Public History in the Digital Realm

By Lisa Fthenakis, a public history grad student

Project Statement: Decatur House Slave Quarters

As we are coming to the end of the semester, I am wrapping up my work on my final project, an app interpreting the Slave Quarters of Decatur House. While I wish I could share the wireframes and script, I do have a few thoughts that I rounded up in a final project statement.

Decatur House Slave Quarters App

Goals of The Project

Our main goal for this app is to provide interpretation of the Decatur House Slave Quarters space. Though it is not currently open to visitors, our online exhibit fills this need by providing an exploration and interpretation of this space for visitors not on site. Our app compliments this online experience by taking evidence and interpretation of people who lived and worked in this space and making it accessible for visitors who are physically in the Slave Quarters. This project directly addresses the biggest challenge of interpretation in the Slave Quarters: the space cannot be furnished and needs to remain a multi-use room for White House Historical Association school programs. These limitations mean that visual interest in the space is initially limited as visitors encounter a sparse architectural space, with exposed brick fireplaces and timber framing as main points of interest. An app allows us to make the most of these architectural details, showing visitors evidence they provide and bring other visuals into the space to illustrate themes we discuss.

It was important to us to focus on the people who lived here and the hard work they did each and every day. This focus allows us to complicate the typical house museum narrative, and provide a richer understanding of the past. (See Richard Moe, “Are There Too Many House Museums?” Forum Journal 16:1 2002. ) By interpreting information that the historical record does provide about enslaved and free servants that lived here over the course of the nineteenth century along with evidence of the type of work they would have been asked to do and tools we know they had at their disposal, a picture begins to emerge of the people who made Decatur House run. Because there is little visual interest in the room itself, we focused primarily on providing access to artifacts and primary sources, with our interpretation taking a supporting role to direct interaction with the artifacts. This provides visual interest and asks visitors to engage directly with artifacts presented to them through the app. I hope that this approach will help visitors think and ask questions about the kind of lives these people led and make the servants of Decatur House come alive in the imagination of our visitors.

Another benefit that was significant in our decision to focus on an app, was the flexibility and accessibility it offers to visitors. An app allows the White House Historical Association to offer tours and interpretation of the Slave Quarters without needing to hire or train tour guides. An app also allows visitors to focus on what interests them most, moving at their own speed through rooms. This, as Paul Reber of Stratford Hall stated in our class discussion, is what the modern visitor is most interested in. Our app allows people to move at their own speed through the rooms of the Slave Quarters, stop and start as necessary, and visit rooms in whatever order interests them. These options allow visitors to customize the tour to their needs with no additional strain on the White House Historical Association.

Rooms Navigation Page

Connections to other Projects

Nancy Proctor‘s discussion of mobile media and reading about the various Smithsonian apps also shaped my understanding of our project. The Smart Phone Services for Smithsonian Visitors report highlighted the need for navigation and way-signing for out of town visitors. While the White House Historical Association’s small footprint dramatically reduces the need for this type of information, we did choose to prominently include floor plans of the Slave Quarters and provide an anchoring photo for each room to provide navigational tools for visitors. We also chose to include a Maps section of the app that grounds Decatur House in the surrounding neighborhood to provide additional context for visitors. This seamlessly provides navigational aids and situates visitors in each space, both within the house and the house within the neighborhood.

I was also inspired by the National Park Service National Mall app which allows visitors to access information about monuments from many points. Users can access site pages through a map of the mall, a listing of the sites or pre-planned tours based on length of time and distance. Each site offers information about the space and access to primary sources. This inspired us to provide information and interpretation accessible is as many ways as possible. By offering floor plans and room listings before sorting information by time period, we made it as easy as possible for visitors to quickly access the specific information they are interested in.

Main House Page

Personal Reflections

Personally, this project reinforced how critical good project management is for any new media project. While new media has its own unique challenges, it still benefits from the organization and structure of good project management. As Dan Brown makes very clear in Communicating Design, good project management is a matter of communication and making sure everyone is on the same page. Each project requires its own style of communication based on the people involved. This project has progressed smoothly, and I think that has been in large part due to the fact that project goals were clear, tasks were divided in manageable chunks, and my partner and I were accountable to each other.

