Unexpected things happen when you Google yourself

Today I did something for the first time which I think is a right of passage in the digital age: I Googled myself. While a lot of the content was what you would expect, one item stood out to me.

In my four years working with the National Park Service I sometimes had the opportunity to work as a traditional, interpretive Ranger. One of those occasions was on the 150th Anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas. I requested to be stationed at the Robinson House site. This site holds the ruins of what was once the Robinson house and farm, where James Robinson, a free African American, lived with his wife and children, who were enslaved. Their story is a fascinating one and as an African American historian I spearheaded our team’s research on the Robinsons, creating digital content, waysides, and museum exhibit panels on the family.

Apparently that passion paid off because I stumbled upon a rave review from one of the visitors that day. Though sadly he didn’t enjoy his experience overall, I am filled with pride that my interpretation was the highlight of his day. Here is an excerpt:

There was one interpreter beneath a small awning, Ranger Lindsey Bestebreurtje. She was patient, kind and exceedingly knowledgeable. She answered all of my questions and made a real interpretive connection between the ground and the ideas. She was the highlight of the day.


Past Work for Past Classes & Jobs

Early in my scholastic career I made the mistake of creating separate blogs for various classes which asked students to create blogs. In fear of losing that work, here are links to those blogs.

  • In the Spring of 2012 I took “Creating History In New Media,” which we at Mason call “Clio Two.” My blog for that course can be found here.
  • In the Fall of 2009 I took my very first history course as a Master’s student for Paula Petrik’s “Rise of the American Corporation.” My blog for that course can be found here.

Here, are links to past projects completed at various stages of my academic career.

  • In the Fall of 2010 I took the digital mapping course “History and Cartography.” Our final project was to create work which could be placed into a geography encyclopedia. My post detailed the evolution of the elite home Tudor Place and its surrounding Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Georgetown. My final project for that course can be found here.
  • A fun mid-semester project for my directed readings course in “Public History and History Education” in the Fall of 2013 was to create a historically based “choose your own ending” game using the site Inkle. That work can be found here.
  • In the Fall of 2012 I took the directed readings course “Digital Public History.” My final project for that course can be found here.

In my professional career I have also had the opportunity to work on several great digital history projects.

  • Through my time working as a member of the Public Projects Team at GMU’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) I created content, including biographies, historiographies, and articles on persons and places of renown, for the Histories of the National Mall project, a mobile based website cataloging important and fascinating events at the National Mall and Memorial Parks. The site acts as a digital tour guide for visitors.
  • As a Ranger and Interpretive Media Specialist with the National Park Service’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Team, I helped to create and maintain Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and YouTube accounts for Manassas National Battlefield Park, Shiloh National Military Park, Antietam National Battlefield, National Mall and Memorial Parks, Vicksburg National Military Park, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, and Gettysburg National Military Park. I also helped to write, designs, and edit the Maryland Campaign website.

I hope that moving forward I can be better about keeping all of my creative content linked and updated.

Final Project & Overall Thoughts on Digital Public History

After creating “Battleground America” I was asked to consider what difference digital work makes for public history. I have framed my answer with the kind of onsite exhibit, online exhibit, and digital archive which I created for my final project in mind.

I think that at the most basic level the use of digital work in public history is a way to end the problem of limited run exhibits. Instead of only being on loan for six months or a year, the objects and content from an exhibit can be digitized. This allows them to live online in digital exhibits forever. This capability is perhaps the best place to start for those hesitant to embrace the digital medium for public history.

Once exhibits and objects have been digitized, museum professionals must ensure that information is as accessible as possible. This accessibility can be ensured by following standards of markup and archiving.The online archive holds the possibility for strong historical education. This is because, unlike history textbooks, or even history websites, the historical digital archive provides the possibility for non-top-down learning. The digital archive allows individuals to do primary source research, ask their own questions of the sources, and come up with their own conclusions. This teaches not only research skills but also reinforces the idea that history is not just useless trivia, but is instead a constant debate based on interpretations of primary sources.

