Monthly Archives: October 2013

Podcast & Operation Brightside

As the semester starts to wind down, there are still two major projects hanging precariously over our heads in History 612.  The most pressing is the creation of a podcast using the Main Street Association oral history interviews–most of which were conducted 6 or 8 years ago by Susan Foley.  I can’t say I necessarily knew what a podcast was going into the class, even though I had heard several of them.  As I’m thinking about tackling the project, I just keep trying to imagine myself to be Ira Glass.  I can see it.  I think it’ll work. 

For this project we (we being the graduate students in the class) have each been paired with an undergraduate student.  I think I got pretty lucky, in that my partner is a thoughtful and dedicated student of history, though she is also extremely busy as of now.  The biggest challenge will be our communication and the delegation of the work.  The theme of our project is the impact of the Jewish community on the development of the Main Street business district.  It’s really her pet project, and one that is relatively foreign to me, so I imagine I may have to take a backseat in the research department and handle more of the script and assemblage of the pieces.  I’m interested in the form, though, and may consider putting together another podcast of my own in the near future.

In fact, I’ve arranged my first oral history interview (this for my internship project), and I’m a bit nervous about it, but excited about what information it may bring. 

Lastly, I volunteered with my neighborhood association and Operation: Brightside on Saturday to clean up Limerick.  It was a friendly, easygoing group of people, and I’m glad to have met them.  I spent most of the morning clearing brush from an overgrown lot in an alley.  Two abandoned garages were behind the overgrowth and the area had become an ideal spot for litterbugs and illegal dumping.  After clearing it away and pitching the garbage (including some clothes, broken dishes, roof shingles, and a whole lot of beer cans), I felt accomplished in that the properties are now more accessible and noticeable.  It’s amazing what a few hours, a bow saw, and a machete can accomplish.  Thanks, Limerick.


Open House

“Make Yourself At Home– Welcoming Voices in Open House:  If These Walls Could Talk” by Benjamin Filene is a chapter in the book Letting Go? which explores shared authority in history museums.  Open House, an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, is a unique experience which allows visitors a window into the lives of one local house’s occupants.

Though the exhibit focuses on a single home, it is not a historic house.  It more resembles the period room type of exhibit in which the interior of the house is recreated at the museum.  The museum’s curatorial staff wanted to explore the lives of average residents in an average house in St. Paul.  The result is what becomes, in effect, the life story of the home, and it is anything but average.  By researching the various occupants of the house, which was built in 1888, it is made evident that every building has a history, and much can be gleaned from it.

The rooms of the exhibit represent different time periods of occupation.  Hidden among the everyday objects are reproductions of primary sources such as building permits, church records, and newspaper articles which offer a unique insight into the lives of the occupants.  In addition, snippets of oral histories can be heard throughout the exhibit by interacting with the features of the “house.”  For example, approaching a dingy set of work clothes hanging on the “porch”, motion sensors trigger a recording of Dick Krismer, a resident of the house who evidently worked in the stockyards, who explains pig slaughtering methods in 20 seconds of audio.  In the 1890s-themed sitting room, visitors can view magic lantern slides that trace the Schumacher’s journey from Germany to St. Paul, where they first built the house in 1888.

The curators have left the interpretation up to the residents.  Their stories speak volumes about the time period in which they occupied the house, keeping the curatorial voice at a minimum.  Traditional museum text on the wall, in panels resembling windows titled, “A Look Outside” offers context for the stories, relating it to larger external historical patterns.

Both an example of an engaging interactive museum exhibit as well as the new history, “Open House” was immensely popular.  Indeed, it features methods of museum work which are being integrated elsewhere.  Historic Locust grove, for example, is experimenting with voice recordings (in their case, voice actors) which are triggered upon entering a room.  Digital media therefore is becoming a larger and larger part of museum interpretation in the 21st century.

Why bother with history, when you’re rich and powerful?  . . .No, you don’t need history.  What you need is something more like a pretty carpet that can be rolled out on ceremonial occasions to cover all those bloodstains on the stairs. 


This quote comes from an unnamed Nigerian friend of Michael Frisch’s in “A Shared Authority” (20).  It graphically illustrates that which is all too common and tragic in history and memory.  It is also what we, as public historians should feel obliged to counteract. 

