Fashioning Metadata: Two Casestudies

As burgeoning digital historians, understanding metadata and its significance to the online experience of museums are essential to the production of functioning online exhibits and archives. The effective application of metadata is particularly pertinent to researchers accessing the collections of those online exhibits because it depicts necessary information describing the object of research. Although I describe museums and archives here, metadata is used across the web to make the discovery of information easier. As institutions that prioritize the dissemination of quality information to a mostly technologically literate public, it makes sense for museums and archives to be more mindful of the quality of their metadata so that a wider audience can gain access to their collections. Once found, metadata makes it possible for the public to know the ins and outs of a particular item. Metadata, at least in the case of cultural institutions, usually comprises the pertinent dates, dimensions, location, and copyright of the data.

For this week’s examination of metadata, I looked at two institutions that deal with the same kinds of collections. Both the Chicago History Museum and the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Museum hold a robust online collection of costume and textiles. The Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s search engine, found through the ‘Collections’ tab on their main page for their collections, shares some of the 50,000 pieces  and their accompanying metadata with website viewers. The catalogued objects were listed neatly with a photograph, the associated dates, as well as its corresponding object number. When the viewer clicks on an image, they are taken to a more detailed entry with more information about the history of the object, the donor, and designer information if known. Interestingly, the FIT also offers two ways of viewing the objects in their collections. They can either be viewer in “light box view,” that is with images and no metadata for quick skimming, or “list view” which enables the viewer to see more information on the object before clicking on it.

 

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Metadata for ‘Tea gown,’ c. 1925.

Similarly, the Chicago Museum’s Costume and Textile Collection offers a “light box” view of their collections, but the functionality for the purposes of researching costumes and textiles specifically is more difficult. It may be an unfair comparison, as the FIT is solely dedicated to the preservation of textiles and costumes while the Chicago History Museum holds other kinds of artifacts as well. Like the FIT, users can perform a general search for specific items that appear across numerous collection; however, unlike the FIT, all of the costumes and textiles artifacts are lumped together in one sub-section of the database. To their credit, Chicago Museum’s digital collections provides “suggested topics” and filtered searches that the careful construction of metadata and subsequent tagging made possible. Although the organization within the costumes collection itself is burdensome, the tagging of pieces of metadata allows for greater connection among objects than the structured and finite navigation of the FIT. CHM1CHM3

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‘Butterfly’ gown and a portion of the accompanying metadata.

The FIT’s metadata seems more an afterthought in consideration of a digital necessity while the Chicago Museum uses its metadata to create opportunities for heightened engagement. Both sites provided comprehensive background information for their digital collections, although ease of access slightly differed. Metadata can provide researchers and museum goers with necessary awareness of the essential background information regarding collections in a museum’s care. It behooves institutions to “fashion” detailed metadata for consumption while also taking care to make it easily accessible to all.

 

Access to the “New America”: Working in the Columbia Archives

Over Spring Break while visiting my home town of Columbia, Maryland, I visited someplace  I had never experienced in my twenty plus years of residence: the Columbia Archives. As a student of history, former resident, and Graduate Assistant in an archives on Loyola University Chicago’s campus, I am embarrassed  to admit that I had no idea that the Columbia Archives existed, let alone the valuable collections they house in their repository. My visit happened as a consequence of a project I am working on this semester with both the Columbia Archives and an organization called Preservation Maryland, a preservation organization that works to advocate for the policies required to make the historic preservation of historical places possible as well as perform direct engagement with audiences concerning the importance of their work and the sites they endeavor to save. This semester I have supported the creation of a history tour narrating the founding and impact of Columbia, Maryland, a planned city of over 100,000 that sits between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Developed by James Rouse in the 1960s, the vision for Columbia was for it to serve as an example of religious, economic, and racial tolerance to the rest of the country.

