Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery Site Launch!

My classmate Zach and I are pleased to announce the launch of our new interpretive website about the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery, adjacent to President Lincoln’s Cottage, a historic house museum in Washington, D.C., and the site where Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Our website contains interpretive information on the National Cemetery, Abraham Lincoln, Civil War Washington, and the relationships between the three. We also utilize new media such as the Ngram, high resolution digital collections, and digital visualizations enhance the online interpretive experience to show how the cemetery influenced Lincoln’s decision making while at the Soldiers’ Home.

From the project’s conception through the completion, this project was always planned as a cooperative undertaking, taking in pointers and advice from both museum professionals and the public at large. In adherence to this philosophy, we have included a comments sections for individuals to share their comments, thoughts, and concerns with us to make our website an “active” area for the spread of thoughts and information.

I would like to thank the staff at President Lincoln’s Cottage, high school teacher Paul LaRue, and Professor Dan Kerr for their guidance throughout the project. Lastly, thank you, Zach, for your help making this a great collaborative effort. We hope you enjoy the website and we also hope you gain a better understanding of Abraham Lincoln, Civil War Washington, and the role of National Cemeteries in our society throughout the past 150 years.

Please explore “How Sleep the Brave: The Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War”, and let Zach and I know what you think! Also, feel free to look at the Zotero Library I created for the project, for a look at the primary and secondary source material consulted during the project.



Book Review: Creating a Winning Online Exhibition

Creating a Winning Online Exhibition, by Martin R. Kalfatovic

Creating a Winning Online Exhibition, by Martin R. Kalfatovic

Creating a Winning Online Exhibition: A Guide for Libraries, Archives, and Museums

Martin R. Kalfatovic

American Library Association, 2002 117 pp.

Considering much the field of digital history has changed since the book’s publication in 2002, Kalfatovic’s Creating a Winning Online Exhibition: A Guide for Libraries, Archives, and Museums holds up remarkably well and I would still recommend it as a valuable resource.  The book’s purpose is to serve as a guide for creating online exhibitions to the same visual and interpretive standard as physical exhibitions. In many ways, however, this book could stand alone as a fantastic guide for the creation of excellent exhibits in general, but Kalfatovic’s purpose is to direct curators and museum professionals towards an online platform which has its own myriad of concerns.

The book reads as a guide, with chapters devoted to specific topics such as differentiating  between digitizing a collection and an exhibition, how to best use staff to accomplish your projected goals, how to use digital imaging, and how to create a permanent database to complement your online exhibition. Given the many topics the book addresses, it is not a narrative to be read cover to cover necessarily, but rather to serve as a reference for museum professionals. Kalfatovic cites the vast secondary literature on exhibition design and creation, including Serrell’s work on labels (33).

With an extensive bibliography, broken up between chapters and located at the end of each chapter, readers have easy access to additional sources should they explore the topic further. Her discussions of unique digital concerns in the online exhibition process were most useful to me personally. For example, she spends considerable space on the topic of accessibility issues with online exhibitions. Kalfatovic challenges assumption that online material makes content more available to everyone. Groups such as those who are colorblind, for example, may have trouble viewing differentiated hyperlinks (67). He also cautions against excessive use of intricate technology, noting “Although you may be tempted to use cutting-edge web design for your online exhibition, you need to remember that a site that cannot be viewed by all will lose many potential viewers” (68).

Other technical aspects of web creation are addressed as well, including horizontal web browsing. Since the book’s publication in 2002, horizontal web browsing has increased with more website designers abandoning the vertical approach for more user-friendly horizontal browsing. Kalftovic takes issue with horizontal browsing, writing that “Unless the information on the screen is laid out so that horizontal scrolling is the navigation method, nothing will be more irksome to visitors than having to scroll both horizontally and vertically to view your site” (74). While I will not necessarily argue with him, as horizontal scrolling is currently a more accepted navigation method, I am not sure he as taken into account the potential for people (and thus visitors) to become more digitally adept. In 2014, with the advent of i-phones, kindles, and tablets, our culture in general has grown more used to manipulating digital tools for our own needs, and her concern about irksome visitors may not be as critical as Kalfatovic would make it appear.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book for all museum professionals, and especially those working with exhibitions. It has held up fairly well in light of new trends in new media unforeseen in 2002. Kalfatovic emphasizes the need for balance between the physical and the digital, and more importantly, the need for professionals to view new media exhibitions as separate entities, not just a “copy and pasted” version of a physical exhibit.

