That’s All Folks…

Well history and new media lovers we’ve come to the end of the road–at least for now. It’s been lovely exploring new media with you. Now it’s time that I try my hand with some projects. In fact, I got my feet wet with HistoryPin this term, check it out here.

My classmate Brianne and I tried our hand at adding historical interpretation about Civil Rights on the National Mall. I jumped into the latter years and she took the earliest part. It turned out kind of interesting. See for yourself.  In the meantime… keeping making history 🙂



Tool Review: Historypin

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 3.49.15 PM

Historypin is pretty cool, but has some important limitations. It is the Wikipedia of pictures but featuring people’s history. Just as Wikipedia, it is a crowdsourcing web tool. The Historypin website serves as a huge drop box and gallery. Users who have cool historical pictures, video, or audio they want to share upload it to the site, and offer the content’s background information (to the extent that they know and are willing to share). The date of the event showcased and location in which it was set are required of user to pin. Once content is pinned to its location on a Google map and published anyone on the site can look at it.

Entire collections of pinned material can be uploaded and made into tours for site visitors. Users who are registered with the site can add additional background information or even correct factual errors about a photo. The creators of Historypin are especially proud of the site’s ability to illustrate change over time through street view functions (via Google) and photographic fading (to see what I mean click here). Users can use these functions to see distant and more recent past overlapped.

The best features about this programs is that it easy to use. New users can walk through a tutorial and know how to use the major functions of the site. However, the site is intuitive so most users comfortable with the web can learn on their own. The site is a massive, digital scrapbook. And, because the organization has partnered with major archives and learning institutions really cool content is available to explore.

Yet, the site does have shortcomings. Individual user submissions are of uneven quality. Sometimes, the images are boring. They run like a family photo album and without descriptive text, and they are unlikely to be interesting to most people because of this. In this case, Historypin is operating from the assumption that people of the world, especially those who identify strongly with their local communities, will eventually stumble upon these images and add more content. I am skeptical of this. In contrast, the most iconic images, or images related to the most memorable or famous events, people, and places in history, are being more actively edited and updated. In fact it seems that though the creators of Historypin imagine their site functioning to create community online, it is more likely that the community of history lovers already online have simply migrated to play on this site too.

Worse, really interesting photos that do not have descriptive labels are numerous and frustrating. Take today’s Historypin on the Bay of Pigs (see below). This image is really cool. But I don’t know who I’m looking at. Are these American or Cubans? Who is taking the photograph? Was this clandestine photography? Did the Cubans take the photo?

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 3.53.34 PM

Rather, than feel like this a puzzle I want to solve, I feel annoyed. I feel like I have to wait to see if anyone in world, with Gmail (All users must use Google products to use the site, another problem which others have covered well. See this article for more information.) will eventually come along and reveal the mysteries. This is a bummer. Now of course this is one photo and I could just do the research, after all I’m graduate student. But what about people who aren’t graduate students? What if I don’t want to research every other cool photo I come across on Historypin? I think this is issue the site creators should consider more deeply and attempt to address.

In sum, I like Historypin. It has really awesome content and the potential to gather even more great stuff. But, the organization should make a real effort for better labeling. Historypin can be great, it just needs more tweaks.





Cell Phone Free Zones– Anywhere?


I did not have a cell phone until my first year of college–I was eighteen years old. My youth was free of ringtones, touchscreens, and apps, and life was good. Don’t get me wrong. I love my cell phone. Today, I take it with me everywhere. I use it probably a hundred times a day for various functions. In fact, it is currently sitting right next to my computer screen as I write this. However, I recognize my mobile attachment is not always a positive thing. Cell phones can make people pretty anti-social.

I can’t be the only person who uses her cell phone as a crutch: In the elevator awkwardly standing with someone? Pull out the phone and start scrolling. I don’t have to make eye contact and can pretend to be absorbed in my google search. But this is no good. That person in the elevator could be also awkward, but he could also be the next Mark Zuckerberg, and here I’ve missed my elevator speech opportunity. Okay, I exaggerate. But you get my point. Cell phones can keep people from exploring the world immediately around them.

This same idea holds true in the world of museums. If you are following my blog, you know I dig history. I also dig history museums. I like going there and seeing images and learning stories of people being people in all their complexities. Walking through the galleries, I check out cool objects and browse through wall labels trying to make sense of things past. It’s fun. But I rarely do this solo. Now, sure if I’m on a specific assignment to research something, I might go alone–but this is rare. Usually, I’m going with friend, or on a date, or with my family. The point is to go and learn stuff together. Even when we split and look at separate displays, we come back together and share cool things we’ve seen or learned. Many times we stay in close proximity and talk about the things we are seeing. That’s the fun of the experience.


