Embracing the Chaos: What New Media has taught Me about being a Historian

As a historian I have a duty to ensure the authenticity of my research and interpretation.

As a public historian I have a mandate to ensure the accessibility of said well-researched, historical interpretation to the masses.

And as a public historian of the digital age I have a responsibility to my constituents to have an understanding of modern technologies and how to employ them to make their museum/historical institution experience more enjoyable, stimulating, digestible and technologically current.


Prior to enrolling in History and New Media I was aware that digital platforms increasingly have a place in the presentation of historical information. It only make sense that in a world driven by megabytes and the “like” button that historical information would need to be presented in a similar format to reach the maximum number of people. However, even with this knowledge I never thought it would be my job to ensure that historical data was somehow made digitally accessible.

Admittedly, I was one of those historians who rejected an embrace of technology and its synthesis with history at all costs; at least if it required any digital interaction on my part. Like I said, I understood the merit of utilizing the digital to make the analog more enticing; however, I was not willing to learn the processes necessary to do so and I thought that a sort of marker of my designation as a “serious” public historian.

Yes. I unfortunately regarded myself as one of those superior-minded people that Paul Ford muses about in The Web Is a Customer Service Medium, a member of a sort of history Gutenbourgeois. However, being a self-proclaimed public history “purist”, if you will, while also maintaining my status as a historian of the new age did not mix. My mind-set had to change and it was this course that spurred the transformation.

The most recurrent and transformative concept from this course is accessibility. From my initial “Introduction” blog post to my most recent piece access has been discussed; either in relation to a larger debate regarding the historical/digital divide or explicitly. As mentioned above, a large part of my personal public historian credo is to increase mass public access to historical information, particularly Black narratives. And the only way to effectively achieve my professional mission is to integrate digital methodologies into my historical endeavors.

Access is one of the most valuable features that the internet provides, as mentioned by Cohen and Rosenzweig in the very first reading for this course. The pair writes,

Online accessibility means, moreover, that the documentary record of the past is open to people who rarely had entre before. (Digital History: A Guide to Gathering Preserving and Presenting the Past on the Web, Cohen and Rosenzweig,2005)

Obviously the seemingly infinite storage capacity of digital media lends itself to accessibility. But the most remarkable aspect of this feature is the ability send information around the world in an instant. Now, information that was once only static and stationary is fluid and available for mass consumption.

Accessibility has broadened the idea of what shared authority truly is. The availability of information plus the ability to oftentimes contribute to the knowledge base on a topic demonstrate accessibility. The rising trend of making history digitally open-sourced is accessibility in action. Just think about Wikipedia which gives even the most novice historian to correct, delete or add to an article.

Digital accessibility has altered the concept of who traditionally custodians history. Thanks to the internet the everyday man has the opportunity to produce their own historical content and to curate at their will. Sure, historical accuracy is often questionable (que Rebecca Onion)  but they have the right to use digital platforms as they wish.

Even further, mobile apps can allow for continued engagement beyond the museum setting through innovative means.They make content accessible beyond the confines of a brick and mortar cultural institution. Surprisingly, even the idea of what has traditionally been conceived of as an archive is being modified by the accessibility that digital technology provides.The internet provides ample cyber-storage for primary source material which means the notion of who can enter/use an “archive” when, where and how has been forever changed. Material that could only be viewed on site with an archivist present are now only a click away.

Hypertext is one of the most obvious manifestations of the accessibility that new media provides the discipline of history. It allows for nonlinear connections to information from all over the web which is great for bolstering context and simply showing the wide expanse of the internet itself. Jerome McGann’s The Rationale of HyperText  offers a very thorough yet academically abstract discussion of hypertext. If you care to learn about the theory of this concept then I suggest trying to muddle through the piece, however, the hypertext wiki page is a great base primer.

I could go on for days explaining the myriad ways that accessibility has been forever changed by the advent of various digital media, specifically the internet. As a public historian I have ample resources at my disposal to ensure that historical knowledge can reach even more people before–and in increasingly more meaningful ways. New media not only allows for the one-way transfer of professionally composed interpretations but also back and forth conversations about history. Technology now allows for the creation of cyber networks that connect disparate populations and diffuses knowledge to the corners of the globe that were once barren of such light. New media is altering how history is done. The ways that this discipline has conceived of itself for centuries are now being turned on their head.

We must come to embrace new media practices just as this historian is embracing this assumed MuseumBot.

We must come to embrace new media practices just as this historian is embracing this assumed MuseumBot.

But rather than shirking from the responsibility that this great change entails we, as historians, are obligated to embrace the chaos, march onward and employ digital methodologies wherever possible. Sure there will be obstacles like a lack of funding, a gap in mastery of said digital methodologies and the public’s ability, or lack thereof, to obtain the devices necessary to use certain historical instances of new media embrace. Nonetheless, Accessibility means flexibility. The methods we use to communicate to the public are being stretched and morphed in ways never thought possible. So we must also be flexible, always keeping in mind that although we are working to preserve the past we must also keep in step with the present so that we may maintain for the future.

