Summary
For my final project, I will be working to create a prototype network visualization graph which can be supplemented or altered in conjunction with further research on my thesis topic and utilized for a final digital history component of my MA thesis project. The topic deals with the social connections and interactivity between Philadelphia Progressive Era reformers that allowed them to carry on extra-governmental social reform activity. The graph will visualize connections between locations, individuals, and institutions like colleges, aid organizations, and civic clubs.

Method and Tools

  • I will input the data on key figures, places, and institutions from my primary source material into GraphViz, an open source graph visualization toolset (chosen because I’m familiar and comfortable with this type of data input syntax). This will yield a “relationship diagram” in .dot format. (A tutorial for this method is located here)
  • The visualization software Gephi will allow me to import the .dot file and create an interactive relational web, and tweak nodes and edges as needed to achieve a streamlined and user-friendly graphic visualization.
  • In order to render the graph visible and interactive on the web, however, I will need to take one extra step. After exporting the .gexf file visualization from Gephi, I will import it into Sigmajs, a javascript library for web rendering.
Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 4.32.28 PM.png
Behold the beauty of sigmajs

Why Digital? Why These Tools?

This visualization software was specifically developed in order to display relational characteristics in a 3D way. In doing so, it provides an alternative way to view data that is difficult to conceptualize otherwise and reveal degrees of “closeness” of relation that might not otherwise be visible. The more connections (“edges”) that each subject (“node”) has to other nodes increases the strength of the relationship. This is a method of analysis for my research that I have not been able to work with so far. I have also never worked with network visualization tools and I look forward to learning something new.

Audience

I’m struggling the most with this aspect of the project. While I strongly desire to create a stellar digital history project that will inform and impact the lives of today’s Philadelphians, I’m not sure how to do that with this relationship diagram within the confines of this project and class. Ideally, I can envision a type of community scavenger hunt that incorporates the sites and people involved, or a six-degrees-of-separation type of interactive game. But the subject matter that I’m currently studying, that of reform in Progressive Era Philadelphia, seems rather difficult to make engaging to the public in this way.

annahowardshaw
Anna Howard Shaw, professional badass, didn’t get her own historical marker until 2014.

I think that rather than use the network visualization to engage the public directly, I might use it to be able to make a case for a few new historical markers in Philadelphia. Since the crux of my argument is that women Progressives have not been acknowledged for their contributions to social welfare in the city, and because there is a huge gender disparity in Pennsylvania historic markers, being able to show the relative importance of the profiled women to Philadelphia history – and erect markers in their memory – would be a fitting outcome.

For this assignment, I decided to map out sites from some of the primary sources that I have been consulting for work on a major research paper about the Settlement Movement in Philadelphia. I’m not very familiar yet with the geography of Philadelphia, and additionally, some street names and neighborhood layouts have change in the intervening century. Visualizing these sites on a map helps me to orient my subject matter- in this case, which neighborhoods were considered most in need of social aid and where the settlements and affiliated organizations were actually located within those areas.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 11.47.18 AM
Screenshot of Google Map “Gilded Age ‘Slums’ of Philadelphia” as of March 23, 2017

I’ve compiled the list of places on a Google Map, entitled “Gilded Age ‘Slums’ of Philadelphia.” It is by no means representative of all of the locations of social aid in the city, but it is helpful to spatially plot some points which may aid in later walks around the area or understandings of neighborhood boundaries. I also plotted ward boundaries for the area of Philadelphia that I’m dealing with as they existed in 1893. From a quick glance at the map, it is apparent that a lot of the settlements that I am currently studying (Namely: the Starr Centre, the College Settlement, and the Octavia Hill Association) look like they were located on the borderlines between wards. Two major studies were undertaken of “slum conditions” in areas considered most in need of humanitarian aid- a federal one in 1894, and one sponsored by the Octavia Hill Association in 1904. I think it’s interesting to note their divergence; there is no overlap between the highlighted areas. I’m not yet sure how to utilize this point, but I do think it gives me a greater insight into the subject as a whole for the purposes of writing my thesis.

In a practical sense, as I’m adding to it as I continue my research, the map is really not an ideal resource for anyone besides myself (or someone else very familiar with the institutions and various slum surveys). I have made an effort to include citation details for the sites, but there is little in the way of other interpretation that would make the map accessible to a non-specialist. For instance, I haven’t provided any contextual information about “1904 Dinwiddie sites (study funded by Octavia Hill Association).” I don’t think that Google Maps is the best tool for building a resource that is both illustrative and interpretive. Were I to develop this into a full-blown project, I would probably utilize either Fusion Tables or some other data tables application to pull out the data (coordinates, etc.) and embed it into a site where I could incorporate floating frames to do the interpretive heavy lifting.

