Lowcountry Digital History Initiative!!!

The Lowcountry Digital Library at the College of Charleston (hosts of APLA) recently received VERY exciting news from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. We have been awarded a significant grant for start-up funding to launch the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative!!! (Multiple exclamation marks are very appropriate on this happy occasion.)

In the coming months, staff at LCDL are looking forward to organizing our short term and long term goals for this exciting digital public history project. In particular, we will meet with our LCDL institutional partners in January to introduce LDHI, and will suggest potential collaboration strategies for various online exhibitions, geo-located tours, and interactive mapping projects. We also look forward to working with academic scholars as well as public historians to plan various digital public history projects for public audiences, with a particular emphasis on underrepresented, inclusive interpretations of Carolina Lowcountry history. Over time our goal is to establish replicable workflows and consultation resources for developing online exhibitions with LCDL partners (which include a wide, and growing, range of cultural institutions in the Lowcountry) so that LDHI maintains a dynamic and expanding presence long after the end of the grant funding period.

APLA will become a major part of LDHI, and  I look forward to updating this blog on how LDHI develops, particularly to clarify its goals and what form(s) it will take . . . I would greatly appreciate any insights or suggestions you have that may contribute to the success and accessibility of this new initiative.
For now, we are very grateful for support from the Humanities Council SC and soon the Donnelley Foundation, and YAY!!!!!!!!!!

More on Physical Sites and Digital Interpretation: A Tour of McLeod Plantation

Touring McLeod Plantation with County Parks and Smithsonian staff, James Island, South Carolina, October 2012, image by Mary Battle.

In October 2012, I had the honor of touring McLeod Plantation on James Island with staff from Charleston County Parks and Recreation (CCPRC), and staff from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). CCPRC just purchased McLeod in 2011 from the Historic Charleston Foundation, and the site is not yet open to the public, so it was a privilege to experience such an extensive tour of the site as a representative from the Lowcountry Digital Library at the College of Charleston.

The Smithsonian staff on the tour included curators and museum professionals I read about in my public history research, such as Rex Ellis and Deborah Mack, so I was particularly excited to tag along and listen to their discussions and observations. They were there as part of a research investigation to assess African American history and culture resources throughout the United States. At McLeod, they were particularly interested in the site’s buildings and collections, not only for interpreting the site as a former plantation worked through enslaved African American skill and labor, but also as the location of Union troop occupation during the Civil War, and as the site of the local Freedman’s Bureau during Reconstruction. In addition, as CCPRC stewardship manager Mark Madden noted, many black and white individuals in the Charleston area have family connections to this site, so it is a prime focal point for diverse oral history research.

In an earlier blog post, “Starting from Scratch” (June 26, 2012), I touched on some of the advantages of interpreting a plantation landscape in the twenty-first century that has not been influenced by twentieth century tourism representation strategies. While many plantation tourist sites in Charleston today are seeking to implement more effective interpretations of African American history during and after slavery, they often struggle with unraveling the influence of white elite nostalgia on the site, particularly romantic marketing strategies designed to appeal to twentieth century visitors who came “looking for Tara” or “moonlight and magnolias.” Like the College of Charleston’s Dixie Plantation, McLeod Plantation has not previously been open to the public, so site interpreters can begin with raw materials, rather than extracting history from a problematic nostalgic tourism framework. This is particularly exciting for McLeod, which contains extensive historic materials and physical structures, as well as landscape features, that could be invaluable for constructing a more inclusive understanding of the Lowcountry’s plantation history.

The team assembled for the October tour suggest some of the various types of collaborative institutional resources that could lead to this plantation becoming an insightful, inclusive, and innovative public history site. Though interpretation of McLeod is very much in the early planning stages, and Madden was careful to inform me that nothing is set in stone, based on my own observations that day I see great potential for locally-based physical site interpretation, national preservation resources and promotion, and digital interpretation developed in partnership with the Lowcountry Digital Library and projects like APLA. Will keep you posted on what happens, but it was definitely a powerful look into the potential future of Charleston’s public history landscape!

Welcome Beth and Alexandra!

