If you’re interested in talking about radically rethinking historic site and museum collections policies, check out this month’s Preservation Leadership Forum blog where I’ve posted on “Making Room by Letting Go“.
Below are my comments as Chair of Virtual Reality and Historical Practice, American Historical Association panel, January 2014
Before the conference, I spent some time exploring in both Virtual Hadrian’s Villa and Virtual Middletown, despite some technical challenges in running the platforms and plugins required on my laptop. These worlds are beautifully-designed and I want to commend you all for the artistic design.
For those of you in the audience who may not know, the technology has existed for decades to create 360-views and 3D models. Those haven’t been widely incorporated into humanities work, or even in museums. This work is more prevalent in the design, architecture, and archaeology fields, and yet we are still far from wide adoption.
The Smithsonian Institution recently revealed a new 3D initiative that took a few years to pull together. Even with the variety of collection and enthusiasm from its staff, they still were only able to release 12 objects that were scanned, rendered, and interpreted. Much time and effort was invested in making the design accessible and user experience understandable to those outside of the project teams who never worked with immersive environments. Building in WebGL is an accessible platform that does not require users to download external plugins or programs, and renders 3D graphics in a modern web browser. You can see in the web interface how Smithsonian staff framed each object in a broader context so that while the main goal of this initiative is to promote close reading of objects, users do not miss the bigger story of how the item functioned in the world.
The work engaged in from the teams of Hadrian’s Villa and Virtual Middletown was also time-consuming and these projects were not small in scope. Deciding to build 3D environments is not a lightly-made decision. Any team makes a big investment in time, labor, and money to plan, design, and build any virtual world projects.
Both projects presented here are testing the usefulness of building these types of worlds to increase historical understanding of very specific places at specific points in time. Recreating places that once existed can be fascinating explorations. Given that, I still have some big questions to ask about the argument, audience, user experience, and accessibility of these massive projects.
Argument and Historical Content:
I firmly believe in the concept that building, constructing, is a form of knowing and creating understanding. I see great value for the teams who built these environments to learn more about their construction, the environment, such as solar alignments, ways of reinforcing power structures, and how industrial design shapes the social and cultural history of a city.
In architectural history or history of technology, these re-creations can serve as good places to observe and analyze the physical spaces, but how do these designs communicate an argument? What interpretation is made visible or pushed forward with these projects from the end users’ perspective? And how does this particular type of interaction encourage the development of historical thinking skills? I could not answer those questions from the time I spent visiting these virtual worlds.
Both of these projects were designed with teaching in mind, but once created, where are the pedagogical cues and prompts to help users to understand how some of that knowledge has been constructed that the teams have internalized?
I don’t mean that this needs to have lesson plans, but perhaps offer ways of modeling the type of activities of public historians or archaeologists engage in when researching: sourcing, comparison, while also asking questions of these places, these people.
Who will be using these worlds beyond the scholars and how was the design tailored to their needs, expectations?
Exploration of primary sources can be done in other ways, so how does a virtual world, such as Virtual Middletown, help us to better understand it if we are not helping to build it? What else can be learned by maneuvering inside a re-created factory?
That leads to my biggest outstanding concern, which is about user experience.
User experience remains the biggest challenge with the use of virtual worlds for anything other than gaming.
The interface leads, rather than the content.
Personally, I still find it clunky. I’d also rather explore without the requirement that I choose and design an avatar where if I choose to be female, I walk around with one hand on my hip, swaying. My avatar was distracting me from my experience. Also, my avatar was like me visiting a living history museum since I’m dressed in a t-shirt and jeans.
In Virtual Middletown, the Lynd’s study is all about people, working, doing, living. In the factory, it was surprisingly empty and relatively quiet. I did not learn much about the process of glass making or the individual workers.
In Hadrian’s Villa the sounds of water and occasional flutes felt more serene, but I’m not sure if it enhanced my understanding of this place.
Finding and browsing through the primary sources available in both worlds was difficult, and I found them to be very disconnected from the designed interface.
