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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