Preserving the Past for the Sake of the Future: The Possibilities of Digital Storytelling

There are nearly as many possible pedagogical benefits to the use of Digital Storytelling as there are potential ways to go about constructing websites that make use of that idea in innovative ways.  For example, as Lev Manovich argued in “Database as a Genre of New Media,” New Media makes it possible to construct Digital Storytelling projects that function primarily as archives, projects which are mostly focused on narrating a particular often very local story, and projects that combine these two modes (to offer only a few possible examples).  Through an online oral history archive such as StoryCorps run by NPR or the 9/11 Digital Archive, Digital Storytelling has the chance to open up vast realms of individual memories to scholars and students while simultaneously serving a cathartic function for those who choose to tell their stories.    Through web based exhibits that function mainly as narratives such as Pine Point or that offer any array of local stories such as Small Town Noir, it is possible to generate interest in previously forgotten histories while experimenting with unique approaches to web design.  Through web sites that contain many mini narratives while also serving as archives, such as the document based Digital Vaults: The National Archive Experience or the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (which includes images, stories, maps and a myriad of other modes of memory, offering a model for my own project) it may be possible to engage students and impart a larger message that scholarly research can be thought provoking and even fun.  Yet in order to maximize the possibilities of Digital Storytelling it is important not to be caught up by the potential pitfalls of associated with online archives and narrative projects.

                One of the biggest problems associated with online archives is the ease with which visitors can become lost attempting to navigate through the site, especially if they are inexperienced in finding their way through a myriad of possible pathways and would instead prefer specific directions for proceeding.  One example of this would be the 9/11 Digital Archive, which includes a Browse button meant to make the site accessible to everyone but which links to archive style page that potentially offers far too many possibilities that might confuse casual visitors.  On the other hand, web sites such as Pine Point which provide a clear narrative but offer neither very much contextual information for interested scholars (who may see Digital Storytelling sites as primarily research tools) nor the ability to choose-your-own-adventure (which some non-professional visitors may enjoy) might provide an ultimately limited visitor experience.  Web sites such as the Hurricane Digital Memory bank, which combine collections covering various media that can be both useful for scholars and interesting for the public while also offering a way for informants to record their memories as well as featured pages that offer a gateway to visitors.  Indeed, it seems hybrid archive/narrative web sites demonstrate the Goldilocks effect and are just right.

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Initial Proposal for ‘The Korean War Online Memory Bank: An Online Archive and Classroom Teaching Tool’

The Korean War Online Memory Bank (KWOMB) will serve dual purposes as a repository for the personal memories of Korean War ‘veterans’ as well as a means of facilitating a greater understanding of the Korean War especially among American high school and undergraduate college students.  As a way to encourage individuals to submit their memories and make research in the resulting archive easier I plan to solicit letters, using a standard interview template, as well as videos and recorded oral histories from ‘veterans,’ who will be broadly defined to include not only American soldiers who served from 1950 to 1953 (as well as civilians who remember the impact of the war during those years) but also North Korean, South Korean, and Chinese veterans who later immigrated to the United States as well as American soldiers who have served in South Korea along the Demilitarized Zone in the sixty years since the signing of the Armistice.  I plan to base this project around an Omeka website, as this will allow the posting of various types of items including letters and videos from veterans as well as educational units based around images and documents accompanied by discussion questions and writing prompts for use in classrooms and web-based courses by high school and college students, who comprise one intended audience.  Some of the other intended audiences include ‘veterans’ themselves (who may wish to read the recollections of their comrades or view images that reflect on their own experiences) and graduate student researchers that will hopefully find the first-hand reflections of the combatants to be valuable additions to the available resources on the experiences of ‘veterans’ of the so-called ‘Forgotten War.’

