The Fiery Trial: Eric Foner and Public History

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Dr. Eric Foner at the College of Charleston on his recent book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Foner has an admirable presence and discussion style as a historian, the kind that reminds me of why I ever became interested in the academic profession (deep in the throes of the PhD process, and in this job market, I have to dig deep at times to remember). Foner has the remarkable ability to present historic subjects as complex as slavery, Emancipation, and the Civil War in a steady, clear, and even humorous manner. You feel comfortable, rather than desperately confused, following him through each point, and by the end you not only feel like you have a better grasp of the whole tangled mess of Civil War and Emancipation history, you even have a totally new perspective of a historic figure you thought you already knew, such as Abraham Lincoln.

I actually saw Foner present twice yesterday, to a workshop group of K-12 teachers and public historians (organized by Dr. Brian Kelly with CLAW and the After Slavery project), and to an auditorium full of historians in town for an academic conference. Perhaps the best demonstration of Foner’s ability was that his presentation style and subject material changed very little for these two groups. I don’t mean to imply Foner didn’t bother two write two presentations– my point is he didn’t need to. As a scholar who studies public history, I find this admirable because too often the complex issues and nuance of history seem to get locked up in academic journals and publications. Tour guides and schoolteachers, particularly in Charleston and  throughout South Carolina, often seem left with more superficial interpretations of history for their students or tourist audiences. This may be their own choosing, but I also believe the resources for developing clear frameworks and language for articulating history in the public realm seem painfully limited, particularly surrounding complex subjects such as slavery.

One of my great, potentially idealistic, hopes for APLA is that it will help make some of the more complex aspects of the history of antebellum and colonial slavery in the Carolina Lowcountry more comprehensible and accessible to a wide range of user audiences. But I am increasingly finding that historic clarity is hard work. In the next couple of posts I will try to untangle some particularly difficult points from this history, to help me think through how to write up this information in the exhibition text. Watching accessible, yet still very challenging and historically rich discussions like Dr. Foner’s presentations yesterday was a great inspiration.

Charleston’s International African American Museum Launches Website

Conceptual drawing of future International African American Museum (IAAM), Charleston, South Carolina, 2012. From IAAM website.

Conceptual drawing of future International African American Museum (IAAM), Charleston, South Carolina, 2012. From IAAM website.

I am excited to report that the future International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston has finally launched their museum website! IAAM is a developing museum project that is expected to open its building doors in 2017. As they describe on their homepage, the goal of the museum is to communicate the largely overlooked history and culture of African Americans in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina. IAAM particularly aims to re-center Charleston’s place in Atlantic World history, illuminating the pivotal role of this city as the dominant point of disembarkation for the trans-Atlantic slave trade in North America, and as the location of the first conflict of the U.S. Civil War that ultimately ended in Emancipation for all enslaved people in the United States. The museum will demonstrate how during and after slavery, Africans and their African American descendants in the Lowcountry shaped economic, political, and cultural development in South Carolina, the nation, and beyond.

In 2012, major fundraising efforts still loom ahead for IAAM, particularly after the economic downturn triggered significant budget limitations for the project’s start-up funding in 2010. Currently, the IAAM board is committed to a more cost-effective development plan that envisions the museum not only as a building that houses physical exhibitions, but also as a “trailhead” to the numerous historic landscapes and structures in the Lowcountry region relevant to African American history and culture. Innovative digital interpretation strategies will particularly serve to generate a virtual presence for this “trailhead” museum structure in the Lowcountry’s highly trafficked public history landscape. In this context, we are currently exploring an exciting institutional partnership between LDHI and IAAM.

As described in the previous post, LDHI is an innovative digital public history project hosted by the Lowcountry Digital Library (LCDL) at the College of Charleston. Through a major grant award from the Dorothy and Gaylord Donnelley Foundation in 2012, LCDL is currently launching LDHI as an online platform for translating multi-institutional archival resources into digital public history projects such as online exhibitions, geo-located digital tours, and interactive maps and timelines built through open source software and permanently stored online through College of Charleston resources. Though the research, staff, and archival materials for producing these digital projects and exhibitions may reside in various institutional contexts, one of the great benefits of online interpretation is that multiple institutions can link to projects that they collaboratively produce. Rather than competing, all participants benefit from the virtual traffic these interconnected, multi-institutional digital projects receive.