Too Much of Nothing? The Concerns of Mobile Media

Mobile Media offers museum-goers new ways to explore a museum’s collections and exhibitions in ways that may not have been possible several decades ago. As shown in the Smithsonian report on mobile media and visitor services, members of the public come to museums with different wants and needs addressed by mobile media. From my experiences on site, one of the fundamental ways to enhance the museum experience is for mobile media to answer any questions the visitor may have before engaging with museum content. If a visitor does not know the correct directions, where exhibitions are located, where bathrooms are, where the closest metro is, the visitor experience can suffer if these initial needs are not met. With mobile media engagement with a site before entering its doors, visitors will have these initial needs met.

One a visitor enters an exhibit space, what is the appropriate level of mobile media use that enhances a space without crowding the area with visitors glued to their phones and not connected with the museum itself. For example, if a mobile scavenger hunt had children finding various objects, is it enough to have school kids simply find it and then run off to the next item? Without the distraction of mobile media, visitors could connect more intimately with what many came to see, the objects itself. Is the fast paced nature of mobile media not appropriate to a museum setting? As my classmate and friend Joanna pointed out in our class discussion, “Do we want to actively develop products that eliminate one of the few smart phone free zones?” I certainly agree with Joanna. Cell phones are becoming more and more a definition of who we are as people. There is even a new phenomenon called “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out) that affects people with such a strong attachment to their phones, that they feel intense anxiety that they will miss out on something important if they do not have their phones on them at all times.

Reporters dash for phones, Crop Control Bd., 9/10/37

Reporters dash for phones, Crop Control Bd., 9/10/37 (image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In conclusion, museums must find an appropriate balance between using mobile media to enhance the visitor experience without making it detrimental to a more traditional museum experience. The new museum experience must work in tandem with, not overpower the old mobile-free traditional museum experience.

Social Media as the Ideal Curatorial Tool

As I become more involved and engaged in the museum field, I am increasingly amazed at the vast size of institutions’ collections. At many of the moderate or larger museums, the number of objects displayed in public exhibitions is only a small percentage of the total objects in an organization’s collection.  Unfortunately, many of these objects will not see the light of day due to monetary and exhibition space considerations. Luckily social media may resolve this dilemma. But do curators know the power at their fingertips?

It appears as if the last few years has signaled an increase in the rise of new media in the curatorial sphere. Earlier this year, Vanessa Varin blogged about the potential for 3D imaging to present material objects in an entirely different manner, for 3D viewing creates the viewer an opportunity to view the object in close detail and in 360 degrees, an option not available in most exhibition settings. I find it almost prophetic then, when Erika Dicker writes, in her 2010 article, The Impact of Blogs and Other Social Media on the Life of a Curator, “Handling them [material objects], photographing them, researching them and writing about them can take a lot of time. Web service departments often do not understand these boundaries when working with a collection.” 

This one quote demonstrates the high velocity nature of new forms of media. Since Dicker’s 2010 article, new media has advanced to such a degree that curators are finding new roles within new media to present a more robust collection. Traditionally speaking, when a curator designed an exhibit, items would be discarded based on spacial, exhibition, and interpretive concerns. Now, the increased role of new media in museums allows for the incorporation of supplemental material that allows curators more avenues to increase the public awareness of the variety of materials in an institution’s collection.

In many ways, this comparison allows the themes of my class to come full circle, where one sees in the span of four years, a shift (even if not a paradigm shift) in how museum professionals utilize new media. Needless to say, it will be very exciting to see what the next four years will bring.


