Is My New Art Already Irrelevant?

Aside from this enlivening Public History themed blog, I also maintain a super-top-secret art blog where I occasionally post collages I have made or recordings of my amateur folk singer excursions. Sometimes there’s poems. Anyway, the most recent thing I posted on the art blog is this mixed-media gem I recently crafted, which is titled (believe it or not) Stop Telling Me What to Do.

(click image to enlarge)

It is a slightly political little piece that depicts a television on a golden altar, and a disgruntled female character defying the TV’s mandate to EAT EAT EAT. The point of the piece is that mass media imposes social norms and advertising reinforces and encourages them, and then there’s the emblazoning, rebellious individual who is just like, “Pssh, I’m not interested and you need to chill, [big] bro.” Not that you needed me to spell that out for you…

Politics aside, I just realized that using a TV to represent the mass media is kind of outdated…or is at least right on the cusp of being outdated. If I had truly wanted this collage to be a timely social comment, I could have employed social media rather than using a TV as the big bad wolf. YouTube, Facebook…Google? These are media entities that may speak to the present and future more accurately.

Maybe my next piece will address the shift in power within the media realm.

Until then, keep on surfing!

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Great News, Guys!

Dear Cultural Institutions,

Your forays into Web 2.0 just got way easier.

I just heard about this website, ifttt.com, that basically streamlines one’s social media “blurbs.”(Side note: what is the word for a unit of social media content? A “tweet” is on twitter, a “post” is on a blog or facebook…but someone needs to coin a term for units of general social media output.)

It is an automated social media system based on “tasks” that are constructed in an “if…then” format. If I post a picture on facebook then post it my tumblr as well. If someone comments on my flickr picture then email me.

One of the biggest concerns with cultural institutions using social media is time. Are we spending too much time on this social media project that may or may not garner tangible meaningful or productive results? Is our limited staff’s time (and budget) being wasted on something that is going to get washed up in a few years when Web 3.0 emerges?

While I cannot answer those hypotheticals, it seems that ifttt is at least a partial solution that will streamline the process. And it is not just limited to bridging gaps between social media. One of the “tasks” available is If it is supposed to rain in the next few hours then send me an email telling me so. The potential of tasks is rather endless,  and users can create their own and share them on the website. It seems like this technology could be used for things like creating and distributing contact lists, or maybe for event promotion (if someone RSVPs to our event then send them a facebook message with a reminder the day before the actual event…etc.). All we need is some creative individuals to brainstorm bridges that will be useful, time-saving and results-generating for small institutions that have limited staff and resources.

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Stories, Histories and Digital Narratives

In his book The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives With New Media Bryan Alexander defines a story as having the following characteristics:

  • Any media object that follows the Frietag Sequence of introduction, rising action, climax and falling action
  • They are objects with meaning, that have a point
  • They reflect themes of the human condition
  • They contain anecdotes to illustrate their themes and points
  • They address tension, often they are driven by this tension or a central problem
  • They are engaging to their audiences (often in an emotional way)
  • The emotional engagement is often achieved by the inclusion of characters who change over time*

That is a solid list if one is talking about conventional narratives. I want to use Alexander’s criteria to look at a digital history project, America’s Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War and see how his definition of story can be applied to a story that actually happened: history.

The digital history project is presented in the form of a digital exhibit that tells the story of Reconstruction in America. The site has six different sections, each section contains several sub-sections and each sub-section contains several pages. Photographs, images, maps and text are used to tell the story. There are also digitized three-dimensional objects with explanatory captions that provide information and contribute to the story. The exhibit addresses themes such as racial tensions during the Civil War, black and white perspectives on slavery, the black experience during reconstruction, the white experience during reconstruction, politics, biographies of prominent individuals and the ending of reconstruction.

So, does this exhibit tell a story? Yes, it does. Although this exhibit does not follow the exact Frietag sequence, it tells a story from the end of the Civil War to the end of Reconstruction. In diverging from a chronological timeline, this exhibit in fact tells a more nuanced and interesting story than one that might just be linear. By examining events from multiple perspectives, the exhibit creators have provided viewers with a far more detailed and critical picture of the past.

Does this story have a point? And is it easily identifiable? The point of the story is to reveal multiple experiences of a turbulent period in America’s history, as the tensions and problems that developed during Reconstruction can still be seen today. This point is easily identifiable; it is posted clearly on the introductory page.