Do the Natives get to Revolt? : Learning , Authenticity and the Synthesis of History and Video Games

Well, do they? And where are the enslaved people? These were my initial questions after reading Owens and Mir’s analysis of Sid Meier’s Colonization. Historically speaking we know that both Native resistance and Black enslavement were major factors in the colonization of the early Americas (the subject of this game) and to ignore such occurrences is to deny a large and very essential piece of the North American colonization trope. Mir and Owens set out to explore this game, critiquing it historically, technically and historio-technically to assert that the game neither whitewashes history nor allows players true autonomy in exploring the past.

In my opinion, games like this only reinforce notions of white superiority and colored inferiority. The game and its unique encoding seems to mirror racial relations in the Americas; both during and colonization and present day–the minorities in both situations are denied a voice and are depicted as passive players.On page 96 the authors pose a question but don’t answer it.

What should we make of the fact that what defines Native peoples in Colonization is a limitation of abilities?

Presumably it was hypothetical however, I believe it bears discussion, and most importantly, an answer. We should make a big deal of the fact that in this game the Natives have a limitation of abilities. In some ways it is reflective of their social status at the time of American colonization but in other ways it is degrading to their legacy as active players in this historical narrative.

Sure, the Natives were eventually wiped out by disease but they didn’t sit by idly while Europeans stole their lands–they fought. And lets not even discuss the slave trade or enslavement and its lack of a presence in Colonization. To me, this gaping historical hole solidifies the video game as wholly inauthentic.

Nonetheless, I applaude Owens and his co-author for aptly analyzing both the merits and shortcomings of this game–its ability to elicit feelings of guilt from users who may identify with the colonizers themselves and its lack of historical dexterity (at times).

As a video game Colonizers can only achieve so much and effect its players in a finite manner because of its overlapping planes of interactivity and the actions those require of players. As convoluted as that may sound, Gee describes it best in What Video Games have to Teach about Learning and Literacy when he writes,

They situate meaning in a multimodal space through embodied experiences to solve problems and reflect on the intricacies of the design of imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagined social relationships and identities in the modern world. (48)

I appreciate this quote for two reasons. First, because it succinctly expresses the import of video games in the contemporary. As mentioned by Gee, video game naysayers often complain that they do not offer any educational content to be gained. Yet, he combats this notion by asserting that as long as games are inciting active and critical learning then yes they are contributing to some semblance of educational gain.Specifically, one of the main arguments that Gee employs to prove the learning provoked by playing video games is that they require players to adopt various identities which mandates that they “be” and “do”, rather than merely memorize and regurgitate.

This notion of identities is the second part of the aforementioned quote that really stuck with me.Identity matters. Identities matter; especially in history. How a curator identifies is undoubtedly reflected in an interpretation, how a museum staff identifies shines through in their mission and vision and how a visitor/public constituents identify colors their reception, perception and connection with a particular object or story about the past.

Similarly, identities are essential in the realm of video games. Not only can you oftentimes choose and/or create the identity that you want to portray throughout the game but you can choose how your identity impacts the other ones present in the game, as previously discussed. But even more nuanced and mired in metacognition is the concept that playing video games requires the activation of multiple identities within a single player.

Gee calls this interplay of personas the “tripartite play of identities.” The real-world player interacts with their virtually created character while their projected persona simultaneously reacts to the action of the game. This designation of identities may work well for games such as Pikmin which are fantasy based semiotic domains. However, I initially envision that the “tripartite” as not being able to translate well into games based on historical content as their semiotic design.

I assumed that the roleplaying aspect that necessitates that the player assume and negotiate, possibly, conflicting aspects of said identities would either be too overwhelming or prove counter-productive. If a students real world self creates a virtual self that mirrors their reality and if their projected identity is built upon the values and constructs of their lived experience then there is no variety in their tripartite.

A lack of variety, in my eyes, leads to students absorbing historical content in the same manner as they always have, which means they will not question, critique or even entertain alternate realities/interpretations. Games like Colonization, especially, make me question how players even begin to ponder new constructions of historical narratives if they are forced to maintain the colonist role that they do everyday in reality and that they learn about at home, in the media and at school.

Admittedly, this view may be a little cynical. Video games do have the power to offer transformative content. For example, Mission America, is a role-playing game that encourages students to think more deeply about the choices and challenges faced by past generations of Americans. The players are given a choice of 5 historically accurate roles to use as their virtual identity while experiencing various American events like the Boston Massacre and the Great Depression.

