Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Digital Exhibits: Display and Format Challenges

As part of a work project, I recently spent some time scrolling through a variety of digital exhibits created by heritage organizations.  My goal while looking at these online exhibits was to compile a list of functions and visual characteristics which comprise a 'good' online exhibit.   I'm not sure my efforts resulted in an ultimate list, but I did come a few digital exhibit techniques I liked and a lot I that found verging on horrible.

Common Online Exhibit Problems:
  • Poor flow of information and the user is left unsure of how to navigate information.
  • Way too much text.  Most curators often refrain from including an overload of text in a physical exhibit, but it seems like this practice is often ignored in digital exhibits. 
  • Overuse of flash or other elements which take a long time to load (even on highspeed).

Digital Exhibit Elements That Work:
  • Combining mediums and using the digital space to display video, audio, and photographic material from a collection. 
  • Facilitating hyperlinking to the online collection descriptions so users can learn more about an item. 
  • User choice is integrated into the design.  For example, the user is able to decide which part or items of the exhibit they wish to look at and in which order. 
  • Exhibit theme (colours, images, etc) allows the image to stand apart from the rest of the institution's website.

What makes a good digital exhibit? What is your favourite virtual exhibit? 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Collection Glimpse: Sharon Temple National Historic Site and Museum

This is the fourth segment in a series of posts entitled, "Collection Glimpses."  Each post in the series  focuses on a unique collection, innovative repository, or a not well known cultural heritage institution.

The Sharon Temple National Historic Site is located in Sharon, Ontario, a small community within reasonable driving distance to Toronto.  The main feature on the site is a temple constructed by the Quaker Children of Peace organization in the late 1820s. In addition to the large central temple, the site includes eight additional historic buildings in a park setting.

Prior to the 1950s the Sharon Temple Museum was initially encompassed under the work of the York Pioneers and York County Museum.  During this period the site focused on the broad history of York County.  After 1950 the site began to focus more on the role of the Children of the Peace and develop a site independent from the general history of the County.  In 1991, the Temple was dedicated as a National Historic Site based on its architectural significance.  Since 1991, a cookhouse, drive shed, and other out buildings have been replicated and programming and collections have grown to reflect the original state of the Temple.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the site is the restored architecture features of the site.  The Temple boasts multi-tier construction, a Jacob's ladder inspired staircase, and a pipe and barrel organ. In addition to the great built heritage on the site, the Temple does a variety of outreach programming including an annual concert series and educational tours.  Very little of the artifact collection is available for viewing online at this point, however a short digital exhibit about the site was put together in conjunction with the Archives of Ontario.

Photo credits: Stephanie Spencer and zandersaar

Monday, January 23, 2012

Community and Relevancy in Rural Museums

The latest issue of Curator: The Museum Journal was recently posted online.  This issue contained a number of interesting approaches to issues in the museum field.  One article I found particularly interesting was Rhianedd Smith's "Searching for "Community": Making English Rural History Collections Relevant Today."  The article can be read online here

Smith's work focuses on rural history museums in the United Kingdom, however her logic and the trends towards more active community engagement are applicable in Canada and in the museum community at large. The tendency of smaller museums to represent a single interpretation of the past is fairly common.  Many institutions struggle to include interpretations that will be representative of a culturally diverse area.  In Canada this may be in part be due to overarching Euro-Canadian history which has long been the dominate force in small museums.

So how does one make a rural or local heritage collection relevant to a wider audience? Smith provides case examples of some actions that have worked - outreach to a wider range of donors, focusing on the human element, using digital technology to reach a broader audience.  More strikingly, Smith highlights the need for flexibility.  There is no one size fits all outreach initiative that suit all organizations, however it is imperative that organizations look towards new programming and interpretation options.

Photo credit: Marion Doss

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Slow Evolution of Digital Literature

Like many others I received an e-reader as a Christmas gift.  Despite loving technology I have clung to my love of paper books and in all honesty if my partner hadn't bought me a Kobo Touch I would probably still be buying (and not knowing where to store) an abundance of traditional books.  However, since I now have the digital toy I've resolved to read at least every other book on the Kobo. 

