The End, or How This Class Makes Me Feel Like Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor

"Tool Time," the show-within-a-show on that 90s classic, "Home Improvement."
“Tool Time,” the show-within-a-show on that 90s classic, “Home Improvement.”

So. Welcome to the end. You’ve been with me along this whole exploration, dear reader. I want you to know I appreciate your being there for me, reading my thoughts (ramblings? let’s go with ramblings) on public history and augmented reality and Detroit, looking at my pictures (borrowed and created), and watching my gifs. I mean, we’ve really navigated a lot together these past few months.

This last post is meant to be reflective, an opportunity to look back at what I’ve done and how I did it.  So to start, what have I learned from this class? I always despise this question. It makes me think of museum exhibitions and the ways in which we can evaluate them and their level of success. Well, we can measure how many people visit the exhibit, but did they actually read any of the information? Did they even look at any of the objects? These hard numbers look great on grant applications for reporting purposes, but they don’t necessarily tell us the real impact that an exhibition has had on those people. How do we begin to get at that then? Perhaps we could survey people as they leave the exhibition and ask what they thought? Sure, but this has its drawbacks too. Most of these reflections are simply surface level: “I liked it” “It was enjoyable” “It was interesting.” Well great. Plus, many people won’t even begin to appreciate the extent to which the exhibition influenced them, made them more knowledgable, or introduced them to a new perspective until much later in time. A truly effective and successful exhibition stays with a person and has a lasting and meaningful impact on their thoughts or opinions.

SO WHAT? Yes, I know. A long explanation before even answering this “What did I learn?” question. Ok, let’s make a list.

1) Practical Skills

Things that fall under the “Practical Skills” camp are the actual methods and practice that we engaged in throughout the year that I can now confidently add to my resume. I know how to operate Photoshop in a very basic, but still effective way. Plus, there’s nothing that a good YouTube video or Google search can’t teach. I learned how to write/construct a social media proposal, especially how to create personas that serve as a sample audience for your evaluator. I learned much more than I already knew about Wordpress and Twitter, plus I learned about TweetDeck and how that helps you track and follow various hashtags or trends. I learned how to use Omeka to create online exhibitions and collections, which was really really really exciting (minus that whole metadata part)!!! Oh yeah, I learned how to enter metadata for digital collection items. And finally, I learned how to bring photos, text, music, and narration together in iMovie to create a video. All of these practical skills only make me more marketable as a public historian and make my ultimate goal of engaging with the public in meaningful and social justice-y in multiple ways much easier.

2) Intellectual Skills

Outside of the practical methods I gained from the class, I also learned a variety of new theories about digital platforms and new media. We explored the differences between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, like the emphasis on collaboration, mobility, and multitasking. We learned what characteristics defined New Media as digital, including numerical representation (coding), modularity, automation, variability, and transcoding. We discussed how we must always look at new technology within the context of past technologies. We talked a great deal about copyright, Creative Commons, citations, attributions, and the responsibility we have as public historians to maintain a level of accuracy, openness, and professionalism on social/digital media. We examined some of the shortcomings of digital media, especially regarding the lack of access among large portions of the public we want to reach as historians. We learned about what defines a participatory culture and how that translates to the museum in order to make our work more social, more mobile, and more participatory. Finally, we discussed what makes a good story and how to use different narrative structures to tell effective stories about the past. What makes these new ideas and theories so valuable though, is that they have a place outside of digital new media. Engaging and effective storytelling should be something that all historians aspire too in most aspects of their professional work. Our discussions about participatory and social learning are just as helpful in the museum as on the Web. And of course, having a sound understanding of copyright and citation is a key responsibility of a historian.

3) Personal Growth

Public historians have a responsibility to always be reflective both during and after a project. This inevitably allows them to learn something about themselves as professionals, but also as people. What did I learn about myself? I learned that I do love collaborative work and that the digital often makes collaborative work easier to coordinate. Yet I also understand my shortcomings as a collaborator. I know that I don’t always follow up with people after a meeting to make sure we all are on the same page/have tasks to complete, leading to disarray. I also try to take too much control over aspects of the project I think I would be effective at, like writing or editing, rather than letting go and trusting my competent group members. I also understand now how important it is to maintain an active  professional presence on social media. I don’t always keep so up-to-date and I’ve learned that I need to actually carve out that time everyday, schedule it in my planner. Otherwise, I’ll put it off. Finally, I’ve learned that I really like blogging. I honestly enjoy having a place where I can engage with important thoughts about public history in a more relaxed setting that allows me to incorporate appropriate and helpful media. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to include a gif from When in Academia or cite Lol My Thesis as a legit secondary source. (ok I’ve never wanted to do that, really). But here on a blog, I can do that with hypertext. And hopefully what I say makes you laugh (because that’s usually what I’m going for here), but also makes you think about the nature of history and the digital.

So why does this class make me feel like this guy?



For those of you unfortunate souls who don’t remember who this is, this crazy-eyed dude is Tim Allen as his character Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor, the host of a popular tool/home improvement show called Tool Time, which is a show-within-a-show on the real 1990s sitcom Home Improvement.

Side note: Tim Allen narrates all of the wildly successful “Pure Michigan” ads that enumerate all of the great things about my home state – namely beaches, lakes, baseball, and cherries – and make me cry every time I hear one. Really.

Let me remind you that this show is set in Michigan, the greatest of all states. Note Tim's Wayne State University sweatshirt.
Let me remind you that Home Improvement is set in Michigan, the greatest of all states. Note Tim’s throwback Wayne State University sweatshirt.  Also, I need a public history Wilson. 

So going back to the Tool Man. At the end of my first semester as a public history graduate student, a professor made us write an essay on “Reflective Practice.” I framed nearly the entire essay within a toolbox metaphor that framed every new method and theory learned, whether its oral history transcription or the idea of shared authority, as another tool in the public historian’s toolbox that they can then use to build programs and exhibits to connect with the public in a meaningful way. The more tools we have at our disposal, the more effective we’ll be at connecting with the public in multiple ways. This just makes sense. I mean, have you ever tried to build  shelf with just a level and a hammer? Not effective. More tools = success.