 

 

For my data visualization, I made the chart I wish I’d had last semester while studying the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic in Philadelphia. This chart visualizes mortality rates in different wards of the city of the leading causes of death in the year 1918. This makes it easy to see that although pneumonia, for example, was a major cause of death, particularly in poorer wards, its impact hardly compares with deaths from epidemic influenza.
Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 5.40.51 PM
A screenshot of the final, interactive HTML file

I chose to create the graph by creating an HTML file that calls up the Google Charts API for formatting. I did this for several reasons. First, my data is preserved in an easily accessible code-based source (anyone can click “view source” and see what numbers I’ve entered), in a stable format that works with all web browsers. I recently had a conversation with someone who remarked that visualization tools are great, but they need to be reliable in order to be really useful; if the tool breaks or the web changes and the tool no longer has development support, it’s useless. Standard CSS and HTML are reliable old standbys for at least skeletal web development, because they are still a standard markup language after more than 20 years in existence and are likely to remain so for a while longer. This translates into project longevity.

Unfortunately, it also means that I wasn’t able to embed the chart into this WordPress blog; I can’t place iframes or even upload the HTML source file for blog readers to download and open through their web browser. Even though it’s interactive (in a very basic way), I had to post a screenshot to make it visible- certainly a downside that I did not anticipate.

I got the source material from a primary document, The Annual Report of the Bureau of Health of the City of Philadelphia for 1918, which I first found as an excerpt (that the University of Michigan rather disingenuously didn’t reveal wasn’t a complete document), but then found and was able to download in its entirety on HathiTrust, courtesy of Princeton University. I “curated” the data (read: limited the amount of superfluous data entry) by making the conscious choice to only include the top four causes of death in my data. Although I recognize that that decision to do this is not ideal in terms of transparency about the mortality rates, I also thought that to include all 99 causes of death in the chart would be too visually confusing to the viewer.

 

Review- The National Jukebox: Historical Recordings from the Library of Congress

National Jukebox: Historical Recordings from the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/jukebox/. Created and maintained by the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Library of Congress, and Sony Music Entertainment, Inc., Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/jukebox/about. Reviewed Feb. 2017.

About a year ago, I found myself trying to make room for a family member’s spring-cleaning collection of old vinyl in an already-full record cabinet. Caught between a desire to keep these cool old records- for posterity’s sake!- and a pragmatic understanding that I would never, ever, throw on a 2.5 minute Dee Dee Sharp single, I eventually just left the record crate in front of the cabinet, where it has lived ever since.

The National Jukebox gathers comparable cobwebs in a similar scenario, tucked into a corner of the Library of Congress website. The project (clearly ambitious) took a lot of money, time, and effort to bring to fruition, and it has great potential to serve as a valuable educational resource. Unfortunately the seemingly-abandoned site doesn’t appear destined to achieve this legacy as things stand.
(more…)

It all started when I caught wind of the #museolutions Twitter hashtag. I had to get in on it- this was a resolution I could actually keep! So I set a goal for myself in 2016: “More.”

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-10-25-43-pm

How did I do? In 2016, I visited 28 new museums, historic sites, and cultural centers.

What did I do differently? I decided to take a more mindful approach to visitation, keeping at the forefront of my thoughts that each space is constructed deliberately. In considering exhibits this way, I think I discovered much about what makes sites and exhibitions enjoyable, relatable, and educational (for myself, anyway). I also think this slowed-down approach helped me to just take in and enjoy my surroundings. I deeply appreciated every single institution that I went to this year, and I made it a point to share the love via social media and word of mouth.

What did I learn? I realized that while I do learn from these sites (and I value that greatly) I also get a good deal of satisfaction from experiencing the power of place. That sort of memory seems to be the kind that stays with me. I don’t remember the object labels at the Tate Britain but I remember standing dazzled in its long lovely galleries. I remember feeling so saddened that so many of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, established as a peaceful link between immigrant groups, seemed so neglected even in their centennial year.

What’s next for 2017? While I think my 2016 museolution of “more” was worthwhile, I realized that I don’t think I need a motivator to visit more museums! I love doing it anyway. So this year, I’m going to make my museolution “giving back” to the museums and cultural institutions that I love. I want to advocate for their funding, to become a member of the places closest to my heart, and to volunteer my time and energy.