For example, clicking on a statue in Hadrian’s Villa sent me to another site that contained an un-styled HTML table containing rows of metadata, unlabeled, which was a little shocking. I was taken away from the visual experience of the virtual world and I didn’t know what the metadata was exactly describing.
One of the goals of Virtual Middletown was to build something immersive and not as anachronous as many living history sites. Well, this felt pretty anachronous to me.
How accessible can these virtual spaces be to for individuals who are vision impaired?
Downloading large extensions or new applications already creates a barrier for some with older machines, ones that they cannot update themselves, or to the growing numbers of individuals using handheld devices to access the web and digital content.
Even I couldn’t get the virtual application to run on my laptop. It kept crashing, so looked at the web versions.
There was a huge investment in money and labor to build these worlds and what hope is there that they will continue to be used in the next couple of years? If these projects are built on commercial gaming software that isn’t officially supported by the original designers then sustaining and continuing to build on the platform is problematic.
Additionally, these are closed projects, and closed digital humanities projects are not likely to survive. Unlike the Smithsonian’s 3D data which is open, none of the data is available and the platform is not open for others to contribute. If the platform and the data were open, classes could recreate a structures and contribute those files back to the Virtual Middletown, for instance, and the project could continue to grow and the project manager could build a dedicated group of individuals invested in helping to maintain this site.
It remains unclear to me what the sustainability plan is for these projects.
Although I raised many questions about these projects, I appreciate the work done by these teams and the hours they have invested in exploring how virtual worlds can increase understanding of world heritage landmarks and historic places. And, I appreciate their willingness to share these projects here at the AHA.
It is important to experiment with form and interpretation, particularly if we are interested in drawing in new audiences beyond our academic cohorts. I hope that additional user testing and some of the concerns mentioned earlier will be addressed in future versions of these projects. I look forward to following Virtual Middletown and Hadrians Villa into their next stages of development.
Yesterday, the Omeka team took the necessary steps to ensure that user passwords on Omeka.net are protected against the Heartbleed bug. We updated our open SSL libraries with the newest security patch.
We recommend that all Omeka.net users update their passwords as soon as possible, particularly if passwords used for Omeka.net websites are the same as passwords used for online shopping, banking, or email sites.
via Omeka http://ift.tt/1kr1lgi Brennan
This morning, after I triaged my email, I heard a story on Marketplace Morning Edition on how helping others can drive our success. There is a new book analyzing how people react in the workplace and in their daily lives that challenges the notion that only the selfish “takers” succeed. I haven’t read the book, but in listening to the story it sounded like the most successful people are those who are “productively helpful”–balancing out individual needs with the needs of others, in mutually beneficial ways.
I think the term “productively helpful” is a useful way to think about the work that I do, together with my colleagues, everyday at RRCHNM. Whether it is development and outreach for our Omeka family of products; engaging citizens in doing history; or making scholarship and sources more accessible and understandable to broad audiences through digital methods and design, we are helping someone who will help/teach someone else. My colleague, Patrick Murray-John said that well last night:
Today, actually represented a good slice of my DH life, because I worked on many projects throughout the day.
Here was my #DayofDH:
- Email triage and a quick check of the Twitters from home:
Morning email triage complete. Nothing urgent, which is always a relief. I manage 5 different project email accts, plus my own. #DayofDH
— Sheila Brennan (@sherah1918) April 8, 2014
- Got to work, and discovered doughnuts!
— Sheila Brennan (@sherah1918) April 8, 2014
Was lucky to have some time to chat with my colleagues Faolan Cheslack-Postava, Joan Troyano, Lisa Rhody, Stephanie Westcott, while eating portions of doughnuts and drinking coffee. Even though we all work together, we have all been so busy that impromptu conversations have been fewer and farther between than we’d like.
- While sitting at the table, I was able to catch up with Roberto Sanchez, our Omeka.net system administrator, to discuss a few issues concerning the 2.0 upgrade process for .Net. We are in the testing phases and are finding some interesting kinks that are particular to .Net. Later, I met with grad research assistant, Jeri Weiringa, about some of the testing she is doing for the Net upgrade, and identifying true issues from expected behaviors. I then did some additional .Net administrative work by invoicing a university for an annual plan.
