Sesqui and the Horizon Film

Last week Sesqui and the film Horizon were in Sault Ste. Marie.  If you haven’t heard of Sesqui (short for Sesquisentinial) it is is a 360° cinematic experience marking Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation.  It’s traveling across Ontario using a giant canvas dome to show the film Horizon. The 20 minute film features landscapes from across Canada and includes artists from across Canada, the film is projected on the interior of the dome providing an immersive film experience.

The film has no words and was visually quite stunning.  Given that this was billed as a part of the 150th commemoration events I (perhaps naively) expected there to be some historical content in the film.  There was almost none. The film was much more focused on highlight the physical, geographical, and cultural diversity of the landscape of Canada.  There were many segments of people singing, canoeing, skating, skateboarding, and engaged in other outdoor activities.  This was paired with wildlife footage and landscape images.

IMAX technology originally premiered in 1967 when the National Film Board launched the In the Labyrinth film at Expo ’67.  The Sesqui project connects back to that original leap in film technology by attempting to create a new kind of immersive film experience.

Sesqui has also created a learning hub which includes additional information on select topics including : Arts, Canadian Geography, education, English, Indigenous Studies, Language Arts, Physical Education, and Social Studies.  For example, Horizon includes footage of a traditional Haida dance and the work of Haida carver Christian White.  The supplemental video material connects these brief segments to large social and cultural traditions and provide historical context to the brief clips that were seen in the Horizon film.  The educational material isn’t perfect but it is a good starting point to have larger conversations about the material that was included (and the material that wasn’t) in the film.

Multiple trailers and previews of the content can be found on Youtube and I’ve included one of the trailers below.  They also mentioned at the screening that there is an associated app, Meridian VR and that eventually all of the video footage will be available to download via that app.

Eight Years of Blogging

Startup Stock PhotosI started blogging back in September 2008 as part of a course requirement for a digital history class I took as part of my MA in Public History.  Looking back I have a hard time believing I’ve kept up with the practice for eight years.  There have been the occasional lulls in my writing but I seem to always return to the keyboard.

Eight years of blogging and over 530 posts later, writing in the public sphere is still an essential part of my professional practice.  This informal writing practice has benefited me by connecting me with other professionals, helped me work through ideas in a space that can allow for collaboration, and opened doors to other opportunities. It is also flexible enough that I can adapt my writing style and topics based on interest, time commitment, and professional interests.

Is it worth the effort?  I can point to definite projects that have developed out of my online presence (on twitter and through blogging) and there are people I have connected with virtually who have become valued colleagues and friends. So, yes. I think it’s a practice worth maintaining and one I plan on continuing with for the foreseeable future.

NCPH recap: Day Two, March 17

I’m recapping my NCPH 2016 experience.  I wrote yesterday about my experience on the first day of the conference and the LGBT history workshop.  Day two was filled with sessions, connecting with colleagues, and quality discussions.

New Member Welcome

Day two started off bright and early at 7:30am with the new members breakfast.  As part of the membership committee I attended the event to help welcome new NCPH members and new conference attendees.  The group at the breakfast was a great mix of students, new professionals, and seasoned practitioners who were new to NCPH.  I was lucky enough to meet a handful of archival students at this breakfast – it was great to see people excited about the possibilities of public history programming within archives.

Uncomfortable Truth

Slide from Uncomfortable Truth panel.

Slide from Uncomfortable Truth panel.

Following the new members breakfast I headed to the “Uncomfortable Truth” panel that focused on the ways in which archivists and historians challenge truths and the need to bridge the gap between seeking to tell a more complete story while respecting community memory/stories of diverse audiences. This panel included Jennifer Wellock, National Park Service; Dorothy Dougherty, National Archives and Record Administration; and Jenifer Eggleston, Preserve Marshall County, National Park Service.

This session was well received by a packed room.  The panelists focused on the different ways in which archives are used to challenge different types of truth — they can challenge personal/family truth, community truth, and national narratives.  For example, people going genealogy research can find out unexpected realities about their families — arrests, mental health diagnoses, voluntary name changes etc that might be contrary to family myth.  Similarly, a place with supposed historical value can be de-bunked using archival records or a community history can be challenged by bringing in new interpretations that include marginalized voices.  This session really highlight the power of archives in truth telling and the value of incorporating archives in historical interpretation during all types of history.