This project is an example of how historians can transform the way they present history through the use of new media tools. Given the restrictions on the use of this space, traditional methods of interpretation have very limited ability to present this history. Building an app allows the White House Historical Association to interpret a central, yet often overlooked, part of Decatur House’s history that they would not be able to do without new media. Not only does this use of new media allow for new ways to engage visitors, it circumvents logistical limitations to allow for a fuller, more inclusive interpretation of Decatur House.


Mobile Devices in the Museum

When I think about mobile apps in museums, I have to say that my initial reaction is negative.  I just don’t want to have another thing competing for my attention in a museum.  I often go to museums to get away from whatever else bugging me in daily life and think of my time there as an oasis where the outside world can’t reach me.  Now, I know that’s an illusion as much as anything else, but it’s one I’d like to maintain.  Somehow a museum visit still feels like getting away from people even when I am happily surrounded by school-age kids looking at an exhibit or making a beeline for the gift shop. So my first impression is ‘No Way – I don’t want to pull out my cell phone while I’m looking at an exhibit’.

My Notes from Visiting the De Young Museum

My Notes from Visiting the De Young Museum – cryptic, but evidence of me using a mobile device in an exhibit.

But if I think a little bit more closely about what I do while I’m looking at an exhibit, I’d have to admit that I’ve joined the ranks of the mobile users.  More often than not I pull out my phone to jot down notes on things I’d like to explore later.  While I don’t want to engage with them while I’m at the museum, I’ll often spent some time later looking up and exploring further things that caught my eye in the museum.  I’m sure I’ve stopped and looked things up on Wikipedia in the middle of an exhibit too.  That’s probably more likely if I’m visiting with someone else and want the share the information with them.

The America's President's App

The America’s President’s App

Perhaps more importantly, I know that my preferred style of interacting with an exhibit is only one of many.  My brother  would get tired of looking at one thing after another on the wall, and reading exhibit labels is definitely not his think.  But I’d bet if he could get that information by clicking and choosing the things that catch his attention, his interest would last much longer.  For him, It’s often not that the content is unappealing, but the format is not conducive to his learning style. I think something like America’s Presidents or Charles Lang Freer: Collecting Korea could made his museum experience more enjoyable.   So, my take away for this week’s readings is that mobile media has some great opportunities as well as some pitfalls and that I should not ignore their possibilities just because I may not be the target audience.

Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience: A Review

After reading Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience, I can say it was not what I was expecting. While I enjoyed the exploration of what digital technologies can offer for the museum experience, I expected to have a clearer set of recommendations or best practices at the end of this book. To be fair, I don’t think the authors, Loic Tallon and Kevin Walker, intended this book to provide those things. Instead, their exploration remains more general and conceptual. The advantage to this is that their work becomes less outdated. Not linked to specific technologies or moments, their examinations are still relevant today in 2014 despite being published in 2008. In the world of digital technologies where everything seems to become hopelessly outdated in just a year or two, this is an accomplishment.

Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience Book Cover


Setting out to explore all that is “mobile, digital, and personal” Tallon and Walker begin with a brief history of handheld devices in museums, which is surprisingly long (xviii). I don’t think I would have ever guessed that the first implementation of handheld technology was as early as 1952 (xiii). The next three chapters define the context of handheld technologies with chapters on ‘The Exploded Museum’, visitor interaction, and designing mobile devices. The rest of the book is chapter-long case studies of handheld technologies in various settings. My favorite case study is from the Exploratorium in San Francisco and tracked the evolution of several handheld devices they tested over the years. Helpfully the chapter is punctuated by general insights directly linked to the examples discussed. These insights provide clear connections from the specific programs and goals of the Exploratorium to what the reader can learn from them.


