Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Graphic Novels and History Education

What to superheros, anime, and history education have in common? They can all be found in graphic comic format.   Recently a number of publishers, historians, and education professionals have attempted to make lessons of history more tangible.  This has contributed to a variety of history based graphic novels being produced.

This month Renegade Arts and Entertainment released The Loxelys and the War of 1812.  This hardcover graphic novel chronicles the experience of Canadian family living in the Niagara region during the war of 1812.  The family's experience and the colourful accompanying graphics are framed by actual historical events.  The graphic novel covers bits of perspectives from the American, Canadian, and Indigenous sides.  The target audience is children over the age of ten, making this a more kid friendly than adult oriented publication.  However, The Loxelys have the potential to provide an introduction of the War of 1812 to a wide range of school aged children.

There are graphic novels covering a surprisingly wide range of historical topics. Some of the more interesting novels I've come across include:
  • A number of works by Rick Geary focus on history in the 19th and early 20th century.  Geary's works cover topics such as the assassination of Lincoln, a biography of Trotsky, the Lindbergh kidnapping and number of other topics. 
  • The Age of Bronze series by Eric Shanower.  This series explores the Trojan War via graphic novel at a level that would appeal to youth and with a surprising amount of historical detail.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman.  This graphic novel does a good job of broaching a difficult historical topic, Maus focuses on the experience of Art's father in concentration camps during the Holocaust.  The comic addresses the Holocaust in a way which is educational, powerful, and appropriate for youth to adults.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Post NCPH2012 Conference Wrap-up

I think I'm still coming down from a conference high.  Despite the backlog of email and reference requests that awaited me upon my return, I'm extremely happy that I was able to attend #ncph2012.  My thoughts about specific sessions and networking opportunities I attended can be seen in previous posts.

What did you get out of the trip? A question that could also be phrased as "was it worth us spending the money to send you?"

The conference provided me with a sense of perspective on my own work and career path.  Despite being what NCPH classifies as a new professional (albeit I'm just on the tail end of that description), talking with professionals who have been in the field slightly longer than myself  made me appreciate the breadth of experience I've gained in recent years. This realization combined with being asked for advice by other public history professionals in recent months has helped me realize the mutual benefit of sharing experiences and continuing to seek a variety of development opportunities. 

I live in rural Northern Ontario, while my home has a breathtaking landscape I feel at times disconnected from larger professional community.  The conference helped reinforce the fact that a large public history community does indeed exist, and that I'm not floating alone on a iceberg somewhere.  The conference also allowed me to meet and build on digital relationships that I've made over the past couple of years. 

 Attending #ncph2012 allowed me to get a sense of what type of sessions and what type of presentation formats might work well for ncph2013.  I attended sessions that included formal reading of papers without any visuals, powepoint presentations, roundtable discussions, and sessions which actively attempted to get the session attendee's to participate in discussion.  Each type of format has distinct advantages.  Personally I found the sessions which were less traditional and more focused on engaging discussion far more valuable.

Lastly, but perhaps most tangibly #ncph2012 introduced me to a variety of new ideas, examples of successful projects, techniques for evaluation of unsuccessful initiatives. I've returned to work with a number of projects and open source initiatives that I want to learn more about (and now know the names of people to contact if I want more information). The focus of these projects range from community building to crowdsourcing to basic exhibit development to building a successful oral history program.  Granted, ideas are great but putting them into practice is an entirely different matter - but learning about new things is bound to be the first step towards progress.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Historical Authority and Sense of Place

On the Saturday of #ncph2012 I attended a number of great sessions.  My favourite session of the day, and perhaps the whole conference was "Letting Go? Historical Authority in a User Generated World."  Despite being at 8:30am, this session was lively, discussion filled, and actively engaged attendees.  The session began by the presenters encouraging participants to use sharpies and post-it-notes to record thoughts on the idea of user generated content.   This simplistic activity did a great job of getting everyone moving and getting the conversation started.