Does this exhibit reflect themes of the human condition? The exhibits critical examination of various groups’ perspectives during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods gives much insight into how those groups felt, what their concerns were and how they dealt with a radically changing social order. I’d say yes, it reflects themes of human condition.

What about anecdotes? Oh gosh yes! As mentioned before, each section is divided into thematic sub-sections. Sometimes these sections are subject-oriented and sometimes they explore specific incidents in history to convey the importance of their subjects or themes. Also, the use of images and photographs, although not text-based, tell stories and anecdotes of their own. The combination of all these elements results in a robust story.

Tension? Because this story actually happened, the central problem or tension is readily evident. Reconstruction had many tensions. This exhibit explores several of these tensions, and in looking at them separately, again, the exhibit pull together the many to create a substantial and illustrative whole.

Where are the cahracters and where is the emotional investment of the audience? This exhibit is sympathetic to  recently freed African-Americans  who were struggling to define their roles in society and adapt to a new lifestyle during the Reconstruction Era. Abraham Lincoln and abolotionist ideologies are also presented with an air of aspiration and heroism. Although individual characters are limited in this narrative, the political forces and historical realities presented within the story are evocative.

Aesthetic Critique: While this digital exhibit presents ample information in an innovative medium, the formatting is slightly confusing. The main sections are listed on a side-bar, but once the viewer gets into a section, there is a choice to navigate by “next” buttons at the bottom of the page or sub-section tabs above the content. It is confusing because intuitively, one would think that the sub-section buttons represent the continuity of the exhibit. But in reality, there are several pages within each sub-section and so the viewer will miss content if she navigates only by the top buttons.Although confusing, this feature does offer the viewer many options for navigation, and allows for a tailored experience which is a positive trait.

There are also several pages that seem to be “down” in some way (it looks like the HTML is just shown, and there is no other content).
Overall, this digital exhibit uses conventional story-telling elements to present a nuanced and robust narrative of America in the Reconstruction Era. Its mixing of text, images and anecdotes combined with multiple perspectives leaves the viewer feeling as though she has experienced a meaningful version of history.

* Alexander, Bryan. The New Digital Storytelling: Creating NArratives with New Media. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011. pp. 4-15.

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Mid-Term Madness: My Blog Silence Explained

I realized last week that it had been quite a while since I posted on this blog! It was not because I was flouting my blogging career but rather due to the deluge of work otherwise known as MIDTERMS!

My recent radio silence speaks to one of the hardest parts about maintaining a consistent blog persona: when the going gets tough, the blog is forgotten. Earlier in the semester, we had to read a few how-to posts by seasoned academic bloggers. In his “Advice for Academic Bloggers” post on Northwest  History, Larry Cebula recommends using a google calendar or other reminder to keep yourself on a blogging schedule. I have heard similar suggestions by people who want to be writers/musicians/artists: Set aside some time every day and force yourself to practice your craft.

So does this mean blogging is an art?

It depends on the type of blogging one is doing. Posting academic essays is exercising the craft of academic writing, but the author could be posting those essays on her office door or emailing them to a listserv. Maintaining an audience and continually creating engaging material for them to consume…to keep them coming back? That is a different ball game and  unannounced hiati (plural of hiatus?) leave readers wondering if the blog author has given up. Or maybe they just get tired of checking for new posts only to be greeted by the same old Ryan Gosling composite image.

At any rate, I’d like to give a special “Thanks!” to anyone who is still reading.

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Web Make-over

For a recent class project, we had to re-design the Glessner House Museum’s webpage.

Before: http://www.glessnerhouse.org

After: http://www.ghm3.wordpress.com

Comments?

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What? No Mod-Podge necessary?

"Ryan and Me in Space" by Kristin Emery

(click image to enlarge. seriously. click it.)

Brought to you by Adobe Photoshop, the latest, glue-freest medium for making collages.

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Love at First Site or My Longest Blog to Date

Spring Break is coming and while I’d love to go to Austin, TX or some other temperate location (that doesn’t tacitly perpetuate colonialism re: every destination in the Caribbean [sorry to ruin your vacations people who are going on cruises...]),  I don’t have any frequent flyer miles so I am limited to driving-distance destinations. And what is within driving distance of Chicago, IL? Why, the charming coastal town of Saugatuck, Michigan of course!

Over the past three days, I’ve been searching for a bed and breakfast that will serve as a weekend getaway. It’s been a little hard to find a stand out place, and a lot of it has to do with the branding of these places and their websites. Which place would you feel better about giving your credit card information to, over the web: the place with a modern, easily navigable site or the guys who just have a PO Box and a flash animation slide show?

