I am excited to share that my internship work creating a digital exhibit using ArcGIS StoryMaps for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum is finally live! Check out A Right to the City and learn about ordinary Washingtonians who shaped and reshaped their city in extraordinary ways.
Because of my internship, I have learned so much about the history of Washington DC, history that is so often overshadowed by the monuments that populate the Mall. Dr. Samir Meghelli’s A Right to the City is fascinating, and he has made me think deeply about the history of place. When I consider the average 8th grade field trip to visit Washington DC, the focus is on the major memorials and landmarks; yet, few, if any trips, consider the struggles of displacement so many have endured to make DC the city it appears to be today. When Paul Perry first tasked me with developing a digital curriculum to accompany ARTTC, I was skeptical about its importance for a national audience. I was wrong. As a teacher, this is an aspect of our nation’s history that should be more widely known. As a practitioner of digital public humanities, I am grateful for the opportunity to help make this history available to a wider audience.
Because of my internship, I am much more confident in my ability to make a meaningful contribution to an organization beginning to work in a digital public humanities environment. When I first envisioned a Smithsonian internship, I anticipated working under an individual or group who were experienced practitioners in digital humanities, like the individuals I have worked with through George Mason University and RRCHNM. While my mentors at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum are experts in their fields, they had limited experience with the the possibilities of digital humanities. I am proud that I have been able to help guide them and their organization toward a broader view of DPH.
Because of my internship, I am much more digitally confident. I had to rely on my ability to teach myself some basic skills using a network of contacts or a computer network. Jennifer Rosenfeld and Sara Sharp have been exceedingly helpful in providing suggestions for workarounds or even the occasional GoodAction. As a result, I have learned by doing, which from this teacher’s perspective is often the most fruitful method. I have learned StoryMaps inside and out, and it has been a privilege to be on the front lines of testing the Beta in connection with the developers producing it. I am growing increasingly skilled in online mapping with ArcGIS. I am confident using PhotoShop on a basic level, and I’ve developed greater skill navigating a variety of still and moving image editing platforms.
Because of my internship, I’ve been fortunate to come into contact with people like Scott Abbott at DCPS and Greyson Harris, Allen Carroll and Michelle Thomas at ESRI. Scott and Greyson have both been incredibly helpful in assisting me with this project. I am thankful for the guidance of the staff at ACM including Paul Perry, Samir Meghelli, Sharon Reinckens and Lisa Sasaki.
Because of my internship, I have new skills, new contacts and new knowledge that will help me as I continue to work at the intersection of digital humanities and education.
After reading a variety of sources outlining the push and pull between those in academia doing “serious humanities” and those doing “serious digital analysis,” one of our first assignments in the program was to provide a definition of digital public humanities (DPH). I likened DPH to an estuary where the fresh and ocean water comingle to create a distinct ecosystem, one that is known for being one of the great nurseries of the natural world. Having worked on this internship for almost a year, the estuary analogy remains appropriate for my experience working at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, and not simply because the Anacostia River, for which the neighborhood and museum are named is, in fact, an estuary.
Digital public humanities often blurs the lines for traditional methods of academic output that can be unfamiliar for those working in more classical modes of research and presentation. However, it is a unique space that nurtures not only new methods of presentation, but also new tools made widely available to a growing body of users.
Initially, the desire of the museum staff was to create some lesson plans to go along with the exhibit that could be published on the museum web site. When I first mentioned creating a digital exhibit both to serve as an educational platform and to preserve public access to A Right to the City, museum staff were concerned about the feasibility of creating a digital project while maintaining the high academic standards of the exhibit in a timely manner.
In the introductory course, one of our final assignments was to consider how Digital Harlem was not meant to be a construct to present a conclusion akin to a dissertation but rather to be a tool to invite historical inquiry in a way that would not be possible using traditional methods. Clearly, getting ARTTC into digital format and out to the public would require using the right tool, and I began to consider using StoryMaps.
Though mapping is foundational to both Digital Harlem and StoryMaps, each uses that computational power for a different purpose – making them very different tools. StoryMaps seemed like the right presentation tool to take ARTTC to the digital public, to enhance the exhibit content through its mapping capabilities and to deliver the project in a way that is manageable to museum and SI staff.