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One question Nina Simon pointed out in her review was that the authors did not address how few visitors use handheld technologies when visiting a museum. While the authors clearly have an enthusiasm for handheld technologies that is contagious – so much so that I did not think about these questions until after I finished reading- Simon raises a good point about the ubiquity of these devices. If they really do enhance the visitor experience and help the visitor connect to the exhibits, why aren’t they used more? As a newcomer to the field, an analysis of these logistical concerns would have been helpful and relevant.

Despite these questions, I enjoyed reading this book. By examining handheld technologies, their evolution, implementation, and possibilities, it certainly fills a need for the field. By drawing on the experiences of a wide range of museums with varying subject matters and formats, the book illustrates the wide array of possibilities that handheld technologies represent. If you are looking for recommendations to implement handheld devices in your own interpretation, this book is not for you. But if you are interested in a state-of-the-field report and the lessons-learned from different museums around the country, than this book is exactly what you need. Even after several years, the tensions between visitor agency and providing interpretation, designing compelling digital program, creating social learning experiences and individual technology, are all issues that are relevant today.

Social Media and the Museum

One of my biggest pet peeves with social media is the tendency to treat it like some foreign language or a new form of communication where all the rules of the game change. While yes, microblogging in 140 characters may be a new format, the principles of good communication don’t change with brevity. What is new is the public’s ability to be heard by a broader audience. While one angry customer might have been able to spread their opinion to only friends and family in the past, they can now publish their opinion for all to see. In this situation it becomes all the more important for institutions to acknowledge the value and importance of every single visitor whether in person or online. In my opinion, the opportunities and challenges of social media mean that institutions, whether they are the local museum or the Smithsonian, can no longer get away with bad habits that might have been hidden in the past by a lack of communication between visitors.Social media forces institutions to deal with the realities of interacting with the public as individual people and think through their communications decisions carefully, which is something they should be doing anyway.


With curators describing themselves as “‘knowledge brokers’, ‘communicators’, ‘facilitators’ and most commonly ‘interpreters,'” being active participants where their audience is communicating should be a critical part of their job. In the modern world this means that social media is a medium they can not ignore. While Erika Dicker makes great points about the logistics of social media implementation and use in a museum in her article, my biggest takeaway was not the practical advice she offers but an understanding that in order to create worthwhile social media content, it needs to be viewed as a central part of a museum’s core mission – engaging with the public to facilitate learning.

One of the best uses of social media I have seen is mystery object posts. Whether on HistoryPin, as the Imperial War Museum has done, or via a blog post, as the Field Museum has done, these mystery objects offer a great way to reach out to the community. As individuals help to solve these mysteries, they create a personal investment in the museum and its collection. It also shows visitors that they too have valuable knowledge and expertise. While curators are subject matter experts, these posts show how they rely on information from the public and how they work to discover information.

So many of the issues surrounding social media come back to the issues of how to communicate with the public – issues of authoritative voice, dealing with the media, information quality control, etc. – all come back to an understanding of how to communicate with real people, something curators have always attempted to do. And while historians are not necessarily known as early adopters of any new technology, I would encourage them to see social media not as a minefield, but as an opportunity to examine and better understand what is important in the professional dispositions that have become institutionalized in the field.

Design and Communication

This week I’ve been reading Dan Brown‘s Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning.   It’s a great read, easy to understand without simplifying the concepts he is discussing.  In spite of this it would be fair to ask the question: What does this have to do with history?

Despite that fact that it might not be obvious, for me the answer is quite a lot.  The obvious connection is that I am  working on building  a web exhibit and conceptualizing a mobile app, as I have talked about before.  More and more exhibits and scholarship are happening online, a fact that historians nor the public can ignore.  Understanding how to put together an website or online project successfully is now a critical skill for many professions and being able to communicate effectively with your partners who are doing the technical work is a necessity for any successful project. 