This class has literally FILLED my metaphorical public history toolbox with so many new skills and ideas that I could very well host my own Tool Time (minus that hideous tie). I am a much more effective and informed public historian after taking this class and learning about digital new media in a structured and practical way.  Overall, I’d say that’s a successful semester.

To wrap up the class this week, my group and I will present our video & Omeka exhibition about our Art Deco lamp, as well as our social media proposal targeting undergraduates for the Crossing & Dwellings exhibition at LUMA. Generally, it should go well. Let’s just hope it’s more like this:

Source: When in Academia tumblr

And less like this:

Source: When in Academia tumblr

Small victories y’all, small victories.



Three Public Historians, Two Minutes, One Lamp – Storyboarding for Artifacts

As if we couldn’t get enough shared authority and collaboration in our lives, we had to go and do a group blog post. This week’s blog post was a reflection on the storyboards we are creating for an object in the Crossings and Dwellings exhibition (opening this summer – remember to visit!!), as well as the collaborative process for creating said storyboard. Working with Courtney Baxter and Emily Snyder (see their contributions below!), our team laid out a plan for the creation of a video about an Art Deco lamp from Mundelein College.

The section that I took on was the first minute of the script (after we read it aloud an timestamped it, of course). This section focuses on explaining the origins of the Art Deco style, starting in France in the 1920s before coming to the United States in the late twenties. Although the broader concept was focusing on Art Deco’s origins and characteristics as a international movement, I chose to ground the majority of the example images in Chicago, and particularly on Loyola and Mundelein. This, I believed would reinforce the exhibition’s focus on these two institutions as representatives of broader national themes, namely crossing (aka migrating or moving) and dwelling (aka place-making).

One issue we had as a group with the script though was the lack of a discussion about why Art Nouveau went out of style and Art Deco emerged as the dominant style. This, we thought, says something about Mundelein. The founders of the college chose the distinctive style for a reason, because they thought it represented something they believed in or wanted to aspire to. But we couldn’t really begin to talk about those ideas without first talking about what Art Deco was about, what it represented, what it was culturally a reaction against. This makes it difficult – almost impossible – to begin to delve deeper into the motivations for establishing this new college for women. Am I reading too much into this choice? Maybe. Perhaps it was simply cheaper to build a linear skyscraper. Maybe it was the designers choice. But maybe it tells us something about Mundelein’s intent, it’s goals, and it’s aspirations.


In our storyboard for the second section of our video we focused more on the development of Art Deco as a transition from Art Nouveau style. We used this part to stress the differences in aesthetics from flowing asymmetrical styling to sleek industrialized decoration. To emphasize that literal transition we intend on using video transitions (fading one image to the next) to show change over time. Thankfully, there is a plentiful supply of images of Art Nouveau and Art Deco images of architecture, art, and so on available on the web but that’s also where we encountered some problems.
Before this class none of us put any particular thought into copyright law, although we as historians are very aware of citation and recognizing intellectual property. In this instance we tried to make sure that we used images that were in the public domain or available for reuse through Creative Commons. The images were vital to illustrating our points about the details and stylistic changes between the Art Nouveau and Art Deco period. We used this section to also lead into discussing our specific artifact/object, the Art Deco lamp from Mundelein College.

The third section of our video is primarily focused on the art deco lamp from Mundelein College. The narration emphasizes its particular details, such as its dimensions. It also points out various aspects of the lamp’s design that are characteristic of the art deco style. For example, its symmetrical shape and its use of simple lines and angles are similar to those of other deco-style lamps and light fixtures. As the earlier portions of the video focus more heavily on the emergence and evolution of the art deco style, in this final section we wanted to make sure that the object itself was at the forefront. To accomplish this, we plan on using multiple photos of the lamp itself taken from various angles to highlight its details. We also include a photograph of an art nouveau lamp which then fades back into a photo of the Mundelein art deco lamp to further emphasize the stark contrast between the two styles. We also include a photograph of the lamp in its natural habitat: Piper Hall in 1934.
Finally, the video closes with a brief statement about the popularity of the art deco style throughout the 20th century, particularly in the 1970s and 80s. The narration is accompanied by a series of photographs of art deco buildings constructed during this time period, including the former Playboy building (1927) here in Chicago, the Edificia El Moro (1945) in Mexico City, and the South Beach strip (1980) in Miami. Following this series of photographs, the video then comes full circle and ends similar to the way it began; with the lamp being switched off

Exhibiting Digitally: A Critique of Google Cultural Institute’s “The Civil Rights Movement in the Bay Area”

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What makes a museum exhibition good? As a Public Historian, this is a question I find myself asking more and more frequently. Whenever I have a new research idea (usually a once-a-week occurrence) this is usually the question that follows, along with “Does this work as an exhibition? Will people be interested? Who will? Who won’t? How will I share it? Where will I put it?” And oh so much more. I’ve often had the overwhelming desire to embark on a guerrilla public history project in Detroit, creating small, mobile exhibitions about various events, people, and places that tell important stories in Detroit’s history, but that aren’t being told elsewhere. Stories of contention and conflict. Stories of labor and love. Stories of space and solidarity. Stories of apathy and action. This is one part of what defines a good museum exhibition, as well as a good story: that the narrative evokes feelings in the reader/listener. This definition of a good story extends even into the digital realm, especially as online exhibitions and augmented reality tours proliferate.

This week’s task for our Digital New Media class is to select an online exhibition and critique it. I chose to examine “The Civil Rights Movement in the Bay Area,” an online exhibition created and published by a collaboration with the Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkley and the Google Cultural Institute. This was my first experience diving into the overwhelming amount of information offered by Google Cultural Institute (should I really have been surprised? Isn’t using Google almost always an overwhelming overflow of information?) and the most difficult part was actually choosing one exhibition to critique. All little bit about Google Cultural Institute first though. According to their website:“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. The Cultural Institute is an effort to make important cultural material available and accessible to everyone and to digitally preserve it to educate and inspire future generations.” 

