Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Québec, Printemps 1918

The memorial pictured here commemorates the Quebec City riot of Easter weekend, 1918 [1]. It sits in St-Roch, a predominantly working-class neighborhood in Quebec City. It is right beside a bus shelter. In fact, part of the memorial (not pictured here, but directly to the right of the column) acts as a functional bench for those waiting for the bus.

On 1 April 1918, in this very area of St-Roch, soldiers from Ontario reacted to civilians whose opposition to conscription had turned violent. A lengthy text panel accompanies the stele. Named for Jean Provencher's 1974 play "Quebec, Printemps 1918", the text tells of the riot. If you click on the photo and zoom in, you can read the text. Alternatively, there is a Wikipedia page on the memorial that includes its full text.

The text tells that, for five days, citizens mounted active opposition to conscription. It tells that the federal government used anglophone soldiers from Ontario and the West to deal with the rioters. After reading the riot act in English only, it continues, the soldiers fired on the crowd, killing 4 and wounding 70 others. The panel explains the monument's symbolism, and lists the names of the 4 killed.

One of the friends I traveled to Quebec with this past weekend is writing his Master's thesis on the memorial. Chris is investigating the history it teaches, and the kind of memory it perpetuates. I am really looking forward to reading his work when it's finished, as, aside from what he told us in Quebec, I know absolutely nothing about the conscription crisis. I knew that there was some unfortunate thing called a conscription crisis, and that it featured some pretty angry Quebecois. This is likely, in part, a result of my failure to pay close enough attention in junior high Canadian history. But, wait: I wasn't a terrible student in junior high. I was even actively interested in history. I would like to think that, if the Quebec City riots had figured large in the curriculum, I would retain at least some memory of them.

I attended junior, and senior high school in Toronto from '93 - 2000. In those years, the story of the First World War that I learned of was about Vimy and Passchendale. It was about Canadian women on the home front. I just finished reading Jane Urquhart's The Stone Carvers; it's a fascinating and engaging read, and one that entirely corroborates the WWI story I learned. I'm quite sure my WWI story did not include any more than passing reference to opposition to conscription in Quebec. My WWI story certainly was clearly not heavily inspired by Provencher [2].

Another friend of mine, now doing PhD work in Canadian history, attended public school in Shawinigan in the mid- to late'90s. This likely sounds naive, but I was completely amazed to learn that his WWI story had not included the battlefields of the Western front. His was, it seems, more of a social history of Quebec, and a story of of tensions between local, provincial and federal politics and politicians of the time.

Standing in front of the Quebec, Printemps 1918 monument (and helping us to translate its text) Chris explained that there are huge inaccuracies in the story it tells. But who, in St-Roch, we wondered, would question its narrative? Further, if someone were to wonder at it, what would it take for him or her to research the history, and to challenge the narrative? We then started to wonder about the stories that monuments in Ontario had told us - stories that seemed so straightforward that we had never questioned them.

I'm not, in any way, trying to illustrate conspiracy, or propaganda. I don't know enough about the history of the conscription crisis in Canada, or about the ins-and-outs of our nation's different WWI narratives to do so. I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on the scope, and power of Canadian memories. Not until this past weekend did I appreciate just how disparate memories in Canada are, and will likely continue to be.


[1] See the Newspaper Extract, "Five civilians shot by soldiers in Quebec City
April 2, 1918" on the McCord Museum's Keys to History online exhibit
. I wrote a blog post a couple of months ago on the success of the McCord's online exhibits, and of the tagging and collecting functions that the My Folders function allows the museum's online visitor over digitized artefacts. I googled "quebec city 1918 riots", and the McCord's page, complete with a digitized image of La Presse's 2 April '18 page, was the fourth result listed. The page offers a short history of the riot, explaining its connection to the conscription crisis. While this page is useful, I will criticize the lack of navigation tools it offers me. I came at this artefact through a 'back door' - that is, by arriving at the precise artefact via my broad Google search. It seems that the artefact is, however, a part of someone's Folder of collected items. The Folder is unnamed, and I can't find a link to provide me with some context to understand who created this Folder.

[2] See Jean Provencher, Québec sous la loi des mesures de querre, 1918 (Trois-Rivières: Boréal-express, 1971). My friend who is working on this thesis told me that Provencher's interpretation remains the seminal Quebecois work on the conscription crisis.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Wolfe, in all his glory

Three good friends and I just got back from a 4-day road trip to Quebec City. Though we spent most of our time in Vieux Quebec, on Saturday we ventured as far as Battlefields National Park - better known as the Plains of Abraham. It was a damp, chilly afternoon, and we didn't linger very long on the windy Plains before going to get a big bowl of chocolat chaud. We did, however, see a good number of monuments while in the park. Of those we saw, the plaque pictured above is my favourite.

Three things about this plaque caught my attention. First, of course, was its outrageously old-fashioned-sounding text. With the issues that Litt, Wood and McKay raise on the topic of commemoration still fresh on my mind, I thought that it would be great to have a short informational plaque beside this one to state who put up the plaque, when they did so, and if, or, more likely, how it had been defaced in its lifetime.

Second, I realized, the plaque tells its colourful story first in English, followed by a French translation. We saw other plaques in the park that marked the position different divisions had taken on the day of the battle. They were of the same standard shape and size as this little one of Wolfe's. I wish I could remember now if any of the other such plaques featured their English text first, or if that primacy is reserved for ol' Wolfe, alone.

Third, this plaque's bombastic story seemed completely incongruous to the physicality of the monument itself. The plaque is embedded into a slab that is about the size of a modest gravestone.

As anyone who has been to the Plains will know, a tall column marks the spot where Wolfe died. The column is a short walk away from the small plaque. Four bronze plaques cover the four faces of the column's base. One reads, simply, (in French, followed by an English translation), "ICI MOURUT WOLFE LE TREIZE SEPTEMBRE 1759". There's really nothing noteworthy about that inscription. The other three plaques are, however, much more intriguing, as they relate the column's biography. They state that five successive Wolfe memorials occupied the spot. The first, they teach, was nothing more than a stone rolled to the spot after the battle in 1759. The British Army in Canada built a memorial in 1832. It was subsequently "destroyed" (how? why?), thereby forcing the Army to build another one in 1849. In 1913 the National Battlefields Commission built the 4th installment which "reproduced" the column of the previous incarnation. Finally, the Commission erected the 5th memorial in July 1963 "in replacement of the column which was destroyed on March 29th 1963."

What a story! It's too bad the column doesn't tell its visitor why the darn thing was destroyed so many times. Or, on second thought, is there value in sparking the visitor's curiosity so that she might try to uncover explanations on her own?

I really appreciated Kevin Marshall's comment on my last post that history is "messy", and that it "spills away from a historic site in a way that plaques can't possibly illustrate." Thanks, Kevin! I like that description. I do wonder, though: Might Wolfe's column - as much a memorial to itself as a memorial to the General - be a successful complement to the unabashedly old-fashioned Wolfe plaque that my friends and I encountered first? Might the odd combination of those two markers urge anyone intrigued by what their texts avoid stating outright to learn about, say, what was going on in Quebec City in '63?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Public History as Interruption?

On the afternoon of Sunday 19 November, there was a bright yellow parrot in the William's Coffee Pub on Richmond St. A dapper looking older gentleman brought the bird into the shop with him. Man and uncaged bird sat together at a booth for a moment, watching the world go by. Then the bird squawked, hopped down from the booth and toddled around on the floor. The man scooped it up, set it on the table, and went to the counter alone to get a coffee. The bird stayed still, guarding the booth.

