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.
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.
The concept for my project is a website called Uncovering History that will eventually serve as a repository for digital lessons I create to engage students in learning to think historically and to make that thinking visible. The landing page for Uncovering History will briefly explain the concepts of historical thinking and coverage vs. uncoverage as expressed in the writings of Calder, Levesque and Wineberg for teachers who are interested in digging more deeply for their middle and high school students. The inspiration for the site will be the question “How do the raw materials of the past reveal an understanding of history?” While the larger site will be a work in progress, the primary focus of this project will be developing a series of lessons over three to four days that help students to grapple with this question.
My source material includes items in the collection of the British Museum found in the Vale of York Viking hoard. I have used these items under the museum’s CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and created an archive called Uncovering A Discovery. Students will use the archive to work with the digital resources in order to make sense of individual items and to begin to categorize them into groups that will help them to construct a larger historical narrative about how the items might have come together under the influence of trade networks and geographical connections. Students will also employ Maker technology and good old fashioned Model Magic to recreate the hoard in order to explore how material culture differs from digital culture in exploring history.
The main issue I continue to grapple with is making the lesson streamlined enough so that it doesn’t take too many class days in an already jam-packed year. Having scaffolded discussion questions and guided lessons will help in this regard. I also plan to use the concept of adaptations and extensions so that teachers with more or less time can use the lesson as inspiration for their own needs.
Eventually, I will build out other lessons that help students visualize historical thinking skills with raw materials from other historical eras such as the Roman world and Islamic civilizations.
As expansive as the collections housed at the British Musuem, both online and in house, finding much information about the Vale of York Hoard on the British Musuem website wasn’t as fruitful as I thought that it might be. It has LOTS of metadata for each of the 54 photographed items from the hoard and the 634 items yet to be photographed. However, a larger body of content explaining how the hoard was found and processed or what history can be uncovered in examining each object is largely missing from the museum website.
Previously, I have relied on Neil MacGregor’s BBC Radio 4 broadcast about the hoard when I shared its story with my class, but that gives away too much of the narrative that I want students to try to create on their own. However, I had a EUREKA moment when I remembered that I might have purchased a small book about the hoard from the Musuem’s gift shop on a trip to London three years ago. I went digging on the shelves above my desk, I found it – The Vale of York Hoard by Gareth Williams and Barry Ager.
The book has been very helpful in fleshing out some of the specifics about what is known about each object, and I will use this information to scaffold some activities or learning opportunities in the lesson to make that historical thinking visible. But, the most helpful part of the book is the conclusion at the end. In three fairly succinct paragraphs, the book answers my guiding question: “What sense can we make of the raw materials of the past?” It reminded me of the importance of “backward design” in Wiggins’ and McTighe’s Understanding by Design framework. In thinking about these very specific conclusions, I am hoping that I can design a lesson that will lead students to find their own meaningful conclusions without getting too lost in the weeds.
I also liked that the book spoke a bit more to the procedures employed by archaeologists, curators and historians as they actually collected the hoard. I may include a short bit on the “forensics” of collecting artifacts in ways that doesn’t destroy the evidence of the past left by these raw materials.
I am working to design a lesson that I will use in my own classroom this year to teach students about the role of the Vikings as raiders and traders across Europe and Asia. I enjoy working with the “stuff” of history and have tried to implement more and more opportunities in my classroom where students learn by being hands on in order to grapple with historical thinking skills.
Teaching the skill of object analysis is a key feature in my classroom. I find that students are more successful in grappling with visual evidence in primary sources than slogging though archaic texts. And, since I teach World History, objects are often in far greater abundance than written texts.
While I am designing my main lesson around the Vale of York Hoard, I did set up the Omeka site in a way that will invite more than one exhibit. The larger site is called Uncovering History, but the idea is that I will have different directories that could house different collections for specific lessons. Students do some work with Roman coins around the time of Caesar, and I can see how I could use this digital space to build a small collection that would make the current iteration of my lesson more streamlined. I can also see how I might eventually add other collections as well.
The other advantage of building an online collection is that it would be more easily shared with other teachers. Instead of poking around in a PDF of a lesson plan, teachers would have access to the lesson resources directly.
While my main audience remains my own classroom use, I am open to the ways in which digital media and publication might be shared with a larger audience.
The driving question for my project comes from one Lévesque’s five essential questions about practicing history: “How do we make sense of the raw materials of the past?” (37).
