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A Brief History of @MallHistories

2014 March 7
by Sheila

Yesterday, my colleagues and I at RRCHNM launched a great new public history site, Histories of the National Mall, 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.

prototype homepage from grant

Prototype homepage from grant

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.

Home page sketch

Sketching possible homepage in planning stages.

All of these decisions were shared on our project management system (Basecamp), and we also sketched out ideas on white boards in the office as moved into the design portion of the project. We needed to solidify the site architecture, and what content we wanted for each page. Kim Nguyen created wire frames and mood boards, then she moved forward with the site design.

The final site is the product of many years of

Final version of homepage

Final version of homepage

planning, development, revision, and collaboration, and is beautiful. The site is responsive, meaning that any user may view the site on any device with a web browser. By building for the web and not as an app, users will never need to download data or updates common with content apps. And as developers, we will not be updating and maintaining multiple versions of code to support the apps.

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!

Find Me at #AHA2014

2014 January 2
by Sheila

The annual meeting of the American Historical Association will be in Washington, DC, which means that you can find RRCHNMers and our history department colleagues throughout the program.

Thursday, January 2, I will be giving an Introduction to Omeka workshop as part of the How to Get Started in Digital History, pre-conference sessions. I posted the worksheet with tips for getting started with Omeka here.

Friday, January 3, 10:30-12, I will be chairing and commenting on the panel, Virtual Reality and Historical Practice.

Sunday, January 5, join us for THATCamp AHA; there is still time to register.

Hope to see you there!

Re-Making the Museum Blog, #MCN2013

2013 November 25
by Sheila

On Saturday, November 23, Joan Troyano and I presented on ways that museums can re-make their blogs into new forms of digital publications using WordPress and the PressForward plugin.

Museum publications session team

Museum publications MCN2013 session team photo with DHUnicorn

We had a great panel on digital publications, chaired by Vicki Portway, Head of Web and New Media at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Interestingly, we presented with two groups representing museums/cultural institutions who are building tools for scholars. And we are scholars who help build tools for ourselves that are also relevant to the GLAM community. Susan Edwards and Will Lani of the J. Paul Getty Trust who presented on their efforts building a collaborative digital art history platform, Scholars’Workspace. Amy Parkolap, discussed challenges of creating new forms of exhibition catalogs that is transforming the Art Institute of Chicago through their OSCI program.

Common thread through the first two presentations: scholars are particular and need digital publications to count/be recognized as scholarship. Their scholars also don’t want process docs & forums to be included in those “publications”. Also, we learned that no one has quite figured out a completely digital editorial workflow that captures comments, changes, and versions all in one place. Editing and revising happens in word or Google docs, then is moved into the digital platform for publication. From what I observed, even as this work is digitally-enabled, the final products are still traditional. Learn more about the Scholars’ Workspace on the Getty blog, and the Getty-funded OSCI toolkit, created by the Indianapolis Museum of Art on the OSCI site.

Here are our slides. The session was webcast, so video will soon be available on the MCN site.

Preview of Histories of the National Mall, #MCN2013

2013 November 22
by Sheila

Today at the Museum Computer Network annual meeting, I presented a preview of RRCHNM’s forthcoming Histories of the National Mall site built with a beautiful responsive design that will display well on any sized screen–particularly on mobile phones. I talked a little about our planning process for the site and the content, and then took the audience on a tour of the site and the content. I finished by posing some questions about the challenges I think we will face as the team moves forward.

This is our wonderful hard-working, Histories of the National Mall, team:

  • Co- Directors: Sharon M. Leon and Sheila A. Brennan
  • Project Manager: Lee Ann Ghajar
  • Software Developer: Jim Safley
  • Web Design: Kim Nguyen
  • Project Associates: Megan Brett, Lindsey Bestebruertje, James Halabuk

For this presentation, I took reveal.js for a test drive. I really liked it building with it, see what you think. And, please leave me comments if you have any questions about the project.

8 Years After Katrina and Rita

2013 August 29
by Sheila

Official USCG photograph

I was privileged to be asked to participate in a session organized by Leigh White, Hurricane Katrina: Disaster Recovery and Documentation in Archival Collections, at Society of American Archivists’ Annual Meeting, August 15, 2013 in New Orleans, LA.

I spoke about the work that we did at RRCHNM together with Michael Mizell-Nelson and the University of New Orleans from 2005-2008 to build the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. If you haven’t had a chance on this 8th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to reflect on those events, please take some time to browse through the collections and through user-contributed stories and images.

One of the highest compliments the project received at the conference came from an archivist who recently relocated to New Orleans who researched Katrina’s and Rita’s impact on the area in HDMB before she arrived in LA. She mentioned that without HDMB she would not have had any sense of the extent of the damage–structural, institutional, emotional– across the region without the Hurricane Archive. We hope this will prove useful for others as time passes.

Below are the slides from my talk:

Intro to DH for Historians

2013 August 21
by Sheila

I was asked to give an introduction to the digital humanities to a group of visiting scholars working at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. My slides from yesterday’s talk are available below: