Free Fun Fridays

Since my move to Massachusetts and entrance into the museum world here, I’ve been introduced to the initiative called “Free Fun Fridays,” sponsored by the Highland Street Foundation. The Highland Street Foundation describes the program saying:

Our Free Fun Fridays offer visitors no-cost admission to many of the most treasured cultural venues in Massachusetts. This program was created to increase access and enrichment opportunities for children and families throughout Massachusetts during the summer months. Every Friday, from the end of June through the end of August, multiple sites are open for free. We reach out to schools, veterans groups, libraries, seniors centers, and many other community organizations to ensure that everyone knows that they are also welcome.

I have worked two of these days: one on August 11th at the Worcester Historical Museum and one on August 18th at the Concord Museum. And I have to say, I am SO impressed! Both events at the two different museums welcomed over 500 visitors respectively, a high number of guests compared to their daily averages. At the Worcester Historical Museum, guests were able to go through the galleries and learn about many aspects of Worcester history while also touching pieces from the collection and even trying on space suits made by a local company! At the Concord Museum, visitors explored exhibitions, created nature journals and leaf prints inspired by Henry David Thoreau and listened to gallery talks led by the museum’s curator. All for free!

I’m a big fan of this idea because while summer is time off from school, many families are interested in continuing active learning through the summer. This is a fun way to engage with a museum and learn new things but still have fun. Additionally, the fact that it’s free begins to get at accessibility issues faced by museums that typically charge admission fees. The additional programming offered by institutions on these days also draw audiences that may not typically visit, so the chances to expand the institution’s visitor pool grow.

The Highland Street Foundation has clearly created a wonderful initiative. I hope that other places can follow Massachusetts’ lead so that museums nationally and even internationally can reach diverse audiences. This will also allow more people to visit places they otherwise might not get the chance to see.

Do you know of other organizations/locations that offer similar programs?

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My Own Research on Confederate Monuments in Light of Current Events: Where Do We Go From Here?

Debates about Confederate monuments and symbols have been on the forefront of national conversations since the Charleston Church Shooting in June 2015. The recent events in Charlottesville have rekindled the debate and President Trump’s refusal to outright condemn white supremacists has only added fuel to the fire. A “Take Em ALL Down” campaign has emerged, including a petition for the cause, sponsored by ColorofChange.org.

I personally have seen and heard historians come out on all sides of this debate. From my experiences, I think the two most popular options are to remove the monuments or add signage to offer additional context. My own opinion pulls a bit from each option. First, I agree with the call to “Take Em ALL Down.” Monuments to a white supremacist institution have no business being honorably displayed in state capitols and in public parks. But then the question becomes “where do we put them and what do we do with them when they’re taken down?”

My own approach would be to put these monuments, signs, and symbols in cultural institutions and ensure that proper context is provided. I think it is the responsibility of historians to inform the public not only about history, but also about how we, as Americans, remember our history. These monuments are as much a part of the story as the Civil War itself is; they serve as visual manifestations of white opposition to the abolition of slavery and growing freedoms for black Americans. They represent a desire to cling to a cause rooted in white supremacy.

When I talk to friends or family about this they often respond, “that makes sense. So why aren’t we already doing this?” My answer? “Because America isn’t always great at acknowledging it’s mistakes and repenting for them.” The version of American history taught to kids in schools is often white-washed (and male-focused). It often leaves out details and failures for the sake of a clear and triumphant recollection of a particular time period.

In my own research for my graduate research seminar, I set out to learn more about Confederate monuments at Gettysburg National Military Park. There are a few different layers to my research. First, I analyzed the linguistic and visual elements of the monuments through a masculine lens. I traced the creation of masculinity in our history and was able to argue that words like “honor” and “noble” are inherently masculine, therefore using those words to describe the Confederacy evokes a positive and triumphant connotation. Secondly, I only looked at state-sponsored monuments, erected post-1960. There are 8 monuments that fit the criteria: The Arkansas State monument, the Florida State monument, the Georgia State monument, the Louisiana State monument, the Maryland State monument, the Mississippi State monument, the South Carolina State monument, and the Texas State monument. I argue that by creating reverent and triumphant monuments to the Confederacy during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, these state governments were participating in white resistance to Civil Rights. This is heightened by the fact that the monuments are on National Park Service, aka federal, land at a site which has welcomed over 1 million visitors a year since 1980 and in 1969 and 1970, had over 6 million visitors annually.