The Uncomfortable Truth session ended with an activity that invited audience/participant members to engage with archival documents.  This fairly standard archival instruction activity allowed participants to discuss how specific archival records could be used as teaching tools and what historians can learn from archival documents.  The activity portion of the session was a bit rushed – but I think there was definite value in having participants engage in this learning exercise as it’s a great example of how archives can be brought into the classroom.

Methods of Digital Archiving and Biography

This panel focused on two very specific biography projects: the People of the Founding Era and the Foreign Relations Series of the U.S. Department of State.  The Social Networks and Archival Context project was also briefly mentioned.

The People of the Founding Era project is “is a scholarly reference work that provides biographical information on over 25,000 people born between 1713 and 1815, drawn from the digitized papers of the Founding Fathers and other documentary editions of the Founding Era.”  The project creates searchable biographical statements, and provides structured data for prosopographical study.

I liked the ideas behind this project – using a database to connect individuals and creating unique profiles of people mentioned in historical text.  The project also aggregates information from a number of sources which has the potential to be extremely useful to researchers. However I had some ethical challenges around the copyrighted and pay-walled nature of this project.  The project is tied to a publishing company and the material isn’t accessible unless you subscribe to the service.  I was particularly interested in the initiative to document slaves and other marginalized people and the fact that this work would then be inaccessible to present-day marginalized community.  The irony and ethical challenges of this was particularly striking.

Conversely the Foreign Relations Series project was created using completely open source technology.  This project captured names of people mentioned in FRUS publications and created biographical data sets.  It used Open Refine extensively to cluster and edit data, though the presenter did highlight the need for human intervention and checking the clusters created by Open Refine. This project was a great contrast to the Founding Era initiative and really emphasized the range of possibilities that can be done with open source software.

Change Starts Within Challenging Cultural and Structural Barriers to Inclusive Public History

This structured conversation was facilitated by Julie Davis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Abigail Gautreau, Middle Tennessee State University; Lara Kelland, University of Louisville; and Craig Stutman, Delaware Valley University.  This was the only structured conversation I attended at NCPH.  It was an interesting format that had participants organize their chairs in tiered circles and invited everyone in the room to talk about doing public history with marginalized communities.

A Google Doc was created to document the conversation and as place that participants could contribute to during and after the conversation.  The document is worth a read to get a sense of the passion of the presenters around inclusive public history and the challenges of creating safe spaces and historical narratives that are reflective of multiple perspectives.  I found this an interesting session that got participants really riled up about important issues.  That being said, the physical space for the discussion wasn’t ideal.  There was a large pole in the middle of the room so you couldn’t see everyone participating and the tired circles meant some people’s backs were to others.  Also as commonly happens in any type of open discussion there were a couple of voices that dominated the conversation.  Their contributions were worthwhile but I wish more people had the opportunity to contribute as well.

Extra Activities

Other things that day two included – the NCPH business meeting where Stephanie Rowe was announced as the new executive director of NCPH.  I also had a wonderful lunch with some archives folks.  It was great to see so many people who work in archives at NCPH this year – I think it’s definitely a growing group of members.  My evening of day two was spent at the Walters Art Museum, which I’ll recap in a separate post.

Onwards and Upwards

In 2008 I started blogging at Historical Reminiscents.  The original impetus for beginning that blog was an assignment as part of a digital history class.  The blog was much longer lasting than the class and has featured over 400 posts since 2008.

This past weekend I imported all those old posts, had a domain registered (hurray for both kristamccracken.ca and kristamccracken.com being available), and installed WordPress on this new site.  It feels a bit like the end of an era.  But I’m going to continue to blog. All that’s really changed is the web address.

Ask A Slave Web Series

The winter issue of The Public Historian included an interview with Azie Mira Dungey the creator of the “Ask A Salve” web series.  Dungey was a living history first person interpreter at George Washington’s Mount Veron, where she portrayed Caroline Branham an enslaved housemaid.  The web series draws on her experience working at Mount Vernon and some of the questions visitors asked when she was in character as Caroline Branham. 

“Ask A Slave” and the corresponding interview with Dungey highlights some of the things public historians need to consider when designing historic site programming.  Living history sites are in a unique position to facilitate difficult conversations around race relations and the history of slavery.  “Ask A Slave” approaches these difficult conversations as satire while commenting on important issues in a humorous way.

Here’s the first episode of the web series.  The rest the first season of the series can be found here.

Ontario Open Data

The Province of Ontario has announced that it in the process of making government data open by default.  This is part of Ontario’s larger Open Government initiative that focuses on open data, open engagement, and open government more generally.  