While Colonization is steeped in research, I feel more comfortable with Mission America. Perhaps because Mission is more of an history educational video game, whereas Colonization is a video game with a historical basis. Or maybe I prefer the more rigid structure of historical actors that Mission provides. Whatever it is, while both games communicate stories about history that will hopefully positively transform public interpretation or inspire critical thinking, the historian inside of me advocates more strongly for Mission to America. Graphically, it may not be on the same plane as Colonization due to funding and because,” it was designed for the educational market, informed by the likes of students and the instructional and technical needs of the classroom” but it does answer the question…Do the Natives get to revolt?

HistoryPin: A Digital Platform Dedicated to PolyVocal History and Shared Authority


Probably the easiest digital platform that we have been assigned to utilize thus far. This site was undoubtedly the most intuitive (in my eyes) and using it was seamless and quick; that’s my type of technology–quick and easy. HistoryPin describes itself as “a global community collaborating around history.” This aspect of community and communal growth via the sharing and visual consumption of history is intriguing. The site allows for connection beyond the analog (obviously) and for technological engagement and interactivity beyond that of the typical online exhibition.

Whereas sites such as Omeka allow the user to assemble a collection of objects and use them to curate an online exhibition, HistoryPin takes this idea of curation a step further by integrating the essential concept of space into the equation. The option to place various objects within a spatial-temporal context likely allows for greater cognition and deeper connection to the material being presented.

Place and landscape are undeniably important to the discipline of history but more so to certain professions. Often, curators  who are more removed from the geographical context of an accessioned object are equally as removed from the notion that places have power. Historic preservationists, however, have a career based solely upon recognizing the essentiality of place and landscape to memory. HistoryPin successfully synthesizes both the object-centric focus of curation and the spatial-mindedness of preservation.

For my HistoryPin tour I decided to focus on Freedom Summer, as I have done for various other assignments, because I genuinely believe it is a lesser known historical event that needs to be remembered beyond the local communities that served as its breeding grounds. Last semester I conducted an independent study course entitled, “History Preservation, Screenshot of my HistoryPin TourRace and Memory.” In this course I studied how historic preservation as a field oftentimes fails to properly memorialize sites of minority experiences and how that serves to uphold notions of racial difference and superiority in America. I wanted to use the HistoryPin platform as a means to further propagate the historic feat that was Freedom Summer

Matthew Durington’s discussion of a new app that explores the oft-overlooked areas of a Korean community really helps to illuminate the point that I mentioned above. He writes,

First, apps offer a coherent, purposeful ideological structuring of space, narrative and practice… Apps show how institutions and other powerful agents are trying to structure the meaning of cities by combining mobile media and social media through organizing embodied narrative experiences…In other words, apps are technologies of inclusion and exclusion, and following their trail can tell us exactly how things like segregation work in an era of the actor network.

Apps present ideology through their structure just as history presents it through its various interpretations. Apps created by certain institutions may be exclusionary of narratives that do not put them in a positive light. Similarly, certain constructions of the past may leave some details out to either bolster or detract from a widely held historical “fact.” HistoryPin, however, has a found a way to combat the prospect of exclusion and encourages historical inclusion by capitalizing on communal collaboration. By creating this worldwide accessible program that allows users to contribute, at will, photographs, videos and audio files that they deem as historically valuable HistoryPin is not only a great example of shared authority in practice but poly-vocal history, as well.

App-cessible: Mobile Applications and Exclusion

This blog will be tangential in topic. While I am writing, of course about new media and its implications for historical endeavors, I’ll be focusing more so on new media branches rather than its roots. In particular, I’m going to discuss the concept of digital  exclusion.

But before I expound on this radial topic  I’d like to briefly discuss another issue that seems to be plaguing the way our discipline actively seeks to employ digital methodologies. In his Assessment of the Field, Rosenzweig reveals that of the museum professionals that the Center for History and New Media surveyed cost, staff time, and lack of technical expertise were listed as the top hindrances to having any form of digital interactivity at their institution. While all of these reasons are valid the lattermost impediment, nonetheless, strikes me as an excuse. With all of the webinars, seminars, conferences and web tutorials available for consumption a lack of knowledge should not be an accepted explanation in the foreseeable future.

Yes, a lack of adequately trained staff or funding to pay them for implementing various in house mobile platforms is tragic. But what’s the use of searching for qualified people to create these programs if large numbers of possible audiences do not have access to the technology necessary to interact with them? On the Media Literacy Project (MLP) website (an organization dedicated to using all types of digital media to advocate for social justice) Hakim Bellamy, Strategic Communications Director of MLP, posted a poignant blog  about media and how it has historically excluded Blacks. He writes,

Data reveals that disparities around health, economics, and incarceration are always forecasted and exacerbated in the Black community. Access to television, radio and Internet is no different.