It’s quite coincidental that this B&B search happened during the week that I was supposed to be looking at several cultural institutions’ websites and writing a blog post about the good, bad and ugly aspects of them for Digital Media class. As a digital native, my perception of ‘legitimacy’ was definitely affected by the quality of  these businesses’ websites. And having examined several local and regional historical societies’ websites, I can say that my prejudice applied to them as well.

I tried to find some smaller places that might not necessarily have big operating budgets or IT staffs. I wanted to see what folks had done in the DIY vein of things. After an extensive search*, I selected 3 sites and I will provide some commentary about each one.

(*extensive in internet terms, so that means roughly 4 different searches in google.)

“The Hottie”: Northern Indiana Center for History

Whoa! Snazzy! This is just what a 21st century girl expects when she clicks on a website. Drop-down menus, color images, all those little twitter and facebook “share” links. It’s all there. But this site is not all good looks, there’s content too! Two features that I want to highlight are:

  1. Their comprehensive articles on St Joseph County history, Indiana History and Oliver Family history (whose house, Copshaholm,  is now a historic mansion attached to the NICFH complex, AND an iphone app!).
  2. They not only list their current exhibits, but they also have an index of past exhibits. I think that is a great resource.

This site felt modern, easily-navigable and full of useful content. The appearance and the resources together make this a great example of a website for a regional historical society that has kept up with standards of the web.

Yeah, but she has a great personality.”: Monroe County History Center

I feel guilty about criticizing this organization’s website, because this organization is actually where I got my Public History sea legs, and I really do love it with all my heart and soul, because it really is an amazing place. But no matter how much the MCHC changed my life, it doesn’t excuse this eyesore of a website.

HTML much? (*snickers, pushes glasses up nose) It’s just a bunch of links and text and images kind of scattered on the front page. Not to say that image is everything but it just seems like a…well, like a small-town historical society that is stuck in the past! There are links that say “NEW” but when I look at this site I kind of wonder…how new? When I see outdated interfaces like this, I wonder if the organizations are even still operating.

Now, looks aren’t everything but this site doesn’t have much content either. They have some interactive online games and tours, but on the tour I could only get two of the objects to work. They do have some searchable databases, specifically related to their Genealogy Library holdings, which is a great resource for genealogists and researchers. Users can search an online catalog of books, the photograph collection (which is quite extensive), print materials in the library, and then it links to the Monroe County records and the Indiana State records. It’s not the most convenient interface, but it’s useful and I appreciate that.

I think the reason this old-style website is so alarming to me is that with sites like wordpress or blogger, an organization like the MCHC could easily make a more professional-looking website at little or no cost. They could have a link to their catalog and collections search site but users would be greeted with a much more modern and familiar web interface.

(Sorry again MCHC, I think you’re great except for your website.)

“I’ve never seen anything like it!”: The Morgan County Historical Society

Unlike the previous two examples, I have no affiliation whatsoever with this organization. It is in Morgan, Utah and upon first glance, it looks like a pretty nice site. It’s got the classy historical aesthetic to it (with the longhand font at the top and the sepia photo banner). It’s got loads of content: photos, histories, archive holdings, landmarks…

But my favorite thing is something that I have never seen before.

“Take an interactive tour of many historic sites and photos of early Morgan County,” said the website.

“Well, gee..ok!” I replied.

I clicked the link and was taken here, to an interactive map. There are a good 50 pinpoints on the map, and each one is linked to a pop-up window with a historic photo or a historic fact. The map covers what looks like almost the whole county! This is so cool! Holy Smokes! I like how it is so expansive. The map doesn’t purport to be a 3-D tour, it is a way to explore the whole county from one spot. It also puts the entire county’s history into perspective, which again…is just great.

I really like this innovation.

So there you have it. Some ins and outs of historical society websites, along with my (always and undoubtedly) enlightening, entertaining, genuine commentary. We can see that aesthetics and content both matter, and a little innovation never hurt anyone either.

Despite the advice to “not judge a book by its cover,” in critiquing these three websites I was alerted to value judgements that I make based only on the modernity and appearance of websites. The internet is where many people have their first encounters with organizations and first impressions linger. Creating an online presence as an organization is and will continue to be an important task for defining an institutional image and reaching a broader audience.

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Flickr, you say?