I am accessing the British Museum’s vast collection of digitized resources available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license in order to build a “history mystery” project around the Vale of York hoard. My plan is to develop a small archive of items in Omeka for students to explore as “virtual interns” for a museum. Students will note the individual aspects of their assigned piece, recording its distinct features and comparing it to other objects in the collection in order write a description of the item and to draw out possible theories for how the collection came together.
Once they’ve done the exploration, I will direct students to the British Museum site where they can round out the background of their specific piece, writing an exhibit tag and short description. Each student will be able to use Maker technology to create a full size model of their item using the Glow Forge 3D laser printer. Students can use the replicated hoard as an instructional aid for teaching younger students about the Vikings. It will also serve as vehicle for discussing the liberties and limits of digital technology in history. While one can take in so much of the world through digitized images or computer generated replicas, nothing can ever really replace the artifact itself.
I will also employ Story Maps to help students create a digital exhibit that they can share with younger students or their parents. This vehicle will allow students to present their learning in a non-traditional format that allows for a greater narrative voice in historical writing. It will also capitalize on digital mapping technology to help students explain how geography played a role in how the objects likely came together in England from places as far away as Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
The digital environment gives me access to materials and multiple tools for students to engage with the historical narrative on tacticle, digital, and spatial levels.
Lévesque, Stéphane. Thinking Historically. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.
Several years ago, the BBC produced a series called A History of the World in 100 Objects based on a collection of items housed at the British Musuem. One of the items highlighted is a thousand year old Viking hoard that had been recently discovered by two amateur detectorists in England near York. The Vale of York Hoard, as it now known, was a history mystery, and it stood out to me as something that might hook my students in developing their historical thinking skills.
As a new discovery, the artifact had no narrative, and it was up to scientists and historians to uncover a possible narrative for the hoard based on critically thinking about the evidence contained in the hoard. First of all, what is it? How could one understand what the artifact was since it didn’t come with a museum tag. What did it contain? How could sourcing the contents reveal it object’s purpose or significance? How did all these items come together? Are they similar or different? What technology might be involved that brought these diverse objects together? To whom did these objects belong? What might their lives have been like? And, finally, why was it buried? Who might have done so?
Over the years, I have tried to incorporate these skills into my classroom by coming up with a very rudimentary “hoard” simulation. It’s a fun story, but I am not sure that my students have really fully understood the point of the lesson. While it’s clearly evident to me that historians had to figure all this out, the lesson was rushed, and frankly, a little incomplete using paper coin replicas. I’m not sure that I gave students an opportunity to cross the threshold by making my thinking visible to them.
My idea is to build a small archive using items from the hoard made available by the British Museum using a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license. Then I would create a PBL (Project Based Learning) unit around the items in the archive. Drawing upon the concept of being a “virtual intern,” students might each be assigned an object and investigate the item by asking some of the historical thinking questions listed above. I can pull from this archive to create scaffolded resources in Scalar, Omeka, or some other forum, that will guide each student on the journey. Pulling from the idea of the importance of narrative, students might each write a short piece imagining to whom each individual object might have belonged. Finally, students could work in small groups to examine individual findings and work to develop a larger narrative about how the object came together. Perhaps there could be a history prize for the group whose best demonstrates historical thinking skills or one for the narrative that comes closest to that developed by the British Museum.
One pitfall that I see is that clever students might “Google” the name of the coin and accidentally (or on purpose) stumble on to the real story of the Vale of York hoard, thereby ruining the game. However, it’s something that I’m willing to take the risk of trying in order to help my students that the written history they read in textbooks has to be uncovered by real historians using the skills of historical thinking.
It’s been an immense journey these last two semesters on this project. When I began, I had a naive understanding of what it meant “to make an archive.” I had no idea of the process of organizing the materials, working with file sizes and types of files, creating metadata or planning a structure for the site. There was creating contextual information and adding supporting materials to round out the collection. By the end of semester one, I had a better understanding of what all “making an archive” entailed and found myself and my project to be incredibly lacking.
I was glad to be able to rework my project and to plan it out with more understanding of what I didn’t know. I appreciated Dr. Whisnant encouraging me to “dream big” even if I couldn’t fully execute it. While what I dreamed isn’t completely executed, it is closer to what I had envisioned than I thought I’d be able to accomplish. By letting go of forcing the project into Omeka, I was able to take a chance on discovering Scalar. The more I work with it, the more I see ways in which it can be more and more the tool I was looking for. If I hadn’t allowed myself to sketch out my vision, I never would have made the attempt with Scalar. Had I done so, the project would have looked far different.