A Communication Breakdown

Usually the term “communication breakdown” is never good, but Dan Brown gives readers a clear and concise breakdown of effective communication between groups. This book is especially useful for both public historians and web designers because the two groups may not always have similar educational backgrounds and professional considerations. Brown’s book allows all concerned and interested groups to come into a project not only on the same page, but more importantly, outlines techniques so that all groups remain on the same page.

Central to a group’s progress and success is to always focus on the “big idea” and the ultimate goal of each cooperative effort. Brown argues success starts with planning from the very beginning, with the use of a clearly understood design brief, a document Brown says is usually among the first discarded, but should really remain a guiding force throughout the project (Brown, 232-233). This idea is similar to Beverly Serrell’s discussion on the big idea as a driving force throughout an exhibit in her book, Exhibit Labels. In addition to design briefs, Brown cannot stress enough the proper role of wireframes. Wireframes (or other deliverables) should not be produced just for the sake of doing so, but again need to properly augment group discussion. Brown tells us to make wireframes fit the idea, not insert the idea into the wireframes (Brown, 183). These strategies are the key to creating an organic and creative, not a cookie-cutter type project.

Overall, Dan Brown presents a straight forward and highly useful guide for web and digital projects. Brown warns about human error and the potential for egos and personalities to clash. To realize that these could derail Brown’s recommendations makes humanists even more useful to this project in my opinion, than many of Brown’s recommendations. In light of this considerations, this book should be treated not as a technical manual, but rather a guiding force for reference, especially during the more stressful moments of digital projects.

For even more parallels with Brown’s work and exhibition design, here is his take on the use of metaphors.


Old Maps as New Media

How relative is the term “new media?” We like to think of it as a term of the digital age. Since reading several pieces on digital mapping by Richard White, John Corbett, and Edward Tufte, I have come to view digital mapping and the term “new media” as a relative description of new and revolutionary ways of visualizing and thinking about the past. Take Charles Joseph Minard’s map of Napoleon’s march for example. Done in 1861, Minard’s engineering skills allowed him to conceptualize Napoleon’s march in a presentable way that had not been viewed in such a way before. In many ways I think parallels can be made between this and many of the new media initiatives we have talked about in class. Aren’t e-readers a new way of looking at print information? Robertson’s article on Digital Harlem furthers the idea of maps telling you about where you are and by using digital tools and research puts you on another map in a different time.

As shown in Minard’s Napoleon map, however, people were able to “map” the past in different ways as well. Take this timeline for example, as shown on historian Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory. It shows a new way to look at the Civil War with battles and numbers of troops shown throughout the course of the war. Similar to a piece of outdated digital media, Levin points out “It dates to 1897, though the directions on how to properly interpret the chart have not survived.”  What does this reveal about earlier forms of new media? Is the term “new media” a continuum with the computer age an integral part of our current fascination with new media? Just as new resources today are allowing us to view the past in different ways, I would suggest maps such as the one presented here offered those in the 1890s a radical new way to interpret the events of several decades before.

1897 Timeline of the Civil War, image courtesy of the LIbrary of Congress

1897 Timeline of the Civil War, image courtesy of the Library of Congress


N-Gram and the Legacy of the Civil War

Below is a Google N-gram of the relationship between slavery and secession. What prompted me to select these two words is the contention that after the American Civil War, Lost Cause southerners claimed that southern secession was not a response to threats to southern slavery, but as a response against the threat to states’ rights or state sovereignty. To help elucidate this issue, I decided to create an N-gram analyzing three key words central to debates surrounding the American secession crisis of the 19th century. In selecting nullification, secession, and slavery, from 1800 to 2000, I hoped to discern certain trends to see if they corresponded to Civil War historiography. My justification for using nullification as opposed to states’ rights was the result of a limitation of the N-gram to properly search for the correct meaning of states’s rights in its proper context and discount pickup errors related to “states” or “rights” in other contexts. In selecting the date range from 1800-2000, I wanted to include published material from the decades leading up to the Civil War as well as the Civil War centennial. My hypothesis was that slavery and secession would be very closely linked while nullification would be popular in early 1800s, a result of the Calhoun-Jackson debates over nullification, before Lincoln’s election initiated southern secession as a response to threats to slavery.