The scene, of course, woke me out of the stupor that reading the aforementioned, remarkably uninteresting, Europe in the Sixteenth Century textbook had put me in. The bright yellow bird also startled others. One young couple headed to claim the booth and, when they saw the parrot, were visibly discombobulated. They looked at each other, at the parrot, and then around at other customers ( who, like I was, were watching & waiting for their reaction). I could almost hear their thoughts - are we nuts? Does anyone else see that big, crazy-looking bird? I don't even need to tell you how the after-church ladies' crowd reacted to the scene.

While all of this transpired to my immediate left, two hundred paces to my right, outside the coffee shop and in the middle of Victoria Park, stood one of those stoic iron historical plaques that we had been reading about for that week's Public History class. The plaque commemorates the British Garrison in London.

The crazy parrot-related confusion on my left and the staid, quiet plaque in peaceful Victoria Park on my right seemed to occupy two entirely incongruous realities. Our commemorative plaques, I reflected, could do with being a little more like bright yellow parrots. Without tearing down all of our country's classy-looking little iron beauties (an act that would not only be expensive and wasteful, but would likely anger many[1]), perhaps we can update some of them. Perhaps we can infuse them with a little bit of the surprise value that the vision of a tropical bird in a London coffee shop engenders.

The plaque in Victoria Park waits patiently for the passerby to approach it. It is silent, and passive. This is all fine and good, as I'd imagine most of us don't want to be harassed by a commemoration when all we're after is a good coffee on a Sunday afternoon.

But what if we made even some of our plaques active? [2] What if we designed some of them to interrupt our busy activities? We have the means to make the public history equivalent to that yummy smell that Saint Cinnamon pumps out of its store - the one that makes you stop and take notice of your surroundings when you're barreling through the mall, too occupied with your Christmas shopping to really take note of anything extraneous.

American artist Shimon Attie installed a project in Berlin's Scheunenviertel district in 1992 titled "The Writing on the Wall." It consisted of slides of Jewish life in the '20s and '30s, projected onto the façades of the same, or nearby addresses in the district. Attie had been trying to make transparent the process of change through time, and, in this case, the loss of a people from Berlin.[3] Another similar temporary installation in Berlin was designed so that passerby set off a sensor which activated a projection of a short fact, such as, at this intersection, on 23 April 1943, Gestapo assembled 23 young German Jewish women from this community for deportation to Ravensbruck.

In my view, five factors work to make such a commemoration powerful:

1. Its 'surprise factor' - it instantly animated an otherwise innocuous-looking space,
2. it's relationship to the pedestrian - it appeared only when he or she occupied the immediate area,
3. the fact that it was a temporary art installation,
4. the fact that the event it commemorated took place at the exact spot where the commemoration now stood, and
5. that the Holocaust has become iconic in Western cultural memory

Now, clearly, there aren't any sites in London, ON, at which violent acts that would later be identified as part of the Holocaust occurred. I believe that the first four qualities on the above list can, however, be integrated into ongoing commemoration projects in a London context. Furthermore, I remain inspired by Carling's suggestion (made in our last Public History class, and reiterated on her recent blog post) that the Museum of Jurassic Technology struck her as more of a permanent art installation than a museum. I think that if public historians can fully embrace planning that places public commemoration in the realm of (permanent or temporary) installation art, as well as in the realm of history, we could create some genuinely dynamic projects.

Imagine, for example, walking by a normal-looking storefront on Dundas, say, just east of Richmond, when suddenly you hear,

"Hey, you! Yeah, you. You in the purple sweater. Beatrice McPherson lived here in 1911. She was very poor, and she lost her few belongings in a fire that same year."

This noisy commemoration could also (assuming it was programmed somehow) offer conflicting viewpoints of how Ms. McPherson's residence met its fiery demise. Half of the time, it could repeat one popular rumor that gained currency after the fire: that ol' Bea set the fire herself in a suicide attempt. The other half of the time it could repeat another: that the shopkeeper below was the arsonist.

This Ol' Bea example is fabricated (I don't know if there was a Bea on Dundas in 1911, and, if there was, I sincerely hope she didn't suffer a devastating fire). Further, an active monument isn't an original concept. In previous research projects, I have run across countless examples of what many refer to as "countermonuments" - projects that seek to challenge monuments' traditional form - in Germany. I'm certain they exist elsewhere.

The aim, however, of our hypothetical London example would be to work against the relegating of history to quiet, passive and often cordoned-off spaces [4]. Unfortunately, I'm sure we could all imagine that even the noisiest, most aesthetically interesting memorial could quickly become 'invisible.' It could only be a matter of time before the pestering memorial could become completely ordinary to Londoners.

Ideally, then, Ol' Bea would only be a temporary installation. Better yet, it could be one in a series of related commemorative installations. There is, after all, nothing more historical than constant change [5]. If we could attach such noisy plaques to places in the city that are in flux, (such as construction sites), we could work to animate commemoration.

Of course, Ontarians can boast a wealth of existing memorials and commemorative plaques. I would never advocate abandoning traditional memorial forms. I simply think there is much room for creative additions to our current memorial landscape.

[1] Paul Litt wrote of being reprimanded by an angry Torontonian who caught him in the act of replacing an old historical plaque in the city's Beaches area. "You are taking away our history", the elderly man had yelled. Litt's article charts the history of our historic plaques. Although he determines that many plaques are now artefacts in themselves, most Ontarians continue to see the merit in our provincial plaque program. See Litt,“Pliant Clio and Immutable Texts: The Historiography of a Historical Marking Program,” The Public Historian vol.19 no.4 (Fall 1997), pp.7-28.

[2] Patricia K. Wood's writing on historic sites that strive to re-animate the past led me to think about making commemoration noisy, and active. Wood criticizes, in particular, how living museums in Calgary physically relegate attempts at re-animating the past to suburban sites. If she so chooses, the Calgarian could entirely avoid living museums in the greater metropolitan area. Wood raises interesting questions: how can we make successful commemoration projects not only present in the city core, but also relevant to those who live, work, and travel there? How can we make sure that we integrate material commemoration of the past into our dynamic, and ever-growing cities? See Wood, “The Historic Site as a Cultural Text: A Geography of Heritage in Calgary, Alberta,” Material History Review (Fall 2000), pp.33-43

[3] See Eyestorm's 2003 article on Attie's work for some photographs of his installations.

[4] Again, Wood's critique of living museums in Calgary underscores the problem of keeping history in pristine, artificial areas outside of where 'real' people live, work and play.

[5] Ian McKay has written about the politics of public commemoration in Nova Scotia from 1935-64. His article tells that new kind of history for tourists' consumption in NS in that period was “profoundly anti-historical.” Instead of presenting change through time, McKay argued that bureaucrats and promoters sought to freeze a moment in time, for example, in an all-too-perfectly restored building. See McKay,“History and the Tourist Gaze: The Politics of Commemoration in Nova Scotia, 1935-1964,” Acadiensis vol.22 no.2 (1993), pp.102-38.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

a sense of belonging in a new home

All of us UWO Public History students have had the opportunity to conduct at least one interview in the course of our research for our Museum London exhibit. I genuinely enjoyed meeting with my interviewee. He is a collector of one of the technologies that our exhibit will feature, and he was most generous in sharing his time, and items from his personal library, to aid our research.

Furthermore, the whole experience really heightened my sense of belonging in London. The interview occurred about a month ago, during the same week as some of my colleagues and I returned to Museum London's artefact storage facility to examine the material a little more closely than we had on our initial trip in September. It was also during the same week as our Understanding Archives class took place at London Life Insurance, right downtown. The London Life building, the Museum, and my interviewee's house are all within walking distance of my own house, and of Western. By the end of the week, I was struck by how much more comfortable - by how much more at home - I felt in London. My sense of the geography of the city had expanded along with my sense of the city's identity and, of course, it's history. I had also begun to reflect on my own identity, and place, in this city.