Some of my initial thought about the e-reader:
  • The ability to highlight, bookmark passages, and take digital notes is a huge asset for academic reading.
    • This advantage is the same one that prompts my use of Zotero to keep track of citations and  reading notes on my laptop.
  • The dictionary feature is my new best friend.
  • The ability to digitally share reading lists, quotations, etc 
These are all great reasons to use an E-reader or tablet, however digital texts haven't really advanced traditional reading in any profound way.  Ebooks are essentially digital copies of paper books.  Given the push for digital interaction, I find it a bit surprising that more innovation hasn't occurred in the development of multimedia and expanded digital texts.

The one example I have come across that pushes the boundaries of e-publishing is Paul La Farge's Luminous Airplanes work.  La Farge describes his work as "immersive text", something akin to a new phase of hyperlink books which allows the reader to explore a text in unique and exploratory ways.  A recent Spark interview highlights the ideas behind La Farge's work.

Additionally, Apple just announced the introduction of iBooks 2 app which boasts an interactive textbook format.  It will be interesting to see if Apple's idea catches on and how it actually works as an interactive medium.

What types of innovation in digital literature would you like to see?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Chief Vann House: Conflicted Interpretation and Restoration

Tiya Miles article, "Showplace of the Cherokee Nation: Race and the Making of a Southern House Museum", that recently appeared in The Public Historian, volume 33, issue 4, presents an intriguing examination of the role racial perceptions can play in heritage interpretations.

Miles' work focuses on the Chief Vann House State Historic Site in Georgia.  This particular heritage site is the former residence of Chief Joseph Vann, who was a predominant plantation owner in Georgia until his family was forced to leave under the 1830s federal Indian Removal bill. 

Throughout "Showplace of the Cherokee Nation" Miles describes the 1950s restoration efforts of the Vann House and highlights the ongoing tensions in interpretation viewpoints. Miles illustrates the ongoing tensions between the desire to portray a  local heritage indicative of high class Georgia and the government desire to frame the House in 'Indianness.'  These contrasting notions of focal interpretation points resulted in an interpretation that Miles describes as reflecting "the dual themes of Native American material culture and antebellum plantation culture.  The home was decorated with antiques befitting a well-heeled planter family, but the attic was reserved for display of Indian artifacts such as arrowheads." (p.29)  Since no single narrative could be decided upon, the two prominent narratives were intermingled.  Both the local heritage advocates and the state government believed that the House had tourism potential, but they differed greatly on what they thought the prime attraction was -- Indianness or Southern plantation heritage.

The Vann House site is not unique in its struggle of historical viewpoints.  History is often contested and there is always more than one way to tell the same set of events.  I am interested to know how the Vann House site currently functions as a house museum, do the interpreters address the ongoing struggle of viewpoints? Miles also notes that during the 1950s no thought was given to representing the slave presence that once drove the work on the plantation.  It would be interesting to see if this heritage is now represented in the House's displays.

What are additional examples of struggles of historical interpretation coming to the forefront in heritage sites?

Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn

Monday, January 16, 2012

Open Access and Archival Journals

The latest issue of the American Archivist (Volume 75, Issue 2) featured an article by Paul Conway and William E. Landis titled, "Open-Access Publishing and the Transformation of the American Archivist Online."  This article provides an interesting examination of recent trends within the Society of American Archivists (SAA) and current thoughts regarding open-access and digital publishing.

Conway and Landis maintain that the SAA has adopted a form of open-access publishing that is a middle ground between completely open access and a pay per use model.  This is seen in the assertion that, "all older content is freely available online and represents and unambiguous commitment by SAA to the widest possible dissemination of journal content over time," while newer (most recent six issues) American Archivist content is restricted to SAA members or those who pay for access.  This seems like a decent compromise, by still providing all other content to the general publish while maintaining an increased level of content for those who purchase an SAA membership.

However, Conway and Landis astutely point out that this membership or pay wall limits access to the newest scholarship and may leave smaller community archives and professionals outside of the archival field behind.   Given, the American Archivist's current state of straddling both paper and digital worlds it seems as though there are a number of accessibility concerns that will have to be addressed in the long run.

Additionally, the concern over the lag time of paper journals - eg. the American Archivist only publishes twice a year, making it a poor venue for time sensitive discussions - is well broached in this article.  The SAA's new online review portal has begun to address this concern and provide information that is available only in digital form.