As I began the process of researching the history of Columbia’s founding, I crossed paths with Jeannette Lichtenwalner, the Assistant Archivist and Director of Digital Initiatives at the Columbia Archives. As the Assistant Archivist, Jeannette aids researchers that come into the archives and directs them to materials of interest; however, her role as the Director of Digital Initiatives occupies a good amount of her time. At the moment, the Columbia Archives has no digitized collections on their website. Jeannette, with the help of a bare bones staff of herself, the archivist, the director, and some volunteers are tasked with formulating strategies to pick which collections should be digitized, acquire funding to hire someone to upload the materials and buy the expensive equipment needed, and decide what format the digitization project will take. Basically, they have to start from scratch.

The struggles of the Columbia Archives to modernize and remain relevant in our current digital age brings the realities of understaffed community-based organizations into stark relief with the large, well-funded, state of the art websites and digital projects available on the History Web today. As we have discussed in class various times, smaller institutions that lack the revenue find it difficult to evolve when technologies change so quickly, and funding is not so readily available. By the time the grant has been written, the technology necessary for the project’s completion has already been made outdated by newer innovations. Talking with Jeannette about the problems with digitization the Columbia Archives faces makes me further appreciate the hard work of putting history online for public consumption.

 

The’History Web’ for Teachers and Learners

As I read Rosenzweig and Cohen’s chapter on the history and characteristics of the “history web,” the term they use to describe the collective of history websites on the World Wide Web, I was particularly drawn to their discussion of the genre of ‘teaching and learning’ history sites. Historical texts, exhibits, and primary source material are inarguable sources of instruction; unsurprisingly, most makers of history websites now incorporate some resources that allow those materials to reach teachers in K-12 classrooms. Whether lesson plans for direct instruction or digitally accessible documents and images, the history web provides a significant source of material for both teachers and learners inside and outside the classroom.

A site that exemplifies the best of the teaching and learning genre is the Children & Youth in History website. Created by the University of Missouri-Kansas City in association with the Center for History and New Media, the crisp, colorful  website not only provides a easily navigated resource for both students and their instructors, but allows free access to more than 300 annotated primary sources. The primary sources are separated by eight separate regions and include such source material as paintings, governments documents, excerpts from literary works, photographs of artifacts, the list goes on. However, more than simply serving as a repository for teachers and lesson plans, the website’s creators encourage its users to engage critically with the material, specifying ways to do so in their formulation of sample questions and modules that go along with groupings of source material. In fact on their introductory page the website developers link to a detailed discourse on how students should “read” such source material while recognizing the limitations of gleaning historic events from such sources.

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Children and Youth History Homepage url: https://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/

The site is not without imperfections. A common problem for history sites, this website does not consistently update outside links for its source material. Sustainability is an issue as several of the links lead to 404 pages. However, this would not be a problem if all of the sources were embedded within their respective pages. Unfortunately some of the sources require clunky downloading while others are easily displayed in the window. As a result, navigating the website, and the individual sources, is time consuming unless you use one of their teacher ‘modules’– a course pack of primary source material with guided instruction built into the framework. Although separated by region, the materials are not organized by type. Separation by documents, art, and artifacts would create an interface more conducive to exploration by a young audience. As a 24 year-old I found the act of scrolling through the artifacts taxing. I can only imagine what a young student would think!

Despite its faults the website offers excellent opportunities to examine detailed account of an often untold component of history: experiences of childhood and youth. As we age, accounts of childhood events are often considered inconsequential compared to the larger issues of the ‘adult’ world, such as politics, sex and sexuality, economics, etc. As public historians, we should seek to reach all audiences for the information retained in our respective institutions. Why should “serious” academic work always be linked with adult actors? The best way to connect with children and young adults, and to ultimately make them better consumers of public history, is to make the past immediately applicable to their lives in the present. What better way to do that than to “connect” them, through the power of the internet, to evidence of that past.