Since November 2012 the Ontario government has been publishing statistics in the open data catalogue.  So far 170 data sets have been placed online.  This includes statistics on marriage registrations, farmers markers, water wells, flu shot clinics, woodland caribou and a wide range of other interesting topics.  The data already online is a huge boon to researchers and is available in a variety of formats depending on the type of data and the original collection method. 

In addition to the open data calalogue Ontario has created a data inventory.  Which describes more than 1,000 data sets.  The inventory is designed to allow the public to vote on which data sets are the most popular as a means of prioritizing the order in which data sets are made accessible. 

Virtual Tourism and Audience Engagement

A recent issue of The Public Historian contained an interesting article, “#VirtualTourist: Embracing Our Audience through Public History Web Experience” by Anne Lindsay.  The article highlighted the ongoing challenges that cultural heritage sites in engage new and diverse audiences.  Lindsay focused on the potential of institutional web presence in the development of audience and donor relationships. 

On a basic level the article highlights the fact that digital content has become an essential and expected part of any guest interface.  Lindsay also argues that websites have the potential to create spaces of engagement and promote different types of educational interaction. 

However, Lindsay does indicate the online tools should be used as “a gateway to a more encompassing educational environment” [1].  Essentially the narratives of online content and physical content should be interconnected.  Historical narratives of particular groups (eg. women, slaves, farmers etc) should not be relegated to purely online content.  Rather, traditional interpretation should be expanded on online and there should be clear linkages between digital and physical experiences. The two platforms can have different content but the essential mission of the heritage site should be reflected in both the online and physical presence.

Lindsay’s focus on virtual narrative and the potential of virtual spaces for education and outreach is reflexive of a general feeling in the cultural heritage field.  Many smaller organizations are struggling to develop digital content and platforms that appeal to changing audience needs.  The technical knowledge and staff time commitment to create a changing web presence (something more than a digital version of a brochure) can be daunting.  The cost vs benefit of any new initiative is always in the forefront of heritage institutions who are facing an uncertain fiscal future, especially when it includes venturing into uncharted territory.

However, increasingly cultural heritage organizations are realizing the importance of digital content and digital engagement.  Countless number of articles, professionals, and organizations are talking up the potential of digital engagement.  There is a whole realm of potential donors and potential “virtual tourists” for organizations to engage on a purely digital platform.  Additionally, digital content has the potential to enrich visitor experience, provide additional educational material, and create learning opportunities that sometimes aren’t feasible onsite.  For example, a seasonal site that closes during the winter can still interact with potential visitors and donors online during the off-season, opening up expanded programming and outreach possibilities.

The path to digital engagement doesn’t happen over night. But low cost options and documentation surrounding planning are becoming  increasingly accessible to organizations of all shapes and sizes.

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[1] Anne Lindsay, “#VirtualTourist: Embracing Our Audience through Public History Web Experience” The Public Historian 35, no.1 (Winter, 2013) , 77.

Archival Sources: Diaries and Blogs

The Spring issue of Archivaria contains an interesting article by Richard J. Cox titled “Lester J. Cappon and the Creation of Records: The Diary and the Diarist.”  The article focuses on the Lester J. Cappon’s use of a diary for various functions including: a mnemonic device, documentation of scholarly activities, and a place of personal reflection.

Cappon’s diaries serve as an interesting example of a diarist who was well aware of how historical sources are created, preserved, and used by archivists and historians.  This awareness is seen in Cappon’s early decision to donate his personal papers and the initial access restrictions applied to diaries which contained opinions about colleagues. Cappon seemed aware that his dairies were going to be read and used by people other than himself.

In addition to Cox’s examination of Cappon’s diaries, Cox also draws linkages between the act of blogging and the act of keeping a diary.  Despite the somewhat obvious similarities of blogging and journal keeping I have never previously made the connection.  Perhaps the popularized connotation of diaries being the domain of teenaged girls and contain deeply personal secrets created a disconnect between blogging and diary writing in my mind.  However, many diarists (including Cappon) have used diaries to record information about professional and scholarly activities and as a place to sound out early research ideas.

Personal diaries no matter what their content or form have the potential to be interesting and insightful historical sources.  Like all sources they have inherent flaws and biases and need to be examined within their societal and historical context.  What about blogs? How do personal or professional blogs fit within the framework of historical sources? The somewhat tenuous hosting of many blogs draws into question the long term preservation of these potential sources. 

 Personal reflection and the stories of individuals have the potential to bring moments of history alive and to illuminate history in way mass produced sources don’t.  With more people blogging and fewer handwritten lifetime spanning diaries being produced how do archivists capture this new form of personal history? Today, many collections of personal papers might be well complimented by a collection of born digital material.

