Skip to content

DH Centered in Museums?

2015 March 16
by Sheila

On Thursday, March 12, 2015, I had the pleasure of speaking at John Nicholas Brown Public Humanities Center with students, faculty, and staff at Brown University. Professor Susan Smulyan also invited me to speak in one of her graduate courses earlier in the day about planning digital public humanities projects. Her students are planning some really neat digital projects. I enjoyed the short time I spent in Providence.

During my talk,  took the opportunity to discuss other futures of digital humanities outside of the university.

Here are my slides, and below are my notes per slide. Since the talk was conversational, below are my notes which may not reflect the exact words spoken.



In November, RRCHNM celebrated its 20th anniversary, marking it as the oldest digital history center, and one of the oldest digital humanities centers in the world. Of those speaking, three of the four direct digital humanities centers at universities. The other oversees the Office of Digital Humanities at the NEH and has been tracking the development and recent expansion (explosion) of DH centers on college campuses.Slide2

As I sat and listened, I was surprised to hear that no one really talked about the future of centers as existing outside of the university. In fact, some of the futurist possibilities of centers in academic libraries that might allow for speculative computing or play (Nowviskie), are really only possible at well-funded universities—-mine not being one of them. But, I could see that type of process play happening at a museum.

Some of what I did hear resonated: DH Centers benefit from the diversity of skills the concentrate (Ayers); DH Centers are good places for organizing and implementing large-scale projects that cut across disciplines and institutions (Bobley); the academic institutions where centers reside need to commit funding to their long-term stability (Bobley). These seem congruous to how larger museums are staffed, how they collaborate, and how they keep their doors open.

These discussions focused on DH centers in universities, and there are many DH Centers in libraries on college campuses. But, none, as far I know of, in university museums.

No one imagined DH—as a constructed field of practice–centered elsewhere.


What if there were DH centers in museums?

I thought I would take this opportunity to think about the possibilities of DH centers outside of academia. And I’d like to discuss with you all, if this makes sense, if it is practical, or if we all just need to collaborate more.

First, let’s look at DH that is already happening in museums:


I agree with my friend Kimon Keradmidas at the Bard Graduate Center who asserts that DH happens in museums, but just isn’t called that.

“Digital humanities” as I’ve been reminded for years by my colleagues in the museum technology community is a very academic term, and is irrelevant to some, even as it may provide new inroads to scholarly production, discovery of resources, and questions, and opening up some of this work to audiences outside of the academy.

Museums don’t need to get bogged down in definitions that are limiting. Thinking broadly helps to think of multiple roots to DH and to its multiple futures.


I’m not the only one who has been thinking about these communities and bridging and working in ways that enables commons of shared digital resources that benefit many, and driven by museums and dedicated staff.

Neal Stimler of the Met, Mike Edson of the Smithsonian, Mia Ridge of Open University, to name a few. In 2011, Neal Stimler put together a virtual panel of individuals talking about DH in Museums. And there was another panel hosted by CUNY on the Commons, DH in Museums, in Nov 2012.

Mike’s call that museums matter NOW, and that they matter to many publics including scholars, enthusiasts, and visitors of all ages, as museums nurture creativity, civic engagement, knowledge creation. And can do those jobs in better and new ways through digital platforms and methods.


The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum is one of the best examples of letting Digital Strategies shape their interpretative strategies who also have an amazing lab in the heart of it all.

Cooper-Hewitt is running on an API that drives development of in-person, distance visits, and enables their collection to connect with other digital cultural resources.


When there is an API, with collections data, others can do things with it.


And there is the pen.

Enables physical interaction while at the museum—actual drawing on touch tables. You touch labels, click and save objects from your visit to your own personalized collection page to look at later.


Once collections are available via an API, others can use them and put them into context with other objects:

Rich Barrett-Smith of the Victoria and Albert Museum built Colour Lens—visualizing collection by colors

Makes use of featuring Public Domain images from the Rijksmuseum and the Walters Art Museum, others with permission from the Wolfsonian-FIU, and code from Tate and the Cooper-Hewitt.


Experiments with that data is then shared, on places for sharing open source code, like GitHub.


New modes of Digital publishing, like the Getty Foundation sponsored OSCI Tool Kit, Online Scholarly Catalog Initiative, at art museums.


Scholarly editions, translations of artist works, such as the Van Gogh Letters, Van Gogh Museum was a major partner. Idea to create a new edition, international appeal.

What have you noticed about all of these projects so far?
Art museums


DH Scholars are working with museums, too, such as Ben Schmidt of Northeastern with the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and visualizing 100 years of shipping routes, commodities routes.


Sharing Authority: again the Cooper-Hewitt is asking for input—help us make our data better—not only scholars, but others who might be enthusiasts in a field of expertise.


Curators of American Enterprise exhibit were reaching out, asking for stories that might influence the interpretation and make it into exhibition.


Move toward Openness: Open GLAM, open-source, public domain.

Making museum-quality images available for public uses.

Linked Open Data—connecting collections, persons, places, across institutional repositories.

Example: Smithsonian American Art Museum is leading a group of fourteen institutions from around the country in an effort to build a shared—and searchable—online database of American art, available through Linked Open Data.

Slide17Listen to Public Domain Hulk.



Growing number of Maker Spaces in Museums.
That encourage learning, teaching, and tinkering with different varieties of technologies, from sewing to arduinos. Peabody-Essex has a Maker Lounge, and a Maker Lounge Resident focusing on industrial design.

Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art has one focusing on art and technology.

It’s a physical space, not unlike some museum education-focused spaces, or maker spaces in libraries. You don’t need a 3D printer to be a maker space.

If DH is intentionally centered in a museum, what can, and should, a museum do?
They can be leaders in digital public humanities (and arguably some already are).


1. Digitize Collections
Yep: step 1. There still aren’t enough digital records of collections—particularly for history and natural museums. Publish what you have, warts and all.


2. Show the Power of Collections once digitized.

Museums have cool stuff—record the traces, histories of them, and share that collections data—and how these represent many voices, histories, unknown individuals, or even species.

We know that these collections are valuable research sources in many contexts. These sources can also make visible, traces and voices of underrepresented people, only look at:
Tim Sherratt’s work with the Invisible Australians project.

Using what was oppressive to expose and identify people who were once made legally invisible. Now, they have faces, and identities visible to us.



3. Be open, adopt an ethos of openness, sharing, and shared responsibility.
This is not only about the collections you have, but about influencing and being the change you aspire to and want to see in the world.

Share knowledge, go where people are, like Wikipedia. One example is this Art and Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon at the Brooklyn Museum. More museums are hosting and participating in these types of events to write into one of the most widely-accessed resources on the web, histories of people of color, women, and other underrepresented groups.

Also, make digital images of your collections open and available, use and encourage others to use fair use.


4. Lead in Digital Public Humanities:

Staff at museums are more likely to be thinking about audiences and community connections. They employ staff whose job it is to communicate to different audiences, with missions to educate, to connect with their communities.

Slide23Museums know how to design for specific audiences:
This means being accessible in every way.
Museums understand that design communicates ideas, and understand the value of creating accessible physical and virtual spaces according to different abilities, and making knowledge accessible and welcoming the ideas and questions of those publics.

Slide24Establishing a digital public humanities center at a national institution, such as at the Smithsonian, seems to fit with their goals, mission, and history as a research institution.


Slide25Museums are generally committed to long-term projects, are institutions in the long game.
They have physical spaces for centers.


Slide26Museums can help push on boundaries of digital humanities, which is still very text based.
Helping to push on 3D imaging, 3D environments—which are still tricky. SIx3D is a great example; object and image analysis and comparison.

Museums generally employ creative thinkers, designers, and technologists to contribute to these areas of DH.  A DH centered in museum might also produce for “DH for Fun” projects.



Slide27History museums need the most help.  We have to recognize that there are differences in ways that history museum, natural history, anthropology museum, represent objects and contextualize their histories. The stakes can be higher for interpretation.

Art museums, in some ways, have more freedom to play.


Can university museum be a good middle ground for testing out this concept? Is it practical? Or, do DH centers located in university libraries need to reach out to university museums, and vice-versa, to collaborate more.


Establishing a DH Center in a Museum:

Might provide a good place for hosting cross-institutional, trans-disciplinary digital projects.

Provide training for curators and museum staff to learn new skills and implement some new ideas with real projects related to collections and exhibits.

Museums might be the best place to locate digital public humanities centers.


Inviting You to Review with Me

2015 January 2
by Sheila

Finally, I have real progress to report about my digital monograph, Stamping American Memory.

home-screenshotI finished an posted a fully-revised version of, in WordPress + CommentPress in the summer.

The next stage is peer review.

In my work plan for the project, I asked for an open peer review process to occur within the posts and comments of the project. I wanted scholarship about public dialogs to include dialog as part of the review process, and as part of my efforts to write in public. University of Michigan Press is revising their own procedures for the Digital Cultural Books digital humanities series, but an open peer review, solely, will not satisfy the requirements of their board. Early in 2015, both blind and open peer review will occur simultaneously. I requested that the blind peer reviewers read and review from, and not from copies of pages exported into Word, because many of my revisions, particularly content structure, were based on the format in which I am publishing.

Michigan Press is handling the blind and I’m in charge of the open. Michigan is not quite prepared to help scholars with marketing their digital projects for this type of process. Luckily, there are examples of successful open peer review projects and author-editor driven outreach, including Writing History in the Digital Age, Hacking the Academy, and Planned Obsolescence.

The next step is for me to ask you, my readers, to read, comment, and help make this project better. My goal is for readers to see that stamp collecting was not just an insignificant hobby practiced by a few obsessed individuals. Rather, that stamp collecting provides a way to examine how millions of individuals and the federal government participated in a conversation about national life in early-twentieth-century America. As a collectible, stamps transformed into miniature memorials through the act of being saved. This study draws upon sources known to historians and to philatelists, separately, that haven’t been adequately brought together in one piece of scholarly work. My goal is to bring together philatelists and historians, collectors and students, not only through the sources I interrogate, but through this platform by encouraging discussion among readers.

Stamping offers new interpretations of the US Post Office Department as a producer and distributor of historical narratives, through the commemorative stamp program. Can I convince you that the USPOD emerged in the early twentieth century as one of the most active federal agencies engaged in public history making prior to the New Deal by selecting scenes and figures from the American past for printing on commemorative stamps?

I tried to revise this “monograph” so that each major section (chapter) stands on its own, making it easy for a reader to hunt and peck around in the sections that most interest them.

Over the next few days, I will reach out to some of you directly to ask for your input. Hope to discuss this with you soon, in public.

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.