Wilson, Emotions, & History

I know this is blog is later than necessary but before we met I wanted to get some thoughts out. At first I thought this weeks readings were disconnected and struggled to draw clear conclusions between them. I spent a few days thinking about Fred Wilson’s exhibit and was hit with an answer finally when scrolling through my facebook feed I saw this:

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The caption reads “No this is not a rock concert, this is a Bernie Sander’s rally in New York & no media coverage”.

This is not New York, this is Paris. More specifically this is Place de la Republique on the day two million people gathered together after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Place de la Republique is also where the November attacks took place and the central statue in upper left corner of the picture has functioned for over a year as a memorial to the victims of these attacks. Just past the statue is my partner’s apartment where he (and I on FT) listened to the sounds of terror that November night. When I last visited Paris a few weeks ago, I saw the physical transformation of the square from a place of community into a quiet place of shared grief. How does this relate to archives & public history? I’m getting there, bear with me.

Around the monument were tons of pictures, cards, drawings, poems, and biographies of the victims. The sight was so harrowing for me that I couldn’t speak let alone take a picture. The stories of the Parisians whos grief I share and who could have been my love were overwhelming and I felt them. While laying my rose at her feet, I asked my partner what was to become of all of these things, who does this memorial belong to? Without blinking he said “to the Paris archives of course”. And with that, my fears were calmed and my raw emotion was transformed into a history that I felt was going to be kept safe.

So back to Bernie (or really his supporters)… when I saw this picture I was struck with pain and anger. How dare someone take an image of shared grief and appropriate it to fit a narrative of cultural & societal erasure? I was so hurt and so was Salman. He was shaking his head and I was trying to reason with the uncontrollable hurt but I when I closed my eyes all I could see was Wilson’s whipping post and chairs. I immediately realized that what hurt so much was that I had transformed my own personal pain into a manageable burn by thinking of it as a shared, safely kept history. I soon realized that all the readings this week have to do with emotion. The emotion that Wilson felt curating, the emotions he aimed to illicit by illuminating pain that was never safely kept or allowed to be shared, even the emotional connection that Thigpen created with Mary by guarding her personal history and telling her story.

Though I still dont have concrete ideas about what academic conclusions I can draw from the readings, I am certainly happy I was able to contextualize the pain from that meme and realize how minimal my experience of erasure was in comparison to the thousands of years other’s have had to endure in silence.


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Can you force all of Baltimore to see this?

When reading about “Mining the Museum” I was really struck by the comments made by some of the people. I found the comment that “Mining the Museum has the ability to promote racism and hate in young Blacks and was offensive to me” intriguing because this person really seemed to be missing the point that ‘young Blacks’ would have perfectly legitimate reason to hate him, and that their anger is way more legitimate then his feeling offended. While the curator stated “Objects… [become] generic and lifeless out- side the context of personal experience,” a commenter said, “I liked the pedestals without statues least because they were visually boring and emptiness is decidedly uninteresting, period.” This person obviously did not have the personal experience to engage with this exhibit, as I would say the same about the first commenter as well.

I felt like this “Mining the Museum” exhibit could be very misconstrued if the wrong person are and looked at the personal experiences of the individual viewer would not have allowed them to actually engage with the exhibit. When I read the comment, can you force all of Baltimore to see this? My first reaction was yes, the whole world would should see this exhibit. But as I read the negative comments, I start to switch my position. So no, I don’t think everyone should see this exhibit; everyone doesn’t deserve to see this exhibit. “Mining the Museum” can have some very powerful conversations directed around it, but it can also be taken and destroyed by people who go to this with the wrong intentions which can be hurtful for those who need to see this exhibit, who deserve to see this exhibit.

Confronting Historical Silences

What most moved me about Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum” exhibit was the way in which he confronted historical silences. Often, historians deal with lost, absent, and suppressed histories with a sense of defeatism: How can we reconstruct what isn’t there? How can we represent what we don’t know? Wilson confronted these silences and reframed their representation in a more positive light.

The opening display of Wilson’s exhibition was a “Truth” award, presented to an advertising company in the early 1900s, bracketed by six pedestals. To the right of the award, three pedestals held famous figures: Henry Clay, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Andrew Jackson. To the left, three pedestals stood empty, each with placards for Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. This very obviously and dramatically confronts the silencing of African-American contributions in the historical record. (One does wonder, especially in light of Erika Doss’ book, Memorial Mania, Mason B. Williams’ article, The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble, and the UNC Unsung Founders Memorial, how representative any of those busts would be. Further, one wonders if they would even be well-received. Even so, the display is striking and gets to the point.)