Active, Digital, Public History

Friday morning at NCPH I presented as part of the “Reaching the Public through the Web: The Practice of Digital Active History” panel with Ian Milligan, Devon Elliott, Tom Peace, and Nathan Smith as the facilitator.  I won’t rehash our panel as a lot has already been written to summarize our presentations.  Prior to the conference Ian wrote a great high level summary of our panel.  Following the session Clarissa Ceglio posted her rapid fire notes of the session in google docs and Jim Clifford provided a summary of the Active History panels at NCPH.

 Following our panel I sat in on the “Working Group: Teaching Digital History and New Media” session.  Despite this being a working group session the audience and the working group participants were both involved in the discussion of digital history.  The session participants were broken into three smaller groups for discussion and then reunited for discussion as a larger group.

I felt the session format was interesting but I would have been just as happy hearing some of the working group participants speak about their experiences.  The working group format is ideal for discussions being developed over longer periods of time with sessions being fruits of that discussion–by involving the audience some of that background conversation might have been missed.  That being said, the twitter back channel during this session was full of useful comments about digital history as public history and the teaching of digital history.

My Friday session attendance concluded with the “After the Cuts: The Future of History in Canada” roundtable.  The roundtable featured representatives from prominent Canadian heritage organizations including: Lyle Dick (CHA), Ellen Judd (Canadian Anthropological Society), William Ross (Canadian Archaeological Association), and Loryl MacDonald (Association of Canadian Archivists).  The session was packed and was standing room only.

The participants focused on the impact of recent cuts to government funding and problems communicating with national heritage organizations.  This panel highlighted the widespread concerns professional organizations have with Canadian heritage cuts, the loss of programing, and impending sense of doom surrounding many recent government decisions.  The session was recorded by Sean Graham of History Slam Podcast fame and should be available in some format in the near future.

NCPH2013 Thursday WordPress Thoughts

My time at NCPH 2013 actually started on Wednesday.  The majority of my Wednesday activities revolved around networking and talking with new and old colleagues from Western University. Interesting discussions but not really blog post fodder.  As such I’m skipping to Thursday in my run down of this year’s NCPH experience.

WordPress as a Public History Platform
The first session I attended at the conference was on using WordPress in a public history setting, with an emphasis on using WordPress in a classroom setting. A couple of the presenters were sick and unable to attend the session, but Clarissa Ceglio, Jeffrey McClurken, and Erin Bell did an excellent job of leading an interactive panel which invited audience participation.

All three presenters highlighted some of the public history projects they have worked on recently which used WordPress.  Some of my favourite examples included:
Connecticut History site,  using WordPress to re-envision the concept of a state encyclopedia.  I particularly liked Ceglio’s emphasis on this site having an ongoing publishing effort and the fining tuning of WordPress for usability.  Ceglio also spoke about using the WordPress plugin in EditFlow to integrate editorial functions into the WordPress Site. 
UMW Blogs, a great example of  a university buying into the WordPress platform and using it for ‘official’ outreach.  This is also a great example of the possibilities of using WordPress as a multi-user platform. The site also has significant customizations and  for anyone having the misgiving that a WordPress site can’t “look nice” check out the UMW blogs.
The James Farmer Lectures site, a well done student created site that places the recorded lectures of James Farmer online.  The cleanness and effectiveness of this student site is what really won me over.  It’s a great example of the possibilities of students using WordPress.

The Question Session
The presenters in the WordPress session left ample time for audience questions and discussions.  Granted, the session as a whole was cut short because of a fire alarm — but that was clearly beyond their control.

Some of the interesting questions that arose:
-How do you manage the lifespan of a student driven WordPress site? 
McClurken spoke about his experience working with a range of student driven projects.  He indicated that in some cases students freely go back and update content on the site following the conclusion of a class.  There was also the mention of creating a digital repository to archive student sites or the possibility of partnering with an organization to maintain the site.
How much training do your students get when working with WordPress?
The general consensus was fairly limited training.  Most professors indicated that they only provide about half an hour of instruction before letting the students loose.  In this instance McClurken emphasized the importance of students learning by discovering and helping each other — that they should be “uncomfortable but not paralyzed” when learning”
How do you handle site promotion and comments? 
The panelists acknowledged the potential of comment features being a hassle.  However, they also indicated that the experience can be valuable for students.  One compromise that was suggested involved turning on the comments feature for the duration of the class and turning it off afterwards.