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!

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 . . .

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.