Following this demoralizing presentation of just how much is historically silenced, Wilson then uses the resources made available to him by the Maryland Historical Society’s archive and collection. He juxtaposed items he found there in order to tell a story: cigar shop representations of “Indians” stare at period photographs of Native Americans, highlighting the disparity between them. A white child’s elaborate dollhouse depicts scenes of slave rebellions. Slave manacles sit among a lavish silver service. Slave-crafted items, such as a basket and vase, are displayed alongside items crafted by freed slaves in an American colony in Africa. Even with what was lost and suppressed, Wilson shows that the story can be framed by what remains and teased out.

Further, the final display of Benjamin Banneker’s astounding astronomical journal, crafted by an African-American born free, shows that, while he may have been lost in the larger scheme of history (as depicted by the empty pedestal), his legacy lives on buried in the archives, waiting to be found. Through these exhibits, both juxtaposed and explicit, Wilson shows that even the lost, absent, and suppressed stories can be given a voice once again. They just need to be found or properly framed. No, the whole story, a representation in its entirety, will not be found. That is the case with all histories. Those that have been silenced, however, are more subject to that loss than most.

Documentaries, Tweets, and Watered-Down History

In her article for Slate on the issues surrounding Twitter’s “history pic” accounts, Rebecca Onion argues that their lack of provided context and narrow choice of subject matter reflect “a dim, condescending view of the public’s appetite for complexity and breadth of interest.” While I am not on Twitter and had not heard of these particular accounts, I was immediately drawn to this quote, as it describes how I have often felt concerning recent historical documentaries.

I watch (or rather, used to watch) documentaries frequently, and have noticed over the past couple of years that much of their content seems to have been watered down. Very little detail is given on the history itself, with much of the air time spent repeating the same questions over and over (Why did these people build this? How on earth did they do it without modern technology?), rather than actually trying to answer these questions. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. One documentary I saw became noticeably less vague when it came time to discuss eunuchs and concubines. After sitting through an unpleasantly in-depth description of the castration process, I couldn’t help but feel like the program highlighted only what the public would find shocking, rather than present a well-rounded, informative survey of the subject at hand. Aside from where these topics were concerned, the actual facts contained in the hour-and-a-half-long program could be condensed into about 15 minutes. But as Onion points out, this lack of insightful content “seems designed to provoke a feeling of familiarity: an ‘I know what this is!’ rather than an ‘I wonder what this is about?’” Rather than teach viewers about how complex past societies could be, such documentaries seem to do the very opposite. By spending half of their time slot marveling at monuments instead of conveying real information about them, they enforce an already widespread stereotype – namely, that it is unusual and strange that “primitive” people of the past were able to build such monuments. Such shows may be entertaining, but when they are broadcast on channels that purport to take history seriously, they become an insult to viewers’ intelligence.

Adding more substance to history-based forms of entertainment, whether these be documentaries or tweets, would far from “take the fun out” of them. On the contrary, it would help viewers to discover how fun it can be to learn about real history.

The Vault and UVA

Sure, I try as hard as I can to write about the way each document fits into its period of origin, but the Internet is a relentless decontextualizer.” –Rebecca Onion

I really enjoyed the diversity of readings this week but was particularly connected to Rebecca Onion’s piece and the Take Back The Archives project. Rebecca Onion was able to explain the icky feeling I find myself having when I see de-contextualized memes about “history” on social media. Her work with the Vault reminds me of “Stuff You Missed In History Class” podcast by Tracy Wilson and Holly Frey. I listen to this podcast weekly and both of the producers do a great job of fully contextualizing the tiny glimpses of history that are not in the common narrative. But Onion to me has a much harder job with her online Vault, she has to figure out how to deal with comments, both trolls and genuinely interested readers. I think her reordering of the vault represents another example of how hard it is to plan for public history. Public history is built to be more interactive and reactive to public discourse. I thought that the quote below was really impressive:

“Maybe I’m wrong about this! Let me know. Likewise, if you know of documents from other countries, or from ancient or contemporary history, that you think would work in this space, don’t hesitate to reach out.