I am very pleased to announce that we have two new graduate student assistants working with us at the Lowcountry Digital Library this academic year from the joint master’s in history program at the Citadel and College of Charleston. Beth and Alexandra are both doing great work, and you can see blogs about what they are up to here: Beth– http://bethgniewek.wordpress.com and Alexandra — http://englishdiaspora.wordpress.com.

On top of her archival duties, Beth in particular has been helping me finding images and links for APLA– which is awesome. Image searching, and identifying copyright information about each image, can be a goose chase, so I greatly appreciate her help. And it’s great to have someone to brainstorm with about other ways to find multimedia materials. For example, in the APLA section on rice agriculture, we recently talked about going out and taking pictures of sites with the remnants of rice agriculture features, like trunks and canals (such as Caw Caw Interpretive Center), along with finding archival documents that address this history.

So in honor of our new graduate assistants, and the start of the new semester, I would like to talk a bit about pedagogy, digital humanities, and public history in this post. One of the benefits of relatively new exhibition building software in open source systems like Omeka is that they are getting increasingly user-friendly. This is excellent news for folks like myself who greatly appreciate technology and its potential uses for public history and humanities, but I don’t really know how to handle the back end of computer programming and design. The pre-established exhibit frameworks of sites like Omeka mean that I don’t necessarily have to know how to do this to build a great online exhibition (and hopefully in the future the framework options will keep increasing with Omeka). In addition, at LCDL we have our ace-in-the-hole digital scholarship librarian Heather Gilbert, who can help with styling the Omeka exhibition structure we choose, so APLA will definitely look sharp when it’s done.

But to get to pedagogy — the increasing accessibility and ease of using digital project-building software also means that it becomes easier to teach digital public history. We recently met with Dr. Megan Schockley who teaches public history at Clemson University, and I was fascinated to hear about how she encourages her undergraduate students to work with local historic sites in the Clemson area to develop digital projects like short films and online exhibitions that the sites can then use in their own site representations. How could this digital public history teaching strategy work with Charleston area sites, for undergraduate and graduate history students like Beth and Alexandra? Of course traditional history lecture, research, and writing courses are not going anywhere, and they shouldn’t. But in this economy, students should have the option to build a diversity of project building skills that have applications for academic and public history fields. And with numerous historic sites struggling with limited budgets and staff, encouraging students to work with local public history sites to build interpretive and effectively inclusive digital projects could be a win-win situation all around. It’s definitely something to think about for the future . . .

Barbados Part II: Collaborative Digital Archiving and Newton Plantation

Mary Battle, UNESCO Slave Route sign marking “Newton Slave Burial Ground” at Newton Plantation, Christ Church Parish, Barbados, March 2012.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the purpose of my recent trip to Barbados was twofold– to attend the Annual International Inclusive Museum Conference and to assist Angela Flenner (Associate Director of the Lowcountry Digital Library) in a digital archive training session with staff from the Barbados Museum & Historical Society (BMHS). This partnership grew from various efforts over the past couple of decades to recognize the shared colonial history between Barbados and Carolina. As Peter Wood described in Black Majority, Carolina initially served as a “colony of a colony” of Barbados, and Barbadian settlers were particularly influential in establishing plantation agriculture worked through enslaved African labor in the Carolina Lowcountry.

The “Barbados-Carolina Connection” has been explored through books, conferences, speakers, public events and even student exchanges in recent years, but now the Lowcountry Digital Library seeks to engage this connection through collaborative digital archiving. The Shilstone Library at BMHS contains numerous valuable and insightful archival materials that would greatly benefit from online access, and LCDL and the College of Charleston can offer the resources and staff training to help them do this.