Marginalized groups such as Blacks, Latinos and other minority groups are the ones most in need of transformative interpretations of history as they are the ones whose historical narratives are most likely to be maligned or overshadowed. Yet, they are the demographics most likely to not be fortunate enough to have cell phones with mobile web browsing capabilities.

Access is one of the most valuable features of the internet as mentioned by Cohen and Rosenzweig in the very first reading for this course. However, access is also the obstacle preventing some possible museum constituents from the “meaningful engagement”  that Rosenzweig’s Assessment of the Field insists mobile museum interaction can provide.

Online accessibility means, moreover, that the documentary record of the past is open to people who rarely had entre before. (Digital History: A Guide to Gathering Preserving and Presenting the Past on the Web, Cohen and Rosenzweig,2005)

In theory the internet makes information more widely accessible but the reality is that accessibility is somewhat of a luxury. Therefore, it is imperative that both app designers and consulting historians understand what Mark Tebeau articulates so well in his Listening to the City:Oral History and Place in the Digital Era piece as he expounds on the, “persistence of a “digital divide,” in which poor, working-class, and minority communities lack full access to the digital era.” He plainly states what many other historians seem to forget; that even the most fabulously curated mobile historical representations will mean nothing if they are not able to be easily used.

Now I feel compelled to reiterate the oft-quoted line from a previously assigned reading (both the piece and author escape me),

Collections are useless unless they are being used.

The same may be said of mobile history apps or platforms. They are ineffectual if they are not having maximum impact on the community and they are even less useful if there is an entire subset of the public who is literally unable to interact with the media they provide. Sure, apps that rely solely on an individual’s device are not the only option offered by cultural institutions. But they seem to increasingly be the majority of the digital methodologies employed by today’s institutions.

Some sites such as Australia’s Powerhouse Museum employs QR codes and text messaging to provide media-based interaction to their audiences without smartphones. However, while this is an undeniably reasonable way to ensure that all constituents may have access to some sort of extra-museum interaction it strikes me as a sort of digital iteration of “separate but equal.”

While this may seem like an overly dramatic harangue it is nonetheless a real issue that disproportionately affects a certain group of people. As historians trying to ensure the historical literacy of the wider public we have to be concerned for those individuals who may be barred from interacting with the digital methodologies that we are so desperate to integrate into our daily operations.

Wiki -ki-yay! : My 1st Wikipedia Article

Exuberance is the only word that can accurately describe my experience with Wikipedia. As mentioned in previous posts my affinity and general comfortably with digital platforms and methodologies is nihil. But for the sake of becoming an authentic historian of the new age I have dedicated myself to acquiring at least a baseline knowledge of technology as it relates to the propagation of history.

My negative attitude towards technology (influenced completely by a lack of patience) translated to me begrudgingly approaching most of the assignments up to this point. And in similar fashion I expressed reluctance at  being tasked with either contributing to or creating  a new Wikipedia page.

Initially, after creating a Wikipedia account, I tried to avoid the tutorials and help pages. But after fumbling around various wiki pages for about 5 minutes I relented and used the step-by-step Article Wizard. Most wiki novices will probably naturally gravitate towards any page suggesting “Help.”But for those in the stubborn sect like myself, who generally need convincing or time to tinker around before searching for assistance, I suggest preemptively utilizing the Article Wizard feature.

Once I successfully followed all of the steps suggested by the Wonderful Wizard of Wiki (yes I just made that up in slight reference to the Wizard of Oz) I was thrown into the trenches where I was forced to tackle html coding. It was not difficult to learn at all and once I got in a rhythm the coding process was, dare I say it, fun! And this is where the shock came in. I had interacted with a platform of new media and I did not totally hate it. In fact, I found it slightly enjoyable.

Screenshot of my first Wikipedia article submitted for review

Screenshot of my first Wikipedia article submitted for review

Coding and then previewing gave me this sense of accomplishment.Seeing my work in the same typeset that I have read countless other wiki articles in stirred up a feeling of community; like I was apart of a larger network of cyber scholars (yes, another new term) and I enjoyed that self-designation.

Admittedly,ruminating on the prospect of my Wikipedia page eventually being made public and editable for the world was both exciting and scary.Even though I had done the research I found myself anxious at the possibility of others (be they scholars or lay people) inspecting my published work. This endeavor felt very different than a personal blog–it is on a very prominent website that may reach people across the globe. This made my submission feel more serious and high stakes than I originally anticipated. And although my submission was anonymous that did not deter my unease or feelings of nervousness

Good history provides an intervention and fills a void. Although Wikipedia is explicitly advertised as a place unwelcoming to original content it can nonetheless fill a void in someone’s knowledge base. Since I am a Black historian who seeks to illuminate the shadowed parts of the American narrative that often contain Black voices I decided to submit a new wiki page on the Wormley School.