In Frisch’s thought piece, “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen and Back,”  he discusses ways in which public historians may be able to use new digital tools to do so.  Specifically, he examines the use of oral histories as primary research aids, and how the digitization of interviews makes them much more useful and accessible.  He offsets these advantages by reminding us that “searching” is not as straightforward as it may seem.  He gives the example that an interview subject is not going to say outright, “and now I will tell a story about the social construction of gender.”  Therefore, a researcher must still read “between the lines,” “against the grain,” or what ever metaphor you may prefer. 

It’s a good point, and worth thinking about.  A source’s inherent value may not be readily apparent when you find it, even with the convenience of keyword searches.  However, the sheer number of unexpected sources that arise with database searches testify to the immediate and undeniable advantages that digitization offers. 

History Pin

I spent the afternoon today exploring History Pin.  It was brought to my attention at the beginning of the semester during a chat with the good folks downstairs in the Photo archive.  I was telling them about how much I loved looking through the digital collection and comparing it to google maps’ street view.  That’s when Reilly, the photo archive’s curator, told me that I would love this site.  She was right.  Basically, the website is a global map, to which you can attach digital photographs.  You’re given the option to then connect the photo to street view.  I assume it takes some patience, but it is possible on the site to then line up the attached old photograph over a “current” view of what that location looks like.  Visitors to the site can then fade in and out to compare the changes over time.  It seems to be a peculiar type of animal who gets enthralled with things like that, but I happen to be a textbook example.  I do have some questions about the site’s use, though.  If I add the reference information and required metadata, could I us U of L’s digitized collections to create pins?  I have a ton of old photos saved on my hard drive at home, but may not have done a great job of keeping the photos’ provenance attached.  If I created pins, I’d want to have that sort of information intact.  The site also lets you attach audio and video to the map, and create tours with your own pins and the pins of others.  There seems to be terrific potential on the site for creating online exhibits and “walking” tours in which there is no walking involved.  Since the site is worldwide, larger distances could be covered if it were appropriate for the tour’s topic.  Best of all, once a tour is created, it can be taken by anybody on the site who has the interest.  Expect some circus-related pins to show up on my twitter feed soonish (the problem being we still don’t have internet at my house).  

In my History 510/612 course, we seem to be pushing ahead with podcasts and omeka simultaneously.  The graduate students have each been paired with an undergrad to create a podcast using the Main Street Association oral histories.  It seems a bit strange to be to craft a podcast with interviews conducted by others (mainly Susan Foley), but the material is interesting enough that I have faith that we will be able to craft engaging projects.  I never thought I’d be making my own podcast.  That, at least, is an exciting prospect.  Now…..must decide on topic.  Hmmm…..

Not sure what the omeka topics will be, either, but personally, I’m going to try and do a better job with holding onto that metadata and citing my sources to create a more professional exhibit this time.  My circus wagon exhibit took a surprising amount of research and material and several of the items I uploaded were a little iffy in that regard.


Last Thursday our combined 510/612 Digital History class attended an event titled, “Public History Today: Current Challenges, Future Directions.  The event was actually a panel discussion, led by U of L Public History director Daniel Vivian and Lara Kelland, the latest addition to the program here.  The panel was evidently built around this, the inaugural semester of the Digital History course being taught at U of L.  This suggests to me that it was the original intent of the discussion to explore the ways in which technology (nameably the internet) has changed the public historian’s practice.  Of course I may be way off base in this assumption (and believe me, it wouldn’t be the first time).  The guest speakers were John Dichtl, director of the National Council on Public History, and Craig Friend, director of a successful PH program at North Carolina State University.

As it happens, the panel focused very little on the digital aspects of the field, and instead, the dubious nature of the public history job market manifested itself so palpably, I could almost swear to you, dear readers, that it was a (very insistent) member of the audience, sitting beside me in the front row.  In fact, I’ve given him a name.  Let’s call him Job.  No- too biblical.  How about, Marky DeBenture.  Ah, yes.

Well, unfortunately, the panel didn’t have a whole lot of good news for poor Marky.  Though he asked several pointed questions, Marky had to satisfy himself with the explanation that the lousy job market is not limited to public history.  Furthermore, it was made clear that it was not the responsibility of our guest speakers.  Marky finally relented.

The panel was otherwise deemed a complete success.  Just to have a dialogue with visiting professionals is an exciting occurrence, and it was well attended.  Though many of us may have come away with more questions than answers, the event demonstrated that the field of public history is currently pretty muddy.  It may be slow going, but we will have to persevere.  C’mon, Marky, let’s go to Wendy’s.