Monday, November 23, 2009

Web Review: Railroads and the Making of Modern America

Railroads and the Making of Modern America
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed November 21-22, 2009

Railroads and the Making of Modern America is a site dedicated to exploring the railroad system and it's effects on a variety of facets of American society between 1850-1900. The project is directed by William G. Thomas, III, Professor in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where the project is based. It is intended to be a research tool for academic courses on 19th-century American History.

Content is presented a number of different ways on the front page. An 'Index of Topics' breaks into nine themes tackling railroads and their role in slavery, the Civil War, William Jennings Bryan's 1896 Presidential Campaign, migration and immigration and tourism. Depictions of railroads by artists, construction of the railroad system and the 1877 Railroad Strike are also among the themes covered.

Themes often have small written summaries supported by primary source material and augmented accompanying media of some variety. Each topic has a Geographic Information System (GIS) map, podcast, animated graph or movie to build on the scholarship provided. The site is at it's most dynamic in use of the media. There are animated maps of railroad expansion where visitors can watch the railroad lines snake accross the northeast and midwest of the country over decades in condensed time and podcasts featuring scholars discussing a given subject.

The 'Views' tab provides visitors with the option of browsing the subject matter by media type rather than topically. 'Documents' provides a database where the user can select the type of source material used they would like to access (ex. Annual Reports, Speeches, Pamphlets, etc.) It can be narrowed by topic, full-text search or date. The three other tabs provided on the front page relate to further exploration of the topics ouitside of the site itself. Resources provides a somewhat modest list of the technological or intellectual material drawn on for the project. There is also a link to a few graduate student web projects that cover some aspect of the social history of the railroad and a teaching materials tab for history teachers to integrate the site into lessons at the college, secondary and even elementary levels.

Although the consistency in formatting of themes leads to ease of use, it at times feels a little too much like a template that information was plugged into. The overall aesthetics of the site are simple but at times feel a little too bland. Even though the site is only a few years old (2006) for these reasons it feels like a bit of a relic. The maps created for the project certainly could be more dynamic and interactive.

It seems as though there was a lot of thought and work put into generating topics for presentation along with production of original charts and maps to great ends. They were also succesful in gathering material from a wide range of sources (National Archives and Records Administration, the Library of Congress, the Newberry Library, the University of Nebraksa, the Nebraska State Historical Society, the Library of Virginia, Yale University, and other institutions and personal private collections) to create an original work. Unfortunately the site only sometimes takes advantage of some of the dynamic multi-media capacities of the web to make the subject matter truly come alive.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

11/23 Readings

'Haunted Mouses' is about the din of noise that inhabits the internet. Forgotten sites, the paranormal and the horrific. It was brief and seemed primarily a vehicle to showcase a few of the sites listed at the end, but was fun in it's characterization of the web and its electronic visual phenomena.

'Hyperlinking Reality'- The concept of a QR seemed to have a lot of potential. Although it was something I was previously unaware of, it seems to have a lot of implications for the field of public history. The ability for people to disseminate and consume stories linked to a specific place definitely seems like a viable way to bridge the gap between the web and the physical world. Although they can be done well, it sometimes seems as though web-based history projects can be too detached from the places or people they are trying to represent with this article providing a great counter-example.

'What is Digital History? A Look at Some Exemplar Projects' tackles the definition of Digital History in a broad, general level offering up a few positive examples. The projects listed were ambitious, varied and well-executed. There seems to be a large gap between institutions tackling content in this way, and those concentrating on just digitizing content and presenting it in a neutral fashion as part as a digital collection. I think this is often this is due in a large part to staffing issues. My immediate thoughts of course turned to work being done in Temple's Library. Right now the impetus is to simply get content up in our catalog, although we've just started pursuing grants to present material interactively in a more curated fashion. My hope is that soon we will be embarking on a project similar to the examples given in the article.

'The Digital Durham Project: Creating Community through History, Technology and Service Learning' is the anatomy of a digital project at Duke. What was unique about the project was the integration of both students at Duke and at local middle schools. Students at Duke use the site along with primary source material as the foundation for papers for a seminar class. Duke students then engage in a service learning project where they then mentor middle school students in conducting research. This type of direct engagement of the audience is a positive model for digital history, particularly when based on a college campus with available students.