Digital components which are accessible by mobile devices allow visitors to interact with deeper, more diverse content which they may have wanted in the past but were not able to obtain. They are now able to interact with this content through tools which they themselves already own. There is thus no need for investment on the part of the museum. This frees up panels to suggest more provocative ideas, pushing the visitor to find out more by investigating online. Additionally, online tools and resources allow the visitor to experiment with information in a low risk environment outside of the museum, often the privacy of their own homes. However the act of investigation can also be used to encourage group participation and interactivity through historical investigations.

Digital tools of Web 2.0 also allow for the kind of interactive, bottom up conversations long the goal of museums. Social media and interactive web based tools move the “comment board” online. Using Twitter accounts or Facebook walls visitors get new ways to respond to content and get direct feedback from museum professionals in real time in a way that would not have been possible before.

Digital tools can also push new kinds of projects which would not have been possible before. The sheer scope of information which is now accessible to the public through digital collections is a revolution. Archivists and curators no longer have to worry about damage to fragile objects being handled by the public. The public can now handle them digitally. This allows the true goal public history institutions, access, to be obtained. Additionally, the ability to provide users with the ability to come to their own conclusions, but providing them with historical content rather than historical answers fulfills a long term goal of history education. That is to encourage research skills, critical thinking, and the ability to come to logical, defensible conclusions.

Its Time to Re-Evaluate

This week’s readings all focused on the importance of evaluation. A feature emphasized throughout the semester to create successful digital public history projects, the readings this week got more in depth in exactly how to go about evaluating successfully.

There are many different types of evaluation. In evaluating the success of your project one important step is to analyse your information through analytics. The Tate Museum in the UK focused on the importance of this type of analysis to ensure that you are reaching your audience, achieving your goals, and managing the project in an appropriate way interanlly. The Tate recommends using Google’s free analytics service to see your effectiveness and connect all of the elements of your web presence (social media, emails, website) to see exactly how effective your message is.

However analytics alone cannot determine a project’s success. Both “Leveling Up” and “Museum Evaluation without Borders” recommend moving beyond analytics alone. This is because While they argue that analytics are one important tool, they show its weaknesses since it only quantifies how many users are being reached, instead of qualifying their experience. They recommended the evaluation methods of paper and wireframe testing, play testing, soft launching, surveys, interviews and analysing responses, linking program activities with intended outcomes and impacts, taking a systems-oriented evaluation approach, using affirmative data collection approaches, and daring to have courageous conversations with visitors and staff.

The “Experiencing Exhibitions” article would lead you to believe that museums are not evaluating the visitor experience at all, calling for more cross-disciplinary studies of visitor experiences which do not focus on linear ideas of knowledge. However all of the readings from this week show that is not the case. The next steps called for in this article are actually achieved by the Tate’s evaluation process with its emphasis on experience over education. But perhaps the authors are just trying to call for more emphasis on evaluation. In that case the resources of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) would be a great place to start.

The IMLS provides assistance for creating evaluation models under the broad categories of general guides for program evaluation and outcome monitoring, project planning tools for museums and library services, common evaluation methods and terms, measuring outcomes in museums and libraries, and network associations that provide evaluation resources.

Browing these resources, I found the Shaping Outcomes site within the Project Planning Tools section to be most helpful. In looking at Outcome Based Planning and Evaluation (OBPE) gives a step by step process on how to create a project, identify goals, build toward those goals, and help both staff and visitors achieve them. Creating a model similar to Content Strategy, this was helpful in setting up not only the steps for good evalution, but also what makes up each of the components of those steps so that you could clearly define your own needs, unlike the Templates for Creating Logic Models which assumed a certain amount of preexisting knowledge for evaluators.

Evaluation of your project, goals, resources, tools, and outcomes before, during, and after your project has launched is the only way to ensure continued success.