One criticism/question I had was about the actual text of the individual blog posts. I appreciate her dedication to contextualization but wonder why there is no commentary on the clear difficulty and controversy of the contents of this particular piece. Maybe I am being too hard on her? Is this because Onion feels that her only role is to present the document and leaves the problematizing to the reader? She recognizes the serious nature of the post and claims herself to be an expert on African American history. I feel like this could be an opportunity to delve deeper into the content of the advice and position the suggestions as something to be problematized.

I may be the only person who noticed this but I was also surprised her blog content appears before the picture. She makes it very clear that she doesn’t want things to be presented out of context but this positioning makes it seem like her writing is the primary part of this project. Is it?

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In regards to the Take Back the Archive project. I don’t know if it is just my computer but I can’t find any of the actual archives online. I clicked “The Archive” and tried to open it in a new tab but was unsuccessful. If this is not just me, I hope our guest speaker can show or tell us more about the actual content of the project. As a survivor of on campus sexual assault myself the Rolling Stone article and it’s aftermath was very personal to me. When the controversy arose and the story was put into question I was heartbroken. Initially reading the article I hadn’t found myself questioning her story. I was sad about the circumstances but never surprised about the behavior of men at UVA. It was almost identical to things I have seen in real life at Temple and Villanova and these on campus dynamics were part of the reason I chose to go back to a women’s college to complete my degree. I am really looking forward to hearing Purdom Linblad expand on the experience and process undertaken to complete this very important project. 

When looking for the content of the archive I stumbled upon the Scholars Lab host site. It called into question for me how likely it is that this project can be duplicated on other campuses. Bottom line, UVA has a lot of money dedicated to this kind of project. Scholars Lab has been around since 2008. They have a larger commitment to digital access being a central element to education. I wonder how much of a factor this was in the initiation of Take Back The Archive. I hope we can learn more from both Rebecca and Purdom and I am really excited to hear more about their unique projects and style of archiving.

Past, Present, Future

Roy Rosenzweig’s “Scarcity or Abundance: Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” reminded me of the article on archival silences that we read several months ago by Rodney G.S. Carter. Like Carter, Rosenzweig is concerned about the way that archives create silences, and he advocates passionately for historians and archives to rethink their methods in order to “avoid a future of of record scarcity” (738). Although his argument is specifically tied to born-digital records, the theme of his article are ones that keep reappearing throughout this semester. He is worried about making history more relevant, more complete, and allowing multiple voices to be heard.

What I found most surprising about Rosenzweig’s article is that the changes he’s suggesting don’t seem like they should be radical. Even the most conservative archivist could probably agree that government records should be kept, even if those records were never found in print media. Rosenzweig isn’t questioning the basic principles of the type of information that should be archived, but he is looking at the way that those materials have changed and are changing, and that those changes necessitate and fundamental change in archival methods.

In doing do, Rozenzweig is being fairly radical. And his push for major changes can allow for more complete and complex archival records for the next generations of historians to use. Like many authors we’ve read this semesters, Rosenzweig doesn’t believe that history is a project of the past. For him, it’s ongoing, and the consequences of the way we deal with it will impact the present and the future as well.

Historical Photos on Tumblr

I was fascinated by Rebecca Onion’s assessment of historical photos on twitter, mostly because I don’t use twitter very much and have seen almost the opposite look at historical photos on tumblr. I don’t think this has to do as much with the platform as with who is running the account. Onion writes, “Lack of attribution for the artists who took the photos these accounts use is only the beginning of the problem. By failing to provide context, offering a repetitive and restricted view of what “history” is, and never linking to the many real historical resources available on the Web, these accounts strip history of the truly fun parts: curiosity, detective work, and discovery.” Obviously the character limit of twitter limits context to some extent, but tumblrs like the Queer Archive Project and Black History Album illustrate a better take on these “snapshots” of historical moments and movements.

The Queer Archive project has an actual timeline that allows users to look for photos and images from different periods, but also has a larger area of interest than the twitter accounts, including photos of book covers, publications, flyers, and even ads. One post I loved is this collection of lesbian pulp fiction covers. It doesn’t really give context, but might inspire someone to look up more information about lesbian pulp fiction. At least, it gives a great visual of some of the only representations of lesbians from this period. Some posts give actual credit and context, like one on Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial magazine, with amusing erotic photos of muscular men. The post details that it was “first published in 1951, was the first of the “beefcake” or “muscle mags” aimed at homosexuals to appreciate and eroticize the male figure. The magazines also helped to create the homosexual consumer culture beginning to thrive in these decades, with ads for films, clothing, etc.”  The Black History Album is just photo based, but gives great short descriptions, like this one for a photo of an African American woman’s basketball team from 1935. It even cites the academic book the photo came from. Therefore, I think we shouldn’t discount twitter photo blogs, especially since it is a very accessible way for people to find and gain interest in history, especially the histories of marginalized communities.