Whether we are new to a given community or have lived in it for years, oral history and local history have great potential to heighten our experience of belonging in that community. Conducting oral history interviews and researching local material culture are a couple of ways to build up relationships between people. They can also help us construct (or build on existing) networks of local places, spaces and institutions. Finally, of course, such community research facilitates our sharing of information.

Community institutions such as churches, libraries, museums, galleries, theatres and regional, or municipal parks commissions are ideal candidates to lead community members in recreational oral history, and local history projects. If we could secure federal or provincial funding for those projects by explaining their potential for community-building, we'd be on our way. If we incorporate the building of an online, easy to use, open access digital repository for all of the information gathered an integral part of the project itself, I think we'd really be cookin'. Contributors would have the opportunity to hone their technical skills, too.

Today, there is truly an overabundance of opportunities for us to travel internationally. Work abroad programs, study opportunities, travel, internship and fellowship possibilities invite us to make virtually anywhere a new home. In our world, so many of us move around so much. Participation in discovering the history of the place we reside can amplify any interpersonal connections we make in a new home. Historical research has the potential to not only combat the newcomer's sense of dislocation, but also to help her become an active participant in the community.

Why can't I reflect in real time?

The last time I posted a blog was 18 November. That’s almost a quarter of a term ago. It doesn’t need saying, but I’ll say it: I’m clearly having trouble being active and reflective at the same time. My colleagues have figured it out, and I am inspired by their accomplishments. What ‘action’ has kept me from this blog?

  1. Museum text panel editing
  2. A presentation about what makes for an archive's successful educational outreach initiative
  3. A paper on how public access should be paramount among libraries’ mandates
  4. Interview transcribing
  5. Lately, shoveling. No matter how many times family cautioned me, I didn’t fully appreciate the “London is in a snow belt, y’know” comment until, well, last Thursday’s illustration.

We have all faced the challenges that assignments, deadlines, and inclement weather have mounted over the past few weeks. Once again, I commend my fellow public history students (please see the “blogroll”, at right) for their success in managing to meet such challenges, and to blog about their experience in real time. Our History 500 syllabus suggests that we're to "engage in 'reflective practice' throughout the term, responding to readings, discussions, and experiences as they occur."


The opportunity to post a blog on something that occurred in (even relatively) real time in invaluable. I've been fortunate to have had this experience a few times this term. The resulting blog post can, I think, really convey my excitement, wonder, or confusion about the subject at hand. In contrast, my scribbled, coffee-stained notes about an idea that I found engaging three weeks ago are certainly not inspiring sources for new blog posts.

Professor Turkel's History 513 syllabus reinforces the value of blogging in real time. It encourages us to use our computers during seminar meetings to look things up on online, to blog about the discussion, and even to "send backchannel text messages to other people in the room"! These are exciting, inspiring suggestions. If I could manage to act on them, I think some really dynamic writing could be the result. I just need to figure out how to operate in the 'real world' and the 'digital world' simultaneously. I do, however, strongly dislike that 'real'/'fake' world distinction. So, better yet, I would like to figure out how to conflate action and reflection - to make them, as I wrote in an earlier post, integrated layers of one big activity.

Sigh. It's an ongoing challenge. For now, I will have to settle for dusting off, and hoping to re-invigorate, some of those two- and three-week old reflections.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


Pursuing my aim of rendering the learning process transparent, I've included some of the HTML that I created on W3Schools' "Tryit Editor v1.4" In so doing, I've suddenly realized that what I thought was a great idea (about exposing one's learning curve in a very public way, as, in this case, on the Web), is, instead, really a pretty arrogant one. I can imagine that, in most cases, nobody besides the creator cares about her learning curve, or process. Who wants to follow that process? Who has the time? I suppose it depends on how exciting the researcher's process is. Clearly, though, learning to write HTML isn't the raciest research activity to lay bare, is it? This is particularly true when (as in this case) the content will read as nonsense to anyone but the creator.

this is a really cute song
it really reminds me of sarah cooking in our crazy kitchen, looking out the window at winding snowy staircases, winter 2004

Let it Die

I like to sing this one out loud
even when and where I shouldn't
like in the TA office, when I'm using my headphones and I'm sure noone else is there
but someone is always there!

Just because it has attitude...

now I know what I don't want - I learned that with you but why is that quotation bolded? Ah, right. Didn't close the bold tag above
"now i know..." is the only advantage to using the quotation tag (instead of just inserting a break tag and then typing in the q. marks myself) that the quotation marks look nicer?

They shot a movie once in my hometown
Everybody was in it for miles around
Out at the speedway, some kinda Elvis thing
Well I ain't no movie star
But I can get behind anything
Yea I can get behind anything

Poor Sarah

It's no time to be sad

this is a pretty crazy feature

what can I use it for, beyond writing Hebrew text?

I'm all over the p, and b tags!

I like headings

They organize things

This is a heading

I like headings

but I don't like blue

I just have to remember to use american spellings for "centre" and "colour"

Obviously, the next step is to learn about Web Hosting.

This is a post-posting note: I wasn't prepared for blogger to read this HTML in any way - I copied and pasted it from notepad, and thought it would appear just as it does there. I'm perplexed. The learning curve is temporarily leveling off.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Thank you, firefox. I have not been able to post pictures to this blog for a while, and Blogger indicated (in a not-so-subtle way, with a "get firefox" link) that I should just change my browser, and everything would be fine. Blogger was right. I don't miss my slow, cumbersome Internet Explorer at all. Pages now take no time to load. The tab system is fantastic. My blog is a more attractive colour viewed with firefox than it was with IE, and this fabulous new browser even looks more sophisticated than the one I had in IE. I know, I should have jumped on the firefox bandwagon years ago. I'm just glad I finally did.

A latent historical consciousness?

Two years ago, some of my fellow Concordia history grad students and I organized a conference entitled "Nations, Nationalism, and National Identity." Ambitiously, we asked Benedict Anderson to be a keynote speaker. He respectfully declined. Instead, Jocelyn Létourneau came.

This week's focus on history and nation-building recalled my experience of working on that conference. Aside from Létorneau, I don't remember any presenter speaking on identity and history in Quebec. Thinking back on that fact now, I find it really surprising. What surprises me even more is the fact that none of the members of the organizing committee (myself included) even noticed this void at the time [1]. Our history conference, held in the middle of downtown Montreal, in a province where every licence plate reads "je me souviens," almost entirely failed to shed light on history and nation-building in Quebec.

Was that a failure on our part? Should our location and context have made us responsible for increasing emphasis on the Quebec case? [2]. At the time, I was taking a course on Public Memory in Canada, taught by Ronald Rudin (who stars in Lorenz's study) [3]. One of the essays we read in that course was Nelles' work on the Tercentenary of the Founding of Canada [4]. Shouldn't our event's lack of Quebec-ness have resonated with me?

When do people reflect on their identity? And when do they couple history with that reflection? Is it only when, as in Nelles' study, they're involved in nation-building? What about the majority of the population - those of us who haven't made front page news (like René Lévesque) for our nation-building activity? Sure, we may think on our history and identity in times of crisis (such as during a World War, or a referendum on sovereignty when identity is threatened). What about at other times, though? It didn't occur to my friends and I to think about how our own history and sense of identity could affect the way we shaped our conference. Létourneau and Moisan's conclusions corroborate my experience. Their study of the persistence of a dated historical memory in Quebec infers that young people haven't been thinking actively, or independently, about history, nation-building and community identity.

I am interested to hear my colleagues' views on communities' historical consciousness. Do we keep our sense of historical identity on the back-burner? If so, when do we call on it? In those instances, what do we use it for? How can we (as public historians) facilitate communities' use of history for constructive ends?

1. I would guess that at least half of my fellow history grad students were from Quebec. I can't, therefore, say that our topical void was the result of a bunch of oblivious Ontarians working on the project!

2. That a university, or museum has at least some responsibility to teach about the history of its vicinity is a thought that keeps rattling around in my head. Someone expressed this idea in class a few weeks ago, when we were talking about the McCord. I can't remember who it was - my apologies! - but thank you for sharing it. I think it's a really important notion.

3. Chris Lorenz, “Toward a Theoretical Framework for Comparing Historiographies: Some Preliminary Considerations,” Theorizing Historical Consciousness, ed. Peter Seixas (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 25-48.

4. HV Nelles, “Historical Pageantry and the ‘Fusion of the Races’ at the Tercentenary of Quebec, 1908,” Histoire sociale / Social History 29 no.58 (November 1996), 391-416.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

on a side note...

On a side (though somewhat related) note, in the class Carling and I T.A. for, we've been learning about the Reformation. "How did the press affect the spread of Luther's message? How did that technology affect the relationships Luther shared with his supporters and, most significantly, his critics?" These were two of the questions we encouraged our students to think about last week. We were trying to encourage thinking beyond the notion that Luther's message spread much more quickly with the use of the press than it could have otherwise. We were trying to convey the notion that, once his ideas were in print, L couldn't very well evade persecution by saying, "what? Are you kidding? I never said those things!" Of course he said those things - and his critics had a multitude of publications kicking around to prove that he did.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Integrated layers of one big activity (or, an apology post)

I am very uncomfortable with something I wrote in my post a few days ago. I actually didn't write it, but implied it - and this is much worse than if I had actually written it. Often, I think, harmful things implied are much more detrimental than harmful things declared.

What is this "something" that makes me so uneasy? Well, on Sunday, I wrote of my new resolution. I resolved to spend less time sitting around thinking about public history in general, and about digital history projects in particular. I implied that my time would be much better spent larning how to implement projects that I could eventually realize. Worse still, I may have unintentionally paired the act of reflection with my clunky, defunct printer, and that of action with the "sexy" Web.

Yes, I know, my blunder is far from earth-shattering. It has, however, troubled me. This blog is, after all, part of my public persona. What if a reader thinks that I - gasp - believe that reflection and action can't co-exist? What if I'm conveying a sense that the grad student should think less and do more? That would be terrible. I advocate a philosophy of learning completely opposed to such a model. This is my apology post.

Of course, action and reflection should, ideally, co-exist in any learning experience. It seems to me that even pre-school lesson plans are based on this idea. I have a dusty memory of listening to a story about teddy bears in daycare. Afterwords, we drew and coloured-in scenes from that story.

Fast forward a few (ahem!) years, and we're learning in layers this fall. These layers are integrated. They're part of one big activity. We're reflecting on what museums should do, and we're working really hard (and are losing sleep) to make an exhibit. We're learning about "the Infinite Archive" and we're trying to make web pages. And, just before you think this post contains nothing but schmultzy, overly-generalized reflection, let me bring it to a concrete example.

Right now, I'm tyring to figure out the best way to merge my desire to play around with webpage building, or even wiki writing, with the need to document and organize my ongoing artefact research. In our meeting about the Museum London historical exhibition we're developing, we discussed the problem of how to make visible (to each other, to our public, and to our Professor) all of the research that we've each put into this group project. The problem, of course, is that a short item label for the museum exhibition can't convey the depth of our work.

My solution so far has been this: I have been using our wiki as a sort of repository for the best (as in most useful for our purposes) bits of my research. In so doing, I'm afraid I may have caused some frustration on the part of my more organizationally-minded colleagues, who - rightly so - would like a streamlined wiki. I apologize for that! I do, however, find the wiki a convenient way to organize my material. To keep from making too many enemies among my colleagues, I would like to play around with using a website as a good repository for my ongoing research. Of course, that requires me to build a website. I stand by my resolution to try to do this - though, currently, other demands are keeping me from "getting down to (more of) it" as quickly as I had hoped.

A website, as we read many weeks back, allows for doing history in hypertext. Now, I'm really inspired by notions of harnessing the web, and harnessing our participation in developing the web, to extend the potential of real, living, working communities. I'm drawn to the idea of making my ongoing research transparent to the viewer on a website precisely because I think it has great potential to make the relationship between me and my colleagues, and the relationship between our exhibition production team and our consumer, really dynamic.

We have the potential to take the historical research that we do in the university library, and that we cobble together behind card-swipe entry only T.A. room office doors, into a public environment. That public environment is becoming increasingly user-orientated. What better way to make our hard work useful to the community than to plant it, in "raw" form, (that is, as a "work-in-progress", and not just as a final result) on the web?

I understand that, in many cases, it might be inappropriate of the public historian to make her research process transparent. Yet, I think that in others, the public historian has opportunities for forging dynamic relationships with her audience right from the first stages of her research - and she can forge those relationships by rendering her process as transparent as possible.

Unfortunately for us UWO PH students, we are working under a strict time deadline to get our research done and "cooked." This reality prohibits much experimentation with innovative ways of doing and presenting our research. Deadlines are things of the real world, though, and I don't decry our situation in any way. I'm just reflecting on what the great potential of our combined work, fuelled by our ongoing learning. There we are: action and reflection are together again, after a brief but heartbreaking separation on this blog. Phew! I feel better.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Getting down to it

I took some time this evening to work my way through W3School’s Web Building Primer for the beginner. In the very first section, I learned that there is a World Wide Web Consortium that makes rules and standards for the Web. Really? Are they pulling my leg? There can’t be. I sure hope that, if there is such an entity, there’s a very Jean-Luc Picard-ish figure at its helm. Ah, Jean-Luc. "Make it so."

Right away, I appreciated W3School’s simple interface. One of my favourite features was the table of contents in the left-hand margin section of the page. I like knowing where I’m being led, and, as many of us have commented this term, it is always great to know how much one has to read. Will this be a 5-minute long project? Will it take me all evening, or a couple of hours? The layout gives its user a clear sense of her location.

On a side note, I really do think that we should offer our visitor a mapping statement – a sentence explaining the major themes, in the order they will appear, for example - on the first room’s title wall of our Museum London Exhibit. We could even be very clear about it, and tell our visitor in this panel something like, “…you will see x, y, z…”, etc. We don’t want our visitors to feel lost, or as if we’ve left them to their own devices to make sense of our project.

Back to Web Primer: I learned that XML is for describing and transporting data, while HTML is for displaying data. I look forward to learning what all of that means, in real terms, shortly. I also learned that Carling was right (not that I would ever doubt her): it is great to learn to write HTML using a plain text editor instead of a WYSIWYG one like DreamWeaver. I will pick up the tutorial tomorrow at the “CSS Primer: What is CSS?” stage.

So far, I’m finding the tutorial fantastic. Well, almost fantastic. I ran into one small snag. “Do you want to try it?” the tutorial asked me, after it had explained the basic features of an HTML file.

Well, I thought, of course I want to try it. What a silly question.

I couldn’t make sense of the explanation for doing so, though. The tutorial tells me I’m to open word pad, but what is OSX, and how do I get “in” it? Where is TextEdit, and how do I “start” it? This little roadblock is frustrating, and I wish the instructions had been clearer as to how the beginner can access these requirements.

Despite this wee stumbling block, I must admit that I find all of this very exciting! The big scary Web seems so much simpler to me now. I do, however, have an awful premonition that my happy state will not last long, provided that I continue learning about how to be a Web participant. I took a historiography course in the 3rd year of my undergrad. It was my first introduction to the scary concept of historiography. On the first day, our professor told us that we should imagine our ideas of history as represented by our good ol’ friend Humpty Dumpty. Over the course of the year, he told us, we would boot HD off the wall, and he’d smash all over the place. He would make a big, smelly, sticky mess. My prof. assured us, however, that we would, in time, right HD once again. His cracks would be visible thereafter. I am sure that my notion of the Web as lovely and friendly and relatively simple is the attitudinal equivalent of the moment before poor, naïve Mr. Dumpty topples to his messy (though not fatal) doom.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A resolution

My printer isn't working. My printer isn't working, and it's driving me crazy. I think it's on bad terms with my computer, because they don't seem to want to talk to each other. Early last evening, all I wanted to do was to print off notes for my tutorials on Monday. I needed, I felt, to just be able to cross that one, simple task off of my to-do list.

