My goal is to translate the exhibit that I curated at the Winnetka Historical Society to an online format. The exhibit, “Serving on All Fronts: Winnetka and World War II,” connected the global war to the local community, focusing on the stories of five Winnetka servicemen and women. The exhibit examined the experiences and contributions of Winnetka residents in the war, as well as the war’s impact on the local community.
At first, I thought it might not be possible to translate the physical exhibit to the digital world using the images I had available. Before digging deep into the Dublin Core cataloging system on Omeka, I thought it was similar to the cataloging systems I’ve used in museums. Those systems are fairly specific and don’t allow for cataloging multiple artifacts on the same page. I despaired that there would be no way to properly catalog the images of the exhibit that display multiple artifacts without instead uploading photos of each individual artifact. After more searching, I discovered that Dublin Core is not that structured and I would be able to use the images of the exhibit that show multiple artifacts. Instead, I cataloged the image as the image itself, rather than providing information on the artifacts it pictures. I figured I’d let the exhibit labels themselves and other Omeka features that I discover do that work.
For now, I have some images of the exhibit itself and two exhibit labels. I organized them into two collections. As this process continues, we shall see if that works, or if I’ll have to change it. I’m really not sure how Omeka will physically translate my images and cataloging into an exhibit either. If anyone wants to check out the work in progress, here’s the link.
History museum websites set the tone for the institution and convey to the viewer what they will encounter should they visit the museum. Unless a viewer has a prior experience with the museum, most people will judge the book by its cover, so to speak. For this assignment, I examined about a dozen different history museums’ websites to try to determine what makes a good website. I tried to focus on private institutions, as they have more freedom of design, rather than federal or state-run museums that may have to work within an existing website structure.
For the purpose of this analysis, I focused my attention mostly on the institution’s home page. For the most part, the subsequent pages within the website followed the same general pattern as the home page anyway, and I believe that the home page is the most important part of the institution’s website.
It is imperative to have a well-designed home page. If people aren’t drawn in by or cannot navigate the home page, they are not going to explore further. In addition, if the home page looks like it was designed in 1995, people can (perhaps safely) assume that your museum exhibits also have not been updated since 1995.
After perusing numerous history museum websites, I determined that the best home pages are designed like promotional postcards. They are clean and well-organized, with eye-catching designs and images, and provide only basic information. The New-York Historical Society, New York State Museum, and Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio are good examples of this design strategy.
The key elements that these designs share include:
- Home page is centered on the screen and viewable on a single page. You should not have so much information that viewers need to scroll down five pages to take everything in. That much information also makes the page look cluttered.
- Light colored or faintly-patterned background. Lots of solid bold colors look like you’ve just discovered that you can change the background color on your website.
- Coordinated and restrained color scheme. Colors should compliment each other and be used strategically. Too many colors is distracting
- Text spaced slightly greater than single space. This makes it easier to view and read.
- Navigation bar along top or left side with the expected links (about, exhibits, programs / events, collection, research, support us, etc.)
- High-quality photos or images, both historic and current. This enables you to show off the museum’s collection, as well as to show that the institution is active today. Most websites choose a single photo or a series of scrolling photos as the focus of the page, with smaller images to illustrate other links.
Much of the quality of the website depends on its design, not the architecture or extra technology involved in creating it. This should inspire small museums to revisit their websites. Some smaller museums like the Saratoga Springs History Museum, Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, and Naper Settlement are on the right track with their websites, making them more modern, better looking, and easier to navigate.
Lurking around on Flickr made me feel like a voyeur – like I was intruding into people’s lives by looking at their personal photographs. To escape this feeling, I chose to explore the collections of institutions, particularly focusing on the photographs on the Library of Congress page. As a frequent user of the Library of Congress prints and photographs collection website, I was curious to see what images they selected for their Flickr page. They have a nice variety of photos broken up into 16 sets, including photos from the FSA, Civil War photos, color photos from the 1930s and 1940s, and interestingly, photos in which the photographer is pictured. The Flickr page offers an excellent alternative to searching the Library of Congress’ own page for the general public. Not only does it provide the same information as is available on the LOC’s page, it also offers the option to comment. In the Zinkham / Springer article, “Taking Photographs to the People: The Flickr Commons Project and the Library of Congress,” the authors explain that the comment function on Flickr has enabled the Library to learn additional information on some of the photographs, as well as to engage the public in a dialog about the past. Certainly the value of user-generated information is debatable, but at least this gives the Library the opportunity to solicit information from a much larger audience than just those who research at the physical site. Overall, I think the Library of Congress’ Flickr endeavor is one of the better examples of ways that historians can use new media.
Digital technology plays a critical role in documenting and helping to preserve material culture. Digital photographs, scans, and precise measurements insure that curators and cultural resource managers can preserve the visual elements of an artifact. But can digital technology be used to replicate or replace original artifacts? What makes an artifact inherently valuable? Can these values be transferred to a digital reproduction? Do the digital reproductions have their own value?