So now we find ourselves in this digital age. There is a rush to digitize and make everything tech-savvy. And this is cool, but as Nancy Proctor cautions in “Evaluation-Led Mobile Experience Design,” it’s important to remember that the technology is just a tool to convey good content. And as she suggests and I second, sometimes the technology can be more of a distraction than boon to an exhibit.

I love the way that cell phones and other mobile devices can be used for evaluation (and this is the crux of Proctor’s argument) but I hesitate to push cell phone integration beyond this too thoroughly in museum exhibits on site. Though there is danger in tech-phobia, I think a careful balance is needed in mobile device use inside a museum. In fact, I think that using mobile devices that allow for real time interaction in physical exhibits is a dope idea that should be fully embraced. But, I think mobile devices that are proxy tour guides are lame. I come to exhibits for socialization, information, and a show. I don’t want to enter a space of cell-addicted hermits, even if the information is incredible, and I definitely don’t want to watch my shows on a cell phone screen…

But hey, this is just a grad student’s 2 cents 😉


Social Media and the Museum: Making Connections

“Communities imply a degree of – if not quite equality – then at least co-dependence to keep them functioning. As in a village, everyone has a role to play regardless of “importance.” By putting ourselves in this relationship, we essentially sanction a forum where the audience gets to tell us what they think whether we like it or not, and we forfeit the right to control the space and what is said there.”

This is exactly right. I love that Allen-Greil and MacArthur in “Small Towns and Big Cities: How Museums Foster Community On-Line” are wrestling with the idea of shared authority, community, and addressing “the whole person” at America’s primer learning institutions like the Smithsonian. Today, social media and community development is crucial to any museums relevancy. Social media nurtures communities of learners, which include museum staff and visitors.The cool thing about social media is that it allows the museum to be a fly on the wall and jump in a conversation with visitors–in real time. Now, as Ericka Dicker author of “The Impact of Blogs and Other Social Media on the Life of a Curator“ makes clear not everyone is online. But a critical mass is and they matter because they speak.

The tweet, blog, and facebook-like spheres show intriguing things about users like the fact that people love Presidential hair. This is why most institutions have and continue to engage people through these accounts. But I’d like to plug even harder for the incorporation of these elements physically in the museum alongside formal exhibits. I’m not making a novel argument here, but I’m interested in suggesting that fear of losing institutional authority should be relaxed (because its overstated). People approach social media with the understanding that it’s people talking, and they approach museums as knowledge givers. The two have and should continue be blended by museums. Take for example the Smithsonian’s Tumblr of museum curators trying out Julia Child’s recipes, which Allen-Greil and MacArthur highlight. People approached the exhibit likely thinking that the curators have done thorough research and these recipes are historically accurate. But also, they demonstrate their interest in participating and sharing the experience with the curators as average people as evidenced by their conversation in posts.

Furthermore, if you aren’t actively engaging your audience in 2-way activity, eventually your audience will get bored (and maybe walk away, or stop funding). People go to the Smithsonian, in particular, because 1) they think they’ll find something interesting to see or hear for themselves and 2) because it’s free. To keep it free and to keep the crowds flowing, the public needs to continue feeling like there are things of interest within its walls. Social media strongly supports this. So even if another Enola Gay happens because of a Tweet or Facebook post, the publicity it would generates would beg more attention and engagement with the Smithsonian that could be positively used.

In sum, I think the authors I’ve highlighted here have correctly assessed the awesome potential of social media and some potential drawbacks. But the drawbacks are dwarfed to the benefit to learning institutions when people can make personal connections to the work and ideas produced within them.

Organization + Visualization = Communication

Historians like to find and share information.  Having combed document after document, artifact after artifact, we are excited when we’ve completed this process. And we are often trying to tell it all. Ever noticed the level of detail in an academic history book? We want to capture the big picture, the big ideas, and the nuance.

So how can we help our audience keep track of the most important ideas? Well, recently I read Dan Browns’ Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning and I think he offers clues. His book was indeed useful for understanding how to create and speak through a web site for larger project ends. Surprisingly though, it was also helpful for thinking about ways to convey history outside digital forms as well.

Brown is concerned with creating strong “deliverables,” which are basically complete web projects delivered to someone. He describes how to communicate effectively with different audiences about and through projects. His basic argument is two-fold 1) do not overwhelm your audience with too much information and 2) organize your data in clear layers and in visualizations.

