Critiquing “A More Perfect Union”

I’m not new to Smithsonian’s online exhibit and I did a brief review of their exhibit Cover Art a few weeks ago. This week I checked out a older online exhibit from Smithsonian Institute titled A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans & U.S. Constitution.

I chose this exhibit because since the beginning of my college career I have been interested in immigration to the United States. I’ve typically been interested in Latino immigration to the US in the 20th century (particularly Mexican) and Chinese immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was interested in how A More Perfect Union to see how it dealt with the less than positive or comfortable experiences of Japanese immigrants. The exhibit originally toured from 1995 – 1998 but made a return because the institute felt that after the September 11th attacks that the story still had resonance, and that is absolutely true.

A More Perfect Union

The online exhibit roughly covers the period from 1900 to 1980 and covers the experiences farming, forming communities, businesses, racism/xenophobia, removal to internment camps, and the aftermath. The exhibit is focused on how informal prejudice became institutionalized racism. It is a touchy subject that hasn’t always been something that Japanese Americans themselves have wanted to discuss. The overall exhibit provides a well rounded breadth of featured artifacts which users can click on and see larger with description. The overall exhibit has a soundtrack that I eventually turned off because I found it a little irritating but I can understand how it could be used to create atmosphere (important considering this is an online exhibit). I enjoyed the audio clips that you could listen to for introductory text and the oral history accounts which literally allow for people to speak for themselves.

There is a need for a few adjustments and a more updated appearance. My first issue was the visual size of the exhibit, the presentation does into take up the whole web page space which makes the images and text a bit small. I do enjoy the ability for the user to decide on their own pace and could choose what subject to explore. Otherwise, A More Perfect Union has a predetermined path for visitors. I enjoyed enlarging photos of artifacts but I would suggest that the accompanying text provide more context on how some artifacts are connected to the subject. For instance, there are advertisements from fruit companies and a person would have to assume these were companies that many Japanese immigrants worked for. A bit more context and visual updating could help with this exhibit that I think discusses a facet of immigration to the US that doesn’t get as much coverage some other immigration experiences (for example: Italian, Irish, etc.). I would love to see the exhibit refashioned while still featuring many of the intriguing artifacts and stories. It would also be nice to be able to hear more oral testimonies. My final praise for the exhibit is the provided space for visitors to provide reflections and personal stories; this is one of the most valuable contributions of the site.

This site is most appropriate for any visitor age 12+ and it would also be great for use in educational settings.

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Web of Stories

I’ve already discussed new media and Web 2.0 a little bit here; it is the contemporary version of the internet that is more participatory and user-generated. As usually, the internet has a way of taking on older traditional means of communication and social interaction and making them digital and dynamic. This is no different when to comes to storytelling which is surely one of the oldest forms of communal entertainment. From tall tales to the “back in my day” stories, people have always been interested in each others’ experiences or imaginations.

Author Bryan Alexander’s book The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media explores what are the current relationships between new media and storytelling. In the fourth chapter of his book, “Web 2.0 Storytelling”, he discusses blogs, Twitter, wikis (which are web applications which allow for users to collaborate and create content), Facebook, and “social images” (images that might be on the image-based website like Flickr, for instance). Each of these sites or applications allow for people to create stories or narratives and for people to not only share them but perhaps comment on or adapt them. While I’m not completely sold on Alexander’s belief that Twitter can be a place of storytelling, I suppose it is possible to grasp a story from the short vain messages that make up the site. I’m more convinced by things like blogs (perhaps I am slightly textually biased) but I’m even more certain that images can tell as much of a story as a “tweet”, if not more. Of course, many images have led many people astray, and we all know the fantasy world of computer edited images.