Another model of students, archivists, librarians and historians is covered in the article 'Creating Community with the History Engine Connecting Teachers, Librarians, Students and Scholars.' Students create entries in a Wikipedia type forum with assistance by teachers and information professionals to help provide well vetted entries. The interface breaks down entries by region and decade. Where scholars shun Wikipedia entirely, this stands as a good example of how the model can be adopted but tweaked to compensate for its shortcomings.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Fairmount Miracle

In Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, Alison Landsberg presents a different perspective with which to view the relationship between experiential history, mass media and collective memory. Landsberg lumps together a diverse array of novels, museums, television dramas and movies for their ability to create 'prosthetic memories,' which provide an audience with some understanding or experience of a history that they are not connected to. From the outset, Landberg's background in film and literature rather than traditional academic historiography is apparent. Nevertheless, it's a useful text to expand the boundaries of ideas we can incorporate into discussions of public history and media.

Landsberg opens the text up with two creative cinematic examples that deal with memory, Blade Runner and Total Recall. The central characters in both works grapple with 'inorganic' memories of experience that are either stripped from them or artificially added to their archive of experience. The implication it sets is that the modern consumer of new media can be affected with additive or subtractive memory much like the main characters in the films. This analysis is applied to three major historical issues, immigration and assimilation, slavery and the African-American experience and the Holocaust. 'Prosthetic memory' is used to different ends and distinct affects with regard to each. In the case of immigration it was used to create a new distinctly American identity but with slavery to try and mend the severed familial ties to pass down history. With regard to the Holocaust, it is used to create an understanding for an audience which shares no connection.

More so than any other reading, there were a variety of implications for a video project I've been working with. The Philadelphia-based Termite TV Collective (of which I'm a member) has been creating site-specific video pieces that are to be viewed on a hand-held device like an iPod or mobile phone with video capabilities. Although it's not specifically the type of experiential media Landsberg writes about, it's a logical extension of those ideas. The Termite TV pieces are open ended in their aim with some being more performance based or rooted solely in artistic expression but some occasionally confronting historic narratives or recording memory.

One of the pieces I collaborated on a year and a half ago somewhat playfully attempted to explore an event that had happened in Fairmount Park a few decades prior. The participant has to walk through the space with primary source material bridging the temporal gap. Although I wouldn't expect you to watch the whole thing (it's slow when not walked!) you can view parts of it here:

The video gradually leads the participant to a bush in Fairmount Park where in 1953 a vision of the Virgin Mary had reportedly appeared to two neighborhood children sending thousands flocking to the bush. Although Fairmount Miracle doesn't address a historic trauma or engage the history of a specific demographic or ethnicity, there are strains of Landberg's work or those covered in the book that intersect with the piece. Most notably it creates a 'transferential space -in which people are invited to enter into experiential relationships in which they did not live.' (p. 113) Much of how it unravels we hope encourages participatory engagement with the surroundings. It's shot from the point of view of the participant (you and the device) and tries to incorporate other senses (such as touch) that extend past the traditional cinematic experience. Although, there are three competing temporal spaces (the present, the time it was shot and the time presented by the primary source material) it pits the black and white photos against the color of the present to contrast the two time periods, another device Landsberg alludes to with Schindler's List.

Although this is brief and perhaps an oversimplified comparison, I'm sure I will create similar work in the future where I'll have to consider how to frame an issue in this format. Fairmount Miracle isn't confronting an issue with the moral heft that any of the issues covered in the text but leads me to question what types of challenges I'd be presented with in trying to do so.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Old and Failed

This week I read an article about the demolition of an art deco smokestack and Pullman dormitory in the Amtrak yard by 30th Street Station. As I waded through the often acerbic comments section, one comment in particular from kelprod1 jumped out at me:

"It is called progress. Tear it down and build anew. The free market works
flawlessly, if it is allowed to let the old and failed disappear- and
let the new supply fill the needed demand"

Keeping that quote in mind, the Mirabal article almost read as a direct refutation of that philosophy. The gentrification in the Mission District of San Francisco characterized by Mirabal was not simply an instance of 'the old and failed [disappearing]' but instead was a free-market assault on the past and present. The 'whitewashing' of the Lilli Ann mural
by a real estate developer to be replace it with an ad for the new dot-com tenet as a textbook example.