The problems here are obvious and yet, there is no interpretation for these specific monuments being offered at Gettysburg. Visitors are left to their own devices to interpret the messages for themselves, and I’m sure, many come away thinking that there are no issues with these monuments. This complacency can no longer stand as the official stance of the federal government. Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory raises similar concerns in a recent post and asks “When will we begin to ask whether this is who we are as a nation?”

 

It is time for museums, historic sites, the National Park Service, and all other keepers of history to come together to create interpretation that truthfully contextualizes our past. We need to admit to our wrongdoings and begin to brainstorm ways to reconcile them. Germany’s method of reconciling with a hateful past is a model approach, in my opinion. This NPR article outlines some ways in which Germany remembers the Holocaust. They do not glorify Nazi sites and they have erected monuments to the victims so that they will not forget those who were treated unjustly and inhumanely.

In summation, my own views and previous research experience with the topic lead me to favor this approach: 1- remove all Confederate symbols from public spaces so as to stop glorifying them. 2- move them to spaces where they can be understood in context, in conjunction with clear and specific signage, programming, or other interpretation so that Americans can begin to learn the real reasons these monuments were erected and why it was, and still is, wrong. 3- Erect new monuments to honor those that have suffered at the hands of white supremacy. And not this kind of despicable “loyal slave” monument that was almost erected in DC in the 1920s. Powerful and respectful monuments to victims of white supremacy.

Only then can America move forward. Read More »

Bringing My Blog Back to Life

Well, it’s been a while…. The last time I posted on this blog was June 30, 2015 and I have to say, I’ve missed it. Life (let’s be real, mostly just grad school) was too time consuming for me to keep up with this but now that I’ve graduated, it’s time for the blog to make a comeback!

So what have I been up to? Well, lots! I officially started my first semester as a graduate student at American University in August 2015. For the record, I was ABSOLUTELY terrified but thankfully, things got easier. I met great friends and learned a lot in my first two semesters, especially in my practicum class where I created educational programming for the Historical Society of Washington. During that first year I was also working as the Coordinator for American University Ambassadors. Summer 2016 was exciting–I landed an amazing fellowship for the upcoming academic year and worked for the White House Historical Association in many different capacities. I interned in the historian’s office, researching and writing posts for the Association’s Facebook page. I also worked as an Educator, staffing the exhibitions, leading historic house tours, and teaching at White House history camp for children ages 7-12.

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In Spring 2016, I worked on a team to create an education program for the Historical Society of Washington. This is a photo of me facilitating that program to a visiting group of 3rd graders. In this photo, we’re looking at a 19th century map of Washington from HSW’s collection.

Fast forward to Fall 2016 where I’m (suddenly) in my last year of grad school, starting to develop the research I want to work on for the next year and working as a fellow with the DC Preservation League. At DCPL, I worked on their DC Historic Sites App (shoutout to the digital history class I originally created this blog for. It gave me the confidence to believe that, despite my limited “tech” knowledge, I could work on an organization’s app. Also, shoutout to Omeka because it’s super user-friendly and helped me learn so much, so quickly).

Remember that research I mentioned just a few sentences ago? That’s a biggie in reflecting on the Fall 2016 semester. My research class was taught by an amazing professor, one of my favorites at AU, and she challenged me to really think about what mattered to me and how I could turn it into research. I did and ended up finding my passion project. It also just so happens that my research is very closely linked to today’s political climate which enhances my own belief that history is CRUCIAL to understanding the current world. But more on this in a later blog post….

Anyway, I worked on that research through to Spring 2017 and graduated. Then I faced the scariest question yet: “What in the world am I going to do with this public history degree?” Truthfully, I think I’m still figuring that out. I know I’m passionate about museum education but I’m also interested in programming, exhibits, and digital initiatives. I also have very strong feelings about why history matters and how it can be used to try and make the world a better, more empathetic place.

While I’m sorting all of that out, I’m living in central Massachusetts and working as an interpreter at the Concord Museum. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to continue interacting with guests at museums, teach school programs, and learn more about what I want my own career to look like.

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In this case is one of the two lanterns that hung in the Old North Church to signal that the British regular troops were coming via water, not land. It also signaled Paul Revere to begin spreading the message throughout the colony. Fun fact: did you know Paul Revere actually never said “The British are coming”? He actually said “the regulars are coming out” because they were all British then.

