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In Memory of Michael Mizell-Nelson

2014 December 11
Comments Off on In Memory of Michael Mizell-Nelson
by Sheila

(cross-posted on the RRCHNM blog)

The Center recently learned that a long-time collaborator and friend, Michael Mizell-Nelson, passed away after a battle with cancer. He was a driving force behind the success of the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (HDMB), and was a public historian committed to his hometown of New Orleans and to teaching and fostering civic activism in his students.

Two weeks after evacuating from New Orleans, a young Assistant Professor at the University of New Orleans (UNO) contacted Roy seeking advice for developing a documentary on Hurricane Katrina: the destruction, the responses (and lack thereof), and recovery. Roy discussed Michael’s ideas and the possibility of creating an online collecting project modeled after the September 11 Digital Archive with Center staff. Thankfully, the Sloan Foundation wanted to support an electronic collecting project. As Roy began to assemble a project team, he asked Michael to take the lead at UNO and to serve as the project’s Outreach Lead for what would become the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank:

Michael and his community of colleagues, friends, and neighbors were profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina and the second hit from Hurricane Rita a few weeks later. They struggled not only with physical destruction of place, but also with emotional trauma and cultural displacement. He worked hard to preserve and document those struggles and to highlight the small triumphs in HDMB as a way to foster some positive legacies.

Michael wanted all individuals affected by the storms to feel comfortable telling their stories in their own words online. We worked hard to create a user-friendly website, and ensured that anyone who submitted a story or photograph never relinquished ownership over their contributions. All contributors also decided how they wanted their materials shared on the site itself.

Deaf Government Zone

Photo taken by Michael Mizell-Nelson, “The intersection of Mirabeau Avenue and the London Avenue Canal offers one of the most subtle critiques of the response of the local, state, and federal government to our continuing crisis.”

Michael spearheaded outreach efforts in the greater New Orleans area, first through his students and colleagues at the University of New Orleans, and then with community non-profits, other local colleges and universities, artists, and local media. We decided to officially launch the project during the 2006 Mardi Gras celebrations, which occur all along the Gulf Coast. Michael and his students distributed nearly ten thousand Mardi Gras-style cups and bumper stickers emblazoned with the project logo and URL during numerous parades and celebrations, and left them in coffeehouses and libraries with wireless Internet access.

He also asked that we design and distribute pre-paid reply cards with space for writing a short personal reflection (that were scanned into HDMB), so that those without web-enabled devices could still share their stories. Michael also worked to bridge language barriers with students in the English as a Second Language program at Delgado Community College to compose and contribute their stories. A consummate public historian, Michael worked tirelessly to include the largest number of individuals in this community-sourced archive.

During the three years of the Sloan grant, we collected over 25,000 digital items in HDMB. Michael continued with the project by working closely with his students to create special Katrina-related collections. All of these items are part of the historical record will remain accessible to a wide audience.

We encourage you to read Michael’s own words about his experiences of pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans:

The Center, and the HDMB team in particular, are saddened by his death. We remain committed to maintaining as a resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the 2005 hurricanes. Michael’s wife Cathe has asked his friends and family to donate to RRCHNM in his memory. We will use any funds for the long-term care of the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank.

The Poppies Flow

2014 November 11
by Sheila
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Tower of London (photo, Jean Koppen)

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Tower of London (photo, Jean Koppen)

Today, the final ceramic poppy was placed in the massive art installation, “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” at the Tower of London. Designed by artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper, the installation commemorates the great British losses during World War I by representing each British military (including those from then-British colonies) fatality during the war. In the reporting of this art installation/happening, I’ve heard calls for it to remain permanently because it is so moving and beautiful. The poppies were sold to individuals and the money raised will be donated to military-related charities. I’m pleased that this public art installation has raised awareness and money for veterans, and is temporary. Permanency would ruin it.

The “remembrance poppy” has been the symbol of Armistice Day since the 1920s, and has an interesting history of its own. Inspired by the poem, “In Flanders Field,” composed by Canadian field surgeon Lieutenant-Colonel John Alexander McCrae, American Moina Belle Michael designed an artificial flower and convinced the American Legion to adopt it as its symbol.

The poppy is a wonderful symbolic flower that has some staying power. Poppies grow on many continents and they embody contradictions–it’s a tough flower but delicate and beautiful; it transforms into nourishment and into a narcotic. It has been used by many different cultures to remember the dead.

As a symbol of the war dead, its power is not in its ubiquity but in the ways that it is worn and displayed near or on Armistice/Veterans’ Day. The poppies are put away, or discarded, until the following year. Poppies are not worn on every lapel every day of the year.

Robert Musil argued in his famous essay on monuments in 1927 that “there is nothing in the world so invisible as a monument.” While this is not always the case, we must remember that the meaning of public monuments change over time through a process of social and cultural meaning making.

This is why the installation at the Tower of London is so powerful: it’s temporary. The power rests in the emotions and experiences felt now. This impact will not persist. It is for these reasons that historians of monuments and memorialization, such as Kirk Savage, argue temporary memorials offer better ways of remembering significant events in public spaces like the National Mall, rather than continuing to build large, expensive, permanent memorials.

Re-visioning and reinterpreting existing environments and structures motivate artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude. “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” is a type of “wrapping,” even if not created with the same purpose as the Wrapped Reichstag. While the primary purpose of Cummins work is to remember the losses of World War I, the poppies could serve another cultural function by encouraging visitors to see the Tower of London and its history–not only of holding the Crown Jewels, but of torture and death–in new ways.

I really like Cummins piece, because its simplicity is incredibly complicated. The flow of red emerging from the Tower that spills into the moat speaks of those lost bodies in wars past and present. These ceramic poppies do not flow like water would, and so are silent in a way that makes me also see that this memorial can represent those fighting silent killers, carried in the blood stream…the cancers, the infectious diseases.

Enjoy this installation for the cultural work it is performing now. The bright red poppies demand our attention, and ask us to reflect on the meaning and consequences of war. I am moved to ask, will this flow ever end?

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
— John McCrae, 1915

Preservation Leadership Forum

2014 August 20
by Sheila

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“.

3D Environments are Sticky Interpretative Places

2014 May 14
by Sheila

Ball Glass Factory recreation in Virtual Middletown

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:
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.

Net’s OpenSSL Libraries Updated, posted on Omeka blog

2014 April 9
by Sheila

Yesterday, the Omeka team took the necessary steps to ensure that user passwords on are protected against the Heartbleed bug. We updated our open SSL libraries with the newest security patch.

We recommend that all users update their passwords as soon as possible, particularly if passwords used for websites are the same as passwords used for online shopping, banking, or email sites.

via Omeka Brennan

#DayofDH Post: Productively Helpful

2014 April 9
by Sheila

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:

Me, too!

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:
    • Got to work, and discovered doughnuts!

      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 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:

      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.

      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
    • Before leaving the office, I responded to bunch of email hanging out awaiting my response.
    • Then, I left Mason for the day:

      And, realized this:

    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.