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The Cultural Institute partners with various museum, archives, and other cultural institutions to bring their collections and artifacts out of the physical exhibit and into the Web where people from all over the world can see them. Cultural Institute is divided into three sections: Art Project, World Wonders Project, and Archive Exhibitions. While Art Project and World Wonders are essentially a Google Street View of the inside of an art museum or the exteriors and interiors of significant places around the world, Archive Exhibitions contextualize historic documents and artifacts within a narrative in order to tell a story, just as any good exhibition in a brick-and-mortar museum would do.

The exhibit, “The Civil Rights Movement in the Bay Area,” is a local history that attempts to tell a broader story of the national Civil Rights movement by focusing on the responses and actions of people in the Bay Area. The exhibition examines the struggle for equality and fairness in education, housing, and employment practices both nationally and locally, and highlights the methods activists used to make their point, including sit-ins, marches, pickets, and parades. While these methods to affect change were often deployed across the nation, the exhibition illustrates the local targets of these actions and contextualizes those actions firmly to a specific local place. In this way, the exhibition is an excellent example of local history as defined by Carol Kammen, Marty Kyvig, and others. The exhibition also intends to demonstrate that the struggle for Civil Rights brought together a diverse range of people across race, class, and gender.

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The exhibition itself is very visually appealing. The clean lines and simplicity of the black and white color palette make the exhibition easy to look at and engage with. A simple arrow on the left and right of the exhibition allows for easy navigation through the exhibition, thus strengthening the overall flow and intent of the narrative. This, however, also presents an issue in that there is only one way to navigate through the exhibition. Rather than demonstrating the complexity of history by illustrating how events or actions relate to one another (perhaps utilizing a web-based form of narrative – web as in a web shape/form not web as in the Web!), the narrative progresses on a linear, generally chronological path that presents an easily understandable, though simplistic, story. The linear flow does allow the previous slide of text & photographs along with a new slide, allowing the reader to look back at the previous point in the story without having to scroll back constantly. Each slide though – especially at the exhibition’s beginning – is rather text-heavily, which could turn off some readers who respond better to visual or interactive information. The exhibition also only relies on photographs for its visual interest. Although they are interesting photographs that provide strong support for the exhibition’s Big Idea by showing diverse groups of people participating in Civil Rights demonstrations, it would have been nice to see other sorts of visuals, such as maps (especially in the housing equality section) and actual documents of some sort. Finally, while the exhibition examined issues of race thoroughly, it was lacking in the area of gender analysis even though many of the photographs used could have provided a fruitful opportunity for exploring such issues, especially in the housing and employment sections.

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On the digital, Web 2.0 side of the exhibition, there were some positive aspects and some issues regarding interactivity, hypertextuality, and mobility. Readers did have the ability to click on the photographs, zoom in on specific details and examine the photo’s metadata regarding reproduction rights and sources (an issue I’ve discussed a lot in this blog). However, there is no hypertext that allows the reader to go to a photograph’s catalogue record in the Bancroft Library’s collection. Even more frustrating, there is no hypertext to connect directly to the primary sources quoted throughout the exhibition in order to facilitate further research for those readers who really engage with the materials. This lack fundamentally detracts from the the purpose of digital exhibition in the first place; in a physical museum exhibition, visitors can’t engage with the secondary and primary materials the exhibition is based on (unless the exhibition relies on QR codes that can link to further information), while in a digital exhibition, those kinds of connections are possible, easy in fact. Furthermore, there is no opportunity for readers to interact with the exhibition or it’s materials. There’s not even a space for comments or questions. Even a brick-and-mortar museum would have a suggestion box at the front desk! Finally, the mobile version of the exhibition does not translate well to a smartphone. With the prevalence of mobile devices now, this is a serious disadvantage for this exhibition and others in Google Cultural Institute.

Overall, the narrative of the exhibition is understandable and relatable. Its linear pattern is easy to follow and the photographs of the people involved in the demonstrations add to the emotional element of the story. However, the text itself lacks emotional force, a true shame when you consider the passion and feeling behind the Civil Rights movement. A great way to add a more emotional and human element to the exhibition would have been to augment the documentary materials with embedded oral history interviews or videos from the demonstrations. The ease of including multimedia is another advantage to digital exhibitions, and another way that “The Civil Rights Movement in the Bay Area” falls short of it potential.

Web 2.0 in the Streets: Augmented Reality in the Real World

This is what once stood where my childhood home sat. No wonder I've had so many cow-centered projects at Loyola. Source: Paul Petoskey.
This is what once stood where my childhood home sat. No wonder I’ve had so many cow-centered projects at Loyola. Source: Paul Petoskey.

Growing up, I was always fascinated by the landscape around me. I was not so much interested in the buildings or trees or streets that surrounded me, but by what was there before them, what they looked like when they were first built, and how they changed (or didn’t) over time. I always had too many specific questions about these things that my parents simply could not answer. It’s not like they had memorized the Macomb County Atlas or every Wayne County plat map. The only information they had were their own memories and what the buildings themselves could tell them. 

Maybe this is where my interest in Augmented Reality (AR) came from – this desire to answer all of my childhood questions that no one could seem to resolve. For those readers unfamiliar with AR, Bryan Alexander describes it in his book The New Digital Storytelling as “the process of linking digital content to the physical world, especially by location.” Rather than bringing the real world into the digital realm (virtual reality), AR brings the digital back into the “offline world.”

In his book, Alexander differentiates between what he calls “light AR” and the more intensive iterations of its use. Light AR is essentially the simplest linking of digital information (videos, photos, etc.) onto corresponding locations on a map, like Historypin or the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. He also includes GPS/digital geolocation in the category of light AR since this development allowed for the proliferation of location-based mobile phone services or software. Apps like Foursquare and Eventbrite that can tell users about a restaurant or event nearby their location or even the ubiquitous “Check-In” feature of Facebook can all be considered forms of light AR.