If you’re interested, here’s a list of the 28 new places I enjoyed in 2016, arranged by state/country:

DC:

Delaware:

Maryland:

New York:

Ohio:

Pennsylvania:

The UK:

Canada:

On the bookshelf: Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World

In Letting Go?, a diverse array of public historians strive to address major questions facing the discipline in our contemporary “user-generated world.” Technological and methodological innovations, the rise of the participatory web, and shifting visitor expectations have challenged the traditional relationship between museums and their visitors. The questions that arise, then, are how and to what extent this relationship needs to change to accommodate an increasingly egalitarian information economy. Most pertinent to this volume is the issue of shifting authority within the Web, community-based programming, oral history, and contemporary art.

As the editors stress, the purpose of the book is “to mark a particular moment in the field, not to advocate or proselytize” (12). That’s a good thing, because the contributors disagree on fundamental questions and therefore don’t offer an entirely cohesive picture of how public historians can move forward to answer them. Rather, the editors identify “patterns” emerging in the conversations and case studies. For example, increased focus on encouraging audience participation has resulted in more inventive and innovative approaches. Additionally, a “no-boundaries” approach to audience expression has, paradoxically, resulted in less creative responses than when dialogues between museums and constituents were facilitated in more structured ways. Finally, contrary to the perception that sharing authority and public curation might make staff obsolete, this volume reveals that in actuality more is required of museums and their employees. Traditional skills like editing, deep content knowledge, and rich interpretative expertise remain just as vital as ever.

Letting Go? is structured into sections that outline changes happening in several arenas of public history practice. In each segment, public historians debate what “letting go” of the last word in authority means in theory and in practice.

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-1-16-08-pm
The entry portal to City of Memory, a participatory dynamic story map of New York City described by Steve Zeitlin.

The first section, “Virtually Breaking Down: Authority and the Web” poses the question of how new information technologies have complicated and/or enhanced the practice of shared authority. Essays by Nina Simon, Steve Zeitlin, Matthew Fisher, Bill Adair, and Matthew MacArthur examine what public historians and museum practitioners can learn from the open and adaptive nature of the Web. As Nina Simon points out, the Web is a huge information storehouse that was purposefully created for those who would be using it: it is not curated; it adapts to user preferences to determine priorities; it is ever-welcoming of more content from anyone who wants to contribute. What would happen if museum professionals overcame a fear of losing control over dialogue and trust and embraced the potential of Web-inspired collecting and organizational techniques?

“Throwing Open the Doors: Communities as Curators” explores the promise of shared authority in the exhibit hall with pieces by Kathleen McLean, John Kuo Wei Tchen, Liz Sevcenko, Deborah Schwartz and others. Using the examples of the Minnesota Historical Society’s “Moving Pictures” film competition, the Brooklyn Public Perspectives Project, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, and the New York Chinatown History Project, the authors reveal the pros and cons (but mostly pros) of opening up curatorial duties to the community. Dialogue-driven museums can provide valuable contextualization of topics and showcase marginalized histories by opening up conversations with audiences based on respect, reciprocity, and mutual interest. In the case studies provided here, relinquishing or sharing staff control over content and curation has actually resulted in a new level of intimacy between museums and their communities, who feel they can better trust the former to tell their stories.

“Hearing Voices: Sharing Authority Through Oral History” seems to be the portion of the book most readily showing ambivalence about “shared authority” phraseology, practice, and outcome. Contributors Michael Frisch, Benjamin Filene, Billy Yalowitz approach the issue in essays about StoryCorps, the Minnesota Historical Society, and performance art about the Black Bottom neighborhood of Philadelphia. While championing new technologies and avenues for engaging audiences in oral history, the authors also identify what they see as the dangers inherent in them. For example, StoryCorps has wide reach and popularity, but it does not replicate the historian’s craft. And the organizers of the Black Bottom project ran into confusion about how to address one of the major goals of former residents of the neighborhood: reparations for displacement and property seizure. Michael Frisch, author of seminal oral history text A Shared Authority, challenges the entire premise of “letting go’: oral history, he argues, involves an already shared authority that exists whether historians decide to recognize and respect it or not. It’s not up to public historians to “let go” of authority when it wasn’t theirs to begin with.