What I found was surprising. Very little had been published about nullification. What was not necessarily surprising however, was the relationship beginning in the late 185os between slavery and secession. For obvious reasons during the Civil War years both secession and slavery are very popular in published materials. Then throughout the post-war decades, the two words slowly fade off, with slavery occupying more relative published material than secession. From the 1960s on however, the word slavery increases in published materials, indicating ostensibly an increased interest in slavery among historians and the public.

It is important to note however, that this process in analysis is not without its problems. I decided not to search for results including states’ rights in part because I thought the apostrophe in states’ or state’s rights would create bias in the results,as misspellings in the literature may or may not have been picked up. While limiting the reults to English-written sources, I omit some bias in the more international record of secession and slavery, however I cannot confirm whether the search results are identifying words related to the American Civil War or other international affairs published in English sources. Regardless however, there do appear to be connections between secession and slavery in the mid-late 1800s, with a sharp increase in the word slavery in the latter 1960s, suggesting a historiographical shift that focuses more on the role of slavery in the secession crisis.

Google N-gram. Nullificatio, Secession, and Slavery, Oh My!

Google N-gram. Nullification, Secession, and Slavery, Oh My!

The New History in an Old Museum Book Review

The New History in an Old Museum

The New History in an Old Museum

The New History in an Old Museum

Richard Handler and Eric Gable

Duke University Press, 1997

260 pp.

The New History in an Old Museum explores the relationship and the accompanying conflicts associated with Colonial Williamsburg’s function as an educational destination that also functions as a business and entertainment/vacation spot. To this, Handler and Gable take a critical approach, arguing, “The obsession-with image has become a guiding and characteristic problematic that shapes the way the institution works and ultimately the kinds of messages it can produce.”[1] Taken from an anthropological perspective, this book traces the development of Williamsburg, focusing specifically on its attempt to recreate the past in an educational setting while at the same time maintaining Colonial Williamsburg’s identity as a place where that is entertaining and enjoyable. The authors make use of interviews with employees, most notably historic interpreters, whose roles have to walk the metaphorical tightrope between encouraging provocative historical conversations and making sure visitors are entertained and comfortable.[2] In this ongoing internal struggle between monetary concerns and education, the authors recommend Colonial Williamsburg “must stop…trying to manage perceptions of itself as it manages the past.”[3] Only with internal harmony, the authors argue, can Colonial Williamsburg truly accomplish its educational mission component.

Although new media is not directly addressed in the book, new media initiatives do make their appearance occasionally. Video simulations are part of an interpreter’s training, which in 1997 was probably on VHS, is probably now digitized for more convenient viewing.[4] These training tapes are designed to give trainees examples of exceptional and mediocre methods of effective interpretation.[5] As a fellow interpreter, I can appreciate the advantages of digitized tours as examples. Instead of simply accompanying a tour, trainees have the capacity to pause certain segments of the tour to point out flaws or strong points.

In addition to new media in the interpreter training process, there have been recent new media initiatives that add complexity to the idea of mimetic realism, the thinking that one can create the past “as it was”, a reigning ideology at Colonial Williamsburg with which Handler and Gable take significant issue.[6] Colonial Williamsburg has recently launched Virtual Williamsburg 1776, a website that digitally re-creates a more authentic architectural layout of the city, noting but not focusing on inconsistencies in the period building features constructed during the 1930s.[7]

This interpretive initiative has its advantages and its disadvantages. While it demonstrates to visitors advances in historical research and visual interpretation, it does not necessarily address larger cultural and social historiographies. As Handler and Gable point out, “You cannot point to the past; it is not embodied in objects.”[8] While objects can help Colonial Williamsburg interpret the past, Virtual Williamsburg 1776 cannot be fully realized without further exploration and incorporation of the new social history, as suggested in Handler and Gable’s work. [9]