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Defining Digital History: Modern Technology, Activist Scholarship, and the Post-Modern Humanities

Given that it now seems clear in 2014 that digital history (or the digital humanities more broadly defined) is much more than a scholarly fad, it is useful to examine various elements that have enabled this explosion in interest.  The trend towards increasing activism in Public History over the last several decades (and towards increasing inclusion of non-academics), perhaps best marked by Roy Rosenzweig’s adoption of the internet (and creation of Digital History: A guide to Gathering, Preserving and Presenting the Past on the Web) as one answer to the questions posed by his previous project (The Presence of the Past) has helped lay the groundwork for an open-minded field ready to make use of new technologies.  At the same time, the explosion of the communications and computer industries in America since the late 1970s (not long after the founding of The Public Historian) has made it possible for a wide range of scholars to make use of new tools to analyze data, map demographic information, and tell historical tales to a broader audience than ever before.  Moreover, the interest of auxiliary fields including literary theory, linguistics, comparative literature, archeology, and art history in using digital tools has rekindled connections between disciplines resulting in the digital humanities resembling American Studies in its inclusiveness.  All these factors suggest that it might be best to adopt a definition of digital history as a subfield of the digital humanities while emphasizing activist scholarship using cutting-edge technology.

                One particularly good example of digital history scholarship (done at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason) that I personally see as a useful model is the “Hurricane Digital Memory Bank,” recounting the experiences of those impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita:

This website is especially useful when used in conjunction with an essay about how it was constructed:

I believe that the project title may be meant to reflect the idea of the bank of a river overflowing, which got me thinking about the implicit differences among referring to  a project as an ‘Online Web Archive’, ‘Digital Document Repository,’ or a  ‘New Media History.”  Since I like the breadth that “memory” as a concept offers I’ve opted to tentatively title my project KWOMP (Korean War Online Memory Project).  

                My particular interest in the Korean War led me to another website that I think provides a good example of digital history scholarship, this one done in Canada partly through government funding. The Memory Project was created to tell the stories of Canadians in both World War II and the Korean War:

The website is bilingual in (French and English) and has grown to include oral histories of participants in WWI and Canadian Peacekeeping missions in the 20th century.  The website also includes image galleries that are tied to each speaker, transcriptions for easy search-ability, and various resources for educators.

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Those Who Forget The Past Are Doomed To Repeat It: History Wars and the Cultural Politics of Memory


In a world where nuclear weapons hold the potential to usher in a post-apocalyptic future perhaps best imagined by science fiction writers, George Santayana’s statement about the consequences of forgetting the past takes on an eerie prophetic quality.  Moreover as Edward Linenthal, Tom Engelhardt, and many other historians detail in the now-classic History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, the forgetting of the past is often due not to unintended ignorance but is rather the result of conscious attempts to reshape American understandings of their history.

                The essay collection begins with Linenthal’s analysis of the “Anatomy of the Controversy” over the context where-in the Enola Gay was to be displayed for the fiftieth-anniversary of the end of World War II, which provides a useful micro-history of the exhibition’s evolution from 1993 to 1995 while also highlighting the key role of influential lobbies such as the Air Force Association in reshaping the initially proposed portrayal of the plane that they thought focused too much on the Japanese as victims.  John Dower expands on this idea of victimhood in an essay exploring “Three Narratives of Our Humanity” in relationship to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, arguing refusals by the American public and US museums to deal with the results of using nuclear weapons has allowed their Japanese counterparts to ignore the war crimes of the imperial military during WWII.  Memorial debates also revived longstanding arguments about the strategic necessity of using atomic bombs to save lives on both sides that would doubtless have been lost in an invasion of Japan, and as Michael Sherry notes in his essay “Patriotic Orthodoxy and American Decline,” this “saving-lives theme came to bear enormous moral weight for some,” despite disputes about the number of American soldiers and Japanese civilians that were saved.[i]

                The controversy surrounding the exhibiting of the Enola Gay at the NASM also provides insight into broader debates over cultural politics that were extent in the early to mid- 1990s, especially seen in Mike Wallace’s essay “Culture War, History Front.”   Wallace places the Enola Gay debate within the context of attempts by influential conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Lynne Cheney, and Newt Gingrich to attack what they saw as liberal historical revisionism by radical members of the Vietnam War generation that highlighted only negative aspects of American history while downplaying any and all successes.  The importance of Vietnam for how Americans remember World War II is also discussed by Marilyn Young in her essay “Dangerous History: Vietnam and ‘The Good War’” where she concludes that the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome has spread to engulf all of America history,”[ii] including WWII and by Tom Engelhardt in his essay “The Victors and the Vanquished” where he examines how film, fiction, and memorials of Vietnam have made the righteousness and success of WWII seem all the more important.