Okay, so why does it matter that I just gave you a whole run down of my grad school experience? Well, because it influenced the public historian I am today and therefore, the kind of content I’m hoping to post on this blog. I envision this blog as a central place for all of my “public history thoughts.” Whether that’s reflecting on my own research in light of current events (Really, it’s coming soon!), navigating the extremely tough job search component of this field, or just writing out some thoughts and questions after visiting a museum or historic site. For me, this blog is going to help me discover where I want to go in public history and the ways in which I want to practice it. I imagine my approaches will evolve as will my ideas but who knows? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

So, shall we?

Lies my Historical Tour Guide Told Me

I need to start this post with a major shoutout to the Civil War Trust. I was lucky enough to be awarded one of their student scholarships for this summer’s annual conference entitled “The Road to Appomattox.” I spent the weekend touring historic Richmond and meeting Civil War enthusiasts from across the country. It was a wonderful experience filled with people who love history as much as I do but also by people who care so deeply about preserving history that I was constantly reminded about how the future is in my hands. Sounds pretty daunting…

Nonetheless, I’m so thankful for my little history “vacation” and that would not have been possible without the Trust and their generous scholarship donors.

One of the tours I embarked on during the conference focused on the historic homes and gardens of Richmond. We visited three absolutely gorgeous plantations: Westover, Shirley, and Berkeley. Though the three plantations were similar, their historic interpretations could not have been more different. Westover Plantation was showcased to us by a woman who resides in the house and gives tours to the public. Her tour combined historic anecdotes of the house with her own personal experience of growing up and now raising her own family in the house. Shirley plantation featured an incredibly knowledgeable and engaging tour guide that gave a traditional house tour. The tour at Berkeley plantation was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The tour guides dress in period clothing and combine a video with a walking tour of the outside of the grounds.

I found each tour to be enjoyable but there was just one thing that got under my skin the whole time we were at Berkeley…I

This wall features the historic hole in the wall from the 1862 attack in addition to the cannonball added by Berkeley Plantation for effect.
This wall features the historic hole in the wall from the 1862 attack in addition to the cannonball added by Berkeley Plantation for effect.

knew I was being lied to. At one point during the tour, our guide mentioned that there was a hole in one of the outer walls of a building. He pointed our attention upwards and mentioned that the damage was from an 1862 attack on the Army of the Potomac. He then proceeded to fill us in on a little secret; he said since we were “historical enthusiasts” he couldn’t lie to us and so he let us in on a little known fact. The cannonball in the wall was placed there by the workers at Berkeley plantation. The hole is historically accurate but the cannonball itself was added for the effect.

Now this might seem like a minor thing to some but it certainly struck a chord with me.  Why would you blatantly lie to the public in a way that makes them believe that is an authentic cannonball in the wall from a battle in the 19th century. Sure, the hole is real but is it even plausible that a cannonball would’ve lasted that long throughout the course of history without substantial damage? I’m unsure but it seems unlikely. After knowing about this little white lie, I found myself questioning every fact I was told throughout the rest of the tour.

So why do we do this? Why do we lie to the public about history when it is our duty as historians to present the facts of the past? Personally, I think it speaks volumes to our assumptions about a public without a formal historical education. The fact that our tour was let in on the “secret” of the cannonball showed that we were held in some kind of higher regard since the guide expressed guilt in lying to us (his words, not mine). Are other visitors not respected in the same way? It almost seems as though we don’t expect audiences to notice anything out of the ordinary and question the cannonball so it is kept for dramatic effect. Well, sure. Maybe not every tour will ask about the cannonball. But what if they do? Do you say you lied? Or is there a “plan B” story in the queue ready to save the day?

This speaks to the larger idea of shared authority. Mainly, shared authority focuses on incorporating stories and voices of those previously silenced by the white-washed, male-centered version of history that has been a staple of the past. Many scholars on the topic support the incorporation of diverse stories and Nick Sacco says,

history is best viewed through multiple perspectives.

I agree. History is best when it can offer a variety of interpretations on a subject. Since the public history movement gained speed in the 1990s, this story of our past is beginning to shift to a more inclusive one. While this is wonderful, other points of shared authority are important to explore as well.

A less central point about shared authority is that we can also trust our audiences to be educated; and deserving of the truth. Even if they don’t have a formal history education from a University or College, are we actually doing any good by lying to them and presenting a false history? Not at all. If anything, we’re hurting ourselves and the future of our field. So why do we do it? Maybe we have a flare for the dramatics. Maybe these tall tales draw in larger audiences which can help with funding endeavors. No matter the reason, this false interpretation needs to stop.