Photoshop and the Archives: Connie Kiosse and Female Poets

When it comes to photo manipulation, my greatest experience comes from using  photo editing apps on my iPhone like VSCO , Aviary, or Instagram. I consider myself pretty proficient at adding the perfect filters to a photo, using the tools to make slight changes to create an atmospheric effect. Of course, the predecessor to these instant photo manipulation apps is Photoshop. Photoshop makes it possible to edit photographs or scans to enhance the original, or alter the image to suit the purposes of the institution. Even with the proliferation of photo-manipulation apps like the ones I just mentioned, Photoshop remains relevant because of the sophisticated options for alteration available to its users.

Using Photoshop for the practice of public history may look a little different than traditional uses for the program. Instead of distorting an original image to alter the subject, it is better to use the program in public history work to enhance the image, showcasing the best qualities of the picture in order to portray a historical narrative. For a class assignment, we were asked to take pictures of artifacts, documents, or photos that would ultimately be used to create a digital exhibit for the institution that houses them. Ultimately, we would tinker with the images in Photoshop to upload to an exhibit later.

For the assignment I visited the Women & Leadership Archives to take photographs of various poetry books from the Connie Kiosse papers. Connie Kiosse was an original founder of the Feminist Voice Newspaper, an author, as well as an educator. Her papers

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“Black Maria Cover” Loyola University Chicago.Women & Leadership Archives. Connie Kiosse Papers.

illustrate the feelings of radical feminist groups from the 1970s as they were depicted in independently published books and periodicals. Although my group members and I ultimately decided on a different topic for our project, the images I took could easily be improved using Photoshop software. Firstly, I would use a cropping tool (as shown in the image to the left) to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject of the photo without other distractions, like the surface I used to photograph the poetry books on. Then, I would use a paintbrush or inking tool to emphasize the lines of the artwork so the cover art is articulated more. The cover images from the original poetry books are faded with age and a bit blurry from the zoom feature on my phone’s camera.

 

 

The more damaged of the two covers, Child of Myself, needs more attention with a paintbrush tool to distinguish the original line art from the smudging that has occurred over the years.  However, I would not use an eraser to remove the water spotting at the top. Using Photoshop to remove the watermarks would diminish the original character of the document. When using photo manipulation software in public history work, it is more important to preserve the character of the original document than to make it visually appealing. I look forward to becoming more proficient with Photoshop so that I can heighten the future experience of the public I reach through digital media.

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“Child of Myself Cover” Loyola University Chicago. Women & Leadership Archives. Connie Kiosse Papers

 

 

Professional Networking for the 21st Century

The business networking site LinkedIn works on a very simple premise: connect jobseekers with companies so that users can gain access to jobs and recruiters can hire the most qualified candidates. Unlike sites such as Monster or Indeed where companies post a job listings and in some cases provide career counseling, LinkedIn stresses the importance of professional networking. Subsequently, LinkedIn not only offers a venue for interested job hunters to search for available offerings, the website also fosters development and communication among professionals within a certain career field–not only allowing for the creation of more meaningful business contacts but also for the excha-

imagesnge of valuable ideas of best practice for peers and future business contacts. According to the site’s Wikipedia page and the technology publication TechRepublic, LinkedIn has become the “defacto tool for professional networking” in today’s job market.

LinkedIn was first founded in December of 2002 by Reid Hoffman, former PayPal COO, as well as other nine other founding PayPal and Socialnet members. Early funding for the website was provided by Sequoia Capital, a venture capital firm, in 2003. The website’s membership grew quickly; three years after its launch in 2003, LinkedIn reportedly boasted 20 million members. The site also expanded its influence abroad, opening an International Headquarters in Dublin, Ireland in 2010. Now, according to LinkedIn’s “About Us” page, the site has 400 million members from all around the world with offices in London, Dubai, Amsterdam, Milan, and 11 other cities across the globe. Additionally, the site is available in 24 languages. One of the sites more interesting features is the ability to advertise your profile in a language other than your native one, expanding your professional network onto a global scale. In more recent years, LinkedIn has been embroiled in controversy regarding the automatic access the site uses to connect users’ e-mails with their profiles in addition to a hacking scandal where 6.4 million users’ passwords were stolen and published online. The company went public in January of 2011.