Of course, digital storytelling can be a useful tool in the museum for exhibitions and museum education. Freeman Tilden said that interpretation is “not instruction but provocation”. Interpretation in the museum setting means sharing a narrative to demonstrate meaning, significance, and feeling. In other words, I can hand you a list of factual of historic dates or can I tell you an account from history. One historical story is told on Flickr through the creation of edited photos that are historic World War II images merged with the same location in contemporary times called Ghosts of War. I enjoy many of the images because the creator goal is to show that “history is all around us”. The creator has adapted images to tell another story of change over time while making audiences see locations in a different way. Check out this one depicting a SS recruitment office from the war era merged with a current image of a diverse Amsterdam:

Ghosts of war

History (and Resources) Matters

Since the seventh grade I was convinced that I had decided on my dream career. I was going to be a history teacher. Wouldn’t you know that some people discouraged me from it? In high school I was told that I was too shy, I wouldn’t be paid enough, and that kids were”too bad” these days. Despite, some of society’s current hangups about teachers I thought it was one of the most noble professions and I still do. My junior year of college I changed my mind about pursuing secondary education as a minor because I had some serious problems with my college’s curriculum and advising. By senior year I was intern at Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and I was in love with this new thing called “museum education”. Now, here I am.

In my opinion, public history is very much about education and many times that means reaching teachers and students. More museums are hoping to bridge the gap between schools and their institutions. Museums aren’t the only ones trying to build communities that involve historical inquiry and students of all ages. The web is fully of many things and some of those “things” can be extremely profitable to teaching history in and outside the classroom. Daniel L. Cohen and Roy Rosenweig call the collection of history-based websites online “the history web”.

HistoryMatters

One of my favorite history based websites is History Matters:the US Survey Course on the Web. History Matters is a resource website for teachers and students (high school and college). It was created in 1998 by Pennee Bender, Joshua Brown, Roy Rosenzweig (imagine that) and is part of the George Mason University website. The website is a great example of useful materials including: 1,000 primary resources, syllabi, forums, reviewed and annotated history websites, and much more. Two of my favorite features of History Matters is their Digital Blackboard and Students as Historians sections. Digital Blackboard is a listing of links and descriptions of web-based assignments for students. It includes topics from Immigration to Watergate. Students as Historians is a resource list of students history projects. Some of the projects are student articles online or are projects that involve making informational websites. While the website isn’t particularly visually intriguing but it is straightforward and updated (something that isn’t always remembered). Any history teacher, professor, or museum educator can find something of value from this website.

Double Duty: Black History Month & Photoshop

This week in my Public History and New Media class we were tasked with grasping the basics of Photoshop. Photoshop is familiar to many. For those unfamiliar, it is a computer program used to edit images. It’s used to change images that you see everyday in print media and online. Seeing isn’t always believing. Yet, the cliche is still true: “a picture is worth a thousand words”. If anyone doubts the power of an image then they haven’t taken time to realize how visually saturated American culture is.

This month is Black History Month and honestly I have little to say about it. It might be weird because I’m a historian who happens to be African American but I’m not a historian of African American history. The majority of my history interests are situated in race and ethnicity in American history. In fact my undergraduate study was more about Latino and Asian Americans but I digress. Well this month I found out about something called Black History memes. They use real historical images of black people but with humorous comments…well sometimes. Some of them are a bit funny and other ones just perpetrate tired stereotypes about African Americans. One such meme poses civil rights activist Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) as a dead beat dad, just one small example of how edited images get out of hand.

There is a reason places like the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia exists; they know about the power of an image. The museum has postcards, advertisements, and other objects that chronicle the racist imagery of African Americans from Reconstruction to present. We all need to remember these images because they’re still have an effect at present time. Don’t believe me? I suggest you simply pay attention during Halloween in America when some ignorant, culturally insensitive white frat boy decides his costume will be “a black guy” (or Arab or Native American…). I’ve come to find that a number of people my age don’t even know what blackface is.

You may be wondering, “What’s this have to do with Photoshop?” Well I’ve edited some images that show a brief example of the history of African American caricatures. Mind you, my skills are very basic. Also, know that those people who do have skills in Photoshop have the incredible ability to change images into almost anything they want.

