Project Reflection: Historypin tour of Historic West Ninth St, Little Rock

Moving from Little Rock, Arkansas to the Washington, D.C. area this fall was bittersweet, because as excited as I was to start my graduate career, I had to put my museum work on hold temporarily and leave a position where I was involved with many ongoing projects and programs. This semester, I had the pleasure of taking a seed of an idea that was born at my job in Little Rock and growing it into a real project that has great potential for growth and audience outreach. By using Historypin to create a photo tour of Historic West Ninth Street, I was able to apply skills learned in the Digital Public History class to an ongoing effort of public historians at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center to engage the Little Rock community in the city’s African American history. It’s always satisfying to use the things we learn in school to accomplish real goals, especially for this project, as I know many people who are deeply passionate about preserving and educating others about Arkansas black history.

The original dream for the project was something very similar to the Museum of London’s Streetmuseum app, which allows users to hold their smartphone up to a particular location and see a historical image directly imposed on the space. However, something like Streetmuseum would cost many thousands of dollars that most smaller museums don’t have, so I was incredibly happy to learn about Historypin, a great (and free!) alternative that would allow for a similar experience. Using Historypin ended up being even more ideal, I think, because of the crowdsourcing element available through the platform.

Overall, I’m very pleased with how the tour of Historic West Ninth Street turned out. I ran into a few issues, mainly that Google Maps doesn’t have exact street addresses for businesses and buildings that don’t exist anymore. I particularly ran into a dilemma as to include images of places that were demolished to make way for the Interstate highway, as placing an image on a tour where people can’t actually go deviated from the original purpose of having users actually walk down in the Ninth Street area. I decided to go ahead and include them, as they emphasize how drastically this historically black district was changed by urban renewal and the expanded highway system. Also, I’m hoping that as I begin advertising the tour, users who were familiar with the area can help with more precisely locating the images of old businesses and other various buildings.

I’m excited to keep working on this project over the summer, getting the word out about it through working with Mosaic Templars Cultural Center and other cultural heritage institutions in Arkansas. Partnering with the Pop Up West Ninth Street entrepreneurial program will be especially productive, as Pop Up focuses on getting people to physically come down to the area. Getting the community involved in a key part of the project, as it has great potential to act as a collaborative tool between individuals and cultural heritage professionals and institutions. Long term, I hope to possibly work with the Historypin team to create a larger project that will include collaboration with people from across the state to pin images, tell stories, and document Arkansas’s African American history in a centralized location.

Exploring a New Frontier: Cultural Institutions and Digital Space

Courtesy of Public History Ryan Gosling on Tumblr.

When I worked at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, an African American history museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, my favorite artifact to point out in our permanent exhibit was a piece of wall reading “White” and “Colored” that once resided over the water fountain of a public building in the city. Often visitors found this odd, until I shared why it was my favorite: location. This piece of wall, removed from its original location and placed in an African American history museum, held great meaning. It no longer represented the power of segregation to judge worth or place, and its new location represented a victory of civil rights and equity. For me, that artifact provided a constant reminder as to the importance of place in interpreting meaning.

While the museum had just started to engage audiences through mobile interface when I moved to the Washington, D.C. area,  there were already serious discussions about the influence of environment and location, and what approaching different types of spaces would mean for the institution’s future. Would our collections still hold priority? Could we use mobile interface to keep the material culture of the museum present and relevant to our audience? Will future generations still want to come to a physical building and view in person artifacts like that piece of wall that held such importance for me? The digital revolution and growing importance of mobile spaces often presented daunting challenges; however, these challenges would hold the key to how we, as public historians, shaped our institution’s trajectory.

Many other museums have in fact embraced the mobile tech revolution and harnessed its most promising advantages, expanding their presence inside and outside the walls of the exhibition space. As Jason Farman addresses in his book Mobile Interface Theory, we are experiencing a cultural shift in computing in that what was once geographically fixed is now mobile. Thanks to the widespread use of the Internet, this means that museums themselves are no longer fully geographically fixed, but mobile. This is equal parts a kind of mind-blowing, a little frightening, and really cool. While the theory behind all of this is complex and fascinating, I’m more interested in the practical implications of our newfound permeability of space.