I had previously written a research paper ( more specifically a mock National Register Nomination) for D.C.’s Wormley School and there is no wiki article about it (otherwise I would have referred to it extensively throughout my own research); thus, I knew it was a good topic. The Wormley School was constructed in 1885 and closed in 1952. It was opened as an all-Black public elementary school to serve the growing Black population of Georgetown. It is named for famed Washingtonian hotelier and education reform advocate, James Wormley. He already had a Wikipedia page so I was able to link to it to hopefully increase visibility of my own page. I was also able to pare down the original paper and craft a more digestible wiki article (which is awaiting review).

Screenshot of receipt of submission

Screenshot of receipt of submission

Though I am a little nervous that my article may be rejected for not overwhelmingly meeting the notability standards I hope it is accepted. From my research I know the immense significance of the Wormley School. So I will hold on to that knowledge, as well as the buzz I got from successfully “mastering” Wikipedia, and await the outcome of my  article.

To Wiki, or not to Wiki: That is the Question

I admit it. I had a minor freak out at the notion that digital historical representations may one day entirely absorb the analog museum experience. However, my colleagues asserted that much of the public they have interacted with seems clueless to the online presence of many cultural institutions. And Edson’s very creative extended metaphor comparing the untapped resources of the internet to the unknown expanses of the solar system calmed my nerves.

Although neither of these examples of the under-utilization of the web within the field of history are slightly disheartening, they quelled my fears about any possible takeover by digital historians nonetheless. So, meltdown regarding the inevitable downfall of my chosen profession aside, I still find myself fully committed to employing digital methodologies to make the past relevant to the present.

A few weeks ago I published a blog post stating my disagreement with a fellow historians view that it is our professional duty to police and/or correct any historical inconsistencies we may come across online. Essentially I  purport,

while historians (be they “public” or not) are trained in the art of research and interpretation this does not grant them a monopoly on the production of historical content. They should not be regarded as the sole translators of history.

This comment alludes to one of the current topics of discussions in the field–shared authority–and online crowd sourced or open sourced platforms seem like a highly appropriate place to negotiate this difficult concept for historians to embrace.

While the above quote  makes it clear that I do not advocate becoming online history trolls who seek and destroy any instance of historical inaccuracy I do, however, fully support the idea of both amateur historians and professional historians meeting on an even playing field and contributing and editing content via Wikipedia.

Setting and intent distinguish the two situations regarding born-digital historical content. Social media sites or cultural sites that may mention history are vastly different from an online proprietor of encyclopedic knowledge. And the intent of the former is usually aesthetics, humor, cultural references while the latter is likely quick scholarly reference or academic reasons.

I think the idea of intent as it relates to the creation of Wikipedia articles is articulated well by Roy Rosenzweig in his  June 2006 article Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,

Thus, those who create Wikipedia‘s articles and debate their contents are involved in an astonishingly intense and widespread process of democratic self-education.

I find this quote particularly moving because of its covert emphasis on personal meaning-making. Sure, the readers who peruse Wikipedia to assemble a term paper are being impacted by the history presented to them. However, I believe that it is the writer themself that reaps the best reward. Although it is anonymous an author can take pride in knowing that they made a sound contribution to the knowledge base of a topic.

Further, this idea of “democratic self-education” as mentioned by Rosenzweig is impactful for both author and audience. By visiting a particular Wiki page visitors are demonstrating a certain mastery of the “historical rabbit hole” (a term used by Rebecca Onion from her previously mentioned piece on online historical authority) and the ongoing quest for knowledge and authenticity.

The author, on the other hand, is participating in self-education by virtue of authoring/editing a piece. They choose a topic of interest and conduct the necessary research to either construct or correct a historically sound description. The choice of a subject, the consultation of various sources, interaction with other members via discussion boards and the acceptance of the possibility of an onslaught edits to “their” published work show what they believe about a topic and oftentimes why they believe it. In this capacity Wikipedia contributors are active in unbridled self-education as well as a unsolicited meaning-making for themselves and the masses.

This fluid diffusion of knowledge between author,audience and the content being produced (and soon to be edited) remind me of my Junior AP English class and the rhetorical situation. Viewing this image tells us that all three–subject, author/writer and audience–all act upon one another:

  • The writer composes a Wiki article about a subject (X).
  • X is interpreted through a specific lens
  • The reader uses their own experience to construct/deconstruct the text (and possibly offer edits/suggestions).

    Image showing the context of a rhetorical event that consists of an issue, an audience, and a set of constraints.

    Image showing the context of a rhetorical event that consists of an issue, an audience, and a set of constraints.

  • These processes coalesce to create a text or an interpretation of X all the while being constrained by certain forces/context (i.e. the Wikipedia platform itself, the open source format of the site, likelihood of edits,public access to the document etc.)

I do realize that Wiki pages are to be neutral summaries and not necessarily highly interpretive texts. Nonetheless, I think the rhetorical situation perfectly represents the complex relationships that exist in the world of web-based, communal meaning-making.

