Monthly Archives: May 2015

Authenticity and Useful/less Collections

This week we read several pieces that addressed how new media is collected and presented online and its connection to memory.  Sheila Brennan in “Getting to the Stuff:  Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory” mentioned several benefits for museums for displaying collections online.  She analyzed different museum websites and talked about how museums needed to improve their online presence by making their collections and exhibits more accessible and shareable. She quoted a participant tweet from the Museum Challenges conference,

“Collections are useless unless they are used.”

This simple statement really astonished me – why had I never thought of museum collections in that way before?  Donors bring their things to museums for safekeeping but also because they hope that their items will make a greater contribution to knowledge.  Like Brennan also discussed, museums, limited by physical space, display such a small fraction of their total collections, why not open the collections online to display more?  Not only would this increase interest in their museum but their collections would help fill absences in the primary sources records, making researchers very happy.

Placing a whole museum’s collection online cannot be a simple task.  Perhaps one answer to opening up collections online in a way that is a little less time-consuming and a bit more budget-friendly is having a museumbot!  Steven Lubar introduced me to a new type of program in his article, “Museumbots:  An Appreciation.”   These museumbots, like @museumbot, @cooperhewittbot, @bklynmuseumbot, tweet random collection items.  This gives viewers a chance to see objects that they may never see displayed in the museum.  Lubar argues that the randomness of museumbots are what makes them interesting.

Museumbot or full online collection, items online cannot be pictures with a brief caption nor can they be stand-alone; they need context and interpretation.  Brennan states in her article that,

Meaning is not inherent to an object, it is attributed in many different ways from its form to function.  Steven M. Beckrow wrote in 1975 that ‘The idea of an artifact is the idea of culture.'”

Brennan’s suggestions for museums are certainly motivating.  However, seeing a collection online does not inspire in me the same level of interest as it would if I were viewing that collection in person.  We are in a society that is constantly connected to the greater world, and that is also what we demand out of our museums.  This debate is touched upon by Tim Sherret in “Conversations with Collections.”  Sherret believes that we do not think of our experiences online are not as authentic as those in the ‘real world.’  His stance is that the digital and physical world are different, but one is not inferior to the other.  I disagree.  This idea of authenticity calls to mind a concept written by David Glassberg in Sense of History:  The Place of the Past in American Life (2001).  Glassberg argues that Americans are strongly connected to the idea of place and that when history is interpreted out of its physical context, it does not resonate as strongly.  Successful historical interpretation connects viewers to history through powerful emotional connections.  Glassberg determined from viewers’ responses that emotional impact is equated to a sense of reality – as if they were really there and experiencing that moment in history.  Can this really be done successfully by digital history?

Black and white photo of Mount Rushmore after completion.

Viewing a picture of Mount Rushmore and reading about how it was constructed will never create the same level of emotional impact, in my opinion, as seeing Mount Rushmore in person.  Photo from US National Park Service.

I believe digital history is an excellent way to generate initial interest and inspire the viewer to seek out history in the ‘real world.’  I am not saying that Sherret is arguing to replace history with digital history – in fact, he specifically states that digital history augments what we know and perhaps more importantly, can change how we think and see collections – it is about transformation.  But isn’t transformed another way of saying unauthentic?

New media is changing the way we think and remember as a society.  Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart, authors of Re-Collection:  Art, New Media, and Social Memory (2014), describe the connections between new media and social memory.  Societies create frameworks to place experiences and use these informal or formal frameworks as ways to understand the past and present, and infer the future.  New media is changing the types of objects that make up social memory as well as the means of social memory;  we can record our past in a way that can be constantly updated and recreated at a rapid pace.  Because of this, it is harder to determine what is ‘original,’ as Rinehart and Ippolito show through a case about preserving Toy Story.  Making copies of a digital copy of Toy Story does not deteriorate the original, but instead it makes many ‘mother’ copies, which increases its chances of being preserved.  But can we say any of these ‘mother’ copies are the original, even if they are identical?  Clearly, new media, and therefore digital history, present new challenges to the ideas of authenticity and originality.

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Working with Omeka: An Egypt Collection in the Making

In light of our recent discussion on digital archives, we each created a digital collection of our own using a site called Omeka.  This is a free website where users can make collections and exhibits.  I created Pondering Public History:  An Ancient Egypt Collection.  I used this space to gather together examples of glass and glass-look-a-likes from ancient Egypt.  Like I explained in my About page, I wanted to showcase the diverse skill of Ancient Egyptian glass craftsmen.  Because this physical objects are shown through photographs, it is easy to mistake glass for other material, such as lapis lazuli and Egyptian faience.  I selected examples showing all three types of these materials so that in a future Omeka exhibit and can use these collection items to make comparisons.  Not only is Egyptian glass, faience, and lapis lazuli beautiful, it also has scholarly significance.  The study of Egyptian glass, because of its rarity and connection to items of high-status, is of interest to scholars who look at the trade relations between Egypt and its neighbors.  Glass found outside of Egypt, but of Egyptian composition, would indicate that Egypt traded this luxury item. So far as I know, this has not yet been found.