Foursquare, a mobile app, tags restaurants and other business with information from other users on a map based on the user's location. Source : The Next Web
Foursquare, a mobile app, tags restaurants and other business with information from other users on a map based on the user’s location. Source : The Next Web

In addition to being location-based via GPS, AR can also be prompted by an imprint on a physical object or place. This is what Alexander calls “marker-oriented AR.” This type derives from the development of UPC codes – which encodes information on a bar code that is then read by a scanner – during the 1970s. Basically, we encounter this form of AR every time we go to the grocery store. As personal mobile devices proliferated, the QR code (quick response or quick read) has as well. QR codes are those blocks of black and white squares that you often see on ads or movie posters or real estate signs (I’ve seen the insides of more houses waking my dog than I’ve seen during my actual apartment search). Even museums are starting to catch on, using them to link visitors to more information about an object or an idea than can ever be reasonably displayed in an exhibition. Alexander’s example of this technology in a non-commercial setting was the Tales of Things, a project in which users or owners of an object record information (video, audio, or text) about their experience with that object which can be accessed by future users/owners. While somewhat creepy (who wants to know how I felt about my mop?), I have often looked at my own estate sale or rummage shop finds and wondered about their previous life – where they had been, the people they knew, the things they saw. How often have we wished objects or places could talk? AR seeks to answer that question.

If these are examples of light AR, then are more advanced forms of AR like? One form is the object-recognition software by Google called Google Goggles (this is really hard to say and even harder to type). This software allows users to point their smartphone’s camera at an object or place – which all-knowing, all-seeing Google then recognizes – and access information about that object or place. This is what Alexander refers to as “marker-less or superimposed AR,” which needs no QR code or location to access digital information. 

Users exploring LA and relying on their map to access 34 North 118 West's stores. Source: 34 North 118 West
Users exploring LA and relying on their map to access 34 North 118 West’s stores. Source: 34 North 118 West

Other advanced forms of AR can also be more narratively advanced than technologically advanced. 34 North 118 West is an AR program that “told historical stories through content items accessed by audiences walking through several city blocks in Los Angeles,” according to Alexander. As users walked through old rail yards of the city, their physical movement and changing location triggered the connected stories of people who once worked in that space, told by voice actors. This is what Alexander calls, “narrative archeology,” the uncovering of stories and voices from the places they occurred. Another project called [murmur] focused more on present-day content or recent memories. “The voice of [murmur],” according to their mission statement, “reflects the diverse voices of the neighborhood…These are the stories that make up a city’s identity, but they’re kept inside of the heads of the people who live here.” In this way, [murmur] seeks to open the “archive” of the mind and tie personal experiences to places throughout the city.

Other forms of advanced AR could include interactive stories about the past or based in historical fact or even collaborative gameplay that allows users to interact with place, narrative, and each other by leaving clues or messages for the next user that accesses the narrative at that place. For some more interesting (and more recent!!) AR projects, check out Krissy Clark’s Stories Everywhere or the folks over at Listen to Detroit.

A screenshot from the Museum of London's new Streetmuseum app that layers historic photos over the real world landscape and follows the narrative of the London bombings during WWII. Source: Museum of London
A screenshot from the Museum of London’s new Streetmuseum app that layers historic photos over the real world landscape and follows the narrative of the London bombings during WWII. Source: Museum of London

However, there are some issues with AR. Alexander lists three:

1) Advanced AR requires HUGE amounts of data crunching in order to process the real-world and link the digital content back onto it. As our technology becomes more and more powerful and our service networks become more and more reliable and fast, this will be less of a problem. But right now, this is still something we have to think about, especially where network signals are weak (I’m looking at you Loop…you and all of your tall buildings that make me feel like I’m in a canyon). Who wants to wait 15 minutes on a street corner while their audio file downloads? Awkward.

2) A lack of social or personal comfort with AR and its manipulation of the real-world landscape. Although Alexander doesn’t bring it up in his book, a related issue is that of the availability of digital tools to access AR content. Being from Detroit – a city in which literally HALF of the population does not have regular access to the web – this was a huge obstacle to me. While AR has a lot of very awesome potential to link people and stories to places and make accessing those stories a more interactive process, what about all of the people who can never see or hear that? What do they get out of it?

3) This could become a veritable hornets nest of legal issues, especially regarding copyright. I feel like copyright has become the jam of this class (not a party jam, just one of those songs you find yourself listening to over and over again, even though it’s kind of a sad jam). If the recent struggles over copyright in the digital media world are any indicator, AR will definitely face some legal issues in the future. As Alexander asks, “How will an enterprise [or even an individual] respond to an AR layer’s use of its name [or logo or likeness]? How much reuse and remixing will copyright holders stand before filing suit?”

A map from a collaboration between StoryCorps & journalist/location-based storyteller Krissy Clark on NYC's Lower East Side. Source: Krissy Clark.
A map from a collaboration between StoryCorps & journalist/location-based storyteller Krissy Clark on NYC’s Lower East Side. Source: Krissy Clark.

Overall, AR has some incredible capabilities and some obstacles. It will certainly become another tool in the public history toolbox, especially as we find ourselves catering to a more Digital Native audience. But it will still continue to only be one tool. Museums will still need object-based exhibitions. Some narratives will just be too complicated to tell spread across a city. There will always be people who prefer to spend their time in a museum rather than glued to an iPhone screen with their headphones on. It is only one tool. But we can’t hang a shelf with just a wrench.

Communication, Creativity, and Code: Collaborating in the Digital Realm

20140316-174910.jpgLocal historical societies, house museums, and small cultural institutions face a variety of obstacles and challenges today. Shrinking budgets, overworked staffs, growing expectations from their audience in the digital age all contribute to creating a perfect storm for smaller nonprofits. Creating appealing and up-to-date websites and managing (or sometimes even establishing) a visible social media presence are often at the bottom of the project list, whether because of a lack of staff knowledge or a budget that places more value on maintaining collections than on outreach or any other of the myriad of reasons that affect a cultural institution’s operations.