When someone first signs up for the site, they are asked to create a user profile that serves as their resume or CV for future employers or others to view. Using the profile, members can form professional connections that emulate the kind of business contacts one might establish in the real world. Users create these “connections” by sending requests to existing users or sending invites to non-members. LinkedIn also suggests connections by connecting the LinkedIn profile to an e-mail address book that is given when the account is created, or a Facebook profile. Users also have the opportunity to connect with their other social media platforms, affording the possibility of maintaining their professional brand across multiple websites including a professional blog or Twitter page. Users can also connect websites or upload digital samples of their work to be viewed on their profile.

Not only does LinkedIn provide a space for like-minded professionals to connect among one another, the media platform also serves as a forum for those same people to share ideas and newsworthy articles across the discipline. The LinkedIn Groups feature in particular  demonstrates this strength. Members can join groups as basic as alumni networks or as specific as ‘Genealogy Consultancy,’ a group where hobbyists and professional genealogical researchers can get together and talk shop. The genius of these groups is that they provide a low-stakes opportunity to better one’s professional practice through interaction with professionals of various experience levels. They also provide a forum for people to discuss the difficult questions that emerge through their work–allowing members of a particular group to provide support or healthy debate for issues of best practice. It also provides a platform to see how the same processes might work at another company, or even in another industry.

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The National Council on Public History’s LinkedIn Group

The feature is particularly useful for the public historian. With a seemingly endless network of history hobbyists and professionals alike, LinkedIn Groups provides a unique opportunity for museum professionals and employees at cultural institutions to compare/contrast how things are done at their institutions versus the field at large. This feature might be particularly useful for smaller or newer institutions to network with large museum and museum networks to see how professionals at those museums handle certain scenarios. The American Alliance of Museums group on LinkedIn often poses essential yet difficult questions for the museum professional. The most recent queried, “Is taking time to make meaning just quibbling?” Similarly, the National Council on Public History’s group routinely posts articles of recent newsworthy events in the public history world, as well as posts requests for papers and academic work to be displayed at symposiums across the country. In this way LinkedIn not only allows for the immediate connectivity of public history professionals, but also fosters their professional development. This informal eduction helps enrich the field of public history further so that museum staff can provide better programming for the museum-going public and as a result increase meaningful outreach.

Important Considerations for Digitizing Collections

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This past week we were asked to examine the digital offerings of a specific historical institution and weigh their effectiveness. However, before we can examine the effectiveness of digital collections, its important to contemplate the process of how those collections are made available to the public, and the potential struggles museums, archives, and other institutions encounter from inception to implementation.

Typically, one of the first considerations public historians creating digital collections explore is to choose the best format for the information they want to make available. Unfortunately, not every institution has access to the monetary resources or the technologically skilled workforce available to digitize collections in the same way. Museums and archives with more funding may have greater opportunity to make available more of their collections because of their access to resources; similarly, that access opens up the availability of certain formats. Nevertheless, monetary cost is not the most difficult barrier for institutions in creating digital access to collections. At the end of the day, if there is no staff or liaisons knowledgable enough to facilitate the projects, implementing any digitization becomes difficult. It is up to each institution to determine what projects are feasible or even advisable given the unique constraints of money, time, and expertise.

When planning for a digital project, many may be surprised to learn public historians are just as concerned with future access to their collections as they are with the thoughtful presentation of the history being portrayed in the present. The issue of sustainability is integral to the discussion of digital collections, as new technologies make media obsolete or undesirable with what seems like each passing day. This fact became even more apparent with out discussion of old media versus new media in Week One. Not only that, the maintenance of the existing collections, or  the necessity of upgrading those same collections to a new platform, is an important consideration for the development of digital collections. Take for example, the Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), an excellent museum, research center, and publisher from New Orleans, Louisiana.  Their digital offerings are quite impressive; yet, their platforms and formats seem dated and are not user friendly as new audiences become more acclimatized to current advances in technology. Their timeline feature of the sequence of events pertaining to the time preceding Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent years following the tragedy in particular is antiquated and difficult to interact with. Remembering to upgrade and maintain the collections and exhibits are just as important as the process of making them available online. Every museum and institution should consider this aspect in their plan when undergoing the digitization of their collections.