Wikipedia and projects like Transcribe Bentham evidence that there are alternative ways to produce historical content (much of which is largely accurate, especially in the context of the Bentham transcription initiative). As historians we must either come to the forefront and begin leading such movements and actively participating in open source/crowd source forums or merely sit back and enjoy this inevitable ride

[insert clever title here] : Using Omeka to Create an Online Exhibition

My aversion to all things technological has been lifted! Well…at least temporarily, I should say. As I made very clear during class discussion the patience that I have for tinkering with technology is very low. But my recent trials with Omeka have shown me that I am capable of utilizing an online platform, in fact, I can do so with some proficiency. Initially, I found learning the ins and outs of Omeka taxing and arduous because I honestly had no interest in the task at hand (a sad admission I know).

However, my subsequent experience with the site was smooth, swift and somewhat enjoyable–what a shock! Oddly enough I found crafting an exhibition to be more –dare I say it–fun than adding items to my original Omeka site. I attribute this contrast in experiences to the fact that this time around I was tasked with curating an exhibition with a specific thematic framework. Essentially, I was in charge of interpretation and that prospect has always excited me.

I know Freedom Summer and many of the photos and documents that were used on my site very well. Therefore, while the content I was interacting with was not new to me, the opportunity to construct a nuanced interpretation with the objects was. I decided to tell a story about the organization of the actual event of Freedom Summer itself. Yes, it was a grass-roots, localized initiative to obtain equality but it required careful planning and a mass of galvanized support.

Although Freedom Summer and all of its programs did not extend beyond 1965 I wanted it to be known that this was not some fly by night operation; rather it was a meticulously planned initiative with a network of people and programs throughout Mississippi to elevate the oppressed Black masses. These facts and my desire to disseminate them are what propelled my exhibition.

Then I had an “AHA!” moment! IT occurred to me. This ominous IT that I type of is the importance of historians coming to genuinely embrace and implement digital methodologies. Technology should not be seen as just some way to connect with the hyperactive pace of contemporary society. Technology should be viewed as an amorphous gift that can only augment what historical objects/collections have to offer.

As Sheila Brennan quotes in her piece on museums and digital historical representations, “Collections are useless unless they are used.” The objects that I obtained for use on my Omeka site came from crmvet.org, a wonderful treasure trove of  photos, personal remembrances, primary source documents and general histories of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Many of this site’s holdings are available in other digital repositories, yet they usually sit there never being used or being seen by the masses. Sure, they’re digitized but they’re not being exposed, the history is lying stagnant.

I approached this exhibition assignment as if I were a practicing curator creating an online representation. I thought about the items in my collection and if there were any particular objects that could be grouped to tell a fresh and nuanced story about Freedom Summer. Sadly, most people are unaware of this initiative so I thought that the interpretation presented by my exhibition did not matter much. Nonetheless, I wanted to present an interesting argument that would introduce Freedom Summer to the everyday man by using items from a “collection” that is easily accessible online already. I wanted to make it clear that history is literally at your fingertips if you only take a moment to explore it. My Omeka exhibition, Thinkin’ of a Master Plan: An Examination of the Documents used to Plan 1964’s Freedom Summer  , is not the start nor the finish of the labyrinth of information about Freedom Summer online. It is but a small piece of the puzzle waiting to be put together by the multitudes of internet explorers.

Digital history projects are essential to the discipline of history itself because they ensure the proliferation of the past, its multi-faceted interpretation in the present and its in-determinable application in the future.


And to think, Omeka taught me all of this.

Westward Ho! Why Life on the Technological Frontier Must be Embraced

Humans (otherwise known as self-centered Europeans) expanded westward in the 15th century to lay claim to the Americas. In the 1840s Manifest Destiny propelled humans (otherwise known as self-centered Americans) to lay claim to the western portion of the United States. And in 1969 humans (once again those darned, egotistical Americans) laid claim to the moon by successfully sending a man there. For centuries, millennia even, humankind has been taking risks,

John Gast, American Progress, 1872. Chromolithograph published by George A, Crofutt. Source: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

John Gast, American Progress, 1872.
Chromolithograph published by George A, Crofutt.
Source: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

venturing to unknown lands and colonizing the “unchartered” territories it finds. However, since the 1990s a nouveau “Final Frontier” has arisen that seems to be the toughest one yet for historians and preservationists to truly get  a handle on–the digital frontier and the world wide web.

The main thing that is seemingly hindering the masses of the aforementioned professionals from embracing technology is fear. For certain cultural institutions like museums this fear is shrouded in the accessibility that technology offers. For others, like proprietors of historical born-digital content this fear is masked with talk of technological variability. Therefore, in terms of new media and digital history the most pressing issue seems to be one of balance; how do you successfully manage the benefits and drawbacks that technology provides?