- I spent some time reviewing the applications to our two Doing DH summer institutes, that I’m co-directing with Sharon Leon. We have a large talented group of scholars, and selecting the participants is going to be difficult.
- Lunch was eaten at my desk:
@RRCHNMLunch can I have a Broad Street, breaded, and with tomatoes.
— Sheila Brennan (@sherah1918) April 8, 2014
Because I had a meeting at 1pm.
- Sharon and I met with Adrian Grant who is visiting town from the University of Ulster. Adrian and his colleagues are creating a website to share and interpret oral histories of personal accounts of the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. He is very interested in using Omeka and had some questions about project planning, data sharing, and public outreach strategies.
- We have partnered with the University of Wisconsin on a new NSF-funded commodities history project focusing on rubber production that will represent multiple perspectives of the Firestone expedition and establishment of a rubber plant in Liberia. The team is working closely with Liberians and with librarians in the US who care for records and motion pictures related to the establishment of the rubber industry in Liberia.
— Sheila Brennan (@sherah1918) April 8, 2014
I’m less familiar with this content than I am with other history projects, but I’m sketching out the structure of this site and will learn more as we go. I also needed to check on some budget-related issues with this grant.
- To help publicize our recently-launched Histories of the National Mall public history site, I spoke with a representative from GMU’s media center who will be doing a short article on the project. If you’re interested in a quick rundown of that project’s development, check out this post: A Brief History of @MallHistories
— Sheila Brennan (@sherah1918) April 8, 2014
- Before leaving the office, I responded to bunch of email hanging out awaiting my response.
- Then, I left Mason for the day:
— Sheila Brennan (@sherah1918) April 8, 2014
And, realized this:
— Sheila Brennan (@sherah1918) April 8, 2014
Made it home in time to run a few miles, shove some leftovers in my mouth, help Ian with some new map templates, and to go to my favorite yoga class. Back home again for the night, and I’m sitting with my laptop open, writing this Day of DH post, watching my two favorite women’s college basketball teams (UConn and Notre Dame) battle it out for the National Championship.
Before bed, I may work a little on my own digital project, Stamping American Memory, where I’m wrapping up chapter 5 and ready to conclude the whole thing. Ian has gone to bed already, because he wakes up at 4:45 to ride his bike 13 miles into work.
Nearing the end of this day, I’m pretty confident that I was “productively helpful” and that makes it all worth it.
And the UConn women look like they will win, and that makes me happy too.
At this year’s National Council of Public History conference, I organized a panel on ephemerality in public History with Mark Tebeau of Arizona State University and Director of CurateScape, and Yolanda Chávez Leyva of University of Texas El Paso, and Director of el Museo Urbano.
We talked about ways to embrace the ephemeral in our work, as we engaged in discussion about sustainability (the conference theme) by challenging our ideas of permanence and preservation. We each argued that ephemerality and performance are vital to the future of history museums and public history practice. In light of discussions about sustaining digital assets, we reconsidered the physical, asking are stuck on the notion that we must save things forever?
You can just view my slides here:
Or, read the notes from my talk with each slide.
Ephemeral experiences abound to public history.
Even in the digital world, where we leave many traces in our social networks and online profiles, there are attempts to create “ephemeral” experiences—online happenings, Chats, real-time conversations, hangouts, and apps that facilitate those experiences such as SnapChat.
The founder of SnapChat, Evan Spiegel, spoke of the appeal and distinctiveness of the SnapChat program—which lets you send a text or photo that disappears from your phone after so many seconds. He attributes the ephemeral qualities to this new category of online experiences as attractive ones: “The embrace of the Ephemeralnet comes in stark contrast to the previous generation of social networks, in which what people shared was forever tied to their online identities. Those communications are happening anonymously, or they happen in real time and disappear.”
A few years ago, my colleague Mark Sample asked “What about the fine act of disappearance?” He discussed the somewhat radical idea of not trying to save everything that we create in a digital age, merely because we can: “We record the metadata but not the data. We celebrate the trace, and bid farewell to texts that by accident or design fade, decay, or simply cease to be… Let the archive be loved. But fugitive texts will become legend.”