Peaks and Pitfalls: Twitter and Chicago’s Historic House Museums

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Most (if not all) of the world’s top public history and cultural institutions maintain Twitter pages. The Smithsonian (@smithsonian) and its nineteen separate museums’ handles alone boast well over three million followers. Famous museums in Europe like the Louvre (@MuseeLouvre) in Paris and the British Museum in London (@britishmuseum) have followers numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Most museums, particularly smaller more local institutions, cannot realistically expect to achieve that kind of massive outreach; however, creative use of one’s Twitter page to publicize upcoming events, highlight unique collections, as well as connect the institution’s relevant programming to current events and social justice issues allows for these venues to engage with the public and attract visitors. Three separate historic house museums in Chicago characterize each of these traits.

The Driehaus Museum (@DriehausMuseum) uses its Twitter platform primarily as a venue to advertise its events and upcoming exhibitions. It appears that the Driehaus’ most popular collections, or at least the one’s that receive the most attention on their website and Twitter page, rely heavily on the topic of popular culture as it intersects with their area of expertise: the Gilded Age. Currently, the Driehaus Museum’s tweets comprise of various deviations on the theme of “Downton Abbey,” the hit period British drama that is now airing its final season. This is understandable given the topic of their upcoming exhibit, Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times. The barrage of Downton Abbey related content on their Twitter page and their website will undoubtedly draw large crowds of people to see the beautiful period costumes as seen on the very popular TV show. Unfortunately, their present obsession with Downton Abbey eclipses all other information about the museum’s permanent collections and other upcoming events. Although an excellent way of creating buzz about a certain collection, it would be beneficial for the Driehaus to diversify their future Twitter postings to draw attention to their lesser known collections, using the momentum from the web and foot traffic that the inevitably popular Downton Abbey exhibit will attract to engage more of the public with the rest of the house museum. Nevertheless, the Drieahaus shows one way house museums can use Twitter to draw in large audiences by advertising upcoming events.

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Downton Abbey fever at the Driehaus Museum 

Another Chicago house museum, Glessner House (@GlessnerHouse), uses twitter to create connections with their unique collections and larger “trending” hashtags on the social media site. For example they periodically employ the hashtags #OnThisDay to connect the current date with something that occurred on the same day during the nineteenth century. The creative use of these large trending hashtags on their social media outlets allows the Glessner to enter into a national discussion with users from all over the country while making the public aware of their various collections. The Glessner also uses this method to educate their followers on history relevant to the time period Glessner House was built. Rather than restricting their tweets to information about their collections, the Glessner opens up its postings to include lessons contextualizing the house into a larger historical narrative, making it more relevant to viewers.

Jane Addams Hull-House’s Twitter (@JAHHM) depicts the opportunities house museums have to intersect with issues of social justice visibly on a national (and international) stage. This is particularly relevant to the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum’s mission, as the museum’s staff works to not only preserve the memory of Jane Addam’s work, but also use the site itself as a venue to institute their own discussions of public policy and contemporary social issues.  As well as advertising the times for their free tours of the museum, Hull-House frequently updates their Twitter feed with re-tweets of partnered events that implemented socio-political themes. One recent post showcased a moderated discussion called “What is Protest For?” presented by Point Magazine at the museum. The marriage of Hull-House’s mission of facilitating important social discussions keeps the traditions of its founding alive and enriches the experience all the more for visitors and potential patrons on the internet alike. In this way the institution’s Twitter is a harmonious extension of the museum itself rather than a separate entity. The creation of a Twitter space that engages viewers and makes them feel compelled to visit should be the goal of all social media platforms used by museums and cultural institutions. Hull-House’s feed demonstrates a good example of how that goal can come to life. 