Some of the examples of user generated content and exhibits included:
  • 21st Century Abe, the project aimed to explore the idea of Abe's long lasting impact 200 years after his birth.  Artists, experts, and people from all walks of live were invited to contribute their conceptions of Abe.
  • PhilaPlace, is a community driven project by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, that connects stories to places in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.This project uses interactive maps to allow people to connect personal histories to the past and a sense of place.
  • Franklin Remixed, this initiative focused on school aged children sharing their perspectives on Franklin.  The children were exposed to primary sources and encourage to re-conceptualize and redesign a traditional exhibit on Franklin.
  • StoryCorps, a historical interview project that puts regular people at the forefront.  This form of history is highly personalized and without context, short clips are regularly played on NPR. 
  • Denis Severs' House, an unconventional approach to historic house interpretation.  The development of this site was completely artist driven, and allows for a feeling of presence in a historical space.
These great examples of user driven content provided a foundation for discussing the pitfalls and rewards of working with community groups to create and inspire content.

The ideas inspired in this first session, were complemented by the session I attended next: "Right Here on This Spot: Place and Meaning in Historical Scholarship and Community Engagement."  This session focused on the importance of place, the multiple interpretation of place, and the notion of location as storyscape. 

Presenter Michelle McClellan, addressed the concept of space by examining the heritage tourism associated with the book, Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.   McClellan noted how interpretation can greatly impact how visitors conceptualize a sense of space and that preconceived notions of space often shape tourism experiences. 

McClellan was followed by David Young and his discussion of the Cliveden historical site.  In recent years the Cliveden site has been reinterpreted to focus more on the racial experiences than the history of the Chew family.  Young focused on the ability of a single geographic local to tell a wide array of stories and impact numerous communities. 

Both of the sessions I attended Saturday morning sparked thoughts about how I approach history and ways in which traditional interpretation can be altered to improve visitor experiences.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Local Architecture and National Differences

One of the best parts of day two of #ncph2012 was the walking tour of downtown Milwaukee.  The tour was put on by Historic Milwaukee Inc.  This particular tour was especially crafted for the conference and combined elements of various different tours HMI gives. I learned lots about local architecture styles, local history, and the preservation efforts in the city.  I took an abundance of pictures which I will share on this blog at a later date.   Additionally, I volunteered to be a reviewer for the Public Historian and will be writing up a review of the tour and submitting it the journal.

The other major learning experience I had yesterday focused on my current job at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  Coming to the conference I was aware that there are national differences in the Canadian Residential School system and the US boarding school system.  However, I was unprepared for so many history focused people to have no knowledge of either system.  On the plus side, this has contributed to a number of educational moments where I have been able to share a bit about First Nation-Settler Relations.  Many people I've spoken to have been very receptive to learning about the IRS system in Canada and surprised at the extent to which Canada is still struggling with this aspect of our history.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Representation of the Indian Wars and Networking Galore

The second session I attended as part of #ncph2012 focused on the reinterpretation of the Indian Wars by the National Parks Service (NPS).  The panel contained a number of NPS service staff who worked at specific parks and at the upper management level.

The main desire to reinterpret many historic sites has arisen from many Forts clinging to older interpretation models which approach the past in a 'John Wayne' fashion or only tell one side of the story.  Many of the sites which were crucial to the Indian Wars make no mention of the impact of colonialism or take into account the Native point of view.  NPS hope to change this in upcoming years. 

The panelists had a number of good ideas about the importance of creating programming with the audience and not for the audience.  Some individual parks have made efforts to connect with local native groups and begin to start to understand a more complete history of their site.  These conversations and ultimately partnerships are crucial to any approach the NPS takes in revamping their interpretation strategy. 

I found a number of parallels between the interpretation of the Indian Wars and Canada's ongoing struggle to educate the general public about the legacy of Residential Schools.  Both pieces of history are important to their country's past, but have been long neglected in national stories of interpretation.

Following the session on NPS reinterpretation I attended a speed networking session, desert before dinner, and the opening reception of the conference.  All of these events provided me with opportunities to meet other new and experienced professionals, discuss trends in the field, and get a better field for the NCPH.   The conference continues to be a great learning experience.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Museums, Steampunk, and Makers

The first session I attended today at #ncph2012 / #oah2012 was focused on Museums and Makers.  The panel included , , and @publichistorian. To give you a taste of the variety and level of fun this session included, some of the things mentioned included: steampunk elephant, fire breathing bicycles, and knitted dragons.

Overall, I came away with a number of thoughts about community engagement and material culture.  Hands on learning can be seen in steampunk culture that recreates aspects of Victorian science fiction and Maker Faires are all about engagement with the act of making.  Hands-on learning can be a powerful tool no matter what the setting.  Integrating active learning into traditional historical sites invites the public to look at history in a new way.