What if we thought about ephemerality and traces in terms of collections?
In considering the conference theme of sustainability, I want to discuss the topic of sustaining collections by using the ones we have to make room for new ones and challenge current practice that demands perpetuity of physical cultural heritage.
I’ve returned to Susan Crane’s piece on “The Conundrum of Ephemerality: Time, Memory, and Museums” to think about the problem of “fixed ephemerality” in museums. She discusses the ways that museums collect objects that are frozen in time and then “denied their natural…lifespan.” Objects never designed to last a long time do. We “preserve, protect, defend the objects we choose to represent our past & our cultures” because they are of value to us. “The narratives, however, will change, and that too is a part of the natural history of preservation and destruction.”
History institutions collect for specific reasons, or they maintain collections given them based on someone’s desires, tastes, and interests, and the willingness of a curator at some time to accept them.
Objects are saved and conserved. Lots of money and space is required to carefully care for collection objects. For many objects in history museum their life in a museum is the best life they’ve had. Temperature control, custom boxes, handling with gloves and care, and almost no one sees or touches them. The lifecycle of those objects have been slowed, as it preserved.
The object might be cared for but is it used?
So often when we discuss digital collections/replicas or photographic representations of physical objects, we often say that the original still holds a transformative power that can only occur in person–an ephemeral, but lasting experiences. I believe in that.
Yet, rarely does anyone outside of museum staff get to interact or experience these collection objects.
Here is a rare peek inside of a dollhouse on display at the National Museum of American History Museum for some lucky visitors: These visitors were thrilled to catch a glimpse inside the dollhouse, which is a popular item, that was out of its case to be decorated for the holidays.
We know from Steven Conn’s research that less exhibition space is available for objects in many museums, and exhibitions are relying on fewer objects to carry the interpretative burden. Meanwhile, more objects are taking up storage space than working as material culture evidence in a museum. Is conserving objects forever sustainable?
How can history museums of all sizes expand their collections to include collections of today’s world? How can we make room for the objects and stories around us now that haven’t been collected and saved?
How many new museums will be needed to interpret the late 20th and early 21st centuries, or can our existing institutions open up to handle new histories?
There will be new museums, because of the demands of communities, like the Red Location Museum in one of the oldest-settled black townships, Port Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa. Port Elizabeth was a major site of resistance to Apartheid in South Africa. It demands from its participants that they be active, and there isn’t one narrative told. This museum was demanded from its residents to tell their stories because no state-funded institutions were doing that.
Can some of our regional and local historical institutions adapt and make room in their collections for today’s history, and for the uncomfortable stories of their recent past?
In talking with other historians, curators, and state humanities council reps, there is a growing problem, that has not been systematically documented, indicating that the mid-sized and small historical societies, serving local and regional communities, are not collecting. They do not have the space, and are concerned about how to maintain what they currently have. This is understandable, but troubling. How can we create people’s history without the objects from people in our community?
- Digitize what we have; record its uses, record it in action. Take collections records, warts and all, and make that metadata and a digital replica accessible on the open web. Take a quick video. Save, upload. This cultural heritage is mostly invisible now, it needs to be visible.
- Take objects out of storage, or out of cases and let them degrade gracefully. De-accession when possible. I’m not asking for everything to be spilled out:
But, how many chairs can be stored and what is the history it is telling? Allow visitors to truly interact with the things that drew them inside the museum in the first place.
We all talk about the power of objects, but rarely are we allowed to directly engage with them at a museum. In my former museum, visitors remarked to me regularly how much they enjoyed that many of the objects were out, touchable. That was our value, distinguished us from other museums. In-person experiences, with context, help teach about specific experiences. Think about the teaching collections that can come with de-accessioning more objects.
For instance Robert E. Lee’s chair—and accompanying lesson plan: Can students sit in the chair? Or is this still an observational skill? Sit in the chair. There is an opportunity to create more tactile experiences available to visitors using the real thing.