In addition, archival resources at BMHS could translate into engaging and informative online public history projects. For example, the materials selected for the pilot project of this digital archiving collaboration are documents and ledgers from Newton Plantation, a former sugar plantation in Barbados that is now the property of BMHS. Newton was also the site of an archaeological dig led by Dr. Jerome Handler (see his work in Plantation Slavery in Barbados), particularly of the cemetery where enslaved people were buried. (BMHS currently features a number of artifacts from this dig in their permanent exhibitions.) Today Newton Plantation is a sugarcane field, but BMHS is developing plans to interpret this site in various ways. In 2002, the UNESCO Slave Route Project put up a sign to commemorate the cemetery site, particularly because there were no existing grave markers to designate the area as sacred ground (see picture above). In 2011, BMHS launched a pilot guided tour to address the history of slavery on the island, which included bringing tour participants to Newton Plantation. In the future, BMHS staff hope this tour will become a permanent offering for locals and visitors, and they are even discussing establishing a slavery museum at Newton. But all of these physical public history developments can be costly, particularly in the current economic climate. Virtual exhibitions, interactive maps, or geo-located digital tours for mobile devices could serve as cost-effective alternatives for interpreting Newton Plantation for the public, using images of archaeological artifacts and the existing landscape, as well as the documents and ledgers BMHS staff are currently scanning for digital archiving with LCDL. For the interests of APLA, this online interpretation would then be an ideal project to feature in our exhibition section entitled “Barbados Influence,” which will discuss the interconnected colonial histories of these regions, particularly through slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

And the Newton Plantation materials we saw at BMHS, just during our two-day training session were certainly rich with information. When Angela and I first arrived, Harriett Pierce, the head librarian at Shilstone, explained to us that she just found a massive Newton Plantation ledger that had been misplaced in another collection. When we opened it, we found extensive inventories of enslaved people, which included names, gender, occupation, color (black or mulatto), and birth and death dates. Seeing these names was certainly moving for everyone involved in the training. I was not allowed to take a picture at that time, put I look forward to this ledger and more like it being available online soon.

Inclusive Museum Conference

Mary Battle, Band in Grand Kadooment parade during Crop Over festival, Barbados, August 2012.

Sorry for the delay in blogging– but I have a good excuse! I have just returned from spending 11 days in Barbados where I presented at the annual International Conference on the Inclusive Museum (Aug 2-5) and conducted training on digital archiving procedures with LCDL’s Associate Director, Angela Flenner, at the Barbados Museum & Historical Society. In the midst of all that it was also Crop Over, a major annual festival in Barbados (see photo above). The historic origins of this festival are to celebrate the end of the sugar harvest on the island, which explains the festival’s strikingly straightforward name (though the event now occurs in August rather than after the actual harvest).

This was my third trip to Barbados–it was an amazing experience, and I am very grateful to College of Charleston and LCDL for supporting this trip. In later blogs I will further discuss our collaborative digital archiving training process and why we do it. But for this blog entry I would like to pass along some of the highlights of the conference.

Usually when I go to conferences I can cherry-pick which presentations I would like to see based on how relevant they are to my research interests. This time however, even though this conference was not very large, I wanted to attend everything. Everyone there was grappling with a similar struggle, albeit in various international contexts– how to develop a museum or public history site or exhibition that is inclusive not only in the types of diverse experiences, collections, and events it interprets, but also in how it engages the community where it is physically located. Presenters described sites and issues from around the world (for example, just on my own panel the presenter before me discussed challenges with designing a museum about Berber villages in Qatar, and the presenter after me discussed problems with excluding indigenous languages in museum text panels in Zimbabwe). Still similar themes emerged– particularly in how to confront histories that involve historic struggles over race and class. For many presenters from the United States and the Caribbean, interpreting the history of slavery and post-Emancipation racial struggles presented both similar and contrasting challenges. For example, keynote speaker Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture,  described how addressing histories of struggle and survival for African Americans during and after U.S. slavery can be difficult for museum fundraising. As he explained, he has heard complaints ranging from “I thought the Smithsonian was supposed to make us feel good about our country,” to “This will be a wonderful museum, just don’t talk about slavery.” Presenters such as Kevin Farmer and Alissandra Cummins from Barbados also described how the history of slavery has been traditionally diminished in the Caribbean context because many people believed that it was “shameful” and detracted from the pride and spirit of post-colonial nation building in the mid-nineteenth century (see their work in the upcoming publication Plantation to Nation: Caribbean Museums and National Identity, Chicago & Melbourne: Onmuseums Series, Common Ground Publishing, 2012).