This image is public domain and the original image is from Wikipedia/Wikimedia. Click the image for that link.

This image is public domain and the original image is from Wikipedia/Wikimedia. Click the image for that link.


Bert Williams was a Bahamian and one of the most successful black Vaudville starts of the 1920s. He actually looked like this.

This is an edited version of an original image provided by This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode]. Click the image for a link to the original.

This is an edited version of an original image provided by This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode]. Click the image for a link to the original.


This is a page from a music score for “Jim Crow Jubilee,” published in Boston in 1847.

This edited image is public domain and the original image is from the Library of Congress. Click the image for the link.

This edited image is public domain and the original image is from the Library of Congress. Click the image for the link.


Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee, 1900. Classic blackface.

Mining the Public?

I have an academic crush and his name is Fred Wilson.

Everyone in the public history world knows Fred Wilson and if you don’t yet you will. Fred Wilson is a conceptual artist who is known for his challenge to traditional presentations of art and artifacts. In the public history world he is most notably known for his exhibit for Maryland Historical Society titled “Mining the Museum” in which artifacts like a gorgeous European silver tea set was juxtaposed to slave shackles. The kind of thing he does unsettles and is amazing! He dug deep (“mined”) the museum’s collection to say something new and valuable. I am most inspired by him and that is where I get my blog title “Mining the Public”. For me, mining the public is my public history philosophy; my belief is that the general “public” has incredible complexity and wealth of historical knowledge and we public historians should recognize it, analyze it, critique, and contextualize it with our specialized learning. Call it shared authority, if you want, I call it respect.

Recently I discovered two websites that are related to this concept. The Experience Project is a social media website that has millions of users and was founded in 2007 as a platform for people to share their experiences on a particular subject with others. Those experiences are categorized under subject headings such as food, health, travel, etc. Responses range from short and lighthearted to deep insightful reflections. Sometimes users ask others about their experiences. The site is an exemplar of web 2.0: social media, interaction, and user-generated. While this site doesn’t have anything to do with history exactly I did find another site that operates on a similar premise but as a digital archive of social history.

Indian Memory Project
was founded in February 2010 by Anusha Yadav as a way to allow “regular” Indians the chance to digitally archive their family stories, letters, and images as an open repository of Indian history. The site reads like an open scrapbook of a whole country. Stories relate to the history of Indian independence or a widowed great-grandmother who educated herself. While the site could profit from objective historical context or commentary, this site is the brain-child of social history and web 2.0. Yadav noted that archives in first-world countries are successful but archives are very different in India and Shefali Bhushan of Beat of India (a Indian folk music site) also complains of Indian archives criticizing that they:”lock things in a cupboard where they gather fungus” [1]. Formalized memory isn’t just for the elite and its an archaic message that is clearly being challenged around the world.

Neither Yadav or Bhushan are public historians but we can all take a lesson in learning how we can use the web to diversify and democratize history. Of course, we must question whose stories have more weight; is everyone’s story equal? Should everyone get equal say in history? How best can we contextualize these expressions of social history while still recognizing non-academic public knowledge and experience? It is no easy set of questions but it deserves continued exploration. Until then we, academic and public historians, should keep mining the public.

#PublicHistory

When I first heard of Twitter it didn’t make sense to me. What was the purpose? Turns out there is purposeful use of Twitter. That’s not my personal (read: nonsense) Twitter is full of short tweets about my favorite television shows and insignificant ramblings. The rest of Twitter isn’t much better. Yet, there is a professional side of Twitter and, to my surprise, a growing world of public history related tweets. There are a large number of museums, historic preservation agencies, and public historians on Twitter. Some are useful and others are simply marketing tweets. Here are some of my Twitter public history favorites, where they get it right.:

1) @GetMuseumsJobs
@GetMuseumJobs is a Twitter account that has a running feed of public history related jobs. As a soon to be graduate you could see why this could be of use to my peers and I. Each of the tweets feature a job opening located somewhere in the US along with a link to website where you can apply.