                In some ways History Wars is very much a product of the early 1990s, when the end of the Cold War seemed to signal an opening for historians to re-evaluate American actions during and after WWII even as the shadow of Vietnam continued to haunt the nation, despite recent victory in the Persian Gulf.   At the same time, it is a work that transcends its own particular context by speaking to fundamental and ongoing debates between historians and the public over how to represent the past, and as such History Wars remains an extremely useful case study to better understand the cultural politics of memory.

[i] Michael Sherry, “Patriotic Orthodoxy,” in Linenthal and Engelhardt eds. History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996) p. 107

[ii] Marilyn Young, “Dangerous History: Vietnam and ‘The Good War,’” in Linenthal and Engelhardt eds. History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996) p. 208

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Learning About the Past in the Future: Local, National, and International Trends for Museum Education

While it is impossible to know what the next two decades hold for museum goers around the world, it seems clear that several key trends will likely continue to impact greatly cultural institutions on the local, national, and international levels.  On the local level recent reports produced by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance indicate that the recession has had a significant impact on museum goers (with higher attendance), patrons (with donations down), staff (with more volunteers than full time paid employees).  The most interesting part of these reports is given away by the title of one: “Arts, Culture, and Economic Prosperity.”  These reports go to great lengths to document the revenue streams that cultural institutions bring into the city of Philadelphia by detailing the hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that benefit from overnight visitors, day-trippers, and residents (to use the categories of the report) to the tune of over 500 million dollars annually. The report also compares the economic impact and public sector arts investment in Philadelphia to other cities that rely a great deal on cultural tourist dollars such as San Francisco, Washington DC, and (who knew) Houston while also suggesting that the majority of tourist dollars are spent seeing a few science sites such as the Franklin Institute and the Zoo. 

On the national level the 2011 report “Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service” explores the future of the NPS through the lens of its institutional history, noting the expanding role of historical interpretation (the cultural side) in comparison to emphasis on wilderness (the natural side) as well as the focus of the agency since the 1960s on bureaucratic matters relating to historic preservation rather than on educational issues of interpretation.  Indeed, many of the reports major recommendations revolve around trying to downplay the distinctions between nature and history while simultaneously attempting to better integrate academic history (and public history practice) into the work of the NPS.  These include recommendations to highlight the role of people on the natural environment, to embrace interdisciplinary collaboration, and to share authority with the public.  Yet more than anything else these recommendations suggest that one of the most important things that the NPS can do is accept the subjectivity of history by welcoming contested understandings of our heritage, acknowledging that history is dynamic, and forthrightly addressing conflict over the meaning of the past. 

On the international level the future of museums increasingly will rely on telling the stories of many diverse cultures within institutions in more developed countries while partnering with groups in developing nations to expand educational offerings across the globe.  The 2009 report “Coming Soon: The Future, The Shape of Museums to Come” also offers some further speculations on what museums may look like two decades from now.  Predictions for 2034 include an increased role for museums as community meeting places, as economic engines for post-industrial cities, and in presenting information virtually as well as a drive to further include the visitor in their own experience and appeal to all groups.