See Freer Sackler Galleries collection description for more information:

An Egyptian blue faience amulet of Bes dating from the Third Intermediate Period. See Freer Sackler Galleries collection description for more information here.

Egyptian glass spindle bottle with handle dating from New Kingdom, Amarna Period.  See The Met's online collection description for more information:

Egyptian glass spindle bottle with handle dating from New Kingdom, Amarna Period. See The Met’s online collection description for more information here.

Omeka is user-friendly and it offers many different field options to accommodate different types of collections.  All of my items are physical objects housed in a handful of different museums, but the Omeka platform can be used for archival or media items, as well.  Like WordPress, Omeka is customize-able with plug-ins and other pages.

Public historians and digital historians are concerned about accessibility and they spend a great deal of time discussing ways to make history more available.  This platform is an excellent solution to this issue, one that is even a viable option for museums with small budgets.  Museums can use Omeka to put their collections online and searchable.  With the addition of a free plug-in, Omeka can be compliant with Zotero, a useful program for researchers.  Between Omeka’s search-ability and Zotero-accessibility, this platform is an effective and useful tool for researchers looking for primary sources.

Like I mentioned earlier Omeka is also used to create exhibits, so stay tuned!

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The Debate about Digital Archives

This week we focused on archives in the digital world and the very diverse ways we think and use the term “archive.”  This is explained by wonderfully by Trevor Owens in “What do you mean by archive?  Genres of Usage for Digital Preservers.”  We use the term ‘archive’ on a daily bases to mean saving our emails or to mean the department of records management at our jobs, or to refer to an online collection of materials.  To me, the term archive still conjures up images of stacks of dusty, crinkled papers, neatly stored in rows of boxes.  Even in the 21st century, my thoughts do not immediately think of digital archives – collections of selected related materials brought together.  Apparently these online collections are creating quite a controversy.  Should online archival collections that are gathered over time from many locations be considered true archives?  Or, are they “artificial collections,” meaning they were collected not in the manner or order in which the creator intended, and therefore lack the context in which they were created.  I, like Owens, would argue that these online collections are true archives.  How are these collections online any different than those collected by historical societies, museums, etc. around the world?  The digital archives under debate are ones that collect materials from many different locations and present them together on one digital archival database collection.  Does it really matter where the physical items are located so long as it is properly cited in the archival collection?  Don’t these types of digital archival collections make research much easier when many things relating to a similar topic are stored (and easily searchable) in one location?  I think Owens, quoting The American Folklife Center, does an excellent job summarizing how I also view digital archives, “Digital archives hang together as “a conscious weaving together of different representational media.”  This definition works, in my opinion, for both digital and traditional, “regular” archives.

I did not expect this to be such a contentious topic.  Kate Theimer argues, however politely worded, that digital archives are not equal to “regular” archives.  What I found so shocking about her argument is her reasoning.  She states, “The archivists’ definition [of archives] is more specific, and therefore in my opinion conveys greater meaning.”  Archives are not suppose to be areas of selection they are suppose to be areas of preservation for items considered to have value.  But what I think Theimer fails to address is that archivists do make selections.  Archivists decide what is kept and what is not and these decisions are based off a collections management policy and the objective standards of the archivist (although that is a subject also under debate, see Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot).  From my understanding, both digital and “regular” archives make selections, one just relies on the physical items to live in many places instead of within one institution.

This image came from the  WTC Black and White Photos Collection from The Septemer 11 Digital Archives.  It is part of collection of 21 black-and-white photos to show the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers and the clean-up efforts.  The photos were taken by Steve Levine in October 2001.

This image came from the WTC Black and White Photos Collection from The Septemer 11 Digital Archives. It is part of collection of 21 black-and-white photos to show the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers and the clean-up efforts. The photos were taken by Steve Levine in October 2001.

Perhaps it is time for some examples of digital archives.  This week we took at look at The September 11 Digital Archive, the Bracero History Archive, and The Shelly-Godwin Archive, all of which are examples of digital archives.  Archivists are also concerned with preserving context – what made the document valuable or useful for the creator.  Archivists like Theimer believe this context and authenticity is not present in digital archives.  If a description is provided in a digital archive, like I noticed in these digital archive examples, is that not considered context enough?  There is one thing I can agree on with Theimer.  She argues for more communication between digital humanists (including digital historians) and archivists concerning where their fields meet.  Certainly this debate will help fuel more communication and maybe help both digital archivists and traditional archivists find a common ground.