- Don’t pay for artifakes or make replicas with 3D printers.
Museums regularly pay for replicas for exhibitions and for teaching collections. Why not use the real thing, and let it wear down from human use?
The Maker Movement is really hot now, and libraries and museums are encouraging creativity and building with active learning spaces. Visitors of all ages are developing skills such as knitting, circuitry, and technical skills. Often, there are 3D printers involves. I’m watching this carefully, and I like that this movement returns the physical in a very digitized and digital world. But one thing that troubles me about 3D printing is that the process creates more plastic stuff. I’m not saying there isn’t value in the design and in learning some technical skills, but we don’t need 3D printers to make the museum touchable. This is an advantage history museums have over art museums, so let’s take that advantage.
There is tremendous popular interest in objects in many televisions show on Discovery and History Networks. The problem is that everyone on these shows is looking to make money from their collections. This is the real consumer capitalist side of collecting, and one that museum curators will not be involved in –such as offering appraisals, et al.
What is fascinating to me about these shows is that everyone has objects in their homes, barns, closets, attics. And most of the individuals are fascinated and connected at some level with these objects. They are stirring interest in audiences. All of these objects can be touched, felt, examined closely. Why not showcase a few more objects inside a museum with the bonus of offering expertise from curators and educators.
- Create regional coalitions to share collections and consolidate topically.
Are there ways to share these collections, for public handling, among regional coalitions to help fill in gaps in collection areas, to make room for new ones? To think less individually and consider our cultural heritage in a more collective way–contributing to a cultural commons. There was an effort to do this type of collaborating in the late 1980s, early 1990s, that never caught on. (Thanks to Jim Gardner for this reminder.) Let’s return to this idea.
- Partner with other arts organizations to use our collections and to share them:
Imagine if a history museum and a theater company partnered on a project like the musical Sleep No More and used collections from a museum in their sets?
The set for this retelling of Macbeth is a series of rooms in the multi-story McKittrick Hotel. Objects for the set were acquired from antique stores, junk dealers, flea markets. Everything was touchable, interactive as you wished. I loved this. The entire experience of Sleep No More is different each time, because the actors interact with the audiences and sometimes improvise the scenes. How could a museum enrich that experience?
I recently read a fantastic example on the History@Work blog about a pop-up museum from the St. Catharines Museum in Ontario Canada. They used spaces outside of a museum to engage visitors, and to bring artifacts into the world.
The museum staff’s favorite response to this event was “aMUSE is so great because not only can you interact with the artifacts in a space away from the ‘traditional, stuffy museum’ but on top of that, you can drink a beer, hang out with friends and listen to great music with history all around you.”
And the response from the museum: “The staff and volunteers here at the museum were all in agreement about the need for this type of outreach, even with the logistical nightmare that moving artifacts outside of a controlled museum space presented.” (I love this, and also say—use an artifact.)
- Collect traces online.
When there is no place, make a place, and collect what you can online.
Projects like the Bracero History Archive and History Harvests scheduled community scanning and collecting days. Students, librarians, curators work together to digitize personal objects not in museums, but that come from people’s homes.
Objects are photographed, paper is scanned, and items are immediately made them available online. All items brought to the community scanning and harvest days are then given back.
In our efforts in this panel to re-consider the physical in the digital age, I have focused on collections in the name of staying relevant, and sustaining museum collections and the institutions themselves.
In conclusion I want to use the words from Nick Poole, the Director of the Collections Trust in the UK and brainchild of Europeana—the aggregated collections service for cultural heritage metadata from European collecting institutions. He offered up these suggestions in his keynote at the WebWise 2014 Conference in February.
He remarked that cultural heritage institutions should be in their heyday, but they face 2 big challenges: relevance and value.
the reality for many of us is that our institutions have stopped moving forward, and quietly the job has become to protect and document perfectly a specific body of material acquired between 1890 and 1980… This should be our heyday – the age demands exactly what we have – authenticity, expertise in filtering and connecting, giving people the skills to curate their own digital lives. But when people come to us for experiences that are immediate and personal and relevant, all too often what they get is an undifferentiated shopping list of everything we’re keeping in our store-rooms.
