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.

 Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 5.56.47 PM

A Greater “App-reciation” for Tomorrow

Throughout my [fairly short] experience in the digital history realm, it seems that one thing is certain- technology is the future of history. Whether this means digitization of materials, implementing social media, or creating online exhibits, I think it has become clear that this is the pathway to a more accessible and relevant future for the field of history.

So where do apps fit into this future? Durington and Collins offer that

apps suggest an ethnography that is collaborative, engaging, open and fluid.

Apps have the potential to be all of these things for many reasons. First, collaborative. Apps are collaborative as showcased by many projects such as Chicago 00, Chongno Alleys, and HistoryPin. All of these apps allow for citizens to contribute by sharing their own stories as interpretations of the respective towns represented in each of these apps.

Sreenshot of the "Hurricane Sandy" HistoryPin page.
Sreenshot of the “Hurricane Sandy” HistoryPin page.

For example, HistoryPin allows users to share pictures and perspectives on broad themes such as Hurricane Sandy. This specific collection includes personal photos and reflections by those East Coast citizens who lived through the natural disaster. This type of collaboration is important to history for interpretive reasons; visitors to the online exhibit can learn about the experience through the voices of those who lived it. But this is also important for accessibility reasons. Allowing for a variety of contributors starts to combat issues of the “whitewashed” history we’re so often presented with.

Second, engaging. These apps are engaging because the potential for them is endless. Visitors can be engaged due to the potential for their own collaboration- maybe viewers delve deep into the app because they’re researching what their own contributions should look like. Visitors also engage thoroughly with apps because of the human aspect. Mark Tebeau writes 

Listening and the human voice, in particular, evoke place in visceral and profound ways. Human voices call forth memory, time, and context; they provide interpretive dimensions.

Human voices allow visitors to relate and be empathetic towards their fellow humans. This kind of catharsis is very engaging.

Third, apps are the future because they’re open. To me, openness means accessibility. 90 percent of Americans own cell phones and 50 percent use smartphones according to Tebeau’s article. This figure is huge and often includes high ownership rates with poor and minority communities. Because of this fact, many apps are accessible to a diverse public. They are open to a wide variety of viewership and contributors.

Last is fluidity. Similar to previous points about the potential for many contributors and interpretations, fluidity means that theoretically, these apps are not limited to one perspective. They are able to offer many perspectives so that visitors can view the topic in a multitude of ways. Fluidity also means that these apps are forever changing. With the endless possibilities of contributions, the app could have new content with every view. Because of this fluidity and ever changing nature, apps are continuously moving into the future.

The combination of characteristics for apps prove that they are a bright future for the field of history. But, creating apps is not an easy or error-free endeavor for museums and other historical institutions. Though many obstacles exist, Leon, Brennan, and Lester offer recommendations for how to combat these issues. The easiest of these solutions is for museums to create web content that is mobile friendly rather than trying to create content for specific devices–this would require multiple creations for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, etc. This solution seems fairly simple and realistically, it is. When solutions are this easy, it seems silly that we have not already embraced apps as the future of our field.

Obviously, there is another side to this argument. Some question, will online content detract from the value of objects? Well, “there is a firewall around our objects: protective glass, rope barriers, alarms, and security personnel (and that’s just for the objects on display)” and that firewall signals inaccessibility. It prevents the visitors from engaging fully with objects like they can online.

The answer to the question of apps seems to be somewhere in between. As historians, we know that objects are important; they’re the basis of our field. Without objects and collections, how are we representing history? However, online content does enhance collections. In the words of Russick,

Together we can foster a new, robust relationship between the twenty-first-century communities we serve and the collections we care for. After all, it is the assumption that such a relationship exists and has meaning that makes the task of collecting worth doing in the first place.

My First Steps into the Wikipedia Community

Week 4’s assignment meant editing a Wikipedia page. Honestly, this was pretty nerve-wracking for me. I’ve heard stories about the Wikipedia community and it doesn’t always seem that edits are accepted with open arms. I have yet to receive any negative feedback (yay!) but with that kind of reputation, I was expecting most pages to be solid in historic facts. This was not the case when I went to edit a Wikipedia page for myself. From my own internship and thesis-writing experiences, I decided to edit the Clara Barton Wikipedia page because that is a topic I feel that I know a substantial amount about.

Screenshot of the Clara Barton Wikipedia page
Screenshot of the Clara Barton Wikipedia page.

When I first started reading the page the information was pretty familiar and aligned with most things I’ve read on Barton and her life. But as the page progressed I found that dates and figures were often misquoted- this could be something minor such as the Missing Soldiers Office identifying the fate of over 22,000 men rather than 21,000 as Wikipedia had it listed. Nevertheless, I felt that getting these numbers correct are important for Barton’s legacy.