This was the task set before our class two weeks ago: remediate the website for the Glessner House, a historic house museum in the Prairie Avenue District on Chicago’s South Side. During the late 1800s, Prairie Avenue was the city’s most exclusive neighborhood, with residents including architect and designer Daniel Burnham, railroad industrialist George Pullman, hotel magnate Potter Palmer, department store-founder Marshall Field and his son, Marshall Field Jr. 25% of the members of Chicago’s exclusive Commercial Club lived on this six-block “Millionaire’s Row.” However, encroaching rail yards and industry made Prairie Avenue increasingly undesirable to the city’s elite. When Potter Palmer picked up and moved to a new mansion in the formerly swampy area on the North Side that would become the Gold Coast. By 1920, Prairie Avenue was mostly abandoned and the once priceless mansions were razed in favor of expanding factories. Saved from the wrecking ball in 1966, the Glessner House now hosts tours of the home, children’s activities, craft demonstrations, and tours of the remaining Prairie Avenue District.

View looking south down Prairie Avenue.

To accomplish our assignment, we separated into groups of four and focused on remediating four sections of the website – Home, About Us, Explore, and Events. Overall, the collaborative process was easy and productive. Before we met, our group set some tasks in order to prepare and make some informed decisions about the platform we would use. Although there were some great options, we ultimately decided that if we wee actually being hired to remediate the website for the Glessner House staff, we would use WordPress because it was a platform that more people have experience with, even if they have little other digital experience. We also agreed that WordPress was intuitive enough that staff without experience could easily adapt to using it.

After setting on WordPress and choosing a theme (not too fun, but not too serious), we chose the page each of us would focus our efforts on updating for our new website. This was one of the nicest parts of the collaborative process: because there were multiple areas of the website, each person had a task that they could be working towards without getting in the way of others’ work. We completed the bulk of the work on these individual pages at our first meeting (which led to a lot of awkward silent time in my living room, broken only when Jenny suggested we listen to music instead of the click-clack of typing). Although everyone’s page turned out beautifully with their individual attention, we could have approached the project differently and more collaboratively. Instead of everyone taking their own section and shaping it as an individual without much collaboration or oversight, we could have tackled the different sections in pairs, allowing for an even more collaborative and creative experience.

A view of the Glessner House form above.

One aspect of this project that really impacted me, was the realization (or re-realization? reminder?) that collaborative work requires a much greater amount of communication between group members in order to make sure that all of the requirements are fulfilled and that the website’s design is uniform. Every step, from choosing a platform, a layout, an approach, to assigning tasks (and making sure everyone is aware and agreeable to their tasks) to checking in with everyone along the way to getting feedback and at the end and deciding who will email the final product to your boss (or in this case, to Dr. Roberts), requires clear communication and constant follow up to make sure everyone is on the same page. The most important part of this intensive communication process is making sure that everyone’s opinion is taken into account. Everyone in my group had different skills and perspectives and approached the website in a different way. We were very careful about making sure nearly every decision was approved by the group before it was put into action. This level of communication is not as important in an individual project, since all of the decisions can be made by one person without discussion. Although this is one aspect that makes collaborative work more time-consuming and difficult, collaboration usually results in a better product since it has to be vetted and approved by many people.

Overall, digital collaborative work is easier because group members can work in separate spaces and at different times, allowing for more flexibility. Yet even though everyone is working separately, the group can still see everyone’s progress in real time and provide feedback immediately. This also means that it is easy to follow up with everyone’s tasks, since you can see each change or improvement that people make as they make it (or don’t). Yet sometimes talking through issues or designs face-to-face, being able to point at one small section of the screen and ask a question about it to the creator, is more valuable than being able to work in separate spaces. The communication that I previously mentioned also become more complicated in the digital realm. It is very valuable being able to ask a question of the group and immediately get an answer from all of the collaborators rather than wait hours or even days for an email response. Luckily, this was generally not an issue for our group because we completed most of the work on the website while we were together, facilitating easier communication and decision-making.

Overall, this was a great opportunity to take our practical and creative skills and put them to real use in a worthwhile project for this important cultural institution. Yay experiential learning!

Navigating the History Web: Looking at Two Detroit History Blogs


Postcard of Belle Isle Casino, 1913. Posted on The Night Train, from Postcards from Detroit. Originally published by Detroit Publishing Company.

When I need something, the first place I turn to is the Web. Need a recipe for fennel? Look on the Web. Need to figure out how to reupholster a chair? I’ll find it on the Web. Need to find the best way to treat my dog’s cut paw? I’d look on the Web before I call my trainer (she just doesn’t answer her phone all the time). I turn first to the Web for any historical needs I might have too. Since their origin in the early 1990s, history-focused websites – or as Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig call it, The History Web – have provided broader accessibility to a wider variety of secondary and primary resources, an opportunity to engage in discussion and intellectual exchange, and a platform for collaboration and creation.

The thousands – probably millions – of websites that make up the History Web fall under a variety of different genres. Genres, according to —- , mark the intersection of the process of creating history materials on the web and the process of using them. To think about genres is inherently to think about how what a website is doing relates to the audience it intends to reach – an idea that is certainly not new to mindful public historians. History Web, according to Cohen and Rosenzweig, has five focuses or genres: archives, secondary sources, teaching, discussion, and organizational. Often these genres overlap – a website that is focused on hosting an online archive can also provide some interpretation of their materials though secondary sources.

One type of site that often falls under multiple genres is the blog. Rosenzweig and Cohen address blogs in their book, Digital History, writing:

“It may be that history blogs will succeed where scholarly journals have failed so far and will be the basis of a new form of historical writing that challenges existing forms like the journal article. At the very least, the format represents a way to break down long-standing barriers separating academics and the public, text and image, research notes and finished narratives, and past and present.”

Writing in 2005, they certainly were on the right track. Yet neither of them could likely have predicted the extent to which that would be true. Good (and bad) history-focused blogs are common on the Web today, as both professional and amateur historians view the platform as a more informal way to share their reflections or thoughts and receive feedback from their audience.

A personal favorite blog is Paul Szewczyk’s blog, Corktown History, which explores the history and landscape of Detroit’s “Oldest Neigborhood.” There is much to love about his blog. The topics are varied and range from Detroit’s founding in 1701 to the present, and are based both on documentary materials, like maps and photographs, as well as the physical landscape itself. His narratives are engaging and pull the reader in, while photos and other media help to illustrate his posts and make them more interesting. Thinking too about Cohen and Rosenzweig’s concerns about commercialization and being “gated,” Corktown History is both uncommercialized and, like most blogs, is accessible to both read and comment on.

