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.

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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.

So Long, Farewell…

As of last Wednesday, my internship with the Field Museum is over. I’m grateful for the opportunities and experiences I had while working there. I really got to see some neighborhoods of Chicago in a new way. I’ve been to the South Chicago and East Side, for instance, and have traveled as far as Porter, Indiana. I wasn’t aware of how involved the Field Museum is involved in conservation within the Chicagoland and Calumet region. My internship has educated me more to the connections that can exist between large museums, historic preservation and environmental conservation.

So what’s next? Classes start for me again for my second and last year of my Master’s degree (yay!). This semester I’ll also be entering another internship, more details on that soon. I also will be a co-mentor to an undergraduate class who is working on an exhibit that will be featured at Loyola’s library (formally the Karlchek Information Commons). Expect to see more posts from me next month and possible a blog name change. This isn’t really goodbye, its auf wierdersehen.

The (Un)Glamorous Life: Behind the Scenes at the Field Museum

I watched the Indiana Jones films a number of times as a kid (teen and young adult) and honestly I can say they were partially responsible for my love affair with history. Watching the movies also led me to try out deciphering hieroglyphics (at the ripe age of 10 or 11) and to attempt grabbing a hat from under a closing garage door — but I digress. Thank you George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford. For those who don’t know, the character Indiana Jones is an archaeologist and professor who also does fieldwork, like any archaeologist or anthropologist, but he doesn’t uncover any old artifacts. No.  Jones escapes the lecture halls and dusty libraries to recover the…. oh I don’t know — THE HOLY GRAIL! Meanwhile  he destroys the Nazis and recovers artifacts while proclaiming “This belongs in a museum!” Could that statement have been my first indoctrination lesson in public history/museum studies? Perhaps.

Presented here are some photos from the glamorous office space museum professionals (curators, anthropologists, exhibit designers, etc.) occupy at the Field Museum. Come with me into world that smells like a hundred year old books and a teeny bit like your 8th grade biology class.

A display case with information about Malvina Hoffman, famous sculptress who recorded, in bronze sculpture, people from around the world. Many of the sculptures  in the  museum and were created in 1930.

A display case with information about Malvina Hoffman, famous sculptress who recorded, in bronze sculpture, people from around the world. Many of the sculptures in the museum and were created in 1930.

Close up picture of sculpture of a woman from India next to the real woman who modeled for the bust. Comparing pictures of the real people with their busts raises questions about  anthropological and cultural attitudes of the time.

Close up picture of sculpture of a woman from India next to the real woman who modeled for the bust. Comparing pictures of the real people with their busts raises questions about anthropological and cultural attitudes of the time.

Map to get around the massive 3rd floor which I used to get lost in.

Map to get around the massive 3rd floor which I used to get lost in.

Doorway to a small section of the anthropology department.

Doorway to a small section of the anthropology department.

This is as close as it gets to anything I imagine a 1930s museum office looked like. Indiana Jones could have worked here, right (without the fax of course)?

This is as close as it gets to anything I imagine a 1930s museum office looked like. Indiana Jones could have worked here, right (without the fax of course)?

The Ancient Americas lab also known as my workspace.  On the wall a map of an area in Peru and on the table a map of the Calumet Region.

The Ancient Americas lab also known as my workspace. On the wall a map of an area in Peru and on the table a map of the Calumet Region.

Poster reads: " ¡Alto al Hauqeo! Salvemos Nuestro Patrimonio Cultural" Translation: "Stop Huaqueo (from Quecha for looting of sacred places)!: Save Our Cultural Heritage"

Poster reads: ” ¡Alto al Hauqeo! Salvemos Nuestro Patrimonio Cultural”
Translation:
“Stop Huaqueo (from Quecha for looting of sacred places)!: Save Our Cultural Heritage”

Stairway to the mysterious fourth floor, Exhibitions. Look to the top right for some curation of dinosaurs.

Stairway to the mysterious fourth floor, Exhibitions. Look to the top right for some curation of dinosaurs.

A zoological exhibit near my workspace.

A zoological exhibit near my workspace.

A scientific drawing of a very angry badger by one the women's bathrooms.

A scientific drawing of a very angry badger by one the women’s bathrooms.

What I call the "bird library" which is much like what it sounds.; numerous archives of preserved dead birds. Mmm the smell of formaldehyde in the morning.

What I call the “bird library” which is much like what it sounds.; numerous archives of preserved dead birds. Mmm the smell of formaldehyde in the morning.

A wall of anthropology curators from the beginning of the Field Museum to the current one. The is one woman in there.

A wall of anthropology curators from the beginning of the Field Museum to the current one. The is one woman in there.

What is known as "wall of wood" which is a hallway lined with samples of wood from around the world with labels.

What is known as “wall of wood” which is a hallway lined with samples of wood from around the world with labels.

Part of the in-house library.

Part of the in-house library.

Beautiful woodcarving from Asia in the library entrance way.

Beautiful woodcarving from Asia in the library entrance way.

And this is Bushman, the guy I get to see everyday when I get on or of the elevator.

And this is Bushman, the guy I get to see everyday when I get on or of the elevator.

Heritage v. History

Material culture, landscape, memory, Section 106, shared authority, meta narrative, and Michael Frisch; all of these words have a special meaning for public historians (and words I also hear entirely too much between the months of September and May). Heritage is also one of those words. Despite the hefty amount that heritage has been thrown about in my grad program and at my internship, it can get a bit difficult to explain to others (especially those not in the field) what heritage means.  One of my supervisors at the Field Museum, who is an anthropologist, tells my fellow interns and I to capture different communities’ “performance of heritage”. I finally have a clearer understanding;  I have a firm idea about what heritage is and is not.

What Heritage Is

Heritage can simplistically be explained as something that is inherited or, in an even more basic definition, tradition. In the context of public history, anthropology or sociology, heritage (in less delicate terms) can be stuff people do because someone else they were related to used to do it or places that our of value because an ancestor once valued it.  Heritage is traditional practices, places, natural landscapes and even what we eat; we have cultural, intangible (language, folklore, etc.), natural, and food heritage. Its all about keeping an inheritance alive and passing it from one generation to the next as a means of identity, meaning-making, and community. Once you realize that heritage is dependent on being passed along and maintained by descendents then it is not hard to understand that heritage and conservation are best pals. Sacred meeting places, a unique language, and a recipe passed from your great-grandmother, are all performances of the past.

What Heritage Isn’t/History Steps In

History while different from heritage still seeks to understand it and preserve it, especially in the case of public history. The most distinct difference between the two is that history is more about evidence from the past and its analysis. While history has given many a historian “the warm fussies” (a technical term), it seems heritage is more about feeling and less about facts. Historians are going to tell you about the significant events of the American Civil War: data, why the Confederacy left the Union, what Abraham Lincoln’s presidency was like and so on. While Southern heritage, for example, passes on to a Southerner memories of Vicksburg, songs about the former glory of Dixie or maybe a inherited recipe from a slave past. History can get complex but heritage can get downright messy; some historians are not so fond of heritage for the issues and intentional silences it can create. History, if presented in a reasonably balanced manner, can be accessible to a diverse audience while certain expressions of heritage many times are specific to a particular group.

In summary, heritage is about inherited practiced culture,place and community. while history is a method of recounting and understanding the past.  In my opinion, history and heritage should have a relationship to one another since one can benefit the other and provide different modes of viewing the same past. Since heritage is what is purposely conserved it helps historians and social scientists understand what groups choose to remember, memorialize, and promote while simultaneously telling us what would rather be forgotten.