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s study of Mobile for Museums has documented several ways cultural institutions can connect using a mobile interface. Museums use mobile both to draw people into their physical spaces, and to connect with audiences in a larger geographical context. Mobile is used to interact with individuals, both imparting more knowledge than could be absorbed in a single museum visit and gathering information about the individual’s stories, experiences, and memories. Utilizing digital space, of course, has significant implications for the curation of history.

The Cleveland Historical Project for example, has utilized mobile, app-based interaction to step outside of its physical institutional space to engage in a dynamic, multi-layered curatorial and interpretational process. Cleveland Historical pulls together several different layers of meaning to interpret stories in a particular place and time: images, sound, video, text, and geolocation. The last feature in particular “allows the present physical context of the region to become part of the interpretive frame, transforming the landscape into a laboratory for informal learning.” (Tebeau, 26) Their primary innovation is allowing oral history to work on different levels, to interact with location and connect with a broader context.

Basing this project in the mobile interface also allows for, indeed demands, a more collaborative, community based approach to public history. This represents a larger paradigm shift for all institutions that choose to pursue utilization of mobile space. Mobile interfaces allow greater access to the crevices of history, so to speak, making room for more than the broad historical narratives many traditional exhibitions command. By allowing historical interpretation to reach beyond the brick and mortar bounds of the museum, audiences can experience added layers that are at times difficult to communicate in a traditional exhibition or presentation. However, use of digital space also comes with a loosening of interpretive control. By allowing more access for the audience to experience historical narrative, they also gain access to influence historical narrative.

This is a quite a sea change, and as demonstrated by my above recollections, not always a welcome one. John Russick, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Chicago History Museum, addresses the discomfort of many public historians with the implications of digital spaces and mobile interfaces inside and outside their institutions. Russick tackles all of the questions we dealt with at my old museum in his article, acknowledging that the answers are not always easy to find or to address. However, he asserts that just by asking these questions, museums can do the necessary work of changing with one’s audience, learning from them what things, stories, and approaches are important to a place. Change is very rarely easy, but it is almost always necessary. By engaging material culture, oral history, and historical narrative in more collaborative and interactive space, cultural institutions can find their place in this newly expanded environment.

Re-Collection and Getting to the Stuff: Thoughts on Social Memory and Digital Culture

Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito, explores the challenges and possibilities of preserving new media artifacts and works, contrasting the strategies that curators, archivists, institutions, and creators themselves will need to use for new media with the conventional wisdom currently practiced in preservation. Rinehart and Ippolito argue that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a new mindset that those preserving new media must take on regarding the purpose of preservation and the creation of social memory. While certain strategies, like emulation, migration, and reinterpretation offer ways to preserve new media, the key to preservation is not honing in on creating new standards, but a variety of people in different positions learning to relate to one another to shift the preservation paradigm to focus on variable media, what Rinehart and Ippolito define as an approach that “encourages creators to define a work in medium-independent terms so that it can be translated into a new medium once its original format is obsolete.” (Rinehart & Ippolito, 11)

Central to the book’s argument is the way new media shapes and challenges social memory and, conversely, how understanding social memory, the stuff that provides a framework for how societies understand historical context and ideological assumptions, is vital in informing the way we preserve new media. The authors assert that social memory often takes two forms, formal and informal. Formal social memory, which is what we most often see practiced by museums and other cultural heritage institutions, focuses on preserving cultural objects in fixed form to maintain the historical accuracy and integrity of the original. Informal social memory, which for example can be seen practiced daily all across the Internet, emphasizes recreation and reinterpretation of cultural objects to keep them alive and relevant. One good example of informal social memory is the website Virtual Apple, which allows users to play almost every Apple II game in their modern Internet browsers using emulators.

If this doesn’t bring you right back to middle school computer lab, I don’t know what will.

Informal social memory, especially in regards to the way we preserve digital works, will likely increasingly inform more formal approaches taken by cultural institutions. Sheila Brennan’s transcribed talk, “Getting to the Stuff,” is all about the way history museums approach (or rather, don’t successfully approach) new media strengthens this hypothesis. Brennan asserts that though museums have been getting better about maintaining and online presence, actual digital collections presence is still woefully behind as museums opt instead for internally interpreted narratives, games, or educational interactive activities. She argues that museums should, in fact, get comfortable putting their stuff online, largely because people have really interesting ideas about how and why artifacts matter to them, and can often bring a new perspective on the collection that museum professionals might otherwise miss.