My own presentation was on developing the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina during an economic crisis, and particularly spoke to the cost-effective and widely influential opportunities of presenting museum interpretation through online exhibitions such as African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations (which is being developed in partnership with IAAM). Listening to these various presentations from around the world helped me recognize that while many of Charleston’s diverse histories are in many ways specific to this area, we are not alone in the challenges and opportunities we face as we embrace inclusive public history representations.

This Place Matters

Joseph McGill, Slave Dwelling Project, Holly Springs, Mississippi, 2012

One of the central goals of APLA is to establish a clear, accessible online multimedia narrative for understanding the history of colonial and antebellum slavery in the Carolina Lowcountry. Geo-located online tours and interactive maps (built through digital tools such as City Slicker and Neatline) will particularly serve to connect specific places in the current Lowcountry landscape to the complex layers of social history that occurred within this region.

But one point that I think is crucial for public history producers to understand about the role of digital history projects in their work is that they are not meant to replace physically encountering a historic place. I doubt many people will look at a map or tour online and decide there is nothing further to gain from actually going there. This is because learning about history is often a sensual experience as a much as it is cognitive. As scholar Alison Landsberg argues in Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture , an effective historic site creates a “prosthetic memory” for visitors, by using landscapes and structures to create a physical connection for visitors that encourages empathy for the historic experiences that occurred in these spaces (Landsberg, 149). In the past, “time travel” interpretation strategies could be problematic on historic sites such as plantations, because guides generally encouraged visitors to connect only to white elite experiences. Guides might tell visitors “this is where you would dine” when touring the dining room, or “this is where you would have tea with your guests”– ultimately obscuring the race and class hierarchies that defined social interactions within these spaces, and strictly limited who exactly this you would be.

But in recent years various plantation sites in the Lowcountry region and beyond have begun to encourage empathetic “time travel” connections to a greater range of historic experiences, particularly by highlighting spaces such as quarters and cabins where enslaved people lived. Local historian activists such as Joseph McGill have particularly worked to make these sites more visible to the public, and to the present day owners of these sites. McGill works for the National Trust and is based in Charleston. The goal of his Slave Dwellings Project is strikingly simple. He spends the night in various slave dwellings (cabins or quarters within homes) as they currently exist throughout the United States to convey a direct message– “This Place Matters.” I have seen McGill give public presentations about his work numerous times and interviewed him for my own research. A major point he emphasizes in these discussions is the physical experience of his stays. He describes in great detail the heat, bugs, and late night sounds as well as his personal feelings about being in these spaces.  This makes the intervention role of his project powerful. As he recently explained to me, once they have someone ask to stay there, historic site producers will often become more aware of how they have neglected and overlooked the historic meaning of cabins and quarters on their plantation sites. McGill’s physical experiences in these spaces forces them to imagine the experiences of the people who lived and struggled in these spaces– which can trigger powerful changes in how they construct their representations for public tours.

Online interpretation cannot replace this connection, and should not seek to.  Instead it serves to increase access to research and and digitally archived materials for critically understanding these historic experiences. Multimedia materials such as images of artifacts, photographs, or artistic depictions of historic experiences can help visitors visualize the race and class histories that public history representations within Lowcountry landscapes and structures traditionally obscured. For this reason, once we begin to promote APLA, we will particularly encourage guides and sites to engage the digital history resources this site will offer as a way to further enhance the experience of their interpretation.

Starting from Scratch

Water view from Dixie Plantation. Julie Casper, Hollywood, South Carolina.

This past Sunday I went to Dixie Plantation in Hollywood, South Carolina to obtain information for an online tour. LCDL is currently using City Slicker software to develop this tour through research produced by Dr. Maureen Hays, Dr. Kimberly Pyzka, and their students. The tour will be a stand alone resource for promoting Dixie as a College of Charleston-owned outdoor education center, but we are also hoping to link the tour, or a similar Dixie-based digital project, as a case study example for APLA. The site particularly offers resources relevant to colonial slavery, and even features the site of a parsonage that Native Americans burned during Yemassee War— a conflict particularly sparked by European settlers encroaching on Native American lands and participating in the Indian Slave Trade. This war, which lasted from 1715 to 1717, almost destroyed the Carolina colony.

