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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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

on the politics of public history

I've been thinking about power and public history this week. Who holds it? What individuals, and what groups have exert claims on the past? Much of what we have read for our digital history, public history and understanding archives classes have to do with these questions. Our reading for Thursday's archives class put some issues that had been floating around in my mind all week in sharp focus.

Terry Cook's article, "What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift" focused on the politics of archival memory [1]. The very first archives, he wrote, existed to legitimate power. Archivists kept only that which was worthy of keeping. Material such as state documents, and politicians' letters "made it" into the annals of history. In contrast, we now often encounter a deficit of sources on what "real" people were doing in the Middle Ages.

Now, of course, our society demands that our historical memory be much more diverse. Beginninng in the middle of the twentieth century, Cook writes, archivists were finding that a surfeit of material meant they had to be selective about what they kept. They were also faced with demands that archives should reflect "more globally" the society that created them. Archivists were forced to care about social values, and to reflect them in the work that they did. Popular and widespread social change forced archivists to re-assess theory at the core of their discipline, and to affect real change to that theory.

By Thursday evening, this was a familiar refrain to us UWO public history students, wasn't it? In Tuesday's digital history class, we remember, we discussed the idea of open source. As we read, when we're talking open source, it is the user's - and not the developers - purpose that matters [2]. Now, of course, institutional archives are far from open source (I can't wander into the Archives of Ontario, pull out my red marker and improve a finding aid, for example). We remember, though, that the changes archivists have affected to the work they do has reflected a power struggle between them, the state, and disparate groups in society [3]. In another parallel, on Tuesday we discussed the idea that the work of a "creative public" [4]- on a forum like Wikipedia - could thrust a new responsibility on professional historians. Far from stripping historians of their function to produce interpretations on the past, we considered the idea that multiple, and anonymously-authored interpretations on the past might benefit from historians' refereeing. Historians, in that example, may find themselves in new roles - ones that Sanger's "creative public" has thrust them into. Could this, too, force historians to re-assess the theory at the core of their discipline? Of course, discussion in Wednesday's public history class largely revolved around this issue, too. We read Noel Stowe's view that every new project that the public historian takes on calls on her to reexamine the basic principles and issues of her discipline [5]. We debated about the process of history-making.

When I think about individuals and groups that take advantage, now, of incredible opportunities to make their own interpretations of the past public, I can't seem to decipher a simple economy of power, or of knowledge. This, of course, is only to be expected - life is complex! So why do I bother to reflect on this point? For two reasons:

1. Because we keep running into this issue of public history demanding that those who produce interpretations of the past take a good look at the foundation of their practice. That the title of Cook's article includes the term "paradigm shift" reminded me (most regrettably!) of a historiographical paper I had to write a couple of years ago on Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I'm not sure anymore exactly what I was trying to prove (truthfully, I don't know if I ever had a clear grasp of my argument), but I do remember arguing that Kuhn had forced historians to be more self-conscious about their craft. His work (when applied to history - which, if I recall, he had never intended for it to be), had challenged traditional historical methods. Yet it didn't 'break', undermine, or expose an inherent, inalterable weakness in the discipline. Instead, his study forced historians to really think about what it was they did for a living. In much the same way, what Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig refer to as "the History Web" does not 'dumb down' that which historians study [6]. It will, hopefully (and perhaps with time) force practitioners to really hone their sense of professional identity, and function. This, I imagine, could only result in a higher quality product.

2. In a similar way, I do believe now that Cohen and Rosenzweig's ever-expanding "History Web" can make for an ever more savvy creative public. The teenager that looks up "Berlin Wall" on Wikipedia knows very well - as I think Kelly mentioned in Tuesday's class - that she, as a non-expert, can alter that article. So, she shops around online for other sources to corroborate what she had read. The History Web has the potential to not only democratize knowledge on the production end of things (because anyone can produce an interpretation of the past online), but it can make for new distributions of knowledge (and power!) when it comes to the receiving, or consuming, end of things, too.