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A Brief Review of The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines by Amy Tyson

Amy Tyson’s The Wages of History builds from the insights of previous participant observations centered on historical sites including Cathy Stantion’s The Lowell Experiment or New History in an Old Museum by Eric Gable and Richard Handler, while also delving into issues of race discussed in the Hortons’ Slavery and Public History.   Tyson’s tale is about both the history of Historic Fort Snelling and the relationships among the Minnesota Historical Society and the many costumed first-person interpreters who guided visitors through life in an 1820s frontier fortress, until very recent programmatic changes resulted in the rise of third-person presentations often based around difficult issues such as slavery or wars between whites and Native Americans.  As such Tyson discusses the conflict between employees focused more on reenacting 19th century military activities (many of whom continued to volunteer after being laid off) and those workers who were interested in interpreting the past primarily for the educational benefit of contemporary audiences as well as the impact of a corporate culture that maintained maximum control over workers by keeping their job status perpetually in limbo while frequently testing their background knowledge in such a way that cheating became commonplace.  Yet Tyson’s case study is perhaps even more valuable for the many observations she offers regarding gender and class issues that impact HFS interpreters, as well as her attempts to understand the labor of public history workers on its own terms. 

Tyson notes in careful detail the way in which a supervisor questioned her relationship with a co-worker, an attempt to have a female costumed interpreter play a prostitute (in just one example of past realities seeming to be more important than present concerns), and the hyper-masculine culture of many of the men who portrayed soldiers as well as the degree to which many workers rely on the relatively meager monetary rewards that long hours of emotional exhaustion bring, the precarious positions of the ‘lead’ tour guides who work much harder for little additional pay, and the failed attempt by some employees to create a union in the mid-1990s.  Tyson also notes a drive for authenticity that results in a particular variety of workplace games and the peer pressure to perform far above the standards of regular service workers (forgoing lunch breaks to answer additional visitor questions being perhaps the most frequently referenced example) as well as the pride many workers feel from their daily interactions with visitors and the seeming shame of some employees who feel that their jobs are not respected by society.  To Tyson the costumed interpreters of HFS represent the rise of both a service sector of the postmodern economy that often beats down workers by making them feel interchangeable and knowledge industries that can provide individual daily fulfillment through the feeling of a job well done, though which of these two paradigms provides a more useful model of contemporary public historic labor remains to be seen.

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Race, Class, and Memory: Confronting Problematic Pasts in Postindustrial Cities and Presidents’ Houses

Cathy Stanton’s The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City explores the ways in which Lowell National Historic Park (created during the late-70s emergence of public history as a field) differs from other such cites in conception, mission, and storytelling while simultaneously telling the stories of the trained historians, professional interpreters, vacationing visitors, and local community members who share space.  Structured in three parts (the middle set of chapters consisting of three distinct tours of the area) Stanton notes that, while most NPS sites are both self-contained and separated from the surrounding area, Lowell NHP encompasses several city blocks, canals, locks, mills, churches, and public buildings many of which are connected by trolley lines, while she notes in her chapter on the “Run of the Mill Tour” that the park’s “story centered on the relationship between capital and labor” and that even today student groups can choose to strike in specific scenarios (p. 53).  In Stanton’s chapter about her tour of the nearby neighborhood, she discusses the difficulties of taking mostly middle-class tourists through working class areas while exploring the theme of dynamic ethnic diversity (that she returns to later) including a now-demolished French Canadian section, a politically powerfully concentration of Greek immigrants (the most prominent of which, Senator Paul Tsongas, is memorialized by a nearby stadium), and a recent influx of Cambodian immigrants that have led to guides erroneously suggesting that Lowell had been designated as a site for refugees.  Stanton’s third tour based chapter, concerning a one-time trip on the theme of redevelopment, allows her to introduce questions relating to the place of public history in urban economic revitalization programs.  Finally, Stanton’s book builds off of Eric Gable and Richard Handler’s New History in an Old Museum in her hard consideration and eloquent discussion of the problems associated with doing ethnographic fieldwork among one’s own scholarly peer group.