[This video, created by Visualize This, is an example of Brown’s approach.]

So following Brown, after that great history book or lecture is completed, it could useful to convert it into a concept map. Even though this process occurs at the end rather than the beginning (making it backwards for Brown’s purposes), it would be interesting to see what you get. For historians grounded in detailed facts, it could help tease out the most important ideas–and led you to other really interesting visualizations too.


A Vision of Texas circa 1838



Wordle made images: Maybe I’m doing it wrong?


“The Ballot or the Bullet,” a provocative speech delivered by Malcolm X in 1964 is often an element in a body of material used by journalists, historians and others to cast Malcolm as a fiery activist for Black rights in America. As such is the case, I was curious to see what this speech might look like if the language was more closely scrutinized using a computer. Many people have analyzed this speech before but typically a close reading of the speech text is the strategy used. Instead, I decided to use the web-based data analysis tool called Wordle.

Wordle works by analyzing a body of text and illustrating the most frequently used words in a graphic. The idea is that it can show you what a text is saying. Dumping the entire text of this speech into the program, I thought either A) the text would highlight the substantive content of Malcolm’s talk (rather than the overly simplistic and wrong view that Malcolm preached simple violence) or B) it would reinforce the stereotype. Ultimately, I leaned toward it doing “A.” But I uploaded my text and produced the graphics to see. (See images above and below.)

Reviewing the images, I was bored with them. I think they do indeed point to important ideas of Malcolm, but not in any particularly innovative or exciting way. Though the images are a good starting point for opening a conversation with people unfamiliar or with misconceptions on X, I don’t see where to go with them beyond this. I guess the problem is that I want to Wordle to challenge me. I want a visualization that shakes my perceptions and stimulates my thinking for new research questions. I realize I’m probably asking for a lot. Still, that’s what I’m looking for. These visualizations just don’t do the trick. In fact, all of the incredible dynamism and feeling of the original speech of which a great measure is still perceptible from the written text is lost in these Wordle images (and maybe that’s good for analysis too?). Still, when I think of visualization tools, I think of them as images commanding attention, which produces queries. This has had the opposite effect on me.

So I have to ask: Am I Wordling wrong?



Pictures? Words? Questions?

A picture is worth a thousand words–or so I’ve been told. Interestingly, my introduction to spatial history and its associated tools brings to mind that perhaps it is better said that a picture is worth a thousand questions. Stephen Robertson’s “Putting Harlem on the Map,” a digital history project that graphically illustrates Harlem from 1915-1930 is a excellent example. Robinson explains how the project changed the way he thought about Harlem because the illustration, rather than telling him new facts, begged new questions. This concept makes sense. If you were given a portrait with which you were unfamiliar it would stimulate you to think of questions. You might ask: who is this? where is she? why is she here? what time period is this? what’s inspiring her countenance? This is good. Very good.


In contrast, texts can have opposite effect. A recipe might lead you to believe that a path is the path to the end. Said another way texts can tell you things rather than ask of you. Historians are well known as creators and major consumers of texts. Yet, our real trade is in endless questions. In this way, the beauty of the visualization tool is apparent. It moves the person from a passive, receptive means of thinking to an active, constructive way of thinking.

Of course, visualizations are not perfect tools (because none are). The visualization works best when it presents the new and different. An image that has been widely exposed and more importantly widely interpreted can operate like a text. In this instance you read the image using pre-established meanings. For example, if you are given a contemporary political map of the United States, you are likely to answer the question, “What is this?” simply as “A map of the United States.” This of course is logical. However, you are likely to answer without deeply questioning yourself about the image you are seeing. You don’t ask yourself what it is because you have already been told and read this as a map of the United States. This same is true of other visualizations. Thus, they work best for historians when they bring difference to the eye. It is the difference that asks questions.


All these things being said, I stand in the pro-visualization camp fully aware that the medium offers both benefit and limitation. Indeed, who could stand up and say they are against visualization? In fact, I can’t recall a single history book written in the last quarter century with zero visual elements. As Edward Tufte argues in Beautiful Evidence, quite persuasively, “The evidence doesn’t care what it is-whether word, number, image. In reasoning about substantive problems, what matters entirely is the evidence, not particular modes of evidence.” However, he makes clear that you should use “whatever it takes to explain something” and it must also all be logically integrated. So I say onward with greater text and visual integration. It could produce the best picture from which to ask our thousand questions.