Brennan brings up several examples that we’ve covered in previous weeks, such as the Holocaust’s Museum’s Children of the Lotz Ghetto project and New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” collection, pointing out different ways museums are engaging their public on the basis of a more informal type of social memory. Unfortunately, many museums are still heavily proprietary about their collections, fearing the consequences of the unvetted hordes gaining access to their artifact metadata. Unfortunately, Brennan argues, this protective instinct could be the downfall of museum collections as an institutional norm.

The consequences of greater accessibility?

To keep collections relevant, she offers a few suggestions: remember why we’re preserving the stuff in the first place (hint: something to do with the public trust), publish your collection online so that researchers can actually access the stuff, use your digital space to provide context to the stuff, and perhaps most importantly, actually invite outside scholars and enthusiasts to contribute their thoughts and ideas about the stuff.

Though Brennan is mostly talking about material culture and collections, her thoughts and those presented in Re-Collection run on similar themes, namely that social memory is important, and deeply informs what we choose to preserve, and how we preserve it, just as much as institutional collections create and affect social memory. Change is scary, I know, but it really couldn’t hurt to consider the ideas presented by Rinehart, Ippolito, and Brennan. As our cultural heritage keeps evolving, whether as born-digital new media or as a digital representation of material culture, so will our methods of interacting with it; ultimately, embracing the future may be the only way of saving our past.

Life on the Line: A Historypin Tour of Little Rock’s West Ninth Street

A look down the Line at modern West Ninth Street
A look down the Line at modern West Ninth Street

From Reconstruction until the mid-twentieth century, the West Ninth Street business district of Little Rock, Arkansas served the city’s black community as a center of African American urban life. Going back to its beginnings as a Union camp for freed slaves, “The Line” provided a center for black-owned businesses and commerce made necessary by the restrictions and segregation in the Jim Crow South. Despite the many setbacks and challenges their community faced, Little Rock’s black business community thrived throughout much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By 1898 West Ninth Street housed forty-two black-owned businesses, and by 1959, the district reached a peak of 102 establishments, including restaurants, doctor’s offices, a dentist, pharmacies, a movie theater, beauty and barber shops, grocery stores, and much more.

By the 1960s, integration, urban renewal, and the construction of the interstate highway system contributed to the decline and eventual destruction of the West Ninth Street business district. Interstate 630 was built through the middle of Little Rock’s downtown black community, displacing neighborhoods and separating residential areas from the commercial zones. Increasing integration and acceptance of African Americans into the city’s white-owned businesses also contributed to the once-robust district’s decline, leaving only a small handful of establishments behind. However, many Little Rock residents still remember patronizing the Gem Theater, Red’s Pool Hall, and attending dances and concerts at the Dreamland Ballroom. Recent revitalization efforts have sparked a renewed interest in the once-thriving area, though much work remains to be done to preserve its history and bring business-owners and their customers back to the district.

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This project will work with the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, a museum of African American history, and the Department of Arkansas Heritage to create a Historypin tour of West Ninth Street, including photographs and oral history narratives recounting the rich community life found on The Line in the 1940s and 1950s. The tour will also work in conjunction with Pop Up in the Rock, a program that helps entrepreneurs see the possibilities of revitalization in various areas of Little Rock, which will focus on West Ninth Street in fall 2015. The Historypin tour will ideally increase awareness of the history of West Ninth Street by making photographs, the historical narrative of the area, and community memories available to a wider audience by utilizing a free web site and mobile app. Historypin is the ideal platform for the project, due to its capabilities in using Google Street View to compare how a particular site looks now to an older photograph, and because it allows collaboration and interaction with one’s audience. This digital history project will help the community see the past more clearly to re-envision the possibilities of the future.

The Historypin tour will focus on the businesses that existed in the late 1950s to early 1960s, as they are the establishments most people are likely to be familiar with today. The project will likely be limited by the scope of the primary sources available, as there are not widely available photographs of every single business on Ninth Street. However, I will acknowledge this limitation in the introduction to the tour, and due to the crowdsourcing possibilities using Historypin, I hope that as more people see and use the tour, they may be able to help add content in the form of memories or even photographs of the area.