In fact, this is one of my favorite things about this book, while he is teaching specialized processes and technical skills, perhaps his most important point – and one that he comes back to time and again – is successful communication.  He is not advocating documentation for documentation’s sake or to prove that you are actually working on something.  He is advocating for documentation in order to facilitate communication: to make sure that all partners are on the same page and understand each other in order to make the best product possible.  Recognizing that not every project or team will have the same needs, he encourages readers to take his suggestions and the skills he teaches and adapt them to the needs of your specific project.  Don’t need a concept model? Don’t use it. 

He also is realistic about what helps move the project forwards and what does not.  Perhaps my favorite example of this is in his discussion models.  Acknowledging that while this step may be critical for the designer’s process, it does not always translate well to the larger team, he offers this advice:

It may be more responsible to shield your stakeholders and other team members from this kind of document if it operates at a level of abstraction that would be difficult for them to comprehend without concrete examples. – pg. 83

He goes on to offer tips for success and common pitfalls to avoid should you need to present a concept model to the team. This reality check is down-to-earth and provides information that is actually helpful.  Best practices are industry standards for a reason, but often without advice on how to scale them to the budget and staff size actually available aiming for them can make things worse, not better.  Brown offers this practical, scalable advice that can be put into use at several levels of organizational strength.  

Visualizations: A Tool not an Answer

This week we are thinking about various ways of engaging with material visually: maps, graphs, etc. When I think about these types of issues today I generally think of Google Maps, History Pin, and other geolocating technologies. But what particularly struck me was an article on Charles Joseph Minard who was experimenting with graphic visualization in the 1860s. His graphics represent historical data (Napoleon’s army, for example) and provide a clear way to communicate the significance and meaning of available statistics. I don’t know about you, but as much as I love tables, it does take a few minutes of staring at the page to orient myself to the data presented. It is only after a few seconds of processing the format of the table that I can begin to interpret the meaning of the data presented. Tables can present powerful evidence of change, but the reader does need to be comfortable interpreting the social meaning behind the numbers. Minard’s visualizations bring these social meanings to the forefront and let the numbers recede.


Charles Joseph Minard's visualization of Napoleon's Army

Charles Joseph Minard’s visualization of Napoleon’s Army

I do think it is significant that Minard was trained and pursued a career in civil engineering – a field devoted to approaching projects and problems of the human and physical world through numerical analysis. It’s not surprising that he would be attuned not just to the data, but also representing data in ways that facilitate access to what it represents.

Yet the one thing this visual approach still does not do is interpret meaning. As Richard White, the Director of the Stanford Spatial History Project, says “It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.” None of this is interpretation, which still requires a scholar to look closely at this research and create the stories that are the foundation for our versions of the past. My own very superficial experiment in visualization made this clear. I threw a few things together that I liked and when I looked at the results it made me ask questions that I hadn’t thought of before. I wasn’t representing conclusions I had already come to, but finding new questions to ask of the data. I uncovered possible new connections that were there but unnoticed without the help of visualization.

Book was There: A Review

Image of Book was There

I just finished reading Book was There by Andrew Piper. As an ardent book lover, I was initially very worried that this would be another version of the ‘oh no, the book is dying’ or ‘long live the internet’ story, but I was pleasantly surprised. I suppose I should have known better given that he is a German and English literature professor. Piper truly loves books and he is as excited about their future as he is about the opportunities of the internet and electronic reading.

An attempt to understand the relationship between books and screens (xi)

He makes the point that books are just one of the ways we have written, read, and shared information over the years. The printed book was not the first way we read; before the printed book there were codexes, papyruses, and illuminated manuscripts. From this vantage point, it seems natural that the evolution of reading does not come to a stand still with the printed book. Each of these iterations had unique characteristics that changed the reading experience. He makes the point that while e-readers and websites are just another iteration in this evolution. They will join printed books as one medium of many that we use to communicate the written word.

Relating to reading in an embodied way (xiii)

Focusing on the physical experience of reading – how we hold books, their shape and size, where we read them – Piper explores what is unique about reading books and how reading on a screen changes that experience. Examining books as portals to other worlds and experiences; the linear, asynchronous quality of a printed book; notes and notetaking as a part of reading; the places where we read; and the opportunities of digitally analyzing text; he focuses on how the way we read changes our experience of reading and the subject itself. From this perspective, the complimentary nature of book and screen for future readers emerges.

