its weight in gold!

In the next week or so I will spend some time on Flickr and Technorati in order to see what they have to offer.

** Hey, there is even a party in October! I wonder if they serve virtual food and virtual wine?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Public History and Material Culture:Engaging the Next Generation

Our visit to Museum London and this week’s class readings in 500f made me think about how we will create an exhibit that will engage the public. The artifacts which have been chosen already go a long way in terms of creating interest. I mean the ‘Permanent Wave Machine’ looks like some medieval torture device. When there was discussion of outreach programs, mainly to school groups, I saw this as a perfect opportunity to get the younger generation ‘pumped’ about history.

Material Culture- the study through artifacts of the belief system of a society across time is the basis for engaging a new generation in the study of history. Of course, like Pursell says, “ it is not enough to just display and identify the objects,” you also have to promote the ideas which are related to the objects. Interpretation is the key to understanding the past and the artifacts.[1] There may be more of an understanding by the younger generation if technological items are displayed and if technology is used in the exhibit. Video, audio, and computer enhancements are ideal in presenting history to a younger generation. I’m sure many history purists would disagree, but as a Public Historian in the 21st century, I recognize the need to keep pace technologically, not only in the virtual realm but in the museums themselves.

In Schlereth’s article“Material Culture and Cultural Research,” he discusses the need to have exhibits which employ material culture evidence which changes or revises historical interpretations.[2] He also discusses the need to be innovative in communicating knowledge to the public. I think this is vastly important. We live in a society where people can access information instantaneously. The next generation is being raised on ipods and Playstation. In order for history and museums to remain relevant, they have to engage that segment of society which will be the next audience.

Of course online exhibits and fledgling tagging projects will do a lot to interest the younger generation, but what do we show them when they actually come to the museum? We show them things which will be relevant to them..We tell real stories. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “Hannah Barnard’s Cupboard”[3] shows the difficulty of historical interpretation but also shows the relevance of an everyday item in defining what a past society was like. She reveals how identities and socio-economic class can be discovered from a single object.

Kyvig and Marty note that every person’s world has a history which is useful and exciting.[4] This idea of studying ‘Nearby History’ allows an understanding of one’s immediate past which gives a person the tools to place him or herself in the ‘big’ picture. They are able to ask and potentially answer the question ‘how do I relate to what has happened in the past and what is going on in the world?’ An individual can develop research skills doing nearby history and cultivate the critical thinking skills to deal with a variety of situation.

A museum exhibit then should use artifacts from the past and arrange and display them such that they have meaning in the present. After all, the exhibit is created for a contemporary audience and their needs should be considered if historians hope to engage a new generation in the appreciation of history.

1. Carroll W Pursell Jr., “The History of Technology and the Study of Material Culture,” from Material Culture: A Research Guide (University Press of Kansas)

2. Thomas J Schlereth, “Material Culture and Cultural Research,” from Material Culture: A Ressearch Guide (University Press of Kansas, 1985)

3. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Hannah Barnard’s Cupboard,” from The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York: Vintage Books, 2001)

4. David E Kyvig and Myron A Marty, “Why Nearby History,” Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You, 2nd ed. (Walnut Creek, Ca.: Altamira Press, 2000)

Social Tagging and Museums: Attracting a New Audience

Tagging is one of those trendy new online terms which defines labeling digital objects in ways which are meaningful to the user. It’s used as ‘social book marking’ to save photos, webs sites, and blogs so that a user can access them from any computer. It also allows the user to search by descriptive keyword or ‘tag’, which will give them access to a vast archive of similarly tagged items. Museums are now getting on the tagging bandwagon in hopes that they can arouse interest in their collections and attract a new audience.

Online museums, although employing web technology, have not really reached the broad audience base that was perhaps intended. Why is this? Perhaps it is because these virtual exhibits are curated by those same academics who organize traditional exhibits. The philosophy behind the product is predictable an thus, the reaction of the public is predictable. Essentially, you have almost the same audience at the ‘real’ museum as you do on the online version. Many people just find the content inaccessible and not applicable to them..

The idea that tagging is a way of creating a ‘collective knowledge’ is an interesting one. It could be a important step in defining a new museum audience. Some may feel that tagging is appealing to the ‘lowest common denominator’ but wouldn’t tagging just be opening up a whole new audience to the world of art and history? Museums are really trying to appeal to a wider audience and by employing a new and ‘hip’ technology like tagging, they hope to engage this new revenue source. Although that does seem rather cynical, we must acknowledge that many galleries and museums are cash-strapped. If you can engage a new sector of the public through a trendy online phenomenon, you could potentially draw more patrons to the museum and thus increase revenues.

Of course you are also engaging a new audience which could give feedback to the museum and potentially improve the exeperience of all patrons. Cohen and Rosenzweig in their article “Building an Audience" say that you need to think about community rather than numbers of visitors. They feel that you need to define your purpose; basically who you want to speak to and why. How do you reach the community? They make a good point. You first need to engage an audience and make them feel their ideas and presence are valued before you can hope to entice them to your exhibit. Bearman and Trant emphasize that the motivation to participate is likely to come from a user's personal connection with the museum or the content. Again, tagging would allow for this personal interaction with museum content.

Tagging allows many viewers to form opinions on the same work but are there limitaions to this democratic and some would say, random process.For instance, spelling could skew search results and leave the object with a tag that was unintended. The label itself could be false; the ‘tagger’ having inadvertantly described the item as the wrong colour, shape or misjudged the content. The tag could end up applying to too many items, especially in a large collection, making the search time-consuming and cumbersome. However, as the museum tagging technology develops and is assessed, these problems could be minimised or eliminated, giving both the online patron and the museum the full benefit of tagging content.

Ultimately, I would have to agree with Mills T.Kelly's assessment of what the museum/tagging experiment should be. He believes that the “teaching implications of tagging are enormous. If we allow our students to begin assigning their own significance to the evidence we introduce them to, I think we'll find that they make meaning from this evidence in ways that we couldn't imagine.”(Kelly, T. Mills“Subverting the Archive,” edwired (21 Mar 2006)

Tagging museum content allows for education at the grassroots level. This is the best kind of outreach as it allows individuals to interact and place their own ‘stamp’ on items to which they previously might not have had access. It validates the ideas and opinions of a new audience. The simple act of tagging means that users are engaged with the object and are participating in critical thinking. If the user feels his or her input is respected by the institution , wouldn’t that person be more likely to visit the museum in person and become part of the new audience? Tagging would help eliminate priveleged access to those who have a specific knowledge or education, or reside in a certain geographic area and open up the world of art and history to a new audience.

Wikipedia Update

Just a short note on my Wikipedia entry - the second entry I provided has survived for 7 days now and has actually been edited by two people. The original text has not been changed but both internal and external links have been added. A 'Categories' section has also been added at the bottom of the page. A curious thing though, this entry is based on a Toronto opera company called Opera Atelier which performs Baroque opera. My entry that was deleted was also describing a private company but I posted it within a another entry on Edinburgh, Scotalnd which is where the organization operates. This was considered advertising so it was deleted. I have since found a number of companies which have Wikipedia entries so I might re-post the the ghost tour entry on its own page and see what happens. I'll keep you posted...