I will primarily use three resources to develop the narrative and content of the West Ninth Street Historypin tour: Sanborn insurance maps, photographs, and oral history interviews. Because the majority of the former establishments have been demolished or otherwise destroyed, the Sanborn insurance maps will help me positively locate businesses to accurately place them on the map. Photographs of West Ninth Street will be the focal point of the project, as Historypin is largely geared toward images. These images will be sourced from the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the Arkansas History Commission, and the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Hopefully as the project gains recognition, individuals will add their own photos of West Ninth Street that I can in turn add to the tour. Lastly, the oral histories will give valuable background information to the photographs, contextualizing them and adding depth to the story. Though the photographs are vitally important, the oral history content will give them meaning, an integral part of any public history pursuit.

The primary audience for the West Ninth Street tour will be individuals who come into contact with it through the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center or another Department of Arkansas Heritage agency, or the Pop Up in the Rock program. The demographic will likely be older African Americans from Little Rock or elsewhere in Arkansas, and who are connected to the history of the area. Hopefully the tour will also attract a notoriously elusive younger audience of individuals in their teens and twenties, as well, through the use of an app and the focus on information sharing. Though the tour will be largely community focused, it will also be accessible to visitors to the city and other Arkansas residents who take an interest in the state’s history.

The goal of the project is ultimately to connect community members to the history of West Ninth Street as well as to involve them in the future of the area. The tour endeavors not only to tell the story of West Ninth Street and the people who worked, played, and built their community there, but to continuously add to that narrative through engaging an audience that wishes to share their experiences and memories. I aim to hand the tour over to the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center to launch and promote as part of their exhibition and history programming by at least October of 2015, in time for the Pop Up West Ninth Street event. By working with these organizations, the Historypin tour has the potential to reach a wider audience and make a real difference in telling the story of Little Rock’s African American history.

Crowdsourcing Culture and Implications for Professional Labor

The 2013 New Media Consortium Horizon Report, Museum Edition, identifies crowdsourcing as a digital topic on the near horizon, which the report defines as within a year or less of wide-scale adoption by a significant number of museums and cultural institutions. Indeed, 2013 appears to be the year that crowdsourcing really took off in the public history world, though the concept is by no means brand new. More and more museums and other cultural institutions are using crowdsourcing as a method to collect and process data, from the New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” project, to the Smithsonian’s digital volunteers initiative to transcribe documents, to the Historypin web site and app, which is entirely based around crowdsourcing moments of historical memory around the world. Some institutions see crowdsourcing as supplemental, while other projects make the wisdom of the crowd their primary focus and mode of operation. However you look at it, this growing enthusiasm for crowdsourcing public history raises big questions for the field: is crowdsourcing an activity of labor or leisure? Does looking to volunteers to perform work for the institution devalue the labor of public history professionals? Perhaps most importantly, what is the role of historians in a crowdsourced field?

The print project will start by examining digital public history theory and scholarly works on crowdsourcing as a way of doing digital public history. Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital Public History, Rosenzweig’s essay “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Brabham’s paper “The Myth of Amateur Crowds,” and Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage, a book of essays that focuses on instances and issues of crowdsourcing will provide a solid basis for discussing what crowdsourcing is and how it is used by cultural institutions. The project will also study crowdsourcing through a labor history lens and will discuss what labor is, the value of labor, and the implications of unpaid work on the idea of labor as a commodity. In exploring the philosophy of inherent value of labor, the project will also examine the history of public history, museums, and archives, and will attempt to determine the effects of class, education, and perceptions of history and memory on the individuals that make up the crowds that public history institutions tap.

Lastly, the project will analyze a handful of case studies, reports, and well-documented crowdsourced digital projects to determine present state of crowdsourcing in the public history field, and the effects of crowdsourcing on public history institutions and their users. These include Writing History in the Digital Age, University College – London’s Transcribe Bentham project and findings, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Lodz Ghetto project. By examining actual instances of crowdsourcing and the interactions between user groups and institutions, one may determine if the labor of public history professionals is devalued by the free labor of crowds, or if it is instead more valued due to the efforts and involvement of users in the institution’s day to day work.