The presentations and audience questions also touched on the tenuous balance of communities -- hobbyists vs. professionals, fun vs. educational, and forward thinking vs. romanticizing the past.  All of these relationships highlight the complexity of the past and the variety of avenues which one can take to address the past.  History means many things to different people, we as public historians should encourage this broad examination of the past and continue to work to engage so called 'sub-culture' groups.

This session was a great start to my day, both interesting in an academic and fantasy driven way.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Learning from the Doctor

 The BBC series Doctor Who combines fantasy, science fiction, and history; all of which happen to be some of my favourite things.  I'm actually kind of surprised that it has taken me so long to address the show on this blog and to look at it from a public history perspective.

Doctor Who was originally conceived as an educational program for children. The idea was that the episodes set in the past were to teach kids about history, while the space episodes would provide bite-sized facts about science. This concept was reinforced by the Doctor’s first two companions being a history teacher and  a science teacher.

Today's version of Doctor Who has an increasing fantasy and includes content that would be downright frightening to children-- weeping angles anyone?  However, I still think that the program does contain some historical content that is of educational value.  The BBC has actually created some lesson plans based on Doctor Who episodes. These lesson plans typically focus on episodes where Doctor Who visits the past (eg. Victorian England, England during WWII, the era of Vincent Van Gogh, etc).  The historic setting is then used to spark conversations about the past.

A large number of Doctor Who episodes fall into the category of 'alternate history.'  They contain a bit of historical context, but the details -- eg. Winston Churchill is using Daleks to fight the Germans during the WWII blitz -- aren't completely accurate.   In this particular instance the setting of WWII and the actual portrayal of Winston Churchill are fairly accurate.  Most episodes where the Doctor visits the past are like this, they contain grains of truth amongst the fantasy.  Doctor Who provides an introduction to a historical era which may inspire viewers to dig into the past to learn about what actually happened. 

The Doctor Who of today is a far cry from children's educational television.  However, there are gems of historical knowledge and context amongst the aliens, TARDIS, and sonic-screwdrivers.  And besides, who doesn't want a TARDIS that would let them travel through time and space?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Academia Meets Community in a Battle of Understanding

Last week I attended a presentation that was part of a community commemoration event.  The lecture touched on the history of a minority community one, that the speaker was not part of.  Many of the audience members were part of this community and were offended by the approach the speaker took to 'their personal history.'  Since this lecture I've been struggling with the presentation content, audience reaction, and the gap between academic and public conceptions of history.

I'm sure the audience outrage at the event wasn't a unique experience.  Many communities --women, indigenous people, racial groups, and the LGBT community, etc -- have had the history of their communities explored by 'outsiders.'  This type of research is far from inherently bad, it has the potential to create bridges and provide new insight to research topics.  However, cultural sensitivity and awareness are crucial to this type of work. Without awareness and understanding, historians can easily tread into unwelcome ground with communities.

The nature of academic publishing and conferences can cause academic historians to miss opportunities of engagement with the community who's past they are researching.  Additionally, it is entirely possible that during the composition of a research paper an academic historian spends numerous hours on archival research and doesn't ever visit or speak with the community they are researching.  This approach completely ignores the value of oral history and community resources.  It also disengages historians from the general public.

Back to the previously mentioned outraged audience.  Was the academic wrong to take a new approach to an accepted past? Of course not.  Was this community commemoration event the proper place to address this approach? Possibly not.  A number of audience members thought the presentation offensive and some considered it outright racist.  Had the audience been composed of academics the response would have most likely been completely different and not contain such an emotional response.

The very nature of public history involves sharing the past with the general public.  So, how does one bridge the gap from academia to public forum?  In my mind, community participation in all stages of research is key.  Knowing and reaching out to your audience/community can help bridge the academic-public gap.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Archives and Historical Research in Works of Fantasy

I recently rediscovered my love for fantasy fiction.  This love was rekindled while I read the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson.  In addition to being an excellent fantasy series, the Mistborn series allowed me to consider the portrayal of archives and historians in works of fantasy.

Sanderson's Final Empire includes a sect of people who are known as Keepers.  In a glossary Sanderson defines the Keepers as "an organization of Feruchemists dedicated to discovering, then memorizing, all the knowledge and religions that existed before the Ascension."  Throughout the series the Keepers are depicted as the holders and preservers of history, without them the past would be erased from all memory. The Keepers are also dedicated to sharing their knowledge with those in need.