However, I did have some difficulties with StoryMaps as an academic presentation tool because it is limited in its ability to provide captions across all content blocks, something critical in designing a museum exhibit. I created a work-around for it in my project; however, StoryMaps designers should build this functionality as a more intuitive feature to meet the needs of academia, especially for smaller museums like ACM that have limited resources in developing digital content. This highlights the push and pull between the various constituencies in DPH and the need for greater communication to address these issues. (Update as of June 2020: The StoryMaps team was and continues to be responsive to feedback, and these issues have been resolved. The development team is responsive to feedback as new features and capabilities are unrolled.)
Greater communication is a critical need in the DPH community. The tools are out there, but many operating in more traditional methods are unaware of their existence. For example, the concept of Digital Harlem might be of use to the work around urban history in Washington DC to reach new conclusions or to visualize DC history in a new way.
Looking ahead to the promise of digital public humanities, it is increasingly important to promote the availability of easy-to-use yet powerful tools like StoryMaps in order to place them into the hands of academicians. “Doing digital humanities” means making the tools more accessible to all – to museum professionals, to scientists (both computer and natural), to curriculum specialists, to educators and to students who have knowledge and ideas to share and information to gather. It is equally important to begin to talk about digital public humanities more broadly, inside academia and out, so that the public understands new possibilities of visualizing and presenting information, like the Digital Harlem project, in order to better engage and to better understand the communities and the world around us.
The course in Digital Public History has been particularly helpful in developing the educational plan for A Right to the City and the accompanying digital exhibit. Early in the course, Dr. Whisnant encouraged each of us to consider our target audience before beginning any project. Initially, the target audience for lesson plan development was students in the DC area. After reviewing DCPS curriculum standards, teachers and students in 12th grade government classes emerged as the clear front runner for the target audience. Some museum staff pushed for including charter schools in the mix as well, but eventually the interim museum director agreed that keeping the primary audience in sharp focus was best. By homing in on DCPS Government classes, the education plan had the best chance for leveraging access to larger number of students with one targeted plan. While working with charter schools is also a noble goal, the diversity of their curricular goals and learner ages would make it difficult to deliver a useful universal lesson plan for these schools. The partnership with DCPS would also provide a clearer path toward publishing the educational materials through DCPS curriculum guides once the project is complete. This was also another focus of the course in Digital Public History – making sure to have a plan in place for promoting the project once it is produced.
The second takeaway from the DPH course was the importance of story-boarding a project in advance of building it. I have had more challenges with this aspect of project development because the digital exhibit I am creating was not initially designed with a digital presence in mind. Furthermore, Storymaps has some unique constraints in terms of layout, especially in the BETA version, making the transformation complicated in some ways. The museum staff seems to be pleased with Storymaps as a platform, and they have mentioned using it as the digital platform for future exhibits. As such, my recommendation to them would be to take these considerations into mind when writing introduction texts and saving images in a Storymap friendly format from the beginning.
Finally, I have found that ESRI/ArcGIS seems to be much more of an industry standard when it comes to mapping. I appreciate that platforms like CartoDB were open source at the time, but it would have been helpful to have more exposure to how mapping and layers and intellectual property standards in ESRI work. Working with the Storymaps platform has been fairly intuitive, however, and I would recommend it as one of the digital platforms that is taught in the Digital Public Humanities program. I can see it having real usefulness in early projects and as a powerful tool for teachers and students in the Education courses.
My biggest takeaway over the last several months is experiencing the unique challenges working in government agency can present. My initial expectations were that this project would have been complete by now; however, progress on the project has moved much more slowly than I had anticipated. Working in a job where I have a great deal of control over my ability to complete tasks on my time has been a stark contrast to working on a job in which external forces drive the schedule far more than precisely planned deadlines.
My internship took a GIANT pause in December 2018 when the government shut down for 40 plus days just as I had made some networking inroads between the Smithsonian and DC Public Schools. Because we were still in the planning stages, the inability to communicate with museum staff left my work largely frozen.
I used the time to reflect on choosing an appropriate platform for the digital exhibit. I knew I had lost ground on two fronts – lost time in developing the digital collaboration with DCPS as well as lost time for DCPS students to access to the exhibit’s physical run. In order to make up for lost time, I knew that I would need to create a rich digital interface that would be relatively straightforward to construct. I determined that ArcGIS’s StoryMaps platform might be appropriate given the emphasis on location in the exhibit.