The Possibilities of Mobile Content for Museums

This week focused on the importance of content accessible for mobile devices. Creating mobile friendly content is important because the majority of adults around the world not only own cellphones but will use them as the primary source of internet access in the coming decades. This is a great way to take advantage of tools which the public already has, not requiring the institution to invest in tools. Even though smartphone ownership is a barrier to the content, this barrier is actually relatively low, making mobile content a good way to reach large audiences who may not have access to this information otherwise.

The CHNM project Mobile Museums attempts to help museums create cellphone specific content with small budget and small technical knowledge. With a focus on the needs of art museums, this site encourages museums to move beyond in-gallery displays alone, to make all current and future websites mobile friendly, and to create content designed for mobile web browsers generally instead of specific operating systems to help prevent sites from being too connected to transient technology. Understanding that many institutions do not have the technical skills to create these projects, Mobile Museums provides links to plugins, code, and conversations going on in the field on the topic to encourage collaboration.

A few of the projects which use mobile applications to move beyond in-gallery experiences alone are PhillyHistory, PhilaPlace, the Kew Botanic Gardens app, and the International Spy Museum GPS game.

The PhillyHistory website and corresponding mobile component have the goal of increased access to archival information. Using “mobile augmented reality,” the app helps to achieve this goal by reaching out to younger and more diverse audiences who are savvy smartphone users. In creating their application PhillyHistory struggled with using Layar technology for the project, ultimately deciding to create their own application instead, one that worked across various smartphone platforms, consistent with the recommendations of CHNM.

While PhillyHistory showed the trials and tribulations of working with different technologies, PhilaPlace looks at how to successfully expand an application from one specific project to other history and educational projects. With the central interpretive idea that “place is an important touchstone for memory, history, and culture” the PhilaPlace project used collective access and Google Maps API technology to provide primary source information to residents and organizations within specific Philadelphia communities. By providing the raw historical data, the PhilaPlace project then used collective local knowledge to create a rich history about the place over time. The project creators believe that the technological framework of this would be easy to expand to other projects and this is important because “by exploring the memories and records of place, we educate the public about the past to promote and protect neighborhood spaces, sites, and stories that hold meaning in the present.” The main hurdle to move from PhilaPlace to AnyPlace has to do with staffing and content control. The Kew developers challenge this idea of a universally useable application, holding an application can only be universal amongst those institutions with similar audiences and user needs found through extensive user testing.

The Kew Botanic Gardens Delightfully Lost project focuses on a different kind of mobile app which is actually less place based than either PhilaPlace or PhillyHistory. Instead of creating a narrative, the developers of the Kew app decided to provide information through maps and QR codes that was focused on giving information to visitors as they request it rather than designing a narrative. This was because during user testing they discovered that many visitors use their site not for learning but for social and personal experiences. This shows the importance of getting to know your audience, something which we discussed in our class on Digital Exhibits. However, once up and running continued user testing showed that once the app was available that users would use it in a traditional place based, wayfinding way. This shows the expectations that are inherent with this kind of application, the usefulness of continued user testing, and the ways that the app can be improved in the future to be more user friendly to the novice.

The Spy in the City GPS game run by the International Spy Museum featured on the MobileMuseum site uses two FBI cases as the basis for a walking tour around Washington, D.C. This project jumped out at me because of our Mobile Mall project. Part of D.C.’s appeal has to do with the power, intrigue, and mystery of the government leaders and agencies in the city, something which the Spy Museum uses to its advantage to teach people about international affairs in a fun way. While the very high tech aspects of their app may not be for our project, or for any project with a smaller budget, it does show appealing and engaging possibilities for our future content. It was also nice to see what can be done with a larger budget, since limited resources are so often a factor in museums.

