History is Not the Past

As we approached our final week of class (save for troubleshooting our Air Canada project), Shawn asked us to reflect on what we thought the holes in our introduction to DH might be. He suggested we peruse Digital Humanities Now to see if there was anything there that piqued our fancy which we didn’t get to cover in the class. Unsurprisingly, however, the offerings on Digital Humanities Now pretty closely mirrored the debates, issues, successes, and failures we would discuss each week. Knowing that Shawn gave us an introduction which allowed us to understand the DH field as a whole, the only hole I felt in this year’s offerings would be a deeper discussion into the “so what” of DH. A discussion of how DH may or may not be changing what we think history is and what history is doing.

This is not to say that DH practitioners aren’t thinking about this and including this in their work. I know that many are, and that questions about the nature of history and representation inform many, many DHers work. However, I feel that the new-ness of many of the tools and methodologies still overshadow the meat of the historical work being done. Surely this is something that will shift and grow over time. In fact, I know it’s starting to, because of this perfect passage from Tim Hitchcock’s Big Data for Dead People that I got so excited about that I texted it to a few friends word for word (I have very patient friends):

“… history is not the past, it is a genre constructed by us from practises first delineated during the enlightenment. Its forms of textual criticism, its claims to authority, its literary conventions, the professional edifice which sifts and judges the product; its very nature and relationship with a reading and thinking public; its engagement with memory and policy, literature and imagination, are ours to make and remake as seems most useful.

DH lets us make and remake our understanding of the past using incredible tools which give us incredible insights. As long as we remember that history and digital history are not the past themselves, then all’s well that ends well with me.

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A Digital History of Evil

As all well-trained academics, I read this week’s selections in the order they appeared in the syllabus.  As much as Michael Widner’s protestations to the contrary in “The Digital Humanists (Lack of) Response to the Surveillance State” and “Digital Humanists Responses to Surveillance”, he paints the uses and abuses of Big Data by the NSA as part of the above video’s narrative of  the History of Evil.  Shawn Graham, Ian Milligan, and Scott Weingart, however, show how humanists can use these Big Data tools for the forces of good (good being understanding history in new and novel ways, of course) as well.

Widner’s pieces foreground that there’s “an awful politics built into the current digital environment.”  I find this doom and gloom a bit naïve however, as aren’t there “awful politics” built into all of our environments?  Last week’s readings showed us how skewed the current academic publishing systems are.  And the History of Evil animation demonstrates how the “awful politics” of systems of power have permeated Western society since ancient Grecian times.

But this week’s pieces have also demonstrated how Digital Humanists can use the tools of these systems to combat some of the “awful politics” afoot.  Graham, Milligan, and Weingart and Tim Hitchcock demonstrate how using Big Data digital tools can let historians perform distant and close readings, on a scale unfathomable before our current digital age.  These four authors, in concert with Franco Moretti, also usefully point out that although these tools may offer new ways of seeing, they also require the keen eye of the humanist to make sense of the data and question the systems that lead to these conclusions.

I think all of our authors would agree that the keen eye of the humanist is still required throughout academia – in the digital world or otherwise.  And just as it may be “safer, really, to keep an eye on everyone,” we have to make sure we keep our gaze turned steely back at the systems that watch us, too.

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Shawn of the Dead

This week, we read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence.  In it, she highlights the “undead” nature of the current academic publishing system, which is “governed by a kind of zombie logic.”  She continues: “These old forms refuse to stay put in their graves, but instead walk the earth, rotting and putrescent, wholly devoid of consciousness, eating the brains of the living and susceptible to nothing but decapitation.”  Although Fitzpatrick recognizes her own hyperbole in this metaphor, I nonetheless think it is apt for what she and many others see as the way forward in academic publishing.  If you want to defeat the “undead” that is the current system of closed-door, blind, anonymous, untenable book publishing, academics will have to work collaboratively, try new avenues and modes of publishing, and rethink the world in which they operate.

One of the many strengths of #hist5702x is the collaborative nature of our Air Canada/CSTMC project.  From the get-go, we’ve made decisions as a class, we’ve worked in smaller groups on individual tasks, and we’ve problem solved as a team.  As many of the other returning blogs this week have pointed out, we’ve been having a bit of trouble with modelling.  All last week, it was standing room only in the Underhill Research Lab as group after group troubleshot their wonky models (my own included).  Throughout this process, however, no one seems to be too flustered, because we know between the ten of us (I am of course including Professor Shawn Graham in this equation), we know we’ll be able to figure out a solution.

