Mobley made an awesome Omeka theme for us!

Today has been a fun digital humanities day, which is not something a person who works in this field can say every day (let’s just say technology is, and always will be, humbling to work with, even for the best and brightest). Tyler Mobley, our digital services librarian extraordinaire at the Lowcountry Digital Library, has developed a customized theme in Omeka for us to use in laying out APLA. Today was the first day I could begin working in it, and it is awesome.

To provide some background, we are building APLA in Omeka, an open source system developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, because it includes a very user-friendly and durable online exhibit builder program. One of the downsides of Omeka’s exhibit builder though is it comes with a limited set of options for exhibit appearance themes and page layouts. I found this frustrating because in my earlier work at Emory University’s digital libraries, we used Dreamweaver and later Drupal for laying out our digital projects. These content management systems certainly have their own issues, but for a person like me who is filling in the site content rather than organizing the back end of the system, I grew accustomed to having some sense of control over where texts and multimedia files went in a given digital project, rather than following a template. So when the LCDL team decided to go with Omeka for our exhibits with their set list of themes and page layouts, I had some concerns.

Still the ease of setting up and using Omeka is undeniable, and this a big plus for our relatively small digital library staff. In addition, with the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, we are also hoping to make Omeka’s exhibit builder accessible for our institutional partners to use in collaboratively building innovative digital projects based on their digital archives. So Mobley embarked on setting up a compromise. We would still use Omeka, but he built a very aesthetically pleasing and user friendly Omeka theme for our LDHI projects, and made additional page layout template options so that our staff and partners would have many more to choose from in laying out APLA, as well as future digital projects. To clarify, as a humanities scholar primarily, I cannot fully wrap my head around what all Mobley did to make this digital magic happen, but it’s working great so far and I am looking forward to seeing APLA come together with this new online exhibition theme!


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!!!!!!!!!!

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.

Curated Access and LCDL Collections

“this dynamic website will provide curated access to digitally archived materials that are organized into a researched historic narrative to address public, academic, and educator audiences”

When we first started developing a project description for APLA (for grant applications, partner meetings, etc.), my supervisor encouraged me to use to the phrase “curated access” to explain what we hoped to do with digitally archived materials. I found the implications of this phrase for archives to be interesting. The central goal of the Lowcountry Digital Library is simply to provide organized online access to information about archival materials (such as images of materials and metadata). But images and metadata cannot tell the whole story of why different archival materials are important. This is where “curated access” steps in. A topical history exhibition creates a stage for content experts to pull materials out of a collection and give historic context for why they are important. What is the relationship between this object or document and the people who created and used it? What was their relationship to society? How does this fit into a cohesive historic narrative? By addressing these questions exhibitions activate archival materials to become accessible as educational, public history resources. And as I will explain in later blog entries, online exhibitions in particular have the unique ability to introduce materials and historic contexts in new, interactive forms, through a wide range of multimedia and augmented reality features.

In short, working as a curator for an online history exhibition is a really interesting job, not unlike treasure hunting. I dig through collections to find the perfect object or document to exemplify a broader historic topic. In addition, as we also described in the project description, the history of African American slavery in Charleston itself still remains largely hidden in the area’s public history. On multiple levels, this project serves as an online public history excavation.

For this blog I would like to highlight a few of the archival digital materials we plan to feature in APLA from our own Lowcountry Digital Library collections. We also plan to explore a wide range online repositories for materials, but here are a few of our “treasures” so far:

The McLeod Plantation Cemetery Collection contains beads found in 1996 during the construction of a fire station in James Island, South Carolina. Construction of the fire station, which was to be located between Folly Road, Country Club Drive, and Wappoo Creek, was aborted when workers unearthed unmarked graves. The human bones found were believed to be the remains of slaves that had once lived on McLeod Plantation.,1337

Pewter slave badge produced for a servant in Charleston, S.C. It was common to counterfeit badges to avoid paying taxes, and this particular one was not issued by the city, but created in the stamped year. The face is stamped “Charleston 1862 Servant #4.” Back side contains no markings.,1147

This slave pass, or permission note, is one of three found in 1934 in a Book of Common Prayer. The book was donated to the College of Charleston by Daniel Horlbeck in 1875. For reasons unknown this pass was extensively scribbled over.,5