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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.

Letting the Collections Out, Letting the Ephemeral In

2014 March 23
by Sheila

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.

Slide2 My colleagues are addressing some of these experiences.

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.

Slide3 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. Slide5Lots 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: Slide6 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?

Slide7 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?

I propose a few crazy ideas for us to think on in the name of sustainability of collections, and also our history institutions, and the ability to interpret the history of our lives today, tomorrow. Slide8

  1. Digitize what we have; record its uses, record it in action. Slide9 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.
  2. Take objects out of storage, or out of cases and let them degrade gracefully. De-accession when possible. Slide10I’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: Slide12 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.

  3. Don’t pay for artifakes or make replicas with 3D printers.
    Slide13Museums 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.

    Slide14 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.

  4. Create regional coalitions to share collections and consolidate topically.
    Slide15 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.
  5. Partner with other arts organizations to use our collections and to share them:
    Slide16Imagine 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.)

  6. Collect traces online.
    Slide18When 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!