This past few weeks’ frustrations are also indicative of another broad trend I saw in the readings, and in much of our discussions of emerging DH practices: namely that of quantifying DH work in the traditional academic setting.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick points out that academics who are trying to move beyond the article/book/peer-review paradigm get stuck in finding ways that their digital work – and all its concomitant fiddling – can be quantified in order to count towards publications, tenure, and the like.  I’ve found the same frustrations popping up in my own work: when fiddling with models is feeling too time consuming, it’s easiest to return to writing the book’s narratives rather than to stick it out in the lab.  The next few (very busy) weeks will surely see a balance between the two as we prepare, all together, our “final” product for CSTMC.

DH pushes us out of our comfort zones, makes us search for new solutions, and requires a lot of leg work.  And as a lover of a good zombie narrative, I know that this is how our heroes win the day, too.

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No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

This week in everyone’s favourite #hist5702x our class focused on the implications of combining historical (and archeological) work with the digital world.  Namely, when we work with tools new to the traditional academe, what becomes of our work?

In class, we took at a look at the terms of service of a few of the apps we’re using for our Air Canada collection project through the Voyant text-mining tool.  This nifty visualizer made it clear that the more you pay for an app, the more control you retain over the products you make with it.  123D Catch, the free app which we are using to make our models, has a sliding scale of how much it “owns” your model.  Augment, who has generously donated space for which one would otherwise pay, doesn’t seem to be interested in retaining any rights over what we upload onto their app.  However, the mere ability to do this kind of 3D modelling in the name of history for free is astounding, considering what some of the authors in our readings this week have endured.

Following our three assigned readings chronologically, it’s plain to see the amount of work past practitioners of DH modelling have put into creating and justifying their projects.  In 2005, Peter Dawson and Richard Levy outlined the incredible innovation and expense that went into recreating a Thule Inuit whalebone house – combining 2D archeological records with 3D scans of a North Atlantic Right Whale skeleton from the New England Aquarium in Boston (the Glenbow Museum has a flash animation of what it may have looked like here).  In 2009, Robert Warden outlined the brave new world of heritage conservation that terrestrial laser scanning and photogrammetry has afforded – a brave new world where equipment doesn’t come on the cheap.  However, David Crandall and Noah Snavely outlined in their 2011 article how they were able to create maps and models from mining free, open photo-sharing websites like Flickr and Facebook.  For those of us (cough, me) familiar with iDevices, the idea of not being able to do this kind of work for free definitely makes you (cough, me) thank your (cough, my) lucky stars that we came to these kinds of technologies much later in the game than our academic predecessors.  (Cough.)

But as they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  Although the software we are using for this project is free, the models and manuscript that come out of it may not be ours and ours alone.  Is this ok?  For our prototype, probably yes.  For future distribution of this kind of work in the museum?  This we don’t really know yet.

(It sure is fun though.)

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“Being There”

I’ve told the class – and anyone who’s deigned to ask – about my favourite museum before: the S. S. Great Britain in Bristol, England.  The S. S. Great Britain was the first screw propeller iron ship ever built, designed by famed industrialist Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  The ship herself had an illustrious, decades long career, eventually finding herself sunk off the coast of South America.  In the 1970s, the ship was brought back to the surface, transported back to Bristol, installed in a dry dock, and over a series of years and a series of renovations, turned into a museum.

Now, I love this museum because – in opposition to the typical museum where you look at artefacts behind glass – you got to walk all around and through the entirety of the ship.  An audio guide triggered by either a GPS or an RSSI would give you information about a given room – the dining room, the kitchen, the third-class accommodations.  Although much of the ship was a recreation rather than the “real thing,” interacting with the past through sight, sound, smell, and touch made this representation of the “real thing” all the more “real.”

This week’s readings reminded me of the S. S. Great Britain because they all highlighted how AR can create a sense of “being there” which is integral to experiencing the past – for professional and amateur historians alike.  Augmented Reality (or Mixed Reality as Stuart Eve put it) offers an avenue to get a feel for what it might have been like to “be there.”  Rather than relying on reproductions (like the S. S. Great Britain does), Mixed Reality interfaces let the user interact with both the contemporary and the historical environment at the same time.