Printer and I took some much-needed time apart. The crazed anger that had made me want to pitch printer out of my second-storey window subsided.

In fact, my hardware crisis sparked a personal revolution - well, maybe just a resolution. I will not be daunted by my old, bulky Lexmark contraption. I am resolved to spend less time responding to tired, clunky hardware and more time participating in the much sexier Web 2.0 [1].

Tim O’Reilly (as quoted by Paul Miller) writes that the new Web is the “…network as platform…” [2]. I find this a most exciting concept! I remember that Diana, at the beginning of term, wanted to know how aspiring practitioners of public history could “come to the table” with individuals like digital historians and web programmers to “do” real history. I also remember Kris, again at the beginning of term, wondering when she could start being a historian [3]. In the former case, Bill Turkel’s response to Diana was “you’re at the table!” In the latter, Kris had been responding to Alan MacEachern’s question, when will you stop being a history student and start being a historian? [4]

Public history is, as we discussed and are learning, a reflective practice. I truly believe this to be a constructive, useful and inspiring way for its practitioners to conceive of their discipline. I need, however, to strike a better balance than I currently manage between reflection and action. I need to continue to write blog posts about the kinds of digital history projects I'd like to eventually be involved in making, and, at the same time, get down to learning about how to make them [5].

I am, therefore, resolved to spend time for the remainder of the term with W3Schools, learning how to make my own webpage. All of Carling's hard work on her genealogy and Jurassic Park pages has motivated me to action. Perhaps I should start with Microsoft Publisher (despite Carling's disappointment with the program), or at least with DreamWeaver? I would like to start from the "basics", as Carling commented, and so I think learning XHTML is the best way to go about this project.

I do recognize the irony in my resolve to take up the mighty challenge that only rates an "easy" on Bill Turkel's thermometer difficulty scale for lab exercises. Further, I recall Tim O'Reilly's distinction of personal websites, the concept of pages, and the act of publishing among those features characteristic of Web 1.0. I do, therefore, also recognize the irony in taking on personal web page making as my first step in participating in the new Web.

Now that I've publicly resolved to take on this project, I'd better stop talking, and just get down to it.

[1]. Hats off to my colleagues Kevin and Kelly for an enlightening and entertaining blog-off on, among other important topics, the sexiness of the apple corer.
[2]. I know that I came across the explanation – somewhere in the Digital History readings for this coming week – that we’re treating the Web as a platform just as we only used to think of operating systems as platforms. It was likely in the same spot as the helpful explanation that, sometimes, people express this concept as “web as operating system.” Of course, I can’t remember, or find again, this helpful spot to cite it. If anyone comes across it, I’d so appreciate it if you could let me know of its location.
[3]. Kris comments on this experience in one of her blog posts.
[4]. I’m wary of mis-quoting Professor MacEachern again, lest he think all the PH students are orchestrating a massive smear campaign. My memory of the conversation is muddy, and so I intend only to paraphrase.
[5]. For example, I'm still intrigued by the idea of a network visualization interface for Canada's memorial and historical sites, and by that of mapping the human relationships that continue community for now-empty physical (spatial?) communities.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

On Human Networks

I have a knot of thoughts clogging up my brain right now. In my mind's eye, the knot resembles that representation of a protein interaction network that I included in my post about visualizing complex networks. The difference between that complex network and my thoughts, however, is that my thoughts are all very simple. They've just managed to get all tangled, like that big ball of outdoor Christmas lights that has sat in the corner of the garage since last January.

I think the knot is both a result of my long silence on this blog, as well as a reason for the continuation of that silence. Over the past few weeks I've been scribbling wee notes to myself full of future blog ideas. These crumpled pieces of paper have been collecting in a pile on my desk. They're intimidating - much, much more so than a small stack of personal notes should be. Of course, they're now of no use to anyone (least of all to me) . I've realized that the moment is clearly not going to come when I'll craft the disparate thoughts into an eloquent essay. So, for the preservation of my sanity, I'll spill them out here. Perhaps I can revisit this mess later and make something more of them. Hopefully, that "something" can be more than just the sum of all of its parts. That would be very satisfying, as the broad subject of my thinking has been networks.

The topic of mashups, and the ecological metaphors some have used to describe them, helped me think about networks in new ways. I published my post on that topic this morning, and then walked down to do some reading at the Red Roaster Cafe in the London Public Library. When there, a friendly guy, apparently interested in the remarkably uninteresting "Europe in the Sixteenth Century" textbook I was reading, struck up a conversation. We didn't even talk for ten minutes, but in that time I learned that he had studied visual art at Concordia, and most likely was in the same courses as one of my close friends.

We often exclaim, "what a small world!" We (as in our world's population) have relationships that comprise a very complicated network. Again, our messy-looking friend, the protein interaction network, could represent those relations. Wouldn't it be neat if everyone could just stand still for a couple of months, and an artistic/research team could run around tying strings between people to represent their relationships. We would all end up the ultimate Christmas light-esque knot.

It all has the makings of a weird Douglas Coupland installation project. See, for example, Coupland's "Super City" piece at the CCA. Indeed, it's likely that many artists have produced work on this theme, and I'd love to learn more about their work. In fact, I would love to take up a project on the theme. Inspired by Visual Complexity's statement "the whole (of a network) is always more than the sum of its parts", I would learn how to make an appealing and intriguing-looking visualization network to represent, and teach about our relationships. I would encourage other interested researchers to use my aggregated data for their own applications. (Really, all of this reading about some of the fabulous components of Web 2.0, such as collaboration, social bookmarking, open-access and open-source applications, peer-to-peer sharing, APIs and recombinance is turning me into a socialist). Inspired by the mashup, I would seek to map out, locate, and represent the invisible relationships we share. It would be my goal for the virtual community to enhance the actual community.

The first community I would target for this kind of application would be one I'll call the Depot Harbour diaspora. DH is now a ghost town, and is located near Parry Sound. My partner is currently doing a fascinating oral history research project on the place. He has taken on this project because his grandfather used to live and work in the once-thriving community. Mark recently interviewed a number of relatives on their experience with the town, and their memories since they have left. His goal is to bring the people back into historical interpretations of the space - to repopulate the creepy (in a bad way)-looking photos we have now of empty lots where community churches once stood.

After sharing a litre of wine and a lengthy, exciting conversation about his project, Mark got me to thinking that some kind of visual map of the relationships between former DH residents, and of their current locations, would be a really neat thing to have. All of the people moved somewhere, and they took great stories with them. What if we could collect those stories, map them out, and indicate contextual/topical relationships that their stories reveal? Our interview subjects could continually add to this network. (For a visualization of these connections, I'm thinking of using something similar to the "strings" that connect subjects in the McCord's concept network interface).

In the end, isn't it among the historian's goals to repopulate the dusty, dead and now-empty places of the past? I'm looking forward to thinking about ideas of place and community identity-building in our 500 class on 15 November. I think that Chris Lorenz's [1] writing on space, time, and place-in-time opens up neat areas for discussion about the ways communities make identies, and the ways we can learn about the meaning they give to those identities.

Of all of my recent disconnected thoughts, the one most relevant to the current work of our own little community of UWO Public History MA students is that about repopulating past communities of Londoners by using the artifacts at our disposal. Just as a mashup contains innumerable clues about its parent community, so does an apple corer - though, as Kelly has written, that corer could maybe do with being a little sexier. If our exhibit can teach our visitors about the meaning an apple corer, a bovie, a gestetner or a slide projector had in a London community - or, rather, how such inventions affected/were used by the community - I think we'll have done a good job.