Additionally, it seemed as though the page was caught up in the “popular history” memory of Barton as a nurse when in reality she was a teacher by trade and drawn to humanitarian work from her initial desire to help those children in the classroom. This may not seem like the biggest issue in historical fact but portraying these false ideas skews our memory of this American hero. The interpretation of Clara Barton’s life offered by the National Park Service aims to portray the factual story of her life so as to due justice to her many accomplishments. (Side note: this skewed version of Barton’s historical memory was the premise of my undergraduate thesis so I was completely taken aback when I saw how wrong Wikipedia had it.)

For these reasons and my obvious interest in Clara Barton and her accomplishments, I found editing the Wikipedia page to be an interesting experience. While I felt like a protector of history dishing out vigilante justice in correcting some facts, I also had an overwhelming sense of guilt in deleting someone else’s work and replacing it with my own. While I love the idea of collaboration that Wikipedia offers, editing a page seems to evoke this sense of “my word over yours” which could theoretically go on forever as a deleting and re-deleting of facts that contributors think are wrong. Though I suppose this is the beauty and curse of Wikipedia.

in terms of user friendliness, I found page editing to be super easy once I created an account. The code required for citing works was a little daunting for me so I tended to edit things that were already cited correctly. I don’t know if I’ll continue editing pages in the future but I know that I will stay on top of Clara Barton’s page to ensure her legacy is displayed correctly; now that I’ve contributed to it I feel that I need to protect the page.

Is Wiki Whack?: Merits of Sources with Volunteer Contributors

Since middle school we’ve been told “Wikipedia does not count as a source.” Personally, I never thought to question it. Hearing that declaration was disheartening because Wikipedia is generally the first option that pops up from a Google search. But my disappointment stopped there. I wouldn’t have thought 8 years later that statement would disappoint me because Wikipedia can count as a source.

My understanding for the discrediting of Wikipedia is that since anyone can edit content on the internet, there’s no way to ensure information on Wikipedia is correct. WRONG. As pointed out by Roy Rosenzweig, books have errors and issues of plagiarism as well. Wikipedia in fact privileges sound evidence through the “featured articles” status meaning that an article has been peer reviewed and fact-checked. In the formal education system, do we not privilege peer reviewed articles in journals? How different is this?

It’s different in that Wikipedia is free. As historians we should be sharing knowledge and collaborating with peers/audiences to offer new perspectives on interpretation and opportunities to learn. But how can we achieve this if our audiences don’t have access to journals like scholars do? Databases such as JSTOR which require subscription fees are directly prohibiting collaboration between historical audiences. Wikipedia alleviates this problem in that it does not require any fees to participate. It also encourages collaboration because pages can be edited and monitored by many collaborators which showcases different perspectives but also enforces accuracy.

So why does collaboration for online historical mediums even matter? Well, it matters because as Paul Ford states, “The web is a customer service medium” through which people are prompted to ask “why wasn’t I consulted?” For better or worse, the web serves as a place for everyone to voice their own opinions. So when something is shared without consulting others opinions, the question arises; why wasn’t I consulted?

Well consultation is also not an issue for Wikipedia. Contributors to the site are acting on their own accords and therefore contribute their knowledge and others can contribute as well. This type of crowdsourcing is very useful because any one

Screenshot of Taylor Swift's Wikipedia page
Screenshot of Taylor Swift’s Wikipedia page

website could never be responsible for creating factual and interesting pages for the over 3 million articles that currently exist on Wikipedia. With over 3 million articles, an arsenal of contributors is needed to ensure that pages are being take care of; that they’re being thoroughly researched. For example, the Wikipedia page for Taylor Swift has 550 citations. 550! I don’t know that I’ve read many other articles with that many citations. Without volunteers, there’s no way that one page out of 3 million would have so much effort put into it. Encouraging volunteer contributors is a positive experience according to Causer and Wallace who says crowdsourcing,

“can be a successful and rewarding venture for volunteers and researchers alike .”

This quote in itself shows that not only are volunteers learning from researchers but also that researchers can learn from volunteers. The collaboration between these two categories of contributors to historic content is crucial to the advancement of the study of history. If we don’t work to improve projects like the Transcribe Bentham then we are wasting historical resources.

If it’s not already clear from this post, I’m in the pro-Wikipedia camp. However, I will say that there is a caveat. Rosenzweig offers that since Wikipedia is technically an encyclopedia, it is no different from the family encyclopedia of the old days. At that time, encyclopedias were considered a starting point to spark research, not the sole authority on a topic. Can we not view Wikipedia the same way? I think we can. If teachers can allow Wikipedia back in their good graces and describe it as a jumping off point for research, then maybe Wikipedia’s tarnished reputation as a “bad” source can be cleaned up. If we know how Wikipedia is used and the functions it is intended to serve, then why not embrace it as the first hit for a Google search? It’s just making starting your research easier.