Gable and Handler also dealt with the difficulties of depicting slavery in one public historical setting, an issue that lies at the heart of Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory edited by James and Lois Horton.  The eleven essays in this book explore a range of issues from Ira Berlin’s focus on the ways in which slavery differed depending on whether slaves lived during the Charter, Plantation, Revolutionary, Migration, or Freedom generations and David Blight’s discussion of the forgotten history of demands for slavery reparations to John Michael Vlach’s experience trying to exhibit slave images at the Library of Congress and former NPS Chief Historian Dwight Pitcaithly’s detailing of the resistance of many white southerners towards a reinterpretation of the causes of the Civil War that highlights slavery. In many ways the two most interesting case studies both deal with the residences of Presidents: The President’s House where Washington lived in Philadelphia and Jefferson’s Monticello home in Virginia.  Gary Nash outlines the controversy and compromise that led to a focus on Washington’s slaves at The President’s House (just a few feet from the Liberty Bell) while Lois Horton discusses how acceptance of the Sally Hemings story led to a reinterpretation of slavery at Monticello, especially along Mulberry Row.  Together these essays emphasize why slavery is hard to talk about and why it is so important to discuss.

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The Many Forms of Public History and the Many Models for Creating Exhibits through Collaborations

Tammy Gordon-Stone’s Private History in Public: Exhibition and the Settings of Everyday Life provides a useful model to think about the many forms that public history takes and moves scholars a bit closer to answering the question of how Americans can be interested in learning about their past but be bored by traditional history at the same time.  The book is useful especially for the categories she creates and for her insight that, though academic and corporate historical displays may be well put together, the public is often much more interested in local community displays, entrepreneurial exhibits such as factory tours, and vernacular experiences such as historic sports bars.  Though she delves into some examples of academic and corporate exhibits in her opening chapters, Gordon-Stone reserves most of her discussion for the final three categories which she argues have been ill studied and underappreciated by scholars, who have themselves most likely worked in the first two settings if they have done public history at all.  The final chapter provides a socio-economic explanation for the rise of these less formal public history exhibits over the last several decades and helps to provide a broader context to the specific examples that dot the majority of the book, while also reinforcing Gordon-Stone’s dominant observations that the members of the public are most interested in face to face interaction and while they are aware that all historical events have multiple perspectives, they prefer displays that tell one heartfelt story at a time.

Polly McKenna-Cress’s Creating Exhibitions is extremely useful both for the step by step way in which the book provides a manual for designing museum displays but also for the observations offered about putting visitors at the center of our thought process as public historians.  From the very beginning the book outlines the difficulties, benefits, and pleasures of creative collaboration especially as it allows for a shared authority between curators and visitors as well as amongst scholars from a range of disciplines.  The book presents advice on how to prevent complaining, criticizing, conflict, and compromise that can kill collaboration while highlighting the need to advocate for visitor experiences, design, team members, institutions, and the subject matter (to offer an incomplete list).  The book spends a considerable time detailing the importance of storytelling, label writing, and designing an interpretive framework while also exploring the importance of lighting, acoustics, and the oft ignored senses of touch, taste, and smell in fostering a fuller museum experience.  The book is also useful in that it highlights often ignored issues of importance such as scheduling, budgeting, brainstorming, and benchmarks while providing guidelines for creating, installing, and evaluating exhibits.  Finally, the book offers a range of excellent models for public historians to emulate (or avoid) such as the City Museum in St. Louis, Science Gallery at Trinity College in Dublin, Boston Children’s Museum, Science Museum of Minnesota, and the Newseum in DC.

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Moving Beyond Preservation to Better Realize The Power of Place: Reflections on Hayden and Hurley

Since the 1970s public historians, urban policy scholars, and local preservationists have increasingly highlighted the importance of understanding the relationship of an individual’s sense of history to specific locations in order to encourage community engagement, save important buildings, and promote economic redevelopment in post-industrial cities like Los Angeles and St. Louis.  These cities are the subjects of a series of public history projects by Dolores Hayden (in 1980s California) and Andrew Hurley (in 2000s Missouri) that then became the basis of the two books that explore a variety of public projects such as teach-ins, art installations, oral history interviews, archeological digs, walking tours, and exhibits.  