To begin with, what makes an artifact valuable? In her article, “Digital Cultural Heritage and Indigenous Objects, People, and Environments,” Deidre Brown borrows a definition from the Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand. The museum identified a number of qualities that make artifacts valuable within the Maori culture. These qualities translate beyond the Maori and provide a basis for understanding the inherent importance of material culture. Brown describes “cultural treasures” as embodying authority, power, prestige, sacredness, spiritual power, genealogy, narratives, integrity, everlasting spirit, and life force, among other elements.
Defying previous cultural theorists, such as Walter Benjamin, Brown asserts that “some, if not all, of these cultural values are transferred by digital replication, to a lesser or greater degree, depending on circumstance.” Benjamin would surely disagree that Brown’s recreated Maori carving (replicated based on digital scans) holds the same cultural value as the original. Brown didn’t even believe that photographic reproductions captured the same qualities as an original.
I strongly disagree with Brown, and I believe that the National Register of Historic Places would, too. The criteria for nomination to the National Register are similar to Brown’s list of essential qualities of material culture: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. But where Brown believes these qualities can be transferred to a reproduction, the National Register generally does not. Indeed, a reconstructed building is not eligible for listing, unless “it is accurately executed in a suitable environment and presented in a dignified manner as part of a restoration master plan and when no other building or structure with the same associations has survived.”
Colonial Williamsburg provides a good example of issues of reproduction on a large scale. The town is not listed on the National Register due to its significance as the colonial capital of Virginia – it is a completely reconstructed space. Rather, the National Register recognizes its importance as an early example of historic preservation and interpretation. In this way, Colonial Williamsburg shows us that reproductions, either digital or “analog,” have value in their own right, but cannot replace the sense of place and meaning that original artifacts so powerfully provide.
Although I just sneak into Marc Prensky’s definition of a Digital Native (I was in my last year of college when he wrote his article, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”), I am more of a Digital Immigrant. The number of hours I’ve spent reading, the fact that I cannot read long documents on a computer, and my apparent “old-fashioned” brain classify me as a Digital Immigrant.
Despite my “accent,” public history media class is propelling me into the world of new technologies that I previously had chosen not to venture into, i.e. blogging and Twitter. After setting up a Twitter account, I proceeded to “follow” my favorite institutions – the Museum of Flight, National Archives, and the FDR Library, to name a few. However, I was unable to locate any of my favorite historians, writers, or even friends on Twitter (with the exception of one cousin). Does this mean that my peer group and I are out of touch with modern society? Does my lack of smart phone and tweeting friends label me as a Digital Immigrant the way my immigrant ancestors were marked by their accents and central-European garb?
After lurking around on Twitter, reading tweets, and following trending topics, I am still not sure what to make of the platform. Museums and archives that I follow had the most interesting and useful posts. The National Archives’ “Daily Document” is a fun and informative piece. The primary limitation of it and other posts by these institutions is that they are mostly just links back to their website or Facebook page. In this case, Twitter only serves as a vehicle for publicizing the what’s available elsewhere. I did not find searching for or following trending topics to be very useful. Topics were difficult to locate and generally led me back to one of the institutions that I follow already. Overall, based on my short experience with Twitter, the main benefit of the platform seems to be that it provides a way for public historians to get small bits of easily-digestible information to the public, as well as to promote events or the work of an institution. The main drawback to the Twitter platform is the overload of information. Since it is so easy to post a tweet, the volume of tweets makes it difficult to identify truly useful information. The utility of Twitter for a public historian or institution greatly depends on the audience they hope to reach. For now, Twitter is not an ideal source of information for me as a Digital Immigrant, but maybe I’ll learn, like my ancestors did.
Lisa Gitelman, “How Users Define New Media: A History of the Amusement Phonograph”
In her article, Lisa Gitelman argues that the phonograph developed many meanings beyond those intended by the inventors and manufacturers. These meaning were created by users understanding of the device and the different ways that they used it. She explains that the simple narrative of production/consumption leaves out the stories of everyone besides white, middle-class men. Instead, we need to dig deeper and ask different questions. Who used phonographs? Where and for what purposes? How did people make sense of them and incorporate them into their world? By asking these questions, Gitelman argues that the phonograph became a gendered device.
Gitelman’s argument is generally convincing. She explains that the language used to describe the functions of phonographs employed feminine pronouns in the case of recording (“reproducing”) sound, but not in the case of replaying recorded sound. She also shows that in business applications, Dictaphones were promoted as replacing (female) stenographers, and thus the machines themselves became “female.” In addition, the female voice became the test of quality recording and playback. Since female voices were difficult to capture well, if Nipper could indeed hear her master’s voice (if we imagine Nipper to be female) clearly and cleanly over the phonograph, it was considered a superior product.
While most of Gitelman’s examples are compelling, some of her points seem irrelevant or not well-developed. For example, she compares the rise in popularity of the phonograph to the rise in popularity of monthly magazines. This is an interesting point to bring up, but she does not explore it sufficiently or connect it well to the rest of her argument. Gitelman’s primary contribution in this article is to call our attention to the many questions that need to be asked of a media type in order to get a full picture of how it works, how it is used, and how people understand it.
Lisa Gitelman’s essay appeared in Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, edited by Thorburn, Jenkins, and Seawell