“The Question of Evaluation: Understanding the Visitor’s Response” is the shortest chapter of the book, questioning how museums can pragmatically stay true to mission statements and facilitate user-generated content in the modern era.

yr489857_942long
An interrupted scene at the Dennis Severs House, as featured in Mary Teeling’s essay. Photograph by James Brittain

Finally, the last section, “Constructing Perspectives: Artists and Historical Authority” examines what happens when the worlds of artist and historical institution come together. Melissa Rachleff, Fred Wilson, Paula Marincola, Marjorie Schwarzer, Laura Koloski, Otabenga Jones and Mary Teeling pull back the curtain on such collaborations and their inner workings. Revealingly, although the resulting projects often prove provocative, ground-breaking, and spectacular, they are also shown to be problematic in that they may not actually share authority with communities, be factually sound, or have positive consequences for museums that engage in them. To get around these issues, the contributors emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary methodology, as well as concerted efforts to reconcile what may often seem a radical divergence in language, responsibility, and priorities between the parties involved.

Although sometimes it seems like the essays produce more questions than answers, I think that this collaborative effort is especially strong in that it provides in and of itself an outstanding example of what shared authority looks like. Sometimes uneven in content or presentation, sometimes unexpected or inspiring feelings of discomfort, this book nevertheless provides equal representation of differing viewpoints and experiences in the field.

On the bookshelf:
Andrea Burns, From Storefront to Monument
Edward T. Linenthal, “Anatomy of a Controversy” in History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past
Ken Yellis, “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars” in Curator: The Museum Journal (October 2009)

This week’s readings explore what can happen when the traditional and expected narrative of American progress and exceptionalism is subverted in museum exhibits.

mining_the_museum_exhibit_label
Exhibit label from Mining the Museum, Maryland Historical Society

“Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars” by Ken Yellis considers the example of the 1992-93 exhibition Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society. Fred Wilson’s critical juxtaposition of artifacts (such as a baby carriage holding a Klu Klux Klan hood) was highly controversial. Because it destabilized the expected seemingly-neutral presentation of “history” as straightforward, linear, and apolitical within the museum space (in Wilson’s own words, “They’re expecting one experience and they get another experience.”) some visitors reacted with revulsion and distrust. One such visitor remarked, “Museums are not supposed to lie to us.” Yellis, noting the relative lack of such contentious exhibitions in museums today (the article was written in 2009), wonders if the negative response that museums received from these types of efforts has affected curators with a form of PTSD. They avoid taking a stance, he hypothesizes, because they fear losing control of the visitor experience.

In the same vein, Edward Linenthal relates what can go wrong when a national museum attempts to tackle difficult questions in “Anatomy of a Controversy,” an inside look at the process behind developing the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Plagued by generational conflicts, bureaucratic red tape, and the fatal misconception that it was possible to mount an exhibition that did not make any type of political statement, the exhibition underwent numerous changes in the development process and emerged as a diluted and uncritical version of its original incarnation, upholding a narrative of American patriotism and derring-do. One thing missing from the essay, though, is an explanation why this exhibition garnered so much more controversy than the National Museum of American History’s A More Perfect Union, an exhibition about Japanese internment camps that visitors still ask about.

From Storefront to Monument charts the history of the Black Museum Movement, which

nmaahc
The NMAAHC, September 2016. (Author’s photo)

began closely related to the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement and shared aims and proponents. Museums like the DuSable Museum of African American History and Culture in Chicago and the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C. were inspired by the exclusion of the African-American experience in “mainstream” large institutions. Largely believing that museums should be involved in social change in their communities, the movement has encountered issues actually instituting that change, remaining true to grassroots convictions, and adapting to developing needs in the community. As the book was written in 2013, it anticipates the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture as a watershed moment that could redefine the Black Museum Movement in scope, content, and level of community involvement. I had the opportunity to visit the NMAAHC, and while on the whole I think it very much reflects a typically “good/bad” categorical Smithsonian approach to history, there were a few exceptions. For example, an installation on the Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola”) critically examined the prison’s plantation past and the implications of incarcerating an overwhelmingly Black prisoner population there.

Although I can’t recall ever seeing anything at the level of Mining the Museum, I would challenge a fatalistic view of the doomed nature of ‘controversy’ in museums. I’ve seen several exhibitions over the past few years that I would categorize at the very least as nontraditional, such as Abigail DeVille’s Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See the Stars, the BMA’s Imagining HomeThe Big Graph at Eastern State Penitentiary, the President’s House Site in Independence Park, and of course my all-time favorite, The Lower East Side Tenement Museum. When I think about it, though, much of this work seems to be stewarded or inspired by the arts community rather than the history community, and I wonder if that goes back to Yellin’s point about visitor expectations- someone visiting an arts or arts-related installation perhaps anticipates a challenge to their perspective more than the same visitor in a history setting. Although both are in actuality about crafting a narrative, a history museum holds the illusion of conferring more legitimacy on this narrative. Artists are supposed to be creative; historians are supposed to “tell it like it is.”