In conclusion, this is a very informative book that raises concerns surrounding sites that educate yet also must take fundraising into account. Ultimately however, the authors’ distance from the realities of historic site management impairs their ability to fully understand the need for funds, especially in harsh economic times. While as I reader and student, I understand the critiques of Handler and Gable, yet as a professional I also empathize with the concerns from the management and business side of the institution as well in which fundraising and site income are seen as most important for continuing operations.

Here is a video that further explains Virtual Williamsburg 1776…

                [1] Richard Handler and Eric Gable, The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg (Durham, Duke University Press, 1997), 31.

                [2] Handler and Gable, The New History in an Old Museum, 174-178.

[3] Handler and Gable, The New History in an Old Museum, 234-235.

[4] Handler and Gable, The New History in an Old Museum, 196-197.

[5] Handler and Gable, The New History in an Old Museum, 199-200.

                [6] Handler and Gable, The New History in an Old Museum, 71-75.

[7] Colonial Williamsburg, Virtual Williamsburg 1776,

[8] Handler and Gable, The New History in an Old Museum, 224.

[9] Handler and Gable, The New History in an Old Museum, 120-124.


Wikipedia: Past, Present, and Future

Compared to previous generations of historians, those of my age group have it much easier when it comes to finding sources and materials online. We have at our fingertips, a plethora of all sorts of data that has become available in the past few decades. While this is certainly an advantage of the digital age, the problem becomes what to do with all this data?

Several articles I have recently read provide models oh how historians can use digital resources to produce new forms of scholarship that would have been thought impossible, or at least extremely difficult 25 years old. The Thomas and Ayers “The Difference Slavery Made” project explores the complexities of pre-Civil War America in ways “simple” primary source analysis could not, and Trevor Owen’s article using Tripadvisor as a means of evaluating visitor experience demonstrate the new possibilities in visitor studies using already available visitor data.

Most of us, however, use one online tool that is so universal and pervasive, it has changed how both historians and the general public conduct research and inquiry. I am of course talking about Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. When I was in high school, many teachers told us not to use Wikipedia as it was not written by an established source. Nevertheless, I would use the site as an introduction to a topic, or as a tool when I needed to “fact-check” some bit of information. In doing so, I knowingly acknowledged the probability that i was reading correct and factual information. The risk I took is supported by Roy Rosenzweig’s 2006 article on Wikipedia, arguing (at least among Western topics), “Wikipedia is surprisingly accurate in reporting names, dates, and events in U.S. history. In the 25 biographies I read closely, I found clear-cut factual errors in only 4. Most were small and inconsequential.”

Thus is appears that despite my former teachers’ concerns about the accuracy of Wikipedia, they do produce useful articles for public and dare I say even academic perusal. Wikipedia has become such a dominant force in the cultural sphere that the National Archives has encouraged the idea of crowdsourcing in document transcription and in 2011 began to work with a designated  “Wikipedian in Residence” to further the Archives’ engagement with the Wikipedia and crowdsourcing community. In the future, I see a continual embrace of Wikipedia. After all, if one of public history’s main goals is to foster the idea of shared authority, Wikipedia certainly embodies that spirit.

Below I have included an example of how the National Archives is making inroads with the Wikipedia community to develop a more inclusive version of shared authority.

Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery Zotero Library

Hello everyone. Attached is my Zotero library for my final project on President Lincoln’s Cottage and the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery. The materials in the library will serve as a reference throughout the project and will increase as my group collects more primary and secondary source material. Not only does this library serve our need for the project, but the items in the library can also serve as a resource for those interested in national cemeteries, Civil War Washington, ideas about mid-19th century death, and Abraham Lincoln. Check out the link, here.

"that these dead shall not have died in vain"

“that these dead shall not have died in vain”