[1] Chris Lorenz, "Toward a Theoretical Framework for Comparing Historiographies: Some Preliminary Considerations," Theorizing Historical Consciousness, ed. Peter Seixas (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), pp.25-48.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Programmable Web and mashups for historians

A web mashup, I’ve learned this week, is a web application that operates by combining two or more pre-existing applications. Unless she hacks the parent site’s software, the mashup creator needs to acquire it some other way. Even if the hacker acts as a sort of Robin Hood – providing precious resources for the poor masses – it seems to me there’s still something essentially unfriendly and competitive about the work she does. In contrast, I am so pleased to broach the gaping chasm that’s been my long, conspicuous and tortured silence on this blog by reflecting on as warm and fuzzy a topic as web remixing.

What I’ve learned about Web 2.0 is that it is a friendly, collaborative, social and very human platform. Nardi and O'Day's thoughts on "Information Ecologies"as systems where people help people use technology evoke a sense of human, lively, and intensely organic spaces. It all sounds just lovely, and doesn’t intimidate me nearly as much as did the prospect of reinvigorating this long-inactive blog. The image I've included above reminds me of a third grade lesson on ecosystems (which, in turn, gives me warm fuzzies). It reminds of our friendly Information Ecology: reduce (redundant work) by reusing and recycling (preexisting technology and applications) = a great model for sustainable web growth. As Steve Jurvetson has indicated (and, for how he helped me conceptualize this notion, I grudgingly give another shout-out to Kuhn) this kind of natural growth is marked by evolution - not wasteful revolution - of technologies.

The mashups I browsed through at Programmable Web do correspond, largely, to the prominent genres that Duane Merrill lists in his "Mashups: the New Breed of Web app". Most prominent seem to be those that involve mapping. Remember the Milk combines mapping with task-management, letting users organize their daily tasks by location. Orlando timeshare guide maps properties and matches them with contact details. Also numerous are those mashups that allow searching. The charming and stylish Ms. Dewey helped me learn how to make fantastic chocolate chip cookies, an how to train for running a marathon. She is, I admit, much more engaging than her counterpart, than the slightly-scary "ask Vox" know-it-all. Finally, shopping/sales is another conspicuous genre of mashup. There is, admittedly, a lot of overlap of this genre with that of mapping. For example, MyStoreMaps offers the eBay vendor a real-time map of where she has sold her items.

I must admit that my favourite mashup among those that I came across is The idea behind it is just wonderful: it replicates a physical community in hypertext. At the same time, though, it enhances the physical community. The application aggregates information about a neighborhood, city or area - such information, its creators advertise, as local restaurant reviews and notification of community garage sales and high school benefit concerts - and maps them for its user. As its creators describe, bridges “information space and real-world space”. This really gives me the warm fuzzies, because, by informing individuals about local events, it can enhance community – and the relationships between real people in it. This mashup illlustrates perfectly Nardi and O’Day’s description of Information Ecologies as featuring a spotlight not on technology, but rather on the human activity that the technology serves. reveals the usefulness of mashups as research tools for humanities scholars. Historians should care about mashups because, just like any other piece of material culture, embedded in a mashup are many, many indicators of meaning. Future researchers will be able to use these applications to think on a specific society at a specific moment in time. By virtue of their very social nature, mashups contain innumerable clues to a community's values. What actions, events, spaces or places does a community deem important? Which of their needs have they crafted the mashup to meet? What pre-existing technologies have they deemed successful and appropriate to recombine into new uses? For those interested in how communities construct and reflect social and cultural meaning, mashups can be an invaluable resource.

Friday, October 13, 2006

pushing that old envelope

Actually, at this point, I'm trying to do the virtual equivalent of lighting the envelope on fire, waving it around, throwing it on the table and dancing around it, hooting and hollering and flailing my arms madly. I'm disappointed that my Wikipedia posts have been accepted. I was hoping they would be controversial. The following is my newest addition to the page:

In 1998, German novelist Martin Walser cited the Holocaust Memorial in his public condemnation of Germany's "Holocaust industry." Walser decried the "exploitation of our disgrace for present purposes." He criticized the "monumentalization", and "ceaseless presentation of our shame." "Take all the towns in the world", said Walser. "Check whether in any of these towns there is a memorial of national ignominy. I have never seen such. The Holocaust is not an appropriate subject of a memorial and such memorials should not be constructed..."

I'm starting to worry that I'm the only person in the (English-speaking, Wikipedia-reading) world that gets excited by this subject. It's a humbling thought.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A sense of connectedness

In our little world of study, everything has been coming up McCord lately, hasn't it? I wonder if, by the end of term, we'll all develop seemingly odd, indescribeable desires to intern at the Montreal museum. We're reading Brian Young's history of the museum. McCord's network interface encourages users to browse through related artefacts from its collection, and this project came up in discussion on Tuesday. One of the lab exercises from two weeks ago suggests that we create our own tour at the museum by tagging digital images from the McCord's collection. What's more, just this afternoon I received a press release from the museum, forwarded via e-mail from the secretary at Concordia's history department, advertising a "week-end of festivities" for the McCord's 85th birthday. Just an hour ago, thanks to the museum's "Urban Life Through Two Lenses" virtual exhibit, I experienced the most genuine sense of my personal connectedness to the past that I can remember. Professor Turkel has also commented in his blog on this engaging exhibit, and I'll recount my little moment of epiphany after a brief confession of sorts.

I have spent more time thinking about the McCord in my five weeks in London than I ever did in my two years in Montreal. This blog post is inspired by, and devoted to explaining, the fantastic user experiences the museum's online collection, and its "My Folders" artefact tagging mechanism, encourage. Yet my years posing as a Montrealer have, regrettably, made it difficult for me to voice my support for the museum and its work. I had developed a completely unfounded sense that the institution was intolerably old, conservative, dusty and boring. I avoided it entirely. Not once did I darken its door. I'll admit it: I was sure that anything as unabashedly English as the McCord (with its McGill connection and its blatant "museum of Canadian history" banners waving bravely on the lovely rue Sherbrooke) couldn't possibly be cool in downtown Montreal.

As the museum has made its way into both our Public History, and - on two seperate occasions - into our Digital History syllabus, my blind sense of the institution as dusty and backward obviously needs revision.

First, McCord's "My Folders" tool does, as Professor Turkel notes, have important implications for the practice of history. As a user, I can tag digital artefacts from the museum's extensive collection, and make my own online tour. [1] The McCord will save my tour online, and, if I choose, make it available to anyone who wants to view it. This type of interaction with the stuff of the past is very real. It's a far cry from a big red button on a museum console designed to convey the impression of visitor interaction with an exhibit.

Using this tagging tool, I created a folder, and titled it "Lauren's neighborhood." My tour is made up of Notman collection historic photographs of some of the downtown Montreal sites I used to pass on my walk to school. I am free to impose my own meaning on the documents. My tour is still a work in progress, but I can add captions to the photos such as, "I had a really funny encounter at this corner one blustery day," or, "this is where you can usually find the breakdancing busker in the spiderman costume." I can juxtapose my personal stories about the Montreal of 2004-2006 with images of the city taken in the early twentieth century.

Clearly, the McCord's digital applications let their user command historical sources in new, innovative ways. For example, they encourage that user to reflect on the meaning an artifact holds for her. A traditional system wherein the institution merely describes an artifact could never facilitate the same sense of genuine connectedness with the past.