Again, this is where I could reiterate what exactly the activism a (public) historian engages in could look like. In a neighborhood where there's an active erasure of the character and history of a place, sometimes just being there to tell or document a story is good enough. I was disappointed that the piece wasn't a little more of an anatomy of the the oral history project itself. It was a fascinating read on the community and great demonstration of the types of forces historians can be pitted against. Excerpts from the oral history project were used to color the narrative about gentrification but didn't go quite as deep into the politics of constructing the community history as I had hoped.

I assume the Eric O'Keefe, New York Times article is grouped in the 'community engagement' portion for its blatant lack thereof. Harrisburg mayor Stephen Reed spent a staggering $7.8 million for 3,800 artifacts for the museum seemingly unbeknownst to his constituency. Ultimately one persons vision alone cannot suffice, at least with the use of taxpayer money. More voices and checks and balances in the process could have possibly prevented a fiscal loss.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


‘The Lowell Experiment’ is a pretty comprehensive history and analysis of the Lowell National Historic Park in the post-industrial Massachusetts town of Lowell. The site is unique in that it inherits the history and issues of the city and its economy from the early 19th century to the present. Given my interest in Geography and Urban Studies, the overarching issue of a post-industrial town struggling to find a way to redefine itself through a heritage site was particularly engaging.

Cathy Stanton gives a brief history of Lowell and public historians to sketch out the context with which the ‘Lowell Experiment’ plays out. Stanton’s background as an anthropologist results in a much different read than we’ve gotten so far. Stanton offers ‘counterreadings’ to many of the tours offered at the Lowell Historic site that really tackle issues of race, class and locality in a fairly exhaustive fashion. Where in previous readings there is some acknowledgement of the diversity problem within the public history field, Stanton really drags it into the light often using it as the central point of her analysis.

Although Stanton seems to hold the site in relatively high regard, she becomes more and more critical of the site and interpretations as the book goes on. She sees the coverage of the past as relatively progressive, but woefully lacking in providing a bridge between the Lowell of the 19th century and the Lowell of today. The presence of industry in the 20th and 21st century, globalization and the newer wave immigration to Lowell are covered awkwardly if at all in Stanton’s eyes.

Stanton places a lot of these failings at the feet of those responsible for crafting the historical narrative of Lowell. According to Stanton, the racial and economic homogeneity of the administrators and interpreters at the site and their own internal grappling with class, race and personal connection to Lowell create the chasm between the present day Lowell Historic Site and the larger community around it.

Although the text is rife with other issues including politics, how much heritage tourism can shoulder the burden of economic redevelopment of a town and inclusivity in managing the sites, Stanton’s ethnography of those at the helm of the Lowell Historic Site is where the most emphasis seems to be. The question of how much those at the site can be and should be agents of social change also is an issue Stanton raises. Solutions aren’t offered, but the text serves as an interesting point to start the discussion.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Emotional Comfort: The Sequel

Amy Tyson’s article “Crafting Emotional Comfort” was a good lead in to this weeks reading of “Slavery and Public History.” One of the questions I was left with after Tyson’s article on Connor Prairie’s simulation of the Underground Railroad was whether it could successfully create an experience that does the historical record justice. By extension, what are successful ways to confront one of the uglier pockets of the history of the United States in and how much does ‘comfort’ come into play?

‘Slavery and Public History’ explores the challenge of presenting slavery and race in a variety of different venues and contexts. Each chapter selects case studies where bureaucracies, interpreters, politicians, historians clash over public space, memorials and exhibits dealing with slavery and race. Where the roadblocks exist and what was objected to was sometimes surprising. A particular standout was the chapter on the “Back of the Big House” exhibit. While I’d expect an exhibit on controversial subject matter might get muddled in institutional bureaucracy, the objections of employees of L.O.C. threw me for a loop.

