Final Reflections on Digital History and our Interactive Exhibit

If you have been faithful followers of this blog, you are probably familiar with the Interactive Museum Exhibit that Matt Ogglesby and I have been working on for our Digital History Class this semester.  During the final weeks, we put the finishing touches on the exhibit and developed a Prezi to document the various stages of our project.  Check out the Prezi below for an overview of our work.

Thinking Digitally about History

When the semester began, our profesor asked us to consider how we would communicate history through an everyday object.  Having spent the first semester buried in the archives studying documents with weather and climate data, I envisioned a “Weather Frame,” that could encourage people think about the impact of weather in different historical events.
The thought experiment challenged me to think about communicating history in different ways.  As students of history our creativity is usually channeled into our papers.  We consider the style of our argument, the length of narrative we want to tell, but the medium is limited to paper (real or virtual).  This course taught me that thinking digitally about history means allowing anything, even a baseball helmet or toy duck, to provide the medium for your message.

Making Mistakes while Making History

In his final thoughts on our project, Matt mentioned that one of the most important lessons we learned was taking risks and making mistakes.  Early in the year, Professor Turkel wrote that we would be making “things” and making “mistakes.”  I learned that accepting failure as a reality early on in the semester, I actually wanted to try new things, and ask different questions.  At night I’d find myself sitting for hours following different Google SketchUp or Inkscape Tutorials, and trying to animate through Blender. My procrastination has never been this productive!  But in all seriousness, it was refreshing to be in an educational atmosphere where embracing failure was understood to be as important as seeking success.

Digital History and Connecting the Public to the Past

Throughout our year as Public History students, we have wrestled with the question of connecting the public to the past.  Many people do not read the manuscripts that come out of the university system, and instead turn to museums, film, television, fiction, or other areas to get a sense of history.  This course in Digital History equipped us with a toolset to construct narratives in new ways for public consumption.  As Matt and I worked on our project we kept two goals in front of us:

1. Tell the story of the HMS Glatton
This involved transcribing real pages from the Log for people to see.

2. Think about the Audience
This involved asking what the best visual would be for a potential visitor to our exhibit.  We decided that an interactive Kinect/SIMILE timeline connected to Google maps would draw the visitor through time and space as they charted the trip around the world with their eyes.  We embedded the textual elements into the “pins” because this provides the visitor with a choice to select the journal entry they want to read.  Overloading the textual data in this exhibit would most likely detract from a memorable experience.

In addition to this project, our work with HTML, arduinos, firmata, and processing offer a variety of digital tools that we can now use to construct narratives in engaging ways that connect the public to the past.

The Nine Letters, or Three Laws, of the Digital Historian: DIY-SFO-SWO
In conclusion, my one year foray into Digital History has left me with what I will call the Nine Letters, or Three Laws, of the Digital Historian: DIY-SFO-SWO.  They are not as authoritative as Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, but maybe one day Will Smith will act in a movie about a Digital Historian attempting to uphold these laws faithfully.

1. Do-It-Yourself (DIY)

It is an entirely frustrating experience trying to question someone who is programming.  Asking what “voidsetup” is supposed to mean does not register because they learned the answer by reading about it online, not by having it explained to them by someone who was not them.  My conclusion:  Digital Historians use the computer because they have learned to become their own best teachers.  They think critically about the questions that need answers, and then turn to the computer (admittedly: to other humans who are writing on the computer) for straightforward answers.  In fact, so straightforward that Digital Humanists give in to temptation and SFO.

2. Steal-From-Others (SFO)

Whether or not it is true, TS Elliot is accredited for stating that  good poets borrow, but great poets steal.  If this is true, then digital historians are both good and great poets.  For our project, we “stole” and adapted code for a Simile Timeline Widget, as well as the program for hacking our Kinect.  As I walked around asking people about their projects, they had similar stories of finding the right program online and “plugging it in” (aka- Stealing/borrowing) to see if it in fact, did what it claimed to do.  If it didn’t, the computer spit back error messages at you until you found a way to make it work, because even though digital historians SFO, they do not give up on the primacy of DIY.  The good news?  That no matter how much stealing digital humanists do, they are never fully detached from the lessons taught to them in Kindergarten:  SWO!

3. Share-With-Others! (SWO)

 The reason it is so easy to borrow code is because digital historians are proponents of sharing with others.  When you do it yourself, and steal a code from others to answer a specific question, the final step is to share.  Just imagine that out of the 7 billion people on the planet, one of them will be trying to do what you just did.  Since the internet connects most of the 7 billion people it is likely that your code will reach an inquiring mind when you share it.  Somewhere a student has just opened up a ship log book in an archive and is probably wondering what to do next.  Let’s hope he or she stumbles upon this project in the near future.


For those of you following this blog and this project throughout the year, thanks!  Feel free to ask questions or send me your feedback on the project if you are interested.  Thanks to Matt Ogglesby as well.  That is the third time he is linked in this post, so check out his blog if you have not already done so by this point.  Matt was the brains behind the Glatton operation.  He is more of a DIYer than I am, and for that I am thankful.

Although our project is complete, this blog is not.  Blogging is a habit that I’ve enjoyed developing this year.  I want to continue developing it, primarily because it is increasingly rare to feel productive after an hour on the interent.  Also, this summer I will be working on an oral history project with the Metras Sports Museum in London, which should provide me with a great stories to share on the blog.  Finally, I am getting married in the fall and heading to Texas.  At that point, I will fall into the category of overeducated and unemployed.  And that DEFINITELY will provide me with some great stories, and a lot of time to tell them!


3 thoughts on “Final Reflections on Digital History and our Interactive Exhibit

  1. Doug, I’ll turn your Dante slides into a Prezi over the summer. For free.
    Matt, thank you. In the fall you should move to Texas with your fiancee, and we can set up a Digital History business.

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