My strongest experience of such a sense came, however, with one segment of the museum's "Urban Life Through Two Lenses" digital exhibit. The concept of the exhibition is a powerful one: it features "duos" of photographs, taken a century apart from each other, yet of the same place in Montreal, from the same angle, and at the same time of day. The second I looked at the "duo" that features the CP Viger hotel and station I felt a chill of excitement and recognition (not to mention a big lump in my throat). I used to live minutes away from this old train station. It dominated the horizon each and every time I walked home. These photographs, understandably, immediately evoked an indescribeably strong sense of home for me. I felt connected to the past in a way that I can't remember experiencing before.

The McCord facilitates visitor interaction with the past in a number of innovative and, in some cases, very personal ways. For this, I'll revoke the "dusty" status that I had unfairly conferred on the institution. I should've known the museum had potential - after all, a 2-day long birthday party isn't bad for an 85 year-old.


1. According to the museum's website, the online database makes available more than 110 000 images of artifacts, and was created in collaboration with 7 other museums.

Friday, October 06, 2006

An interface for Canadian museums/memorial institutions?

If you have not yet visited the Visual Complexity website, I highly recommend that you do. Even if you're completely uninterested in the visualization of complex networks, some of the projects that the site features are extraordinary pieces of art in their own right. The image on the left, for example, represents a yeast protein interaction network.

As Visual Complexity's "about" page states, network visualizations have the potential to communicate complex networks clearly to a user. "(T)he whole (of a network) is always more than the sum of its parts", this page explains. If we can visualize a complex network, we can come to understand more about our world. To be sure, our friend the yeast protein, though beautiful, does still look confusing. A simpler example is a metro map. Grace Fourie has written a great post on the application of thinkmaps for educational purposes. I agree wholeheartedly with her thoughts on how such visualizations can help us understand the multitude of connections that comprise(d?) the past.

As an addendum to my post on a network of Canadian museums and memorial sites of all kinds, I believe we can use such an interface to help us make better use of such important institutions. Canadians can certainly boast a wealth of galleries, monuments and memorial spaces, museums and information centres, databases, archives, research and documentation centres and associations, veterans groups and historical societies (to name but a few spaces and groups that indicate something about the past). Each one of these spaces or groups is part of our national historical and memorial landscape. Each one is part of a network. It's a complex network, and one with many, many nodes. [1]

I was inspired by Philip E. Agre's people-based way of judging the utility of a digital tool. He encourages the aspiring designer to pick a community, and figure out how a genre might "do more" for that community than the one it uses currently. Would a concept network help us understand the many, many nodes that comprise our heritage network? [2] Would it teach us about the relationships between them? Would it make them more accessible for us? Would it be a good marketing tool? An interactive Canadian heritage thinkmap could not, and should not, replace other important networking work. Inter-institutional conferences, joint exhibitions, and working groups would still be important. The interface would, ideally, be another arm of such 'real world' connections.

Yet, on the informational 'push' side, an aesthetically pleasing, user-friendly Canadian heritage association network interface could be a great new outreach tool. On the 'pull' side, the network's administrators could mine intentional data that users would produce in their clicking on the map, and in their keyword searches (presuming the network tool was also a database). Such data could tell administrators about the connections users make between heritage sites/groups. It could also reveal much about where users' demands, and interests, reside. All of this information could, I imagine, be used in developing ongoing outreach programs about our heritage network.


1. "Node" is, actually, the perfect word to convey my meaning. My dictionary defines the term as: "a point in a network where lines cross or branch."

2. I have much to learn about the Department of Canadian Heritage, and about CHIN. Does something like this already exist under their purview?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Public history, human rights, and "new economies"

I've had human rights on my brain lately. I re-read Michael Ignatieff's The Rights Revolution at the end of August, and I must admit that its themes have coloured much of what I have read, written, thought about and discussed since. My loved ones have been very patient with me when I've turned our conversations to the topic of rights. Intrigued by the ambitious Canadian Museum for Human Rights project, I even reflected on individual and group rights and responsibilities in Canada at my thesis defense (despite the fact that my research had nothing to do with Canadian history). I wanted to know: what kind of relationship should we encourage between such big, concept institutions as the CMHR or the new Canadian War Museum, and local institutions for memory and history?[1] It is important to continue to develop the networks of historical and memorial institutions, sites and associations that we already have in this country. But how do we do this while responsibly sustaining the ones that we already have?

On 3 August, the Globe and Mail reported that the Library and Archives Canada had been bidding an exorbitant amount of money on an original of an early map of Canada. Luckily, it was discovered pre-purchase that another original of the same artefact was already in the Archives' holdings. Perhaps, the article suggested, the institution could use a few more federal dollars to improve its cataloguing and arrangement systems. I don't refer to this situation to smear the LAC [2], but to suggest that if our National Archives could potentially benefit from additional resources, I'm sure that Kingston's McLachlan Woodworking Museum, or Montreal's Chateau Ramezay could, too. I recognize that I'm comparing public with private, or semi-private institutions. All the same, shouldn't already cash-strapped small museums, living museums, and memorial associations (among numerous other bodies) pause when our Federal Government confirms a total investment of up to $100 million for a spectacular, flashy and new Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg? Shouldn't they get angry, and demand, "what about us?" Is anyone concerned that, even temporarily, the bright lights of a CMHR in Winnipeg could relegate Louis Riel house, or the nearby "traditional aboriginal stopping place" at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, to shadowy corners of our country's public history landscape? Wouldn't that be a terrible irony for a new project that aims to illuminate aboriginal rights?

These are some of the amorphous ideas that have been roaming around my brain lately about (group?) rights and (government?) responsibilities relevant to the functioning of sites of, and for public history in Canada. More to the point, however, what do these ideas have to do with our recent reflections on public history, and our work at hand?

Diana commented in yesterday's seminar discussion that academics who blog are ushering in a whole "new economy of reputation." Given that many scholars have taken up blogging, can one make or break an academic career through one's blog? John followed by speculating that writers might find blogging to be a useful exercise for creating one's own voice for writing. His comment reminds me of Jeremy's "compelling history" post. "One of the pivotal skills that a public historian should possess is the ability to present history in a compelling and interesting way to an audience", he wrote, highlighting some of our colleagues' great posts to illustrate his point. Do academics, we debated yesterday, feel increasing pressure to develop a public voice? Do they feel any pressure to be engaged with the public? If she ventures out of the university to publish her work in hypertext, a scholar can contribute a great deal to our information commons. She could give the whole place a facelift.

So, is it enough for our historian to just march from her desk out to the village green, post her work on a billboard for all to see, and return from whence she came? Of course not. Conversely,
should the responsible public historian be more of a civil servant? Should public need dictate her research? The university is, after all, a public institution. When the historian adds the descriptor "public" to her title, where do her responsibilities to that public start? Where does her right to pursue any old vein of research end? To what extent does she take into account requests, demands and rights of her public?

These questions could, in some way, all meet in our experience of creating the Museum London exhibit. We'll be representing pasts. We could be representing group pasts. I'm thinking here, for example, of the Hyatt Ave. congregation that used their stereopticon. We could be representing individual pasts by conveying stories we'll gather through our interviews. How can we combine our group vision for the project with our best understanding of what our public wants? (For that perfect martini, how many parts Granatstein, how many parts Rosenzweig and Thelen?)[3]

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[1] Museum London is a much bigger institution than the kind I originally had in mind to illustrate this contrast. Brantford's Canadian Military Heritage Museum, or Port Perry's Scugog Shores Museum might be better examples of such small, community or local institutions.
[2] On the contrary: I have been very impressed with what LAC has digitized, and made available online. See, for example, its database of WWI soldiers' attestation papers.
[3] JL Granatstein, “What History? Which History?” and “Professing Trivia: The Academic Historians,” in Granatstein, Who Killed Canadian History? (Toronto: Harper Collins, 1998), pp.1-18 and 51-78, and Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, “Introduction” and “The Presence of the Past,” in The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp.1-36.