An amazing rendering of what Detroit city officials wanted to build where Michigan Avenue lies today. Posted on Corktown History, from the Detroit Rapid Transit Commission, 1928. One of many unlinked, but attributed, visuals.

However, there are some shortcomings of the blog too, especially thinking about the idea of being “gated.” Being a historians (and a Detroit history fanatic), I’m often disappointed that most of the sources used in the blog – both documentary and visual – do not link to their source, allowing me to investigate the source further either to provide further historical context or simply for interest’s sake. In this way, Corkton History is somewhat “gated,” in that the information the author relies on is not completely accessible, even though it is openly documented. This is one of the things that I LOVE about Amy Eliot Bragg’s Detroit history blog, The Night Train. She is very mindful of the unique nature of new media, especially hypertextually and multitasking, two of the characteristics that distinguish Web 2.0 today. Bragg is careful to almost always link to her sources, whether through Google Books,, or the digital collections of the Burton Historical Library or the Reuther Archives or whatever local Detroit repository she’s found herself in that day. I appreciate this also because her links serve as digital footnotes to her work. I know where her information comes from and can often see her primary source material myself. Knowing too that users like to get their information in multiple ways at the same time, Bragg previews and links to her visual-heavy Tumblr account on her blog’s front page for those who might think the inherent textuality of blogs distracts from the information-rich visual form.

Visitors to Belle Isle Park lounge under willow trees looking across the Detroit River to Canada, 1893. Posted on The Night Train, from the Burton Historical Collection.

Overall, the History Web is diverse and broad, and, thus, is often difficult to navigate. The Web is often the first place we turn for information, but how can we sift through the thousands of possibilities? How can we distinguish good history from bad history? As long as the History Web continues to develop and becomes easier to use through more accessible platforms like blogs and Tumblr and now even Twitter, we will have to continually ask such questions and reevaluate our answers.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Changes in Photoshop

This week for class, we were asked to “play” around with Photoshop and learn by doing. Always being a fan of “learning by doing” (shout out to Albion College), I heartily agreed to engage in the exercise. A couple hours (or days) into the project, however, made me realize that Photoshop is no walk in the park. Still, I think I learned plenty of Photoshop-y skills this week. Definitely not enough to impress someone, but enough to get this assignment and manipulate images at their most basic level. Three Cheers for new skills!

Most of my manipulated images focus on combining historic images of Detroit with the present-day Street View. First, I experimented with different types and levels of blur for each one and learned a great deal about layering images.

Below we see present-day Orchestra Hall, home to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the Paradise Theater, circa 1940. The Paradise, located at the outskirts of what was known as Black Bottom or Paradise Valley, was one of the only Detroit theaters that allowed completely African American musical groups to perform.

Orchestra Hall

The Bonstelle Theater (now a part of Wayne State University), then called the Mayfair, with a burning car in front of it. The photo was taken during the 1968 Detroit Race Riots.Bonstelle

In the next two I experimented with different level and degrees of transparency. Here we can see Hastings Street (with the post-war high-rise Brewster Projects in the background) at the intersection of I-75 Expressway Service Drive. The construction of I-75 caused the majority of the low-rise, town-home style housing that was original to the 1930s to be demolished. The modern town homes to the right were built to replace the destroyed low-rise housing.Hastings 1 Hastings 2

Then, I just decided to have some fun. Here I lifted the black text from an 1873 advertisement from the Detroit City Directory and placed it on a new colorful and appropriate background. I also had to mess with the color a little bit to make the text stand out better:


Who doesn’t love a good pickle?

Side note: One thing that struck me throughout this assignment was the ease with which someone could manipulate historic images. With enough expertise in Photoshop, we could create images that make people believe that Robert E. Lee fought in Operation Desert Storm! That FDR himself was on the construction crew that built the Hoover Dam! That Henry Ford and Thomas Edison had a pet deer named Sue!

But really they did:

Edison_with_Ford copy

Just kidding of course. I know I had you convinced though (except for those kid’s legs behind the deer…ugh Photoshop).

Finally, I came across this postcard for the Belle Isle Aquarium (now closed) on a Tumblr created by Detroit history blogger Amy Eliot Bragg (you should check it out). I thought I’d add a little text:

Detroit Fish

Classic Detroit.

Checking-In to Check Out History: Foursquare, Museums, and the Importance of Place

I’m going to drop a bomb on all of you readers out there: I do have a social life. When I’m not reading 200-page books or writing historiography papers or grading students’ quizzes, I am out in the real world interacting with real people people who do not think about the evolution of Chicago’s mass transit system when we’re on the El. I, on the other hand, am thinking of the development over time of the suburbs and neighborhoods that we fly past on the Red Line. Clearly, interaction with regular people is good for my mental health.

To facilitate this minor, though vital, social life, I rely on a number of apps on my iPhone, like Twitter, Yelp! (a business review and photo sharing app), Belly (a loyalty rewards app), Eventbrite (an app version of the online ticketing and event organizer website), and Foursquare. Foursquare is a location-based social networking website for mobile devices that lets users “check in” at venues by selecting from a list of venues the application locates nearby based on GPS. Each check-in awards the user points and sometimes “badges,” making the social media experience more like a game as well. The user who checks in the most often to a venue becomes the “mayor,” and users regularly vie for “mayorships,” which are often tied with a special promotion like 10% off your bill, free admission, or some other money-saving VIP perk.

Foursquare was created in 2009 by Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai. Crowley had previously founded a similar check-in based service called Dodgeball as part of his graduate thesis project. Google bought Dodgeball in 2005, but discontinued funding for it in 2009. Foursquare is primarily based on the idea that people can use mobile devices enabled with GPS location services to interact with their surroundings. As of April 2012, the company reported it had 20 million registered users and averages about 3 million check-ins per day. In addition to check-ins, users can also leave “tips,” or general advice and opinions about a place, for other users to see. Additionally, the “Radar” function is able to notify the user when they are close to a place that’s either on their to-do list or another list they follow or when three or more friends have checked into a nearby venue. Speaking of Radar:

Sorry for that Ryan Gosling moment. But I’m not actually sorry.