Our latest internet lurking assignment was to lurk around on Flickr. (Dr. Roberts: are you trying to turn us into creeps? [warning: link is BSFW- barely safe for work.]) Here are some thoughts on Flickr…

First of all, enough landscapes. Flickr has a feature where you can view “interesting photographs” from any given day (listed in a calendar format). Most of them were landscapes or city-scapes or nature shots. They never specified what criteria they are using to determine interesting-ness. To the calendar feature’s credit, I like the idea of a time capsule. Users can click back to see what was happening “one year ago today,” or any day in the past. This could be of interest as an historical research tool, assuming that Flickr makes it into the future.

Courtesy of Cathode and Anode's photostream (see below for link).

I guess the main thing about Flickr is that the only point of it is showing off your photographs. For artists, this could be beneficial. A lot of the time it came off as laced with a little vanity…you know, arty girls taking pictures of themselves in arty settings, wearing arty clothes. (See left.) Or really nice landscapes, or European cities…lots and lots of eye candy.

It’s fun to look at Flickr but it strikes me as a more passive internet community than Twitter or Facebook, where organizations are posting links and relevant event listings, sharing content and information more than just pretty pictures. On Flickr, it’s mostly just clicking through pictures. There are some discussion boards that I noticed, but without being an account-holder, I haven’t been able to experiment with the commenting sections. We read a few case studies of cultural institutions that had successful Flickr photostreams, but they were mostly  organizations with sizeable photograph collections to begin with. I think that Flickr is mostly a promotional platform, be it for artists, travelers or historical repositories that want to share their collections with the public.

It’s still fun to look at!

Cathode and Anode’s Photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cotangens/

My favorite photostream (as a historian): http://www.flickr.com/photos/cheri_sundra/

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The Search for the Hidden Finding Aid

Today I wrote a paper for my Archives and Records Management class, on the subject of collecting controversial/radical material. I used the case of the Ted Kaczynski’s Papers, which were acquired by University of Michigan’s Labadie Collection, to examine some of the ways that the curator did and did not interpret the Society of American Archivists’ (SAA) positions on related subjects.

A little background on the Kaczynski papers: Julie Herrada was the assistant curator of the Labadie Collection when she contacted Kaczynski’s lawyer to discuss the possibility of obtaining his papers for the collection. Years of written correspondence between Herrada and Kaczynski ensued, and a large collection of his papers are now at the University of Michigan. Due to the sensitive nature of the collection, Herrada was very quiet about the whole process, trying especially to avoid any sort of media sideshow.

Her secrecy is what I want to comment on. Here is what the SAA has to say about intellectual accessibility:

A repository should inform researchers in a timely manner of the collections in its custody in accordance with institutional access policy and current professional practice. This may be accomplished through the assistance of staff members; entries in local, regional, or national catalogs; inventories, and other documents describing a repository’s holdings and created using nationally recognized standards; published guides; repository websites; and other means, including announcements in appropriate print, electronic, and other media.  The existence of original research materials should be reported, even if they are not fully accessible because they are not processed or because of restrictions.

So, I understand Herrada’s reluctance to make any sort of public statement to the press, as she didn’t want to draw attention to the situation. Against the SAA’s position, but it makes sense. There is one measure, however, that was taken that just doesn’t make sense to me.

On the Labadie Collection’s website, they list all of their holdings and in cases where there is a finding aid, it is always posted. The only exception is the Kaczynski Papers. It just says, “Unpublished finding aid available at repository.” I don’t understand the motivation in keeping a finding aid from the public. I suppose it could be to discourage “gawkers,” but finding aids are simply detailed descriptions of collections without divulging specific content. It almost seems like if the finding aid were posted, it could serve to quell curiosities and discourage “undesirable” researchers from seeking out the material. The idea of an “undesirable” researcher is really questionable, by the way(…and a subject for a different post entirely.)

So how does this relate to digital media? Well, I realized about 1/2 way through that little rant how spoiled it sounds. “What do you mean, I can’t access information instantly on the internet? That is unethical!” 10 years ago, 20 years ago, all of history…the only way to access material was in going to repositories IRL. (Had to reach my ‘internet slang’ quota for this post.) At any rate, kudos to the SAA for encouraging archivists to use new media to increase intellectual accessibility for their collections. And kudos to the internet for existing, and for making life as a researcher so much easier!

Hi. I'm gonna need all of this digitized and uploaded ASAP, mmmk?

Image courtesy of: http://blogs.sj-r.com/behindthecurtain/
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