Monday, October 02, 2006 organization for our Archives assignment

Finally, a better way to organize links than just copying and pasting urls in a big list in a Word file! I don't know how well you are all doing with your Archives assignment for the week, but I'm having a bit of trouble finding a third "solid resource" for someone looking for a relative's WWI military records online. Obviously, the Library and Archives Canada digitized documents are useful. Also, I think the Virtual War Memorial's database of information about Canadians' graves is useful, as well. The remaining links I've found haven't been that great, though. Anyway, in the name of open research, (and as my first experiment in social bookmarking), I thought I'd let you know what I've come up with. My bookmarks for this assignment are at

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

pushing the envelope? In the space allocated for that purpose, of course

Hoping to be controversial, I added the following information to the Wikipedia page I have been editing:

'Many believe that, instead of spending money on a new memorial, federal funds would have been better spent in supporting pre-existing memorial institutions in Germany and abroad. Just as the Central Council for the Sinti and Roma in Germany criticized the memorial for institutionalizing a hierarchy of the victims of Nazism, some staff at maintained Nazi concentration and death camps (for example) believed that the expensive new monument in Berlin would eclipse other important national, and international, memorial institutions pertaining to the Third Reich and Nazism."

Mind, I added this material to a section of the page titled "Criticisms" (of the memorial). It's hardly "edgy" to offer up criticism in a spot pre-determined for that kind of thing, is it?

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Saturday, September 30, 2006

So far, so good

I was a little frightened to check if my Wikipedia additions were still posted, but I summoned up the courage to take a peek and, happily, they are. Perhaps they weren't as edgy as I orignally thought. Or, worse, maybe I'm the only person to have looked at that entry at all lately! I think I will try pushing the envelope a little further. I'll have to come up with something truly edgy to add, & report on the status of this little project again later...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

I never thought I would be a Wikipedian...

I hadn't heard of Wikipedia until about a year ago. Clearly, I had been living in a cave. I was marking a batch of papers submitted for a second year history class, and noticed that nearly all of them cited this strange Wikipedia thing. Up to that point, every single one of my teachers and professors had warned against the evils of doing research online. Needless to say, given that background and training, I was baffled that so many university students would look to an online encyclopedia! I never thought I would be a Wikipedian. Well, I suppose a lot can change in a year!

I just read up on the 'rules' of editing a Wikipedia page, and tried it out for myself. Now, I'm sorry, I promise this will be the last I blog about the Berlin memorial. I just thought I'd try to put even a little of the information on the thing that I'd accumulated to some practical use, so I edited the first paragraph of the entry on the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Before my edit, part of the last of the paragraph read, "...the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere." The issue of what the memorial tried to represent always made me uneasy. So, I added some information around that statement. The last half of the paragraph now reads: "According to Eisenman's project text, (the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere), and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. A 2005 copy of the Foundation for the Memorial's official English tourist pamphlet, however, states that the design represents a radical approach to the traditional concept of a memorial, partly because Eisenman did not use any symbolism."


(A couple of hours after posting the above blog, I was browsing through my 513 and 500 classmates' blogs. Carling's post about her Wikipedia entry on Douglas Point Nuclear Generating Station reminded me that Wikipedia doesn't want any original research. I wonder if my additions constitute original research? But, then again, neither the architect's project text nor the pamphlet are unpublished material, so maybe I'm okay?)

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Inspiration revisited

I wrote my "inspiration" entry, below, about a week ago. I saved it as a draft. I was going to comment, in it, on how my ideas about the power of material culture had changed since I'd started in Western's Public History program. I was going to write that our first sets of readings and our seminar discussions had made me realize that an institution's online exhibit (such as the Canadian Museum of Civilization's Citizens virtual exhibit) is, fundamentally, a very different thing than an actual, on-site exhibition. It seemed a bit of a fleeting thought, and so I left it at that. In the course of this week, I have encountered a lot of information - all of which was entirely new to me - on material culture, social tagging and democratization of curatiorial functions. I'd like to reflect on my "inspiration" from the new perspective that the week's learning has afforded me.

In the photo on the right, Mark stands on one of the many columns at Berlin's Holocaust Memorial. Some of these columns are almost 5 metres tall. Mark and I hopped across the tops of them. This is a dumb thing to do. A month before our trip, a drunk man fell doing the same. (Apparently, the memorial's governing body forbids column hopping). Nevertheless, that was how we interacted with the memorial. Others interacted with it in very different ways. Some used the shorter stelae as benches. Kids ran around the narrow pathways playing hide-and-go-seek. I turned a corner and almost ran into a woman who stood, still and alone, in the middle of a pathway and in the shadow of some of the tallest columns.

We read, this week, a definition of material culture. It is, to crudely paraphrase Thomas J. Schlereth, stuff that has been purposely shaped according to culturally dictated plans. Our aim in examining it is to develop an explanatory of this stuff - that is, we hope to learn what we can about people in the past from this stuff [1]. But, asked another author, is "stuff" encoded with cultural information, or is it neutral - and its meaning only comes from past individuals', or groups', use of it? [2]

Let's look at this issue from another angle, and come back to the memorial example. The American scholar James E. Young has published much work on Holocaust memorials and meaning. He has written that there is no intrinsic meaning in memorials. Instead, they derive their meaning from visitors' interactions. Each visitor makes her own experience of memory at a memorial. So goes the line of thought, anyway.

Isn't this the kind of thing we're talking about when we discuss whether or not the social tagging of museum collections - such as at the research project - undermine museums', or their curators', cultural authority? I'm remembering, specifically, when Adam mentioned in seminar today that social tagging doesn't affect the real-life object. (For example, user Yogi can tag his Flickr photos utatathursdaywalk23, but that descriptor is really only a reality in the digital world - not in the real world). I thought Bryan's anxiety about separating the digital from the real world, and Tea's response about hyperreality really interesting. These comments cast my mind back to the example of the memorial (that, it seems, is always festering away in the back of my mind).

I'm sure that I interpret the memorial in a way that noone else has, does, or will. I could make public an indication of the way I interpret the memorial by tagging a (hypothetical) Flickr collection awesomecementjunglegym. That might be my genuine reaction to the memorial - my own memorial activity. When I publish this tag online, I'm creating a representation of the actual memorial in Berlin. Where I suppose I'm still torn is if I should be free to publish any representation of the memorial online. At the beginning of our seminar, Bryan suggested that, once someone ascribes a tag to a museum artefact, for example, the possibility exists that I can come across that tag. In so doing, even though I might never have associated that object with that descriptor myself, I might not be able to avoid assimilating that tag's meaning into my understanding of the object. Is this dangerous? Could social tagging, implemented in a museum's online collection, undermine the institution's cultural authority? Does it have the potential to spread stupid ideas around (such as that the Holocaust memorial is an awesomecementjunglegym - perhaps it is, but only to the tourist equipped with a helmet and full body cushioning)?

I appreciate the incredible potential of tagging practices for museums, and genuinely think that they can tell an institution much about what kind of product their public demands. I do, also, believe that an artefact's meaning comes from the meaning that people in the past conferred on it. Further, I think that our present interaction with material from the past confers another important layer of meaning on pieces of material culture. What I'm left with at the end of this muddy reflection is a belief that multiple sets of meaning intersect at an artefact. What can be lost, then, when we don't have one "expert"individual, or body, that remains mindful of this reality, that manages the meanings conferred, and that reminds us all of the artefact's broad cultural and historic context (beyond individual, isolated and potentially highly subjective interpretations)?

[1] Thomas J Schlereth, "Material Culture and Cultural Research," from Material Culture: A Research Guide (University Press of Kansas, 1985), 1-34.

[2] Carroll W Pursell Jr., "The History of Technology and the Study of Material Culture," from Material Culture, 113-26.

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