Getting Lost and Found in the Archives

In his article “Archives and Museum Informatics Technical Report #9,” David Bearman argues that archives are failing because their methods are inadequate to meet the goals of the profession. The major purposes of archives – selection and appraisal, retention and preservation, arrangement and description, and access and use – have their own unique problems, but overall each is failing because archivists neglect to recognize that they are part of the history of objects, not an apolitical collecting force, and because they do not think of the needs of the user. Potential solution recommended by Bearman for these problems are to share information across platforms, create one centralized database language to improve searchability, and to track the kinds of questions asked by the public. This would shift the archives core goal to usability by the public, instead of preservation alone. Written in the late 1980’s this article is somewhat out dated. Though all archives do not use interconnected standards, many use Encoded Archival Description standards.

Run through the Library of Congress, Encoded Archival Description (EAD) provides the exact kind of standardized archival language called for by Bearnman. The “de facto standard for the encoding of finding aids for use in a networked (online) environment” have been in place since 1998. The site provides standards in the two syntaxes RNG and XSD, with each of these containing information on how to standardize dates, titles, location in archive, and more. The Encoded Archival Context for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families (EAC-CPF) also provides standards for archival encoding, but for corporation archivess specifically. By teaching archivists and their web-developers simple code this site provides the tools through which a more user friendly archive environment can be created.

The EAD roundtable was also created in 1998 to “handle the informal aspects of EAD implementation.” This roundtable sheds more light on the continued use of EAD, with information from the 2012 annual meeting. This is helpful because the Library of Congress EAD homepage did not mention any updates after 2002. Though this article shows at least somewhat the scope of EAD use, with information about organization itineraries, participants, and grant recipients, it is still unclear exactly how widespread this practice is. Though creating the standards is a wonderful first step, if they are not nationally used they will create fewer meaningful connections for users.

The Social Networks and Archival Context Project, or the SNAC, tackles this question of actual improvement to the experience of archives users. Using university, regional, and national archives this project “will use digital technology to ‘unlock’ descriptions of people from finding aids” to “create an efficient open-sourced tool” and help “provide more meaningful access.” The blog ArchivesNext by Kate Theimer, a one time archivist for the National Archives who spent six years working with EAD standards, also looks at how these standards are being implemented in archives and how successful they are. Judging by the tone of these projects it seems that while standards have been created they are not used across the board, and that emphasis on the user experience is even less widely used.

This is disappointing because archives which use these standards are pretty user friendly, as evidenced from the University of Michigan’s Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections. An archive focused on U.S. forces in Russia during World War One, the information can either be browsed by collections, personal names, geographic location, military units/ organizations, media types, or by subject. Each of the browsing types is helpful, with all coming to the same item format of title, creator, dates, extent (number of folders or files), and an abstract. Additionally the “search terms in context” function which links the data you had with other similar information was particularly useful. Though the information within the archive is largely not digitized, which would be ideal, this finding aid does make it easy for a user to find what they need, no matter what information they arrived with. However, it is still unclear how much this site tracks the needs of its users or uses crowdsourcing to help improve their site, potential areas for improvement after almost 30 years since Bearman’s initial recommendations.

Digital Exhibits – Museum Exhibits, Digital Tools, and Case Studies

The readings for this week focused on the creation of digital exhibits and how museum exhibits evolved during the twentieth century.

In his book Do Museums Still Need Objects? Steven Conn looks at the changing role of museums in the U.S. from their golden age in the nineteenth century through the twentieth century. Looking at each of the six kinds of museums first envisioned by the early Smithsonian visionary George Brown Goode – art, natural history, history, anthropology, technology, and commercial – Conn shows that though the architecture of the museums, their teaching aims, and their communication styles have changed that museums remain central to the education of Americans and the development of a public sphere for civic identity. While he laments the loss of the centrality of objects, the move from general education to youth entertainment, and the overall retreat from infrastructure of public engagement in American society, Conn still believes that museums play an important role in bringing large cross sections of the public together.