Piper is excited about the new ways artists and authors are playing with the way we experience and understand books and finds hope in the new experience and deeper understanding that they create. Instead of seeing these innovations as replacing the book, he portrays them as a way to understand the book and its place in and impact on our lives more fully. They are part of an exciting new future that can embrace not only what the book is but also what these new forms of reading on screens might become as well. It is undeniable that reading on a screen changes the readers experience, but that does not have to become a loss. While we may not yet fully understand where this new experience will take us, it is to a place of abundance not scarcity. Piper persuasively argues that the growth of reading on screens does not mean that reading books will disappear, rather that we are gaining new ways of reading and sharing information. And that is never a bad thing.

So I wholeheartedly recommend this book – I had a great time reading it! Actually, I already have several times. It’s a good thing I have understanding friends.

Born Digital Scholarship

This week we have been reading about issues surrounding ‘born digital’ scholarship. One of the articles I looked at was The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities an early example of a born digital article and a later essay by one of the authors, Writing A Digital History Journal Article from Scratch: An Account examining the process of authoring the article. Exploring the original article was particularly interesting, it took the component parts of a typical article and separated them into unique webpages. This made the distinction between thesis, analysis, evidence and historiography particularly evidence, which I would imagine would be particularly useful for anyone who is not used to the structural cues of a scholarly article.

The Differences Slavery Made Web Article

Writing Digital History revealed that format was one of the most difficult parts of authoring born digital scholarship and that this set of webpages was the result of several rounds of edits. As he says,

Our decisions revolved around three major questions: first, what would the narrative or argument look like, second, how would the navigation and interface work, and third, what technology would support or drive the article. Of course, all of these were interrelated, and decisions about one affected the others.

While I think the format they settled on is effective, it is interesting to see the versions they considered and how difficult it was to find a useful and effective format. A lack of understanding how people read in the digital format as well as a lack of conventions for digital work meant that they had to re-think decisions usually decided by professional conventions. Robert Townsend also addresses this need for conventions in his article How is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians? He points out that while tenure committees generally accept born digital scholarship, lack of procedure is the major obstacle to recognizing digital scholarship in journals. It seems a shame that good scholarship is not getting the attention it deserves because of a lack of conventions. Understandably, this is also becomes a hurdle in convincing scholars to undertake digital scholarship.

It seems the answer to all of this is simple, to create conventions for digital scholarship. Even if the conventions need to be revised over time , it seems like such a small hurdle to expanding tools available for historians.

Zotero Libraries: a Better Way to Organize

I’ve been talking about all types of new media and digital resources for history here for a few weeks now, but this discussion wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Zotero.  Zotero is the best resource I’ve used for organizing my sources and collaborating with friends.

Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources.

To get a better sense of what you can do with Zotero, take a look at a library I’ve compiled for a recent research project:

My Zotero Library

Speaking of Interpreting by Machine…

Here’s an example. This is from Google’s Ngram viewer that tracks use of word or phrases across books in Google Books.

Google Books Ngram

Google suggests the search terms Albert Einstein, Sherlock Holmes, and Frankenstein; presumably showing the rise of the scientific method and thinking in 19th century literature. To this I have added a few women to add some diversity: Jane Eyre and Miss Marple.
I added Jane Eyre because it fits the 19th century paradigm with which the Ngram begins. With this addition I noticed a correspondence in a rise in popularity for both Frankenstein and Jane Eyre just after 1960. Could this be the effect of second wave feminism? I added Miss Marple for another female from a different time period and genre to compare. Interestingly Miss Marple does not seem to have any significant change in the 1960s, but her popularity drastically increases in the 1980s.  Without closer investigation, it is hard to make any significant assessments about whether my initial conjecture is correct. The Ngram gives me general information about possible trends, but to make any further conclusions I would either need to use a more targeted search, a more sensitive tool, or a closer reading of the books referenced.