This act of remembrance and sharing strikes me as the essential reason for the establishment of archives and the ultimate goal of many historians.  Like many other fantasy authors, Sanderson uses the act of remembering and the premise of archives to advance the plot in his novels.

A more well known example of historical research and archives impact the plot of works of fantasy can be seen in Lord of the Rings.  Upon learning of the ring held by Bilbo/Frodo Gandalf travels to Minas Tirith in Gondor to research the One Ring. There Lord Denethor grudgingly allowed Gandalf to search among his hoarded scrolls and books. There he found the description of the One Ring written by Isildore.

 This research takes Gandalf 17 years to complete in the books and is shown as a brief clip in the Fellowship of the Ring movie.  Tolkien uses Gandalf's time in the 'archive' and reliance upon historical sources to advance his plot.  It is Gandalf's historical research that eventually allows him to discover how to 'test' the ring held by Frodo. 

Archives, historical research, and other avenues of examining the past often appear in works of fantasy.  Fantasy worlds by their very nature have unique (as in following accepted history) histories. This uniqueness often requires authors to explore the past of a world in a preface, through stories/oral histories, or devices such as archives.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Historical Photographs: Insight and Value

The April/May issue of Canada's History Magazine contains a short article by Paul Jones, which highlights the ability of photographs to speak to the past.  In "Roots: Understanding Family Photos", Jones deconstructs a photograph of his wife's ancestors.  This deconstruction allows Jones to date the photograph, provide a location of the photograph, and the entire process provides him further insight into the family's actions.

Jones' experience brought two things to my mind: the importance of documenting your family photographs and the usefulness of photographs as historical sources.   Documenting your photographs (in pencil or non-corrosive ink of course) with the date, names of people in the photograph, photographer name, and location/event can be invaluable to later generations and historians.  Provenance is what creates great artifacts and allows heritage organizations to properly credit and describe their collections.  Documenting your family photographs can make correctly remembering events a lot easier.

Holland House Library, 1940
Photographs can contain a wealth of historical information. Roland Barthe's Camera Lucida notes "The important thing is that a photograph posses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on the photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation."  Photography allows for types of representation and interpretation that do not exist in written works.  Photographs can be used to examine no longer existing persons and structures - developments in built heritage are often tracked through period photographs.  Styles in fashion, social conduct, and family structure are all captured by photographs.

Additionally, the visual nature of photographs provides them with an advantage over written documents.  People tend to be drawn to images far more than a block of text.  Photographs are routinely used in outreach and instructional programming by local history groups, genealogists, educational institutions, museums, and archives.Historical photographs can be used to introduce people to history that they would otherwise have no interest in.  Glimpses into the past through photographs can be invaluable to all levels of historical practice.

Photo credits : zmustapha and Lee Cannon

Monday, April 2, 2012

Overcoming Uncertainity: Possibilites and Passions

Uncertainty and lack of job security can seem like impending doom at times.  However, uncertainty can also inspire reflective thinking, proactive approaches, and reevaluation of goals.  Resisting the temptation to panic when you are unsure of contract renewal or career developments takes practice, but is well worth the effort.

Uncertainty opens the door of possibility.  Now is the time to contemplate options, alternatives, and your career needs and wants.  Once you've established the things that are absolutely essential in a career path (eg. you need to make X amount of dollars a month in order to eat) look towards what job opportunities are available to fulfill those essentials.  What professional development can your undertake to make your career goals more attainable? Thinking outside of the box is encouraged.  Just because you've always had a certain type of job, doesn't mean you are not capable of doing something completely different.

Sometimes we focus so hard on a closed door that we can't see the window that has been opened.  It is hard to plan when you don't know what is going to happen in the near future.  However, there are lots of things you can do to avoid going crazy.   Think though many possible scenarios (best and worst case), come up with solutions for these possibilities, and accept that some things are just out of your control.  

Explore your passions.  Gaps in work contracts might seem devastating at first.  What are you going to do until your new contract starts in a few months? Being a sloth in your pajamas might be okay for the first little while, but it isn't overly helpful in the long run.  Use this time productively - rework your cv, gain new experience through volunteering, focus on writing you've been putting off, or contribute to a community group you haven't had time for. 

Uncertainty is part of life, but it doesn't have to be a bad part.