Once we can present a clear, diverse, and truthful version of our past then we will be on our way to preserving history for future generations. Until that day however, it is our job as historically curious audiences to question interpretation and seek the truth in interpretation. I hope that Berkeley plantation can keep this in mind for the future and join in our common goal to fulfill all aspects of shared authority.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

In the blink of an eye, I’ve found myself in the last week of Digital History class. In looking back on our readings, assignments, and class discussions I think the one word used to encompass the importance of everything we’ve learned is collaboration.

Week one focused on historical authority and Cohen and Rosenzweig emphasized that anyone can be a historian and therefore contribute to historical content. This means teamwork between trained historians and historical enthusiasts alike. That’s collaboration.

Week two offered insights about the different uses for the word archive and the meaning that word carries for archivists and digital humanists alike. Though tentative about defaulting to the word archive, Kate Theimer did stress the need for archivists and digital humanists to work together to ensure a future for history’s documents. That’s collaboration.

In week three the central point was that digitization isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing. It opens doors to new avenues of analysis and can provide insights on documents that we didn’t previously think of. These new insights require museums to embrace digitization and work to reveal new historical findings. Sheila Brennan encourages museums to bring in outside folks to contribute content and to help meet new digital goals. That’s collaboration.

Wikipedia was the highly controversial issue discussed in week four but ultimately, I sided with Rosenzweig in that Wikipedia shouldn’t be the online demon we’ve made it out to be. It simply is a digital form of the family encyclopedia of the past that no one seemed to take issue with. Wikipedia is a good starting point for research and is constantly being updated since anyone can contribute. This is the epitome of shared authority and works to ensure the most accurate and up to date information as possible. But since everyone can contribute, that’s collaboration.

Week five made apps center stage. Durington and Collins pointed out the importance of apps as they are collaborative and engaging. Apps offer ways for visitors to engage with their surroundings whether they’re in a museum or on the National Mall. They also provide user-friendly, low commitment ways to contribute to exhibits. An example of this is Smithsonian’s Will to Adorn app which is comprised of viewer opinions, stories, and contributions to the content. That’s collaboration.

Lastly, this past week focused on video games and how they’re an engaging and worthwhile way to present history. These games require the skills and perspectives of historians, game makers, and players alike in order to make historical games a success. These types of games engage audiences because they are interactive and force people to learn and take action based on their own experiences. Gee points out that this is crucial to learning which again, adds to the merit of video games. There are many moving parts at work here; and that’s collaboration.

So what’s my point? My point is that history is collaborative. As someone just starting out in the public and digital history worlds, I’m learning that my previous ideas about history were wrong. Who is to say thdownloadat only “formally educated historians” are able to say what is history and what it is not? Are they the only ones allowed to offer an interpretation of a historical event or speech? I used to think yes. But now I know better. We have all lived history and though we may not study it, we can still be interested in it. The more perspectives, the better! There is never just one story when it comes to learning the past so to quote Abraham Lincoln, I think we need to rethink history as a field of the people, by the people, and for the people.

As I move forward in my public history studies and hopefully future public history career, I will keep this fact in mind. I hope that my future work will contribute to bringing diverse voices to the past and offering different perspectives from which audiences can interpret history for themselves. This class has certainly shaped the type of historian I aspire to be one day.

My Very Own Jamestown Adventure

I’ll be the first to say that I never thought video games and history could have anything to do with each other. For one thing, are video games even good for your brain? I used to think no. But turns out, I was pretty wrong. Author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy James Paul Gee writes,

“humans…think best when they reason on the basis of patterns they have picked up through their actual experiences in the world” which matters because these “central truths about the human mind and human learning…are well represented in the ways in which video games are learned and played”(9-10)

Gee’s points certainly related to my own experience this week playing the computer game “Jamestown Adventure.” I found

myself thinking about what facts I knew from studying history and my own life experiences in general when making decisions about starting a colony town in Jamestown. This obviously wasn’t the same logic used by the colonists when this wScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 11.28.48 AMas happening- I don’t claim to (nor do I wish to) have the same life experiences as a person coming to America in the 17th century. Though my actions definitely don’t have the same consequences as the ones taken by colonists back then, I can see how this game tries to engage players in what a colonist’s life must have been like to a certain extent.