Erin C. Blake’s Zograscope Reality

In her article “Zograscopes, Virtual Reality, and the Mapping of Polite Society in Eighteenth Century England,” Erin C. Blake begins by debunking the popular idea virtual reality is a recent concept. Rather, the use of technology to simulate the experience of inhabiting a particular space stretches as far back as the late 1600s. This idea took a unique turn in the form of the zograscope, a short-lived medium that reached the height of it’s popularity in England between 1740-1750. The device used the strategic placement of convex lenses to create a 3-D image of a print. To see this image, the viewer looked through a lens “suspended vertically in front of a mirror that was inclined at a 45-degree angle, and the whole assembly either mounted on a stand or inside a box that could be placed upon a parlor table” (Blake, 2). The zograscope print was placed upside down, as the curved lens of the device refracted the reflection of the image from the flat mirror. This allowed for viewers to see a three-dimensional rendering of the image from the print.

Blake notes that contrary to the later cinema mediums like the panorama and the cosmorama that were public in nature, the zograscope was highly private. This sense of separation from the places that the zograscope prints depicted created a space apart from their often-times crowded in-person counterpart. As a result, the zograscope appealed to what Blake describes as the “polite society” of England during its brief decade of popularity. Gentlemen and women who, rather than separating themselves from the rest of society on a strictly economic or geographical basis, chose to distinguish themselves through actions considered to be in good taste, i.e separate from the lower-classes. They could experience the great sites of London and Europe without the “physicality of the body, the actuality of sore feet while walking, of having to watch for traffic when crossing the street, of losing one’s way.” (Blake, 20). 

The zograscope prints created during its decade of popularity were overwhelmingly depictions of London urban centers and less frequently cultural places popular for visitors in mainland Europe. The depiction of these places over other pastoral or natural scenes emulated what was considered in fashion, and therefore appropriate spheres for polite society to inhabit (20-21). Blake writes, “zograscope views were examples of the kind of space one ought to know about…divided up into equivalent units for ease of understanding and integrated by the observer into the whole…they encouraged the observer to perceive the prints with the discreteness and detachment of politeness” (21). According to Blake, this abstract concept of “politeness,” more than economic position or where one lived, dictated social behaviors and fashionable culture in the eighteenth century.

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Zograscope Print. Image url: http://antiqueprintsblog.blogspot.com

In many ways, the zagroscope mirrors media techniques used by museums, archives, and historical institutions in the present. Most institutions are attempting to replicate the experience of the museum visit in the form of advanced websites or technologies that make the viewers feel like they are actually there. In a 2013 publication by the Smithsonian Institution’s Secretary G. Wayne Clough underscores the importance of the cultivating the museum “experience” outside of the institution. Web presence, the digitization of materials, and even virtual tours and field trips supplement the learning process at the Smithsonian and other cultural sites. The zograscope, although antiquated compared to the latest technology making these sites available in people’s homes, shows the universal desire for visitors to make unique opportunities available to them at all times and on their own terms. 

New (Media) Beginnings

Welcome to my blog, eHistory! My name is Ellen Bushong and I am currently a first year M.A student in the Public History program at Loyola University Chicago. In the past, I have worked on projects at a few different historical societies and archives. Currently, I am a graduate assistant at the Women and Leadership Archives (WLA) on Loyola’s Lakeshore campus, but I have held internship positions at both the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution in Louisville, KY and the White House Historical Association in Washington, D.C. I am hoping my experiences working in education and outreach at these institutions will inform some of my work this semester in my Public History and New Media course.

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Hello. It’s me.

I am excited to delve into all the different aspects of digital history and learn more about how museums, archives, and other cultural institutions reach the public in our digital world.  I look forward to incorporating all the new and varied skills I develop this semester to make myself a better public historian!