When the shut down ended, I was faced with a new difficulty – knowledge that the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum would be closing its doors in late March for six months of renovation. Because of my status as an intern, Smithsonian staff had not been able to let me know that the museum would be closing for most of the year when I was mapping out the project. This left the plans I had developed with DCPS in even greater limbo. Museum staff were scrambling themselves to button up their own projects in advance of the move, and communication continued to be a challenge.
However, the museum closure actually helped to generate a stronger buy-in for a digital exhibit that would live on after the exhibit closes. Because the physical life of the exhibit had been shortened, museum staff recognized an increasing importance to lengthen its run virtually. When project communication finally opened up, my suggestion of StoryMaps was well-received, especially since it was being independently pushed as a platform for other projects associated with the Smithsonian and ACM in particular.
Another unexpected, but important lesson I’ve learned has been the power of connection, networking and shared goals. During the conference call between Smithsonian and ArcGIS representatives, it was clear that the Smithsonian mission to deliberately partner with DCPS helped to strengthen buy-in and support from the Smithsonian professionals in the larger organization. ArcGIS representatives were equally willing to offer a significant level of support for the project because of their organization’s mission to promote the use of StoryMaps in school districts across the nation. That both of these assets can be deployed free of charge should make it appealing to DCPS as well.
After 8 months of starts and stops, I am finally working on actually making the digital exhibit I imagined at the first stages of my internship in October 2018. I’ve learned that persistence, patience and polite communication go a long way toward helping projects to actually come alive. I still have miles to go, but I can finally see a clear path forward.
My partnership with Washington DC Public Schools continues to be fruitful. While I was attending the National Social Studies Conference in Chicago, I had the opportunity to personally connect with Scott Abbott. Scott and I met for an impromptu but very productive lunch meeting on Saturday of the conference. The back and forth dialogue and the ability to look at curriculum guidelines together presented opportunities for us to “be on the same page” literally and figuratively. We were able to look at the working draft of the DCPS Authentic Experience Plan for A Right to the City. Scott was able to make some suggestions, but he was also able to appreciate how the plan fits into the larger project goals for connecting DCPS curriculum to ARTTC both as a museum in the near future and as a virtual experience when the exhibit closes. Scott connected me to some DCPS teachers to get their feedback, but the goal is to have the Authentic Experience Plan in place for teachers to access in January.
The biggest challenge continues to be responsiveness from ACM staff. My requests for feedback, for information on workflow and most importantly for digital content continue to go unanswered. As an intern, I can only push so much. I have expressed this concern to my internship supervisor, and he was to have brought it up at a meeting yesterday. I was hoping to hear the results of that meeting, but I will reach out on Monday to check the status of the conversation.
However, this issue is a concern on two fronts. It it will cause problems in my ability to produce what the museum has asked for. It has also made the process of meeting performance goals in amassing the number of hours I need for the internship. I do believe the project has plenty of hours of work; however, those hours are going to come at a much slower pace and will likely bleed into next summer.
I am hopeful that museum staff will see that I am meeting deadlines with what I have agreed to produce in Phase I and that will ignite some excitement and personal investment on their end for Phase II. I am also hopeful that the conversation between my mentor at the museum and the rest of the staff is fruitful as well.
One other strategy I might employ is trying to call some of the museum staff rather than to email them. I am also planning on trying to Skype more with my museum director because I think it will help for us to “be on the same page” as well.
I am developing the critical skills of patience, persistence and perspective. One of the challenges of working on this project has been that it is not a fully virtual internship. Gaining digital access to the exhibit was not immediately feasible, but I was fortunate that the museum eventually was able to provide funds for me to travel to Washington D. C. to see the exhibit and to meet with museum staff. In the meantime, I spent time working through the unit guides I obtained from the Social Studies Coordinator at DCPS (District of Columbia Public Schools). In hindsight, not being able to see the exhibit until after I had worked through these materials was probably a blessing in disguise. Having this familiarity helped to focus my attention on the most obvious points of connection between A Right to the City and the opportunities at DCPS when I saw it for the first time.
Dr. Samir Meghelli, the museum’s chief curator, who created A Right to the City, walked me through the exhibit. We connected on some themes that I see emerging especially in the realm of student activism which dovetails nicely into some of the DC guidelines about teaching civic engagement in the 21st century. He also gave me some work a previous intern had begun to create resource guides for teachers in DCPS and for charter schools as well. This will be valuable information for me as I begin to think about developing lessons.