Though this book had its interesting moments, such as teaching about the demise of the commercial museum as a museum type and the weaknesses of repatriating objects, overall I found it muddled. Conn lost track of his central question, “do museums still need objects?,” in his tangents about public good and architecture which were never brought back around to dealing with this issue. Perhaps if Conn had considered museums into the twenty-first century or looked to the digitization of their objects and catalogs he would have come to different conclusions about the continued centrality of objects.

While Conn focused on museums exclusively, Krugg focused on digital tools exclusively. Stephen Krugg’s Dont Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability is a manual for beginner and amateur web-designers. It goes through the basics of design standards with the goal of making sites more easily understood and used by visitors. In order to achieve this Krugg stressed the importance of frequent user testing. Other important elements of websites emphasized in this book were that they meet accessibility standards for users with disabilities and that they be considerate to your users – meaning that they answer those questions which are most important to the user in a way that is straightforward. These last two points stood out to me as key takeaways from this book because I do not always think of them in my own designs, but I should. This book will be helpful to show the nuts and bolts of how to make a successful digital exhibit with regards to form, while the articles for this week focused on content.

The article “Digital Storytelling in Museums: Observations and Best Practices” by Wyman, Smith, and Godfrey uses their experiences at Second Story interactive studios to outline some of the core challenges to museums in the digital age and ways to overcome them. They acknowledge museums’ hesitation to embrace new technologies and social media, but say that the true issue at hand is how to best frame their content in a way that is most useful and desirable to their virtual and in-person visitors. The rise of the virtual visitor means that experiences are no longer very tied to venue, a huge shift in the museum world and a realization that could have helped Conn’s argument. The authors outline a series of strategic and tactical recommendations (pp 465-467), with the greatest takeaways being that having a clear message about what you would like to communicate and choosing the right tool, not necessarily the flashiest tool, will lead to the most successful projects.

The article “Enhancing Museum Narratives with the QRator Project: a Tasmanian devil, a Platypus and a Dead Man in a Box,” looks at the QRator project to show how mobile devices and interactive labels can be used to create new user generated content and new learning opportunities. These new technologies allow people to experience objects in new ways. This happens both by allowing them to have access to more content about the object through the web, and by contributing their own information. Despite fears from staff about graffiti, this user generated information was on topic and relevant 83% of the time. One potential weakness of this project is its reliance on information sharing through Twitter, which is not embraced as a tool by a cross section of the entire population.

In the article “On Air, Online and Onsite: The British Museum and the BBC’s ‘A History of the World,’” the authors look at the project “A History of the World” which used 100 objects from the British Museum to tell the story of the history of the world. This project featured in museum exhibits, radio broadcasts, a website, social media voting campaigns, and the capability for visitors to nominate their own personal objects for consideration through partnerships with BBC programs such as “Antiques Roadshow.” With these many varied approaches of forums through which to experience the project, the exhibit was hugely successful, reaching up to 1/3 of the UK’s population and shows the possibilities for learning from a truly dynamic exhibit.

Both of the articles this week which focused on developments in science museums, “Iterating for Visitors at the Exploratorium” by Eric Socolofsky and “Museum Games: Some Strategies for Achieving Project Goals” by Elizabeth Goins, focus on the importance of user testing throughout the life of the project. In looking at science museums neither of the authors seem to think that this museums overwhelming appeal to children over other audiences is a problem the way that Conn does.

The reading from Contents Magazine which stood out to me in connection to this week’s readings about digital exhibits was Sally Whitting’s article “Digital Archives and the Content Strategist.” This article argues that content strategists should think of themselves as archivists for digital projects, mining information and presenting it to users in the most straightforward, helpful way possible. It also argues that archivists should think of themselves as content strategists with regards to digital archives, asking more active questions about curation instead of passively thinking about what visitors want alone. Showing the interaction between these two seemingly different professions reveals the ways that traditional, object based institutions can move into the digital realm without completely abandoning tenets of the profession.