In this connected age, we have to find a way of learning that value is what flows through us, not into us.
Let’s not let our collections be fixed in time, or fixed on representing only the lives or whims of elite collectors. We don’t want or expect collections to disappear as quickly as a Snapchat conversation. But, I think we can imagine using collection objects–the authentic objects–to help create meaning and generate conversations with different public audiences.
And once we let some of these objects decay, we can also make some physical space for the histories of the communities our museums serve today.
Let them go!
Yesterday, my colleagues and I at RRCHNM launched a great new public history site, Histories of the National Mall, mallhistory.org. It is built in Omeka with a beautiful responsive design that displays on a phone, tablet, or laptop. (Read full announcement on the RRCHNM blog.)
We have been thrilled with the positive response we have received so far, and hope that take-up will be high as we ease into the tourist season in Washington, DC.
The launch of this site is sweet, and personally significant for me, because it has been in development for many years.Sharon Leon and I first talked about an idea to build a mobile-first site interpreting the National Mall in April 2010. (We initially titled the project “Machine in the Garden,” as an homage to Leo Marx, but decided that it was too much of an American Studies insider joke.) A team of four RRCHNMers spent three months writing and researching the first NEH Public Programs grant. That application was rejected in spring 2011. After regrouping, Sharon and I revised and resubmitted the proposal again to NEH Public Programs in 2011. We learned in March 2012 of the award.
Submitting the grant in August 2011 also coincided with my move to Memphis. I didn’t know at the time of submission if I would be coming back to the DC area again or if I could successfully manage a project I had already invested a lot of time envisioning, while teleworking from Tennessee. News of the award in March 2012, also coincided nicely with the issuing of orders sending my husband to Washington, DC for a 4-year tour. Mall Histories has launched, and we are still living in the area. All is good.
Planning began in the spring of 2012, with content development happening alongside the technical build. We had a good starting point from the proposal on secondary sources from which to find primary sources and generated ideas for “explorations.” We created an enormous Zotero library, and organized by broad themes (Commerce and Trade; Design and Monuments; Politics and Protest; and Work and Play) and time periods. We were constantly checking that we represented multiple voices so that our story of the Mall would not only highlight the well-known designers, architects, and presidents, but also represent local businesspeople, laborers, enslaved people, children, and many others who have shaped the history of this public space.
I installed Omeka right away so that we could begin adding items, but we needed to make some decisions about structure, metadata, and mapping our content. We decided that exploration questions would be mini-exhibits. People, Places, Events would be Omeka items containing item-type specific metadata. We wanted maps to help guide the site users into the content and needed to gather appropriate location data for items, when possible. Historical map layering proved to be the most challenging part of the project, but we knew we could at least start with Omeka’s geolocation plugin, so we did. Jim Safley later built a great, light map plugin using leaflet.js. Knowing we wanted a chronology, we decided on historical “eras” and using the Simple Vocab plugin to create drop-down menus for easy metadata entry.
The final site is the product of many years of
The site will continue to grow. With one more year left on the grant, we plan to add, adjust, and revise content with additional feedback from users. (Did I mention that we had already conducted many rounds of user testing at each stage of development before the launch?)
We also plan to write and publish a guide for creating a place-based public history site using Omeka. We will describe our process and choice of plugins and provide workflows, suggestions, and lessons learned from this process. We hope to publish that in early 2015.
- Histories of the National Mall would not be possible without funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities or our fabulous team:
- Co-Directors: Sharon M. Leon & Sheila A. Brennan
- Project Manager: Lee Ann Ghajar (2012-13)
- Project Associates: Megan Brett, Lindsey Bestebreurtje, James Halabuk (2012-13)
- Scavenger Hunt creator: Michael O’Malley
- Software Developer: Jim Safley
- Web Design: Kim Nguyen
- Advisers, GMU History Department: Spencer Crew, Zachary Schrag
Here is some of the feedback from launch day. Thanks everyone for your support and enthusiasm!