Marrying the two worlds of the contemporary and the imagined historical presents yet another way of teaching the structures of history, of acknowledging the pasts relation to the present and the present’s relation to the past.  The goal of Augmented or Mixed Reality isn’t to recreate the past, but rather to highlight the layers of time, space, and meaning all in one place.

And isn’t that what historians have been trying to do all along, anyway?

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AR, DH, and Expo 67 as Heterotopia

1. A space that embodies many layers of meaning at one time;
2. A space that is neither here nor there;
3. A space that is physical and mental at the same time.”

From “Of Other Spaces” By Michel Foucault, loosely.

Although I must admit that is not a complete nor thorough definition of a heterotopia, it works for what we in #hist5702x are working through right now.

This week, our readings and class discussions danced around the ideas of historiography as a game, and games as historiography.  Whether a game is “set in the past” (a flimsy explanation of capital-H History in my estimation) or otherwise, when a player is playing a game they in equal measure learning the structures (the rules) of play as well.  Games introduce players to new worlds, but at the same time teach the structures of navigating their worlds, giving them the tools to understand their worlds in a particular way.

This is not so different from how historians operate.  In all capital-H Historical publishing, authors not only introduce their readers (or watchers or what have you) to new worlds, they also introduce a structure of knowledge, a way of looking at the past and accessing fantastical worlds which are neither here nor there.

I invoke Michel Foucault’s idea of the heterotopia to work through all this for selfish reasons.  As Jesse and I are going to be focussing on the Expo 67 angle of our investigation, I’ve started nosing around for sources.  One which I have found imagines Expo 67 as Canada’s national heterotopia – a place where contested ideas about what the nation was and where the nation was going could manifest in the same liminal space, where a definition of Canada was physical and mental at the same time.  I think our book will embody these dichotomies, not only in its intellectual content, but thanks to its position in the liminal space between past and present, physical and digital, and here and there at the same time as well.

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Real and Unreal Worlds

This week in #hist5702x (I feel like the hashtag is integral at this point, despite what Jimmy or Justin have to say) we’re taking our first trip to the Canada Science and Technology Museum.  But if I’ve gleaned anything from this week’s readings, it’s that AR (augmented reality) apps and programs can make the museums extend their reach beyond their four walls.

In Natasha Baker’s article from 2012, Tracy Ruddell states that at the Royal Museum of Ontario, “we’re all about real-world objects.”  And for many, that’s what museums are in a nut-shell: keepers of artefacts, disseminators of information, and dolers of heritage, science, or art.  However, the NMC 2011 Horizon Report for Museums writes that museums can’t rest on their historical laurels anymore.  To fulfill their educational and outreach mandates, the modern museum must have an easy-to-navigate web presence and must produce content that’s more than uploading static words onto a page.

What struck me the most about the potential for AR apps both in and outside of the museum (some of which can be found here and here) is their potential to connect the imaginary to the museal world of facts and figures, the intangible to the tangible.  Augmented Reality walking tours like the Museum of London Streetmuseum or even Carleton History’s own Rideau Timescapes app literally take the history out of the institution and layer it onto the built and natural environment.  Likewise, programs like QRator bring the outside world in to the museum by hosting new kinds of user-generated content, layering public perceptions onto the historical record of the artefact.

As the CHIN Professional Exchange on AR warns, the museum must be mindful of their audience when producing AR programs.  However, the museum must also be mindful of the new kinds of interaction that AR can foster.  What is being done to the artefact by digitizing it?  Does our understanding of the past change when the real is transformed into the unreal?  What happens in these blended reality worlds, and how does it change the user’s relationship to history?  What is the burden of responsibility when the museum makes “invisible things visible” (as the NMC Horizon Report puts it)?

Some of this and more will hopefully become clearer as our class moves through this project – into the “real world” of the museum and the “unreal world” of our AR production in weeks to come.

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Questions and Answers

So!  Week two of seminar done and dusted.   Here’s where I’m at.

This week all of our readings were centered around the idea that digital history is new and exciting (or at least was in the early 2000s, now it feels more like it’s here to stay), but that we might not necessarily know what we’re going to to do with it yet, or indeed, what it’s going to do to and for us.  Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig laid out how the “History Web” came into being; the different qualities and dangers of digital media; and where and what history on the web might be right now or where it might go in the future.  Tom Scheinfeldt assured us that the tools of digital history are still so new and fresh that we don’t know just yet what kinds of questions it might lead us to ask or to answer.  William Turkel et. al. encouraged us, dear readers, to think of digital tools not as a way of translating historical experiences or materials, but rather as a way of transducing them (I prefer transmogrify, myself) from the past into the present.  Further to our discussion last week, this week’s theoretical readings underlined that DH is about making: making new tools, making new ways of understanding sources, making new ways of interacting with the past.