Foursquare overall has been quite effective at incorporating a variety of popular services and functions from other successful social media applications, such as the “Like” functions on Facebook and the ability to rate places as on Yelp! All of the diverse functionality for app users didn’t sacrifice much for merchants either. Instead of employing a massive salesforce and entering the daily-deals space like Groupon or Livingsocial, Foursquare opted to leverage their passionately interactive (both on a virtual and a face-to-face level) community. Merchants themselves create specials and promotions, keep profits (notably opposite to Groupon’s tactics), and directly form relationships with customers, who must redeem promotions in-store and are encouraged to visit more frequently in the future in order to gain more points or even a mayorship.

Overall, Foursquare is primarily a Web 2.0 phenomenon. “Web 2.0,” for those of you readers unfamiliar with the meaning of the term, originates from the Web 2.0 Conference that was held in 2004 just after the dotcom bust and was meant to motivate programmers to think in new and innovate ways about what the World Wide Web could become. Nowadays, Web 2.0 refers to a post-dotcom bust version of the Web that is based on social media, collaborative and user-generated material, mobility, interactivity, and the ability of users to multitask.

Foursquare seamlessly brings together many of these characteristics of Web 2.0: it is a form of social media that allows people to connect with friends by broadcasting where they are at; it is collaborative and user-generated in that users can post “tips” and rate places; Foursquare has a mobile app that can be downloaded to a variety of mobile devices; it is interactive because it allows users to take part in a game with badges and points and mayorships every time they check-in; and it facilitates multitasking in the many functions Foursquare performs – as a game, as a social media network, as a business guide, as a deal/coupon generator, and as a mapping platform. However, Foursquare is still based on the Web 1.0 dedication to providing users with information – reliable, accurate, and useful information about a restaurant, shop, or even a museum.

And here’s the thing – most museums (at least in the Chicagoland area that I live in) haven’t leveraged their Foursquare presence in a meaningful or helpful way. There is an enormous amount of possibility for museums in the various elements of Foursquare’s API. An example of a museum that does this well is the Brooklyn Art Museum, who’s creative use of Foursquare’s many features and the integration of those features on the Museum’s website was notable enough to gain special notice on Foursquare’s blog. On their website, the Brooklyn Art Museum displays all of the users who have checked in at the museum, as well as providing special recognition of it’s current mayor. The Museum also emphasizes the perks of checking-in on Foursquare, including its unique BK Art Star Badge and it’s free year membership special for the current mayor. Below the check-ins are a list of tips left my users who visited the Museum. Yet perhaps the most interesting collaborative component of the Museum’s use of Foursquare is the ability to browse all of the comments left by Museum staff elsewhere in the neighborhood. The Programs assistant might suggest where to grab a nearby bite to eat, while the head of Curatorial can give up a head’s up on where to find a good cup of coffee around the neighborhood. This not only makes it a little easier for visitors to the Brooklyn Art Museum to plan their trip, but it also demonstrates the Museum’s integration in the surrounding community and can foster cooperation between various business nearby.

Ultimately, museums here in Chicago and around the nation could use Foursquare to increase their presence in the community, attract new visitors, and reward loyal visitors. As Public Historians, we must be mindful of free and wide-reaching ways to promote our museums and attract new interest in them. Yet even outside of the museum world, Foursquare offers unique opportunities to engage users with the history of their neighborhood. More historically-minded users could leave “tips” detailing not the quality of their service or the wide selection of products at a local business, but providing insight into the historical significance of a place. Tips could facilitate users’ conception of space as having many layers of context built up over time. The restaurant that a user is eating tacos in could, for example, have been one of the first African-American owned business in a traditionally white community. Reading this on Foursquare could not only preserve an important milestone in that place, but highlight the ever-changing nature of the communities we live in. One of the most effective institutions at adding historical tips at locations across the country is the often belittled (thanks Ancient Aliens dude) History Channel. To accompany their 2010 documentary, America: The Story of Us, the History Channel embarked on a massive social media campaign across a variety of platforms, including Foursquare, which allowed users to earn the History Badge for unlocking a certain number of location-based historical tips. Foursquare’s self-proclaimed mission is to “make cities easier to use and more interesting to explore.” By emphasizing the complex history of a place, hopefully public historians can make a city’s history more exciting to explore as well.

Creating a New Reality: The Opportunities & Challenges of Augmented Reality

I’m from Detroit, a city notorious for its modern-day “ruins” and vast swaths of surface level parking lots. In this city, the past often leaves very few traces on the battered and contested landscape. The past, more often than not, is obliterated, replaced by concrete and remembered only in stories and photographs. It is hard sometimes to make people understand how drastically urban landscapes can change over time. People are generally not conditioned to question their surroundings and hypothesize what might have existed in a place before a mall, or a parking lot, or an expressway. This is why I am so excited for the integration of augmented reality (AR) in the public history field. Augmented reality allows photographs or film from the past to be layered over the existing landscape, usually through a smart phone or other digital device, like this image from inside the closed Cass Technical High School from Detroit Urbex:


Using GPS data transmitted by a smartphone, augmented reality apps like Historypin can show users historic photos that were originally taken near a user’s current location. For example, a user visiting Chicago down in the Loop near Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River could take out their phone, enable their GPS, and be presented with photographs of the Tribune tower from 1941 or shipping traffic on the river from 1908. Having these tools allow our audience to better understand how urban landscapes change by allowing them to actually visualize what a place looked like in the past. Finally, instead of relying on simply telling, historians can finally show what the past was like. Augmented reality can preserve, in a virtual sense, buildings and other elements of the urban landscape that we have lost in reality.