I have also learned how much work goes into planning and maintaining a site. I feel like I haven’t done as good of a job on this as I might have, but now that I have the prototype in place, I can spend more time thinking of how to manage it before it grows larger in content. I appreciate the suggestions I’ve received along the way for different strategies to accomplish that end.
I have come to understand more and more how teaching is a form of public history. Teaching students to learn to engage with and create their historical content can happen in a classroom just as well as in a museum, a Parks Service project or local history site. In many ways, it lays the foundation for the historical thinking skills the public will develop and practice throughout their lives and in whatever public spaces they might encounter.
Working in Scalar
This week I have had the opportunity to really dig in and figure out Scalar, an open source digital publishing platform developed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture. Dr. Whisnant encouraged me to not limit my vision for the project by what was possible in any particular tool. Though it is a drawback that each book is published within Scalar’s platform and not through an independent install on a URL of my choosing, I am happy to report that Scalar seems to be the right tool for the vision.
Once one registers for a Scalar account, it is possible to create multiple books on Scalar’s platform. One can begin a book by uploading content from local files. Scalar is also able to import digital files from partner archives such as the Getty Library and Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as from affiliated Omeka sites, SoundCloud, YouTube and Vimeo. Each imported item receives its own page with accompanying Metadata intact. Each page may be tagged (non-linear) by term(s), or it can be designated as a path (linear).
With these tags and paths in place, the author can create a new page that uses Scalar’s variety of layouts and visualization tools to draw upon these paths and tags. I have chosen to use Scalar’s Structured Media Gallery to create exhibit pages around certain “threads” in the Weaving Our Story archive such as 1968, the Vietnam War, and World War II. Scalar uses a “generous visual interface” by arranging thumbnails for each item in the exhibit on the main page. Users can explore the individual items in the exhibit and follow the “path” to the next item in the exhibit; however, each page is also tagged so that one could explore the connection between one item that is housed in two different exhibits. In this way, the reader is able to explore the complexities of histories presented and see the rich connections between and among the content.
Each exhibit page also exists as its own item and can become paths as well so that the exhibit pages appear on a separate launch page. Viewers can choose an exhibit path initially and then move along the exhibit path or explore connections.
I am excited by the possibilities Scalar offers me and how the Omeka site and the Scalar site work together. While Omeka can house the entire archive, the Scalar site is a more curated virtual museum exhibit. Not everything in a museum’s collection necessarily makes it into the exhibit.
The challenge to this is keeping up with the collection. I find myself wanting to add more and more outside resources to round out the exhibitions, but I realize that I may need to focus on the structure and format first. The global history of the 20th century is a vast topic to say the least, and I need to be realistic about what is possible by the end of the semester.
My goals for this week are to work on supplying textual content to the exhibits I’ve built. I also need to work on creating some content around the blog site for teachers by polishing some existing materials and creating new ones. I need to continue to work on permissions forms as well.
I was finally able to migrate all of the Omeka items from the first version of the archive to the new version that is tied to the Scalar project and WordPress blog. Earlier in the semester, I conducted extensive research on finding other themes in Omeka that would allow me to customize the look of the archive without having to do a lot of backend coding work. I found the Customeka theme to be exactly what I needed in order to adapt the look of the project to mirror Scalar’s layout, which offers fewer options to adapt the aesthetics of the site.
This all worked well in theory until I began migrating the items from one archive to the other. While the landing page that I had designed looked like I wanted, the items page was a jumble of text. In order to customize the landing page to look as I wished, it changed the scale of the font in the items and collections pages. There was no way to change one without the other. Apparently, Customeka isn’t as customized as it seems. I had to go back to the drawing board.
I began playing around with other themes that are offered in the standard Omeka install and settled on the Thanks, Roy theme. The theme did not meet my needs when I originally designed the first version of the archive, but apparently, RRCHNM released a new version in February that makes it easier to customize colors and type styles. Coupled with a greater understanding of Omeka myself, I was able to manipulate the standard Omeka theme to meet my aesthetic needs.
I like how Omeka is working for me as an archival repository and feel I’ve made progress as a user and designer within my modest level of expertise using the tool.