So, then, what are we going to be making in HIST5702x you ask?  Well, like this week’s authors, I’m not entirely sure yet.  Of a few crucial details, we are sure.  We are working with the Air Canada collection at the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation.  We are going to be creating some sort of augmented reality coffee table “book”.  We are going to be making two of said book.

However, of a few crucial details, we are not so sure.  Are we going to tell a narrative?  How will the two “books” differ? Who is our audience for these “books”? How can we tell “good history” without relying too much on gimmick?

We bounced around a bunch of ideas about what form the “book” might take.  Perhaps it could be an airline safety card? Or a blueprint of an airplane? Considering the number of uniforms in the collection, maybe a dress pattern? Luckily we don’t have to know these particulars just yet.  Next week we’re going to be visiting the collection in situ at CSTM and maybe coming face-to-face with our sources will reveal the answers to these questions and those we didn’t even know we could ask.

I think that’s what I find most exhilarating and terrifying about diving into digital history.  With your standard academic history you have a question, you do some research to find the answer, and then you write an essay to frame what you’ve found.  In this new arena we don’t know if we have a question, we play around while trying to find questions and answers, and then we create something to frame what we’ve found and what we’ve got left to ask.  Though the stages might be similar, the work it’s going to take is brand, brand new.  And we might not necessarily know what we’re going to to do with it yet.

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Back in the Saddle

And yet again, the world of academia brings me back to my wordpress roots here at The Recorded North.

As long time readers will no doubt remember – (*crickets*) – this site has been many things over many years.  Originally, I created this blog with two excellent friends for a Canadian Film course during my undergrad.  We pontificated grandly about the state of film in Canada, the National Film Board, and the importance and impertinence of the artistic systems in this great white north.  Then we graduated, and I took over this url (with the blessing of my cohort) as a space to freak out about the budget cuts at the NFB lo these many years ago.  With my visceral, familial, and academic relationship to the NFB, I needed to feel like I was doing something when my beloved Board was being attacked.

Then I got into grad school and all of a sudden had new arenas to host my ideas and ideals about history and film of and in Canada.  But then along came HIST 5702 (Photography and Public History), and this blog was transformed into a platform to wax poetical about said P and PH.  That course ended, I took an internship for the summer, and The Recorded North hasn’t been recording very many of my thoughts about the north since.

But now! dear readers, I have returned under the banner of #hist5702x.  With the addition of the x, this blog will now be my Digital/Public History platform (man how I’ve missed slashes – the Cultural Studies student in me loves a good slash: in/appropriate(d) others, meta/physical nature of archives, the w/hole lot).  Although in our seminar this week I said that I was taking this class to learn new, different, and digital skills, writing this post on this blog has reminded me of a different reason as to why I am interested in taking this class.  You’ll have to forgive me these pronouncements, as I’m in my second year of a Public History MA and have been dilligently working on my Major Research Essay about the NFB (quelle suprise) – this stuff is on my mind.  But as someone who has spent the majority of her academic life thinking about film and its powers to communicate across extraordinary distances of time, space, and experience, I can’t help but see the things we’re going to be talking about and doing in this class in the same way.  Although I am taking this class to learn new skills, what I’m most interested in is how the digital world, new forms of communication and all, will change, strengthen (or maintain or weaken?) how history, ideology, or who knows what else can be communicated across time, space, and experience.

And after just one seminar, I can tell that our rag-tag group of dreamers will be just the right people to figure this out with.  Stay tuned friends.


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The Creative Treatment of Actuality


“Chinese-Canadian children watching a National Film Board film.” Click through for original source.

This blog has had many skins since coming into this world.  It started as a project for a Canadian Film class.  I then took sole custody of its webspace and its content and turned it into a place to have opinions about the NFB.  Now it’s fulfilling yet another project-based position for my Photography and Public History seminar.

But although it’s had many skins, I’ve always been at the centre of its guts.  And I’ve always had a healthy obsession with the NFB, so to segue its becoming a facet of HIST5702, I think its only fair that I make my intentions clear, known, and up-front.  And my intentions are always to steer the conversation back to the illustrious National Film Board of Canada.