Perhaps the most fruitful part of my trip was a planning meeting with Paul Perry(Assistant Director of Education), Samir Meghelli (Chief Curator), Alcione Amos (Curator) and Lisa Sasaki (Museum Director). Lisa was masterful in leading everyone in talking through all the options on the table about audience, resources, objectives, etc. in order to arrive at a viable plan to deliver a very specific tool for DC teachers. She modeled a skill that I will need to learn in order to be successful in working on a team in order to deliver meaningful projects. She listened to all the constituents and questioned their thinking and then moved the conversation forward. We went through that cycle several times until we arrived at a focused plan of attack. Having a workable plan with clear goals and a clear timeline is critical any successful project.
My audience is DCPS 12th grade social studies classes. My priorities are to develop a site visit plan for DCPS teachers in order to get them into the exhibit this spring. Next, I will develop a virtual visit experience that could be used as a pre-visit tool and serve as a virtual visit in the future. I will put this into place by mid-spring. Finally, I will build out a plan for lessons using the exhibit as a complement to concepts currently covered in DCPS classrooms. These lessons will be in place for the 2019-2020 school year.
I was also able to develop face to face relationships with museum staff and meet others with whom I will be working. Building relationships is an important skill in moving projects forward. I was able use outside relationships to network with DCPS, and I am continuing to develop relationships with others in the museum that will be valuable in maintaining momentum.
One of my over-arching goals for this project is to design a curriculum that is useful to the target audience. The Anacostia Community Museum produces this exhibit, and while the exhibit’s themes relate to communities across the nation and the world, its heart and soul is centered in the DC Metro Area. One of the most rewarding experiences of this internship has been leveraging contacts with existing relationships to discover more about the target audience in the DC Metro Area.
I reached out to former colleagues who live in Louden and Fairfax counties to determine if their districts support educational objectives that correlate with the learning outcomes of A Right to the City. While the learning objectives did not coincide with these districts, my contacts helped to put me in touch with the social studies coordinator of the DC Public Schools. He has been incredibly helpful and willing to partner in this project.
While I am still developing a relationship with my museum coordinator, he has provided me with contacts that could be helpful as well. I will reach out to them in order to develop a greater understanding of my audience, and this will help me to continue to grow the relationship with my project director and to improve my understanding of my target audience.
I know that my guiding vision rests on the material culture of the exhibit, and this is probably where my true passion lies. While I have been focused on gaining access to those materials, I have also learned that I can work through alternative routes to gain access to helpful information. To the extent that I can partner that vision with the experience of the educators who will deliver it will be helpful to the longevity of the virtual exhibit.
The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum is committed to preserving the community history of the area that has become the federal district of Washington D.C. The museum seeks to strengthen the DC metropolitan area by promoting a greater level of mutual understanding within this diverse community.
The museum values grass roots ideals in claiming the legacy of being “a museum of, for and by the people.” It seeks to empower the community to tell its own stories that “showcase the diversity of issues, people and places” that make up the Anacostia area. The museum also values a high degree of civic engagement that promotes both a spirit of discovery and a legacy of service to the community.
The museum is forward thinking in using its assets and outreach potential to bring together both community stakeholders and outside collaborators in order to take an active role promoting critical thought about the issues that influence both the Anacostia area and society.
One of the ways that the museum is seeking to fulfill its mission is through a new exhibit called A Right to the City. The exhibit explores six DC neighborhoods and the ways in which they have grown and changed since the 1950s. My role in the organization is to develop a series of six lesson plans for middle and high school students around the themes presented in the exhibit such as urban renewal, community activism, desegregation/re-segregation and public transportation.
My role is to design a series of six lesson plans to complement the exhibit. I am working with the museum to focus the primary audiences for these lessons and to determine if these lessons will be geared to non-visitors or as part of a pre/post-visit activity. I am also working with the museum to determine the online accessibility of some of these items.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with “material culture” in a museum, albeit in a digital format. My goal in beginning the program in Digital Humanities at George Mason University is to position myself to have a greater number of opportunities to do this type of work in a museum or educational setting. I am looking forward to learning more about how to execute this type of work through a professional internship.