In their work Re-collection : Art, New Media, and Social Memory Ippolito and Rinehart argue for flexibility–literally. In the realm of born-digital content preservation is undoubtedly difficult. Software and programs are constantly changing, thus an attempt to store a digital object or its original operating system is essentially futile. Rather than scoff at the fluidity of technology and the slight inconvenience it may produce at times the authors suggest an embrace of this flux and they advocate for the creation of “variable media.”

This approach “encourages creators to define a work in medium-independent terms so that it can be translated into a new medium once its original format is obsolete.” [1] While this technique would never fly in terms of altering content (especially historical content whose value lies in its accuracy and integrity) it would be perfect for the alteration of form. More specifically, a reconstruction of the narrative or the vehicle used to tell it. Essentially this is a reinterpretation,which Ippolito and Rinehart describe as one of their solutions to obsolescence (at least for digital material).

Circling back to the issue of accessibility, it is one of the most attractive factors of technology because it provides relative equality in terms of what can be reached and by who. And yet, many museums are still having a difficult time viewing technology as a viable means of increasing visitorship and a substantive enhancement to their offerings.

Digitizing collections does not cheapen the physical museum experience, as some museums fear. As articulated by Sheila Brennan, the web allows for lesser known objects to be showcased, authority to be shared, and the co-creation of knowledge. Further, the silences, gaps and absences in a particular collection can be discussed more freely in an online setting than a restricting exhibition. Hopefully this notion of more rather than less space for historical debate online will assuage Tim  Sherratt’s fear that in terms of digital representation,

…we might end up doing too much — that we might become so skilled in design and transformation that we end up overdetermining the experience of our users, that we end up doing too much of the thinking for them.

A Mashable.com article written by Aliza Sherman highlights three museums that are integrating technology very well into their exhibitions and interpretive frameworks.Specifically, check out the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia whose strategic plan, which emphasizes “openess”(open access both in and out of the museum’s wall and open licence to re-use), is the practical manifestation of Ippolito and Reinheart’s argument that technology, institutions and laws must be overcome and re-worked to avoid the obsolescence of cultural media.

Though it is scary to yield some of the treasured parts of one’s discipline to the technological world it is undeniably necessary. True, some forms of born digital content will face obsoletion in the near future (for a great basic description of the various types of born digital content go here) due to the variability presented by the hyper-evolution of technology; but traditional aspects of cultural institutions (archived collections, the everyday exhibition) are at risk of obsolescence in today’s society too due to a decrease in patronage. To avoid a loss of cultural capital, be it digital, digitized or analog, historians and preservationists must come to terms with their respective fears and begin to negotiate how they will work to ensure that the objects and disciplines they have dedicated their lives to do not become casualties to life on the technological frontier.


[1] Rinehart, Richard;Ippolito, Jon, Re-collection : Art, New Media, and Social Memory (The MIT Press, 2014), <http://www.myilibrary.com?ID=618873> ( 28 May 2015)

Getting Ahead of the Curve: My Experience with Omeka

I have a love/hate relationship with technology. Honestly, I tend to lean more towards the “hate” side of spectrum. I know that this might not be an admission that a historian of the new media age should freely make. However, a large part of being a successful and effective historian is knowing your strengths and your passions and technology does not fall into either one of those categories for me (at least not professionally.)

I have always wondered why I have a slight loathing for any technological application or program beyond that of a social network or Microsoft Office Suite. It could be a multitude of factors but what I mostly attribute my technologic apathy to is a lack of patience. I do not enjoy having to tinker with a technological platform over and over again until I master it. Often I feel as though I am wasting time when I am learning how to utilize a new piece of technology in order to create a project–time that could be used to actually complete the project at hand–a problem that I have never run into when creating content for a physical exhibition, a living history theater program or history lesson plans. Maybe I can blame it on the “instant gratification gene” coded into my Generation Y chromosomes but having to dedicate time and effort to learn various computer softwares or internet programs has always felt like more a hinderance than a help to me.

My negative disposition towards technology aside, I fully understand and agree that in today’s society using technology is essential for historians who truly want to make meaningful change. Therefore, I am committed to embracing the discomfort that immersing myself into this tech world brings.  My History and New Media course required that I become intimately acquainted with the online, exhibition building platform Omeka thus I had to push any negative assumptions aside and embark on the step-by-step journey of learning how to navigate the site and input data.

Fortunately, my recent experience with Omeka.net was a good one and not wholly negative. In fact, the was rather user friendly and easy to navigate.I watched some youtube tutorials about how to effectively use the site that and they did quell my initial frustrations about not knowing exactly how to begin building a collection. And once I properly added one item I was on a roll and before I knew it I had a growing collection of items that may be viewed by users across the web.