In 1939, the Canadian government asked a Scottish filmmaker, John Grierson, to reinvigorate its official public film agency.  Grierson was one of the founders of the British documentary movement – he coined the term “documentary” himself.

In an 1940 article Art in Action, Grierson wrote, “art is not a mirror, but a hammer. It is a weapon in our hands to see and to say what is right and good and beautiful and hammer it out as the mould and pattern of men’s actions.” He envisioned a filmic Canadian tradition that would use “moods of resolution” to build a stronger citizenry who would understand “what Canadians need to know and think about if they are going to do their best by Canada and by themselves.” He saw the NFB as a service to the Canadian public, “as an attempt to create a better understanding of Canada’s present and as an aid to the people in mobilizing their imagination and energy in the creation of Canada’s future.”

IRL I am mostly preoccupied with film (obviously), where the immersive environment of the moving picture coupled with sound (and the NFB’s classic didactic voice) doesn’t leave much room for personal negotiation of a message.  However, I feel as if the works of the Still Photography Division might leave a little bit more room for people to “interpret Canada to Canadians” (Grierson again) – or, as Canadians, interpret Canada to/for themselves.

Of course the photographs were never presented uncaptioned or unbound, but it’s easy enough to study a photograph without reading the caption (unlike watching a film without the sound, per se).  If I were looking at a photograph of some unbridled wilderness or a group of Canadians (maybe we can’t depart from the photo’s context and photographer’s intention there), I could see in it what I may (for the most part).  To then read the caption, or think of the photograph in the context of its production, will necessarily change its meaning.  But by that point I’ve got my academic goggles on and I can peer through (peel through?) some of the layers of meaning that a single photograph may hold.

I don’t know.  Call me a sentimentalist, but I’ve always thought the work of the NFB (at least in the mid-century, my pet era), to be somewhat noble.  Maybe not transparent, especially not up for interpretation, but when an institution’s goal is to inspire people to  “do their best by Canada” (albeit a white, English, middle-class, urban Canada) the little federalist in me can’t help but feel a swell of pride (however much I know it’s silly and outdated).

I imagine this comes somewhat from a sheen of nostalgia that my keen academic kind just can’t seem to separate from Canada in the fifties.  For my undergraduate thesis I looked at the films the NFB produced in the 1950s for and about new immigrants to Canada.  And the common refrain that rung throughout was that Canada was a nation with great resources, great population, and great promise.  I know, I know, that’s the party line, but how do you ignore it when Tommy Tweed is telling you so over sweeping vistas of Canada’s beautiful countryside and the smiling faces of newly immigrated children and their parents?

Perhaps the answer to that lies in the Still Photography Division.  Carol Payne in “Lessons with Leah: re-reading the photographic archive of nation in the National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division” outlines the ways in which federally-appropriated photographs are now being used as a tool of memory-making and being repatriated back to the Inuit communities from whence they were taken.  This positioning of the photograph as a physical manifestation of national/colonial power and what can (constructively) be done with it points towards what I can undo to critically (not in a mean way, but in a keen way) unpack the work of the NFB for mid-century Canada.

Which brings me to the photograph above.  Found in the online database of Library and Archives Canada, the caption for this photo reads “Chinese-Canadian children watching a National Film Board film.”  Seen through my goopy sentamentalist goggles, this is a charming representation of new Canadians learning how to do the best by themselves in their new land, and how to best by their new land as well.  A promising pictorial of what awaits Canada and what awaits these young students in the little country that could.  At the same time, I have to keep in mind Grierson’s definition of a documentary, “the creative treatment of actuality” – which highlights that there are many layers of meaning, and many layers of power inherent in this photograph.

If I ask the photo some questions (that it attempts to obscure in its official capacity and official caption) I may not get at any immediate answers, but I may get at a deeper story than that which the NFB originally wanted to tell.  Where is this viewing taking place?  Who are these children?  How recently did they become Canadians?  What happened to them?  Did they take as wrote the message of the film they were watching?  What had they learned?  Did they apply it?  Did they believe it?  Did they understand it?  Who made the film?  Who took this picture?  Was it staged, or is this candid?  Who are the adults in the back?  What was the significance of this viewing, if any?  To whom does this photo belong?  To whom was it useful then?  To whom is it useful now?

I of course, don’t know any of the answers to these questions.  But the mere act of asking them in some way complicates my relationship with the NFB (as a fan-girl and as a master’s student).  And that’s what I’m here to do, right?

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