1. Cook, "What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift"Archivaria 43 (Spring 1997).
2. Stallman, Richard M. “The Free Software Definition,” (2004).
3. Cook, "What is Past is Prologue."
4. Sanger, Larry. “The New Politics of Knowledge,” Constructing the Digital Universe (31 Jul 2006).
5. Noel J Stowe, “Public History Curriculum: Illustrating Reflective Practice,"The Public Historian 28:1 (Winter 2006), pp.39-66.
6. Cohen, Daniel J. and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2005.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006


I'm a bit of a nut for material culture. I love the idea that an artefact can give us clues to a culture, a place, a particular moment, a sentiment, an ideology, or a score of other realities of the past or present. One of my favourite things to think about is contemporary memorials as artefacts. On the left is a picture of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial. It was completed in 2005. If we compare all of the aspects of this new memorial to those of older ones, we can get some insight into how we've changed our memorial strategies (if we have at all). Then, we can consider what kind of memorial strategies will be effective for ongoing projects (see, for example, Berlin's future memorials to the Sinti and Roma, and homosexual victims of the Third Reich). Fine, this is simple enough. Far from 'just' toodling around, poking at history because it's neat, this is a way that students and practitioners of history can operate with a practical purpose in mind. (I must add that I see nothing wrong with "poking at history because it's neat." History is neat, and deserves to be poked at).

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

"Square One"

"Square one" for me entailed reading up on the Essentials of Google search and Advanced Search made easy. Why had I not taken the time to learn about this stuff before? I could have saved a good deal of time and frustration in my research last year had I known, for example, that Google searches are not case sensitive, that they exclude common characters, and that they allow for excluding certain annoying, unwanted terms that would invariably appear, tainting my search results. Last year, for example, I was trying to find a particular German woman with the last name "Fischer." Now, unfortunately for my purposes, she shared the same name as a new, "virtual army officer" representing the German Ministry of Defense online. The "virtual" Fischer appears much more frequently online than does the very real woman I was searching for - but a simple "-army", or "-military" qualifier in my search, I happily discovered, weeded out most unwanted references.

I also found some bizarre results using Find Forward's search grid - a tool I had never used before. Now, I thought I had searched endlessly online for information about, and opinions on, Berlin's new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Just last week I finished my Master's thesis on the production of, and interpretation of history at the darn thing. My Find Forward search, however, took me to a page I'd never come across. Truth be told, it wouldn't have been very helpful for my purposes, but it is interesting in that it reminds me how many different "takes" we can have on one subject. There is a whole article on the Memorial in "Concrete Quarterly" magazine - yes, I bet you didn't know there was such a thing as "Concrete Quarterly", but there sure is. It looks very sleek. And it boasts a searchable archive from 1947 to date. Ah, fans of concrete, rejoice!

I'd like to think it's all connected...

It's bright and early on Sunday morning, I've just come back from a wee jog, and am ready to blog. In my new life here in London, I'm determined to resume my previous attempts at running regularly. I do love jogging, especially outside and especially in weather like we have today. My (very short) jaunt this morning, however, reminded me that the sport is really only fun when one has built up enough stamina to run for at least 5 minutes without flapping around desperately, red-faced, gasping for air, while trying to tend to a persistently runny nose.

I do, however, have lovely, shiny new running shoes. While shopping for them at the Running Room this weekend, I chatted with a friendly fellow customer. Taking up running, he told me, had genuinely made other things in his life easier. It has helped him to manage stress. I told him about a professor I had a couple of years ago: he runs marathons, and once commented that his concentration and writing ability skyrocketed when he started training regularly.

Now, at the risk of sounding like what my mother would call an "eat-a-tree-person", I'm going to entertain this idea of a sort of organic, holistic, multi-layered personal learning and development program. I am beginning my ventures into digital history at square one. My blog will reflect that reality, and will likely (for the first little while, at least), be the virtual equivalent of my current sputtering, clumsy, not-so-attractive (though very determined!) attempts at resuming jogging. With any luck, both activities will develop in tandem - and perhaps even inform one another? On a scarier side note, I am also learning how to drive this fall and winter. Let's hope that I can at least start that activity at a level above sputtering and gasping. Consider yourself warned!

Monday, September 11, 2006

getting started

I'm Lauren, and I'm new to Western, and to London. I've just moved out of an apartment in Montreal yesterday, into my new place in London tonight, and start school tomorrow morning. Whew! It's been a busy, though exciting, few days. I'm really looking forward to getting to know my new housemates (of whom there seem to be many!) and to finding my way around this city. And, of course, I look forward to really figuring out what this blogging thing is all about.....