I chose to use a collection of Freedom Summer documents and photographs digitized by Tougaloo College. I previously curated an exhibition of Herbert Randall’s Faces of Freedom Summer photographs that depict the struggle of those involved with 1964’s Freedom Summer initiative in Mississippi. So I was familiar with the content and I understand the importance of teaching people about this moment in American history.Check out my developing site to learn more about this pivotal piece of our Nation’s past.omeka

My experience also showed me the importance of utilizing technology as a vehicle for public history. Not only does it allow for greater accessibility but it also speaks to the multitude of learning styles that visitors may have. Technology allows for the integration of multimedia resources that one dimensional text panels do not. Sound, video and interactive components can all be synthesized in a physical museum setting or via a virtual experience that allows visitors to connect to history in a way that best suits them.

While, in my opinion, nothing compares to an actual museum and being surrounded on all sides by objects and carefully crafted interpretive text, interaction with history via the digital arts is undoubtedly the future of our field. I have a responsibility as a historian in the 21st century to try my hardest to communicate with different constituencies in the languages that they understand the best and that language is increasingly becoming a digital one. It’s simply my job to become educated and as comfortable as possible so that I can say I am a historian who is ahead of the technological curve and not one who is found lagging somewhere far behind it.

What’s in a name? An archive by any other name would smell as sweet…right? WRONG!

Of the assigned readings for this week I found two of them to be particularly helpful, for similar and contrasting reasons. Both the McGann and THeimer pieces illuminated the crevices of my mind that were devoid of any concept of digital humanities, its push to provide greater access to historical data and how that has come into conflict with traditional practices of storing and accessing historical data. That said, where Theimer’s “Archives in Context and as Context”  acted as a friendly light to guide me down the circuitous paths of digital humanities and archival practice,  McGann’s summary of hypertext in “The Rationale of Hypertext” left me in the dark, utterly dazed and confused.

As a technological novice any semi-complex discussion of digital communication methods replete with jargon goes straight over my head. Even with examples the author’s mentions of codex and facsimile textual analysis did not bring me any closer to a baseline understanding of hypertext. For that, I suggest simply visiting wikipedia. However, McGann’s conclusion about the Rosetti Hypermedia Archive did prove more useful and easier to digest than his previous abstractions.

Conversely, Kate Theimer’s Journal of Digital Humanities piece was not only easy to comprehend but also relatable to my experiences as a historian. According to the author I have been incorrect in my references to archives and what constitutes an archive and I thank her for this written emendation. Theimer’s aim in this piece is to use her expertise as an archivist to “illustrate the fundamental principles that separate traditional archives from many of the collections created by digital humanists.”[1] She argues that while other uses of the term “archive” are valid, the definition in its most pure and professional sense is the most valuable because of its specificity and origin.

This past semester I completed a practicum project for the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.  (HSW), a local education and research organization that collects, shares and interprets D.C. history. To learn more about this entity I suggest a quick visit to their website. The HSW was first described to me as a special collections repository, a place that accepts donated items to enhance a multifaceted, multi-subject collection. While the HSW does boast archival materials and some rare objects, the majority of its holdings have been deliberately collected to support larger subject areas.

In this way the HSW differs from a genuine archive that appraises items in aggregate groupings based on organic relationships. However, as a tyro in the realm of archival practice I assumed that “special collections” and “archive” were synonymous and used them interchangeably. Luckily, Theimer’s succinct elucidation regarding the unique principles and characteristics of an archive showed me the error of my ways.

Although I am a neophyte historian I seriously doubt that beyond the archival sect, most other practitioners of history actually know or understand the basic tenants of an archive. The importance of aggregate groupings and their basis on source and not subject seems counterintuitive to my training as a public historian. And I was totally oblivious to the concept of context as essential to an archives preservation of an object. So unless someone has worked in an archive I would presume my ignorance to be representative of the field as a whole.

Therefore, Theimer’s piece if highly appropriate as it plainly communicates the important features of an indispensable historical resource to other professions under the history umbrella. Just as one must know the respect des fonds of an object to truly understand its origin and import, all historians should learn the respect des fonds of the archive to understand its essentiality, to maintain the integrity of the archivist profession and to uphold the proper designation of the term “archive” itself.

Theimer decares, “Archivists cannot control the use of the word ‘archives’ and do not have exclusive rights to it. Language is constantly evolving and to try to enforce one group’s definition onto another group’s usage is doomed to failure.”[2] I appreciate this statement because it demonstrates a sort of professional shared authority; the concession of a highly prized term to others in the discipline who seemingly have no means of classifying their work or mode of storage (even though she has aptly argued for the proper usage of the term). It not only shows respect but also the myriad ways that dynamic technologies are impacting the structure, development and practice of various historical professions.

[1]  Kate Theimer,“Archives in Context and as Context”, Journal of Digital Humanities, June 2012, http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/archives-in-context-and-as-context-by-kate-theimer/

[2] Ibid.