The examination of the American Archivist by Conway and Landis is one of many recent works focusing on the need to bridge the divide between scholarly publication and open access digital publication.  Initiatives such as Digital Humanities Now, and media-commons projects are excellent examples of scholarly communities attempting new forms of scholarly digital communication.  New alternatives and forms of communication are developing all the time and the archival community has just begun to look into the possibilities offered by digital publication.  

Friday, January 6, 2012

New Year Heritage Links

Lots of heritage and public history on goings this week.  Some of the stories that caught my attention:
  • In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg recently broadcasted five episodes dedicated to the development of written word and how the word has shaped our intellectual history.  The podcasts are well worth a listen and include detailed descriptions of a number of artifacts held by the British Library. 
  • The US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released the Citizen Archivist Dashboard project.  This digital initiative aims to use crowdsourcing to transcribe, tag, edit, and upload photographs to the NARA collection.  The crowdsouring exercises are framed as challenges as means of encouraging user participation, and are overall visually appealing and simple to follow. 
  • The year's first #builtheritage twitter chat took place on Wednesday January 4th.  The transcript will be available online in the near future. 
  • The Thinking About Exhibits blog featured a great post on applications that focus on museum objects. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Collection Glimpse: American Folk Art Museum

This is the third segment in a series of posts entitled, "Collection Glimpses."  Each post in the series  focuses on a unique collection, innovative repository, or a not well known cultural heritage institution. The first post highlighted the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archive and the second installment focused on the Gardiner Museum

 Established in 1961, the American Folk Art Museum is dedicated to the display, preservation, and interpretation of traditional folk art and contemporary self-taught artists from the United States and internationally.  The museum hold folk art items from the eighteenth century to the present.

In addition to an extensive collection dedicated to traditional folk art of all mediums and contexts, the Museum's Contemporary Center highlights recent works of art and culture which reflect the ongoing tradition of self-taught artistry in the United States.  The Center presents lectures, symposia, and special events.  A portion of the Center's contemporary works can be viewed online

Other than the unique items in the collection, the factor which makes the American Folk Art Museum stand apart is the museum's commitment to outreach and educational programming.  The Museum has an extensive collection focused lecture, tour, and workshop schedule.  Other outreach initiatives include hands on DIY craft  sessions, guitar afternoons, and free music Fridays.

For those interested in American folk art and not unable to visit the museum, there are a wide array of social media and digital display techniques used by the museum. The museum has digitized a number of items and made them available via an image gallery.  Additionally, in the past the Museum has produced some exhibit specific apps and digital promotions.  The "Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts" app is an interesting example of an app allowing remote access to an exhibit.

Overall, the abundance of digital resource and research potential provided by the American Folk Art Museum left me longing for a Canadian equivalent.  The Canadian Museum of Civilization does collect Canadian Folk art, however at the moment that collection isn't overly accessible in a digital format.

Photo credit: joevare, cliff1066, and Steve and Sara,

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Public Domain Day 2012

Hurray for access! January 1st was Public Domain Day.  On that day, unpublished works by authors who died prior to 1942 became part of the public domain in the United States. This includes works by notable authors such as:
 A more complete list can be seen here.  Lists of authors whose works entered the public domain in 2011 or 2010 are also available.

However there are some conditions around the entrance of works into the public domain.  This legislation only applies to works which have not been previously published and which were not made during parts of employment.  Separate copyright legislation applies to those works.   

Monday, January 2, 2012

Tale of a Town: History Meets Theater

This morning CBC played a documentary entitled, "Small Time Stories: From the Tale of a Town - Queen Street West."  The radio documentary was based on the work done to compile the multimedia interactive play Tale of a Town that focuses on the history of the Queen Street West neighbourhood in Toronto.  The radio production provided an interesting look into some of Queen Street West's more prominent buildings and past residents. 

The premise behind the production is very similar to a historical walking tour.  The show takes the audience on a promenade-style tour of Queen West by a fictional condo developer, which allows theater to be intermingled with built history and local memories of the area.

The idea of incorporating theater into history isn't anything new -  reenactments and many living history sites have been doing this for years.  However, Tale of a Town attempts to combine theater, oral history, built heritage, local history, and music.  I'm interested to know if similar productions have been undertaken in other cities or venues. 

Photo credit: rachel in wonderland