2) @ITweetMuseums
This Twitter account was organized to encourage dialogue between museum professionals on Twitter. It is a helpful part of public history on Twitter because sometimes it can be difficult to find public history related conversations simply through hashtags. Plus, periodically you can find engaging questions related to the field or people live tweeting (tweeting during an event about the event) conferences and lectures. It encourages museum visitors to also tweet about their experiences so it’s it own form of the museum participation. If you’re wondering @ITweetMuseums is not affiliated with any specific museum or other institution.

3) @ninaksimon
Nina Simon (not the soulful singer) is well known to public historians for contributions to museum studies. She is exhibit designer, museum consultant, self-confessed “rabble-rouser for community-driven museums”, and she has her own blog. Her Twitter account can be helpful for finding out about appearances she is making or her new posts on her blog Museum 2.0. She is all about the “participatory museum” which is something many museums need today.

4) #drinkingaboutmuseums
Yes, “drinking”. “Drinking About Museums” was conceptualized when a group of public historians felt the desire to continue the informal conversations they had about their field. The hashtag is used by various people on Twitter to promote the local gatherings. The hashtag is also related to a Google+ account that provides information about the informal gatherings that include alcohol, if that’s what you’re into.

5) @MiningthePublic
Of course, you should check out my Twitter page.

#freeMichaelFrisch

The Optical Telegraph and Industrial Education

My apologies for being away so long but I’m back with new content! With graduation on the horizon (roughly 4 months away), currently I’m enrolled in a public history and “new media” course. Honestly, the term “new media” is…well…new to me. I was not familiar with the term till a few months ago. New media is beyond radio, magazines, or television programs. It is what encompasses much of what is happening in contemporary American today; video games, websites, and everything in between. New media seems to be everywhere and has been praised and critiqued for what it means for psychology, sociology, politics, education, and history.

What I’m interested in here is what new media has to do with the practice of public history. In particular, I have a personal interest in its meaning in museum education because I hope to be that field in the future. In New Media, 1740-1915, editor Lisa Gitelman makes the argument that all media was new at some point and the articles that follow her introduction demonstrate that old media used to bring up similar issues to the ones we face in the present-day.

The third chapter, Children of Media, Children as Media: Optical Telegraphs, Indian Pupils, and Joseph Lancaster’s System for Cultural Replication (a hefty title) written by Patricia Crain explores a nineteenth century educational media. In the mid to late 1800s, Joseph Lancaster, a former Englishmen turned American, changed his pedagogy designed for the London poor into missionary-style system for educating Native Americans. His pedagogy, influenced by a Eurocentric colonialism, provided American schools with a manual to mass educate while at the same time supporting acculturation in Indian boarding schools. His methods were highly visual and the teacher was merely there to dictate repetitious and standardized tasks for students. Lancaster’s pedagogy also called for the use of the optical telegraph.

The optical telegraph is not actually a telegraph it is a set of mechanized signs to alert people to do a task, it usually a flags or something similar. The telegraph was used to alert students to their scheduled task through the visual signaling system. The factory like setting of mass classroom with a rigid schedule that encouraged mimicking and decreased privacy had a modern feel not so unlike computers. Public historians and educators alike have begun to use computerized learning. In my opinion, the Lancasterian system, which also rewarded students with tokens for gifts, is not that unlike video game. Furthermore, Lancaster was not particularly interested in books for classroom learning but the use of over-sized posters. While education outside of books has its appealing aspects you could hardly say that Lancaster’s system was beneficial to the majority of students, particularly non-Western people like Native American children with a very different understanding of identity and knowledge. Perhaps the newest media can help present-day children and the larger public in a way that Lancaster couldn’t — on an individual level with cultural sensitivity.