Two years ago in a public history class, I created a mock-historic bus tour that traveled across Chicago looking at the vestiges of public housing projects from various eras. In some cases, the original housing structures still existed with only minor updates through the years. In most cases though, there is nothing remaining on the landscape to tell the complex story of public housing in Chicago. As important structures with complicated and contested memories, like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor homes, are demolished in order to make way for new mixed-income housing, our audience becomes only further separated from understanding the experience of high-density, high-rise public housing. Not only would AR allow audiences to visualize and understand the size and scope of public housing projects, it it would help visitors confront the present-day issues of public housing’s changing face and our society’s changing values by seeing what housing projects are replaced with.

Of course there are many challenges to using AR to teach history and changing landscapes. The most pressing problem is our audiences expectations. As video games and other immersive experiences inundate our entertainment options, our audiences come to expect the same high-quality graphics and participatory elements they see in video games in our public history AR experiences. However, right now, public historians and museums generally don’t have access to the software programmers or the millions of dollars in development money that gaming companies have. So what do we do? I don’t have an answer now, and as technologies change over time answers that we might have now will have to change. Complex programming software could become more accessible. AR-supported infrastructure could become less expensive. Hopefully as technologies become more democratic and easy for museums to integrate into their digital offerings, AR might become more prevalent. However, this only creates a whole new set of issues, such as visitor accessibility to AR-enabled devices like smartphones or even the internet. Either way, the issue of augmented reality is an excellent example of a new digital medium that presents exciting new opportunities for public historians, as well as new challenges regarding audiences expectations and accessibility.

History in 140 Characters: Historical Accuracy in the Twittersphere

I started using Twitter last summer during my internship with the Nantucket Historical Association as a way to post updates of my glamorous (and sometimes not-so-glamorous) #internlife. I shared photos of the painting workshops I ran for the NHA (and the wonderful ladies that came every week), the special events that we hosted at the Whaling Museum, and other historic sites that I visited on the island during my runs, bike rides, and beach days. It began primarily as a way for my friends and family to see what I did everyday and for me to share my exciting experiences, like taking our ArtifACK Cart out on to the museum floor.

Eventually though, I realized Twitter was something even greater than a simple microblogging platform. Twitter was more than a medium for sharing articles and other interesting finds on the internet. Twitter was a way to informally, but directly connect with historians and museum experts that I had always wanted to engage with. It made me feel like an important and contributing part of the #publichistory profession. And, because of this, I quickly realized that Twitter was the most incredible thing I had ever used. Again, bold statement (What is it with me and making bold, sweeping statements today? #problematic #letsthinkaboutthis #butreally). But it allowed me to share my thoughts in a concise and immediate manner with a network of public history and museum professionals. And they could respond, they could challenge me, they could reinforce what I was thinking, they could offer different perspectives. The ability to interact and network so concisely and so quickly with others in the field have made me feel more connected and included in the field, even if I’m still just a student at the very beginning of my professional career. I think, also, that this level of interaction has helped create a more inclusive and unified field, as it becomes easier to share new research, interesting finds in the archives, or important news from professional conferences like the National Council on Public History or the Society of American Archivists.

For our Digital New Media class assignment this week, we had to follow five public historians or museums and five topics that related to public history.  Although I was already following a variety of museums and historians – both academic and public – I did realize that I wasn’t following one of my favorite museum experts (#fail), Nina Simon, Director of the Santa Cruz Museum for Art and History, writer of the incredible blog Museum 2.0,  and participatory museum extraordinaire! With that shortcoming quickly resolved, I started experimenting with TweetDeck, which allows you to follow all of your Twitter activity in one place, including certain topics. Of everything I followed this past week (including #HistoryLove and #MuseumSelfie), the most interesting topic turned out to be #HistoryPics. Why is this? First, most of the images originate from one source (@HistoryinPics), and the majority of people using the hashtag are not professional historians or archivists. Most of them are just people who have found interesting historical (or so they say) photos that they like or that relates to their Twitter cause, personal brand, or business. Take for example this photo originally posted with the #historypics hashtag by  @MentalityMag:

Cute dog. But what’s missing here? A LOT. Why was this photo taken? Who took it? What was it used for? Where was it originally printed? Where did it come from? An archive? A personal collection? Who owns it today? Where can I find more information about it?


And thus we come to one of the shortcomings of Twitter and its 140 pledge: a lot gets left out. The fact is that most people will look at this photograph, read the 140 or less character caption, and say “Cute dog.” Or “Patton was cool.” Or “Patton had a cute dog.” Or “America was better with Patton and cute dogs.” Anyway, there is a lot of information missing on Twitter about the production and use (both past and present) of historic photographs.

But wait, it gets better. Not only is there a lack of information about the source or critical engagement with the photograph, but there is, more often than not, no citation or attribution attached to the photograph. And for historians, this is pretty problematic. It’s like writing a book without footnotes. In historical writing, footnotes allow readers to learn where a source came from and how to access it themselves. This allows a reader to gather more information about a source, as well as to check the author’s accuracy and authenticity. Books without footnotes are regarded as unreliable history. But photos without footnotes or attribution on Twitter seems to be ok.

Should we be ok with this? With advances in technology, people can easily alter real historic photographs and make things appear…not quite accurate. Or they can simply say anything about a photo, even if it might not be true. But without attribution, how can we prove thesis false or altered? How do we know Nikola Tesla was not a swim instructor as @HistoryinPics contends? (Answer: he wasn’t. Too bad though.)


This photo was tweeted by @HistoryinPics, but was later taken down after it was found (on sites like Matt Novak’s great blog, Paleofuture) to be of a man who simply looked like Tesla from a distance. In real life, Tesla was likely arms deep in  some kind of crazy electrical experiment, not on a beach teaching this dark-haired lady how to swim. But unless you are a Tesla expert, you might take this photograph as historical truth.

What is more interesting though, is that once one person posts a photo, IT GOES VIRAL. I mean, as viral as historic photographs can go. It gets reposted again and again and again. And every time it gets reposted, it still does not get proper attribution. In this way, the Twittersphere only perpetuates historical fallacies or inaccuracies by allowing improperly cited and unverifiable photographs to pass from user to user to user.

#problematic #badhistory #isthisreal #somanyissues #sadhistorian

PS- For a great Twitter profile for someone who does think of these issues of citation and attribution and treats them in a sarcastic though effective way, take a look at @AHistoricalPics!