“WWII Rages On”

The idea that World War II is one of the most “popular” events in history does not come as a surprise to me. Even in the history senior thesis seminar this past year, I think at least three people (maybe four?) wrote their theses on something that had to do with Nazi Germany, and if it’s that prevalent within the discipline, well…

I think one of the reasons for the popularity of this event in American pop culture is that it’s often viewed as a black-and-white moral event: Nazis = bad, Americans = good. Rebecca Onion comments on this in her article on popular, “historical” Twitter accounts: “Tweets of a liberated concentration-camp survivor holding a German at gunpoint are easily shareable: Everyone knows what side to be on.” It’s an event that Americans often see themselves as having reckoned with– we conquered evil by any means necessary, and here we’re unquestionably the good guys (a stance more difficult to take with World War I, the Civil War, the Vietnam War, the Spanish American War, the Gulf War, the Korean War… pretty much any other war, really, except maybe the Revolutionary War). This vision often collapses under too much scrutiny (amazing, isn’t it, that the Americans played dirty too?) and is a source of discomfort for many Americans, “victims” (Jewish Americans, e.g.) and “enemies” (Japanese Americans, e.g.) alike. Our current master narrative of WWII, perhaps even more so than other wars, does not allow for nuances.

How exactly does this relate back to archives and the issue of history in the digital age? To begin with, it got me thinking about a number of the claims in Rosenzweig’s article, particularly his comment about how digital history is forcing historians to reconsider “who our audiences really are” (739). In this case, it appears that we have a large audience readily available and at least nominally interested in history, but would they still be interested in history once it was complicated and shifted from the “big” events? I think they would be, but the question remains of how to transfer their attention. Recent efforts have often been disappointing (see, for example, National Geographic’s new History Magazine, which sensationalizes major events in history and focuses exclusively on the stories people already know in the hopes of drawing in a readership or…something), because there’s a pressure to make sure people are paying attention (that you’re making money, basically) and it’s easier to fall back on the stories people know and love. And people (Americans) love World War II.

But I think maybe the advantage of a digital project is the potential to draw a reader down a rabbit hole. While in a print magazine there’s only so much you can gather before you run out of reading material, online one thing can link to another and offer a tremendous amount of information at the drop of a hat. (Digital preservation of such links is of course an ongoing problem, but I think here there are more advantages than disadvantages overall). Maybe the trick is to use the popular events to drag people in and then lead them to the more nuanced narratives (so what NatGeo is doing, except with more… substance. I have a lot of feelings about that magazine, and most of them are not very good. But perhaps if they migrated to a digital platform they’d meet with more success).

So: people like World War II. And there are definitely ways to move beyond it–but maybe it’s not a bad idea to use those events as a hook in theory, so long as there’s a line and sinker to follow.

Mindful use of Technology regarding Public History

This week’s readings got me thinking about the ways in which technology is mindfully, or unmindfully, used in the pursuit of public history. Unmindful use can span from limiting a project’s accessibility to truncating an artifact’s meaning, even not vetting the authenticity of the material. Though technology use can allow public history projects to be accessed by a much wider audience, it must be used judiciously and mindfully, in order to preserve the integrity of the discipline.

Sharon Leon, writing for the National Council on Public History, explained a common issue plaguing digital public history projects: Even though they promise to reach out to a larger audience and pool of contributors, the digital medium can reproduce the same class and culture barriers to accessibility. Access to the internet and technological devices is a constant pressure for any digital project of this sort. In the same way that physical exhibits can, intentionally or not, bar access to certain populations, digital projects also restrict those without access to technology. While public history projects cannot be expected to provide technological access to all interested parties, the creation, maintenance, and mission of the project needs to reflect this issue. What such projects can mindfully design are various accessibility features, such as for those with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities. Such features are widely available and, as Leon argues, are integral to mindfully  crafting a digital public history project.