In partnering with LDHI, we hope that IAAM will provide an organizing vehicle, or “brand,” for collaboratively developing and promoting digital projects and exhibitions that offer inclusive history interpretation relevant to African American history and culture. In this way, even if the costs of developing a major collections-based museum are unattainable for IAAM, its staff can still collaboratively implement digital interpretation strategies that engage the Lowcountry’s existing historic landscapes and structures. In addition, mobile device applications and online exhibitions can help articulate the diverse social histories hidden within Lowcountry landscapes and structures for user audiences with minimal costs and impacts on the physical environments or present-day communities living within these spaces. These digital projects can be made available to the public through the museum’s current website, LDHI’s future website, and potentially even public kiosks in the future.

Just to clarify, all of these digital interpretation ideas are still very much in the early brainstorming phases, but staff at LDHI are looking forward to exploring the possibilities of a partnership with IAAM. In the meantime, please donate to IAAM’s fundraising efforts! This museum will play a tremendous role in encouraging inclusive public history interpretation and education throughout the Lowcountry region.

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!

NEASA Digital Humanities Conference

This past weekend I went to my very first digital humanities conference with digital scholarship librarian, Heather Gilbert. The conference was the New England American Studies Association conference in Providence, Rhode Island. This may seem regionally far afield from Charleston, South Carolina, but finding a conference entirely dedicated to digital humanities is rare, so we jumped at the opportunity to present on APLA.

Our panel title was:

“African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations”: Transforming Charleston’s Public History Landscape through a Digital Exhibition Project”

In the first sentence of my presentation, I noted that our title seemed bold. Then I continued, “How and why would an online exhibition project transform a city’s public history landscape, particularly one as established and highly trafficked as Charleston, South Carolina’s? A more accurate subtitle might be ‘attempting to transform public history to be more inclusive amidst various daunting challenges.'” From there I argued that despite these challenges, “developing inclusive public history in Charleston is crucial for historic sites and tours in terms of historic accuracy and public education, contemporary ethics of multiculturalism and diversity, and even in terms of good business practices for current visitor and local audiences.” Then I asserted that “digital public history interpretation collaboratively produced through the College of Charleston can help engage local sites and tours to help promote greater public awareness of these underrepresented histories in ways that are meaningful, cost-effective, and widely accessible.”

The rest of the presentation is too long for this blog post, but many exciting points came up in the question and session period afterwards, particularly after Heather Gilbert followed up my scholarly discussion of why inclusive digital history is important in Charleston with a multimedia presentation on how to actually make this happen. She particularly described what content management systems and open source software we are using, how we chose them, and discussed ways to organize staff workflows and skills within the limited resources of a small to medium sized academic library. We felt pretty good about how the presentation went, and if you are sorry you missed it, Dr. Benjamin Railton live-tweeted our panel! To find out some highlights from our presentation and many others, check out the many conference tweets (what would you expect from a digital humanities conference?) at #neasa2012 on Twitter.

Overall I found the conference to be really engaging, and validating for our interest in combining public history and digital humanities work through projects like APLA. “Digital Public Humanities” was even the title of the keynote address given by Dr. Steven Lubar from Brown University’s Center for Public Humanities and Culture Heritage. He posted slides from his presentation and his notes on his blog here: http://stevenlubar.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/387/

But I think one of the most exciting moments for me during our panel presentation was when a professor from Wheelock College in Massachusetts, Dr. Akeia Benard, told us how helpful our project discussion was for her own work in Newport, Rhode Island. Benard is trying to collaborate with local institutions in Newport to develop inclusive public history interpretation, particularly regarding the importance of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Rhode Island. She described confronting numerous challenges in her work, similar to what many public history producers find in Charleston when they seek to develop effective representations of African American history during and after slavery. She thought our digital interpretation ideas could also have great potential in Newport. I found it strangely comforting to hear that Charleston is not the only area facing challenges in transforming public history, and exciting that digital projects could actually be a viable solution for some of these challenges, both within and outside of Charleston. I also hope in the future that various communities across the United States and even the Atlantic World may someday be able to collaborate on the various solutions we find for our similar challenges in addressing the complex history of slavery and its race and class legacies.

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 . . .