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History in the Digital Realm: Good or Bad?

Featured image

The Pyramids of Skkarah from the North East. From Historypin. Pinned by HistorypinNGSC. Francis Frith Al Maryouteya Rd, Al Badrashin, Giza, Egypt 1858 Accession no. PGP R 175.7 Medium Albumen print Size 36.50 x 49.30 cm Credit Gift of Mrs. Riddell in memory of Peter Fletcher Riddell, 1985 Image from the National Galleries of Scotland Commons on Flikr, uploaded by Historypin.

This week we explored two different websites that demonstrate how history can embrace the web.  Historypin allows users to place pictures on a map.  You can search around the world for historical images and unlike other databases, the images are not divided by time. This means you can look at an image from 1850 alongside one from 2015.  Another site with a similar concept is PhilaPlace, a site designed by the Historical Society of Philadelphia.  I was fascinated with the potential Historypin presented.  Historical societies and small museums that typically operate with shoe-string budgets could use this site to post images from their collections without having to pay for an online database.  So, I decided to take a Historypin trip to Egypt.  As I clicked through the surprisingly small collection of images from Egypt, some of the words from Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History came floating back to me.  Rosenzweig and Cohen’s pivotal piece is cited time and time again and there is good reason why.  In their book, they present both the advantages and the disadvantages of history going digital and show that many fears – issues of quality, ownership, longevity – are not strong enough reasons to not adopt technology.  Historians are a detailed-minded group of people and we look for accuracy and provenance, or origins, in the world around us.  Cohen and Rosenzweig discuss one belief that the internet is filled with errors that are only perpetuating people’s misunderstandings about history.  This concern is one that is expressed strongly by Rebecca Onion in “Snapshots of History:  Wildly Popular accounts like @HistoryinPics are bad for history, bad for Twitter, and bad for you.”  But for all the inaccuracy (that certainly does exist) there is more information that is factual, as shown by Cohen and Rosenzweig in their study of Gettysberg vs. Gettysburg Address. (Gettysburg is the correct spelling and their study showed that the correct spelling appeared more times on search results than did the incorrect spelling.)  Unlike @HistoryinPics that Onion found to be so offensive because of the lack of contextual information for the images they post, Historypin allows a user to caption the item, and like this lovely picture of the pyramids at Saqqara (Sakkarah), the caption is quite detailed, everything a historian could want!  Sadly, this is not the case for many of of the pictures I found.  Right beside images from WWI are pictures from people’s family vacations to Egypt – NOT what I wanted to see.  I also stumbled upon an artistic(?) project photographing different chairs around Cairo.  As quickly as I had jumped on the bandwagon of Digital History is Wonderful, I just as quickly fell off and became a cynic.  There was too much non-relavant information!  Now I understood what Jo Guidi and David Armitage meant by “a crisis of long-term thinking” and information overload in The History Manifesto.  The issue we face today in a world of short-term thinking, history has a lot of big data to condense and analyze to produce something that is easily digestible.  Historypin creates one type of (free! accessible!) timeline that allows the user to look over a long history in a specific location and time-frame, but even with those parameters and the power of the internet, the information can still be too much.  As intimidating as big data may be, it can be manageable with the help of other digital tools.  Guidi and Armitage offer other solutions for research that allows historians to study huge swaths of history in a productive manner, such as Paper Machines, described as “an open-source extension of Zotero.”

The question becomes, is there a way to solve these grievances we historians have when it comes to history online?  Should historians be more proactive about what they see and read on the web?  When I saw people’s family vacation photos on Historypin should I have clicked the “report” button?  What I wanted was a regulator – someone to decide what was ‘history’ and what was not and what should be removed from the site.  But who is to say that picture of an overturned blue chair on a Cairo street isn’t history?  And that is a whole other can of worms and a conversation for a different time….

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Hello world!

Hello Historical World!  My name is Alexandra Erichson and I am a Public History graduate student at American University.  What is Public History you ask?  Well, ask everyone one of us in this program and we will all have different answers.  For me, Public History is about interpreting history in a way that is understandable to a audience outside of academia.  You encounter public historians in museums, historic sites, and when you pick up your favorite history magazine.

I am here pondering public history through a course called History and New Media.  I am hoping to learn how to be a historian that is not afraid of trying out new technologies to reach a broader audience.  Please bear with me over this semester as I stumble through the seemingly complicated and intimating maze of new media.

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