Other accessibility tweaks are more minor in nature: Rebecca Onion, writing for Slate, celebrated her cataloging of Slate’s historical blog posts in a timeline fashion. This allowed for users to more easily and intuitively navigate the various artifacts. This is a seemingly minor addition to reorganize the content, but it allows for a significantly more accessible project. Users can now browse a specific time period, compare changes over time, and myriad other uses.

Mindfulness in public history projects stretches beyond design, however. Another article by Rebecca Onion argues against the flippant use of historical artifacts by Twitter “historical images” accounts. Such accounts rarely provide any context for the images that are used, let alone links to further investigation. Worse yet, some images are not even authentic, but are photoshopped or misidentified. Any group or individual who pursues such a project (and those Twitter accounts fall firmly within the Public History sphere, even if not coordinated by academics) need to be mindful of the authenticity of their posts. Further, context should be available. While not all who frequent the project will be looking for deeper engagement with the subject matter, the knowledge that the topic is, in fact, deeper than just the picture is important. History is not just names, dates, pictures, or artifacts. It is all of the context surrounding those things. History is not just the who and when, it is the why and how. Not being mindful of this element of history undermines the integrity of the field and presents a poor, neglectful, and inaccurate image to the public at large.

Student Exhibits vs. Staff/Admin Exhibits

The Bryn Mawr Now article, ‘CATALOGING FEVER’ STRIKES STUDENT ORGANIZATIONS, got me thinking about the important differences between student exhibits and admin exhibits. Expanding that thought into the larger Public History world, it could be seen as a difference between participant-created exhibits and those crafted by outside forces (ex. government, those representing though not part of a given group, etc.)

While both student and admin exhibits have a good deal in common, there are important differences between the two. Student exhibits or projects inherently express the needs, desires, and character of the student community. They are driven by something of a grass-roots movement, pushing for a goal, uncovering an important historical point, or, as in the case of the article, allowing information to be integrated into archives for the benefit of all students. Conversely, admin exhibits are a reflection of either what that particular department or individual needs at a given time (much like the student, but at a distance from the lived experience of the institution) or what that department/individual believes would be beneficial to or representative of the student body. The ownership of the exhibit or project has real implications on what is being presented or achieved and how that gets done. In the example of cataloging books from the BCC library and the Rainbow Alliance/Women’s Center collections, it is very likely that the project would not have even been proposed, had students not designated it as valuable or necessary. In the view of admins, staff, and faculty (with the possible exception of activist library staff or faculty in relevant departments), the books existed and were in an acceptable place. Accessing them through the library catalog is a nearly exclusively student concern.

Further, there are practical concerns that come into play here. Funding, time allocation, workers, space designated to such projects or exhibits, advertising/outreach (both for support and attendance, as needed), and myriad other necessities of getting the project off the ground, let alone completing the work. Admin-led projects have the benefit of funding, representation, access to the power structure (gaining clearance or support), and an inherent notoriety. However, like any bureaucracy, they are also shackled by their department, the opinions of their fellow admins, the questions of legitimacy, and the official image that any admin-led action presents. Student-led projects are much the opposite: While they don’t have the (relatively) easy access to funding or the higher-ups for clearance and representation, students have more room to pursue the project without being bound by expectations or official representations.

In the article, this situation of student-led projects is made apparent. The Chief Information Officer of Canaday (in 2004) stated that “before Information Services became involved, we wanted to make sure this would be the students’ project, rather than the library’s project.” Now, that could be to retain the students’ intent and hopes for the project itself, but the remainder of the quote clarifies her reasoning. “Once we got a commitment from the students, we provided a little seed money to kickstart the process. We funded a certain number of student-worker hours for each organization, with the understanding that they would find additional funding if the cataloging couldn’t be finished in one semester.” Translation: We’ll help you get it started, but this is on you to organize, maintain, and follow through to completion. It would have been a burden for the library staff to take on, both financially and as a time commitment. While it appears that a member of library staff trained students in the cataloging process, the burden of the work and project as a whole was entirely on the students. Both Turner and Hills, those students spearheading the cataloging projects, had to recruit other students, manage the project on a large and small scale, and pass the torch on to younger students who would continue to catalog existing and new donations. Despite that tremendous workload, a project vital to the students, and one that likely would not have existed without their intervention, was presented and (at the time of the article’s posting) well on its way to completion.