For the record, this plantation is College of Charleston property, so going on your own is trespassing. I also would not recommend it, snakes (poisonous ones) are out this time of year and currently some neighbors’ Rottweilers are loose on the property. Fortunately I brought my parents for company, and my mom was able to talk the Rotties down until they were wiggling on the ground like puppies. I had no idea she was such a dog whisperer. But I was there with permission from the College for an official assignment– I had to track down fourteen recently erected nature/history trail signs, take pictures to represent their historic or nature subject, and mark their coordinates to geolocate them for the tour. My parents had to leave by lunchtime so I recruited some friends visiting from Atlanta to join me in the afternoon. Perhaps I should have savored some alone time on the plantation/nature preserve, but along with personal safety concerns, I think I wanted to be able to talk about the place with someone.

In recent years I have spent lots of time on plantation spaces for my PhD research on changing representations of race, class, and the history of slavery in Charleston’s historic tourism industry (with historically interconnected comparison sites in Barbados). These plantations were tourist sites– bustling with visitors, guides, signs, trams, ticket booths, and petting zoo-type animals– and often charging steep prices for a graduate student budget (though many site producers did graciously waive their fees). I went to these sites to assess how site producers wanted me to see plantation history– what tours and attractions did they add over time? What did guides discuss, or not discuss, in big house tours? Do they grapple with addressing African American experiences during and after slavery on these sites? If so, what strategies do they use to convey this complex history? And what items do they place in plantation gift shops as souvenirs of this site experience? (In my observations, I found this could range widely (and wildly for the twenty-first century) from southern belle paper dolls to scholarly works on the history of slavery to Mammy figure salt shakers that could have been sitting on the shelf in the 1950s.) I like to think most of these Charleston plantation tourist sites are in a state of transition, as they waver between holding on to white elite “moonlights and magnolias” plantation nostalgia, and developing interpretations of African American history and culture that reflect an increasingly inclusive understanding of southern history in a multicultural world.

But other than a name that triggers a knee-jerk “old times there are ne’er forgotten” to go off in my head, representation strategies on Dixie are generally not yet in place. The nature trail itself was the only modern interpretation feature on the site, which consists of a smooth gravel path marked by signs addressing topics ranging from rice agriculture to the wildlife of coastal marshes to enslaved African and Native American history. The polished appearance of the trail points to more landscape developments to come, as the College works to develop an outdoor education center on the site. But beyond the trail, most of the Dixie landscape is a fascinating tangle of plantation remnants overtaken by nature preserve growth, with few of the trademark nostalgia features glorified by so many tourist sites. There are no white columned houses at Dixie, and even the ornamental plants of the gardens have been overtaken by wilder species from the woods.

My Atlanta friends finally articulated the question I was struggling with as I tromped around Dixie– so what do you think future interpretation of this plantation should look like? The plantations I examined for my research had often been tourist sites for many decades, even over a century in one case. The central research question on these sites often revolves around what should be undone on this space to correct exclusive bias, as well as what should be highlighted or added. At Dixie the question is different– What would more inclusive plantation interpretation (guide narratives, additional interpretive panels, etc.) look like starting more or less from scratch? Can there ever be a truly effective representation strategies for conveying the complex pasts that occurred in these spaces for present visitors? (To be clear, Dixie will not be a tourist site, but it will be an outdoor education center that presumably will include plantation social history lessons for students as well as ecology.) Ultimately this question does not have an easy answer, but as I walked around Dixie I considered how interpretation from scratch was a totally different challenge from untangling existing plantation interpretation problems.

In this context, the good news about digital curation like online tours is that they are flexible. If we make mistakes as we embark on developing digital projects based on Dixie history, they can be easily unraveled. And we can experiment with different online interpretation approaches at minimal costs and impact on the landscape. In this way, though confronting and effectively representing the complex experiences of race, class, and labor hierarchies in plantation history is a challenge, it is increasingly a dynamic and exciting challenge to take on.