Hayden’s The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History documents the conscious attempt by a UCLA program to highlight the historical contributions of local women and minorities, whose history was little documented publicly despite comprising a majority of community members by the 1980s thanks to demographic shifts.  To that end Hayden and her team worked with the community over the course of a decade to recall the legacy of black leader Grandma Mason, to recognize the role of local Latina labor organizers, and to aid Japanese-Americans in telling the story of Little Tokyo before the upheavals the took place due to WWII internment.  Hayden’s book is particularly useful not only for the project models she offers but because of her willingness to the share equally both the successes and the failures of the overall project, including a concluding chapter documenting how a firehouse she tried and failed to save from destruction could potentially have been quite useful in public discourse after the Rodney King riots.  Photographs, maps, and detailed drawings of a number of places all help add to the power of the book, which is above all its documenting of the possibilities enabled by community and scholarly collaboration.

Hurley’s Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, in some ways a similar work, sets out to document the unique challenges of doing public history in 21st century cities by focusing on a collaborative effort by oral history researchers and archeologists (the book was initially designed to be co-authored) to aid in the economic redevelopment and social revival of St. Louis.  Hurley offers several useful models for research (the mass partnered oral history interview session for example), expanding the scope of public historians concerns (such as by highlighting the importance of urban environmental preservation) and community engagement (with an entire chapter devoted to the challenges of mostly white researchers working in primarily minority areas) yet it is his focus on urban redevelopment that makes this book uniquely useful. Here Hurley’s exploration of the history of city revitalization efforts, from Charleston and New Orleans in the 1920s through post-WWII urban renewal and contemporary preservation, shows how the concept of adaptive re-use can potentially serve to satisfy both historians and community members while simultaneously encouraging larger economic redevelopment efforts.

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Ten Simple Steps (Is Never Enough) To Do Oral History: Reflecting on Politics, Community, and Process

 The two shorter readings this week, the Introduction to Michael Frisch’s 1990 essay collection and the article by Leon Fink on Southern Milltown heritage, form a good bridge between last week’s readings and The Oral History Manual.  Frisch personally documents changes in the relationship between public and academic history from the 1960s through the 1980s, arguing that scholarly interest in previously ignored social groups helped promote an appreciation for oral history (often thought of as unverifiable stories in decades before) as a means of helping recapture alternative perspectives on the past.  Frisch’s piece also reminds contemporary public historians that we are in many ways quite lucky, to both be able to practice our craft while simultaneously engaging in broader scholarly debates within the academy, by discussing the early period of his career when he felt a separation between his more professional urban history scholarship, public history projects, and longstanding interests in various forms of social activism.

Along some of the same lines Leon Fink’s article also delves into the counter-narratives that oral history can provide by unearthing social conflicts that are ignored by the dominant narrative, provides a history of his own public history work with one couple of amateur historians in rural North Carolina called the Rumleys, and discusses competing forms of social activism in the 20th century south.  While Fink’s article provides a cogent analysis of industrial heritage tourism south of the Mason-Dixon Line (and is thus a good complement to Kitch’s book) it is most interesting in the multiple ways in which it uses oral history.  Fink’s own narrative of his involvement in the CHA starting with warm feelings towards the Rumleys, his interviews with elderly residents who don’t want the paternalistic past of company stores presented so positively as well as local black citizens who recollect unapologetic prior KKK displays, and his concluding note about the Rumleys’ desire to retract the right for him to use interviews for which permission had been previously granted all show the struggle for oral histories to offer as many perspectives as possible.

Sommer and Quinlan’s Oral History Manual also speaks to the need to always remain open to multiple perspectives (even noting the importance of trained interviewers being able to refrain from bristling if the narrator uses offensive language or discusses disagreeable themes) while highlighting key steps in the process of conducting oral history projects and discussing issues of narrator comfort especially in cases where interviews are to be made available online.  The manual also provides a broad background to the history of oral history over the course of the 20th century noting both changing technologies (from wax cylinders and wire recorders to reel-to-reel audio tapes and digital media) and early approaches by folklorists, ethnographers, the US army, and major research universities.  Yet perhaps the part of the manual that is most useful for practicing public historians interested in collecting oral interviews is the specific advice on asking open-ended questions and the importance of body language for both parties.

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