What wasn’t quite as surprising were the controversies at the Liberty Bell and at Monticello. I agree with Paul’s blog post that an inadequacy in handling slavery and race in schools could be a large factor creating the ‘intellectual blinders’ that John Vlach also alluded to. I also believe much of the difficulty and conflict stems from having to retrofit presentations in spaces sacred to most Americans. Both Monticello and the Liberty Bell are used by the public to boost and celebrate our national identity. It’s easy to see how introductions of new narratives that challenge the sanctity of those spaces and the history presented in classrooms could create potential unease with the public and subsequently interpreters and administrators.

Although solutions weren't presented in a larger context, the necessity for a diverse range of voices in the process and the danger of letting public comfort and popularity dictate presentation entirely were inherent in each chapter. The case studies in the book reinforce those points and are a great start for discussion by public historians. The issues tackled at each of the sites are a tough but necessary pill for people to swallow.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

(Nothing But) Flowers

Our site visit assignment was the perfect excuse for me to get to Bartram’s Garden, one of my favorite historic sites in the Philadelphia region.

The Bartram family ran their business and lived on the site, passing it down from its founding in 1728 to 1851. At that time, railroad industrialist, Andrew Eastwick bought the property as a private park and estate, but with preservation of the site in mind. Upon Eastwick’s death, the caretaker of the property, Thomas Meehan led a successful effort to have the City of Philadelphia take over the management of the site, later to be joined by the John Bartram Association in 1893. The two entities maintain the site to this day.

Bartram's Garden circa 1928, Urban Archives

Given its surroundings, the fact that the pre-revolutionary botanic garden has endured is pretty remarkable. Aside from the estate and gardens themselves, one of the more interesting features of Bartram’s Garden for me personally is the space around it. Situated on the Schuylkill River in Southwest Philadelphia, the 102 acres of the original estate has shrunk to its current 45 acres, but has held its ground. Driving to Bartram’s Garden can be notoriously confusing for first-time visitors. You have to navigate through or around the post-industrial infrastructure along Lindbergh Boulevard, passing by an abandoned municipal incinerator, oil drums and any number of repurposed industrial sites. The signs for Bartram’s Garden can easily be missed the first time you go by, with the neighboring ‘Bartram’s Village’ housing project sometimes being the only clue that you’re on the right track.

Bartram’s Garden is hemmed in by CSX and SEPTA railroad tracks and is across the river from some of what I think is part of the Sunoco factory. For decades its two immediate neighbors on either given side were a cement factory and gypsum factory. Fortunately, Bartram’s Garden watched both come and go. Ironically in the 1990’s, the land that the cement factory was on was reclaimed by Bartram’s Garden and restored as a meadow that offers one of the most unique views of the Philadelphia skyline and a trail that leads down to the Schuylkill River. The ghostly, towering structures of the gypsum factory, a favorite of local urban explorers was knocked down within the last two years although I have yet to find anyone who knows what the plans are for the space. It will be interesting to see if that ever will become part of Bartram’s Garden or repurposed as a green space again.

Although Bartram’s Garden suffers a bit from its geographical isolation from Philadelphia’s downtown cultural institutions, the incongruity of the surrounding environment only accentuates the uniqueness and exoticness of Bartram’s Garden. The rich gardens and 18th century barns juxtaposition with the scarred post-industrial landscape around it offer a chance to reflect on everything that has occupied the space around it along with the future those spaces hold.

Although I didn’t get to formally explore it much in my review, it’s an interest piqued from my visit and one I’ll probably explore further.

Gypsum Factory in 2006

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I'm John Pettit, an archivist pursuing a M.A. in History from Temple University. Although I've been working for a few years in the field, I found my way to public history in a rather roundabout way. I also attended Temple for my undergraduate study double majoring in Geography and Urban Studies and Film and Media Arts. At times they've felt like competing interests, but overlapped with documentary film and media which became my primary focus. Throughout my undergraduate career I was fortunate enough to work a variety of jobs that gradually drew me into the field of public history. Both Scribe's 'Precious Places' oral history project and my work in Temple University Libraries Urban Archives did this and continue to shape the way I think about history and storytelling.

I'm interested in late 19th-20th century history and the use of different forms of media to convey history and tell stories.