When “Jamestown Adventure” starts you are given 4 points on a map and asked to pick which point you would like to use as your landing spot. They all have their merits and downfalls which are made clear to players in a text box if you hover the mouse over each landmark. Once you’ve picked a spot you are posed with a challenge: Chief Powhatan confronts you with warriors and asks why you’re invading his land. You have to chose to attack him, tScreen Shot 2015-06-20 at 11.30.46 AMrade with him, or to ignore him and see what happens. You aren’t immediately told what happens in this situation but instead are directed to choose what kind of settlement you’d like to build. After doing so, you need to decide if everyone will work to build the town or if gentlemen are exempt from work.

You further have to decide what kind of tasks the workers will have; will they hunt, fish, or look for gold? Lastly you choose the kinds of crops you’d like to plant at your settlement. Throughout the entire process of making these decisions, players are given three universal options- ask a colonist, ask a Native, and consult the charter. These options give players advice from the perspective of a colonist or a Native American. Consulting the Charter gives information about the mission of the colonists going to Jamestown.

In my own experience playing the game, the first time around I ended up choosing what I thought were the “right answers.” I chose to land on the coast of the bay for protection but also access to water, I chose to trade with Powhatan and build a small town. I made everyone work, including gentlemen and decided to fish and hunt rather than look for gold. I chose to plant corn thanks to the advice from the Native American and then I planted tobacco and wheat as instructed to by the colonist. With these choices (which were undoubtedly influenced by own experience learning American history and knowing what ways are now acceptable to treat fellow colonists and Native Americans) I figured that I had succeeded in winning the game. Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 11.31.23 AM

Once choices are made, you’re taken to a “now we know” page which tells you the rating of your colony based on your choices and compares them to the actions of the actual colonists. My rating page said that the wealth and safety of my colony were good. However, my health rating was severely low because landing by the bay meant dealing with disease infested mosquitos and outbreaks of typhoid fever. My morale rating was also low since I forced gentlemen to work and decided to not look for gold.

Knowing this I replayed the game and landed more inland, didn’t force gentlemen to work, looked for gold, and built a small castle. The landing and castle meant great protection which in combination with only servants working and seeking gold, gave my colony a very high morale rating and I was promoted to governor of the colony! However the castle also meant poor sanitation and my health rating stayed low. It also threatened the Native Americans and Powhatan and his warriors attacked.

Coming away from this experience seriously caused me to reflect on the impact of video games and how they matter to the world of history. In playing this game I assumed that I could easily win this game. I know that colonists struggled when they challenged and fought Native Americans so I decided not to do that. I knew that food shortages were common so I opted to hunt and fish. I however did not realize that these choices could also have negative consequences. It didn’t cross my mind that morale and health could be damaged over a landing spot or choice of crops. Playing this game actually helped me to understand the choices colonists had to make. It was a balancing act between the desires and needs of many parties- Native Americans, fellow colonists, and even those decision makers back in England.

Though this game is not the most advanced in terms of graphics or detail, I did find it highly informative and a great example of Gee’s point and how video games can impact learning and literacy. I’m now a firm believer that video games can help teach history in a seriously engaging way that allows players to learn through their own experiences and perspectives.

Working with HistoryPin

Our week 5 assignment challenged us to create content on HistoryPin.

I use the word challenge for a reason. After setting up my user profile on the site I set out to upload content. My original intention was to a create a sort of “then and now” tour of my hometown, Delran, NJ which was founded in 1880. I had some trouble figuring out how to get content for a tour however. I started out by choosing “Make your own tour” only to give up after trying for about 15 minutes to figure out how to upload content. But, after watching a few “how-to” videos provided by the site, I realized that I needed to use the “pin” button to upload content. So from there I uploaded my images and went back to creating the tour. To my surprise, even with uploaded content, when I searched to try and use that content for my tour, still nothing came up. I watched the video again and read some FAQs but I couldn’t quite figure it out.

At this point, feeling a little defeated, I decided to just pin a point on the map and upload a “then and now” photo comparison. I chose pictures of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia PA. The first picture is from 1870 thanks to the Library of Congress and the second is circa 2015 thanks to the Park’s event website.

Once I put these both on the map and went back to look at my work, I did feel better. It is awesome to realize that with so many pictures and pieces of history at your fingertips representing anywhere in the world, you contributed to such a huge collaborative project. Though it wasn’t much, I think uploading these “then and now” pictures gave me the confidence to go back and explore HistoryPin a little bit closer in the future. I’m sure I’ll still need some time to figure things out but for now, I’m happy that I could contribute even if on a minor scale.

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