Digital Project Proposal: StoryMap-ing Young George Washington

In the most generally known narrative of American history, George Washington appears on the stage of world events fully formed. Washington strides into history as the tall, dignified adult who assumes command of the Continental Army and directs the victorious war for American independence. This same imposing figure then guides the newly launched state of ship safely through its first years of operation as President, before relinquishing power in the ultimate gesture of republican virtue and retiring to Mount Vernon. With the exception of the story of the cherry tree, perhaps now more famous as a tall tale than as historical truth, Washington’s youth is essentially nonexistent. The Father of the Country is always that, the older, mature figure in the room – never the young son.

But decades before Washington showed up to the Continental Congress to take the offered position as military leader of the fight against the British empire, his early 20s were spent acting as an agent of that same empire. In 1753, when he was only 21, Washington embarked on a harrowing frontier journey to attempt to force a diplomatic resolution to a long-running dispute between Britain and France over the poorly mapped, sparsely settled Ohio River Valley. A year later, at age 22, Washington was a colonel of militia charged with forcibly evicting the French from a fort at the site of modern-day Pittsburgh – a mission which sparked a world war and created the conditions that would spark the American Revolution two decades later. Washington’s younger years are little known to the general public, despite their fantastic and adventure-filled nature.

For my digital project, I propose to bring those adventures to life in a digital visual medium. Specifically, I would use the StoryMap program developed by Northwestern University Knight Lab. StoryMap allows users to create narratives using location, images, and movement. By using points dropped onto a map in a certain order, a StoryMap moves a viewer through the story spatially, not just temporally. Each point contains both text and images, providing snapshots of connected moments in history.

I would propose to use StoryMap to retrace Washington’s early 20s on the colonial frontier, specifically immediately prior to and during the French and Indian War. This would move viewers through portions of modern-day Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, as Washington traveled on land and water across a space where imperial ambition, colonial expansion, and Native American relations collided to form a crucible of massive historic significance. In this project I will be able to draw on my previous experience using StoryMap, but deliver a better-quality project by using the practices we have been discussing in class. I will also be able to draw on my knowledge of the time period, which is my historical focus. The end result will be an easily accessible and understandable digital presentation that will help more people learn about the incredible story of Young George Washington.

Digital Project Proposal: Reformatting Academic Journal Articles for Non-Academic Audiences

The Problem

In a recent Washington Post Opinion piece, Max Boot argues that historians should accept rightful blame for the sorry state of America’s general ignorance of its own history. Historiographic shifts to studying social and cultural history and history through the lens of gender have “[led] to the neglect of political, diplomatic and military history — subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect… Historians need to speak to a larger public that will never pick up their academic journals.” Boot’s unoriginal argument took heavy criticism from historians via Twitter. In other words, Boot lobbed a familiar rock at the academy, and historians lobbed a familiar rock back at him.

I argue that Boot and other critics of the academy have mis-identified the root of the problem. Boot posits that historians’ changing interests have rendered students, and therefore the American populace en masse, ignorant of their past and thus incapable of learning from mistakes like electing a demagogue to be president.

Not exactly.

Some people simply have a genuine disinterest in reading or watching or hearing interpretations of history, but many more will take an interest in subjects is they are discussed using creative, intellectually, and financial viable formats. Historians must give them a way of doing so. I’m not so dense as to think that universities and private colleges have the resources to reproduce a Hamilton-type cultural wave. But institutional subscriptions to JSTOR or ProQuest simply aren’t enough to make waves in public intellectual culture.

Unlike Boot and some of his critics, my project doesn’t pick fights. Instead, it tackles the immediate problem: an uninspired public and an academy that can inspire others to learn and ask questions.

The Project

I propose to develop a model for an open-source audio-visual journal that replicates existing journal articles through visual representation and full-length audio recordings. In an ideal world, my project would consist of dozens of videos and recordings dedicated to distilling single articles down to stimulating yet captivating segments. Seeing as how the semester is limited in time and resources, I propose to produce one such video and audio recording of a single article to demonstrate the utility of this resource.

Existing Project Models

There are a few existing projects that serve as models for my proposed project. The first is the Journal of Visual Experiments (JoVE). JoVE is an online, peer reviewed scientific journal that shares videos of thousands of different scientific experiments with institutional and individual subscribers. The video articles run the gambit of subjects, from Breath Collection from Children for Disease Biomarker Discovery to Assessing the Particulate Matter Removal Abilities of Tree Leaves. The videos follow students, researchers, and top scientists as they conduct the experiments so that they may be reproduced. Yet unlike JoVE, my proposed platform will not exist behind a paywall; it will be open-access.

A second similar project is historian and host Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World podcast. Published weekly for free download, Dr. Covart conducts interviews with leading historians on subjects related to their recent publications. During a recent interview with Professor Ryan Quintana, they discussed what historians refer to as the “state” within the context of colonial South Carolina. A subject as complex as the “state” is not well understood beyond academic and policy circles. An audio-visual journal modeled after Dr. Covart’s hour-long podcast episodes aim would introduce nearly any audience to the complexities of any number of fascinating historical subjects while reproducing the same stimulating yet welcoming atmosphere of Ben Franklin’s World. My proposed audio-visual journal will not address monographs or edited volumes, but rather will focus on journal articles, which receive far less attention from podcasts generally.

Outreach and Benefits

First, students with visual impairments often have to rely on readers or text-reading software to consume text-based readings including articles. My proposed audio-visual journal provides students the option to listen to articles, read by historians and voice-over professionals on their own time as they would an audiobook or podcast. Those with hearing impairments may also find use in videos with subtitles generated not imbedded software but rather by video editors who include accurate transcriptions of what otherwise may be heard.

Second, my proposed audio-visual journal adopts models of video content production to reproduce articles in visual form. For example, an article that relies on and even quotes from archival material may be reproduced visually. The video would proceed through an abridged version of the article with photos of the same primary sources used as evidence in the original text. Editing software will allow the narrator to guide the user to specific lines in text and places in photographs and objects that are noted in the article. Visitors to historic sites and cultural institutions want to see the places and objects and documents that comprise the historical record. Seeing what is otherwise only spoken of demystifies the process of producing history and inspires pride and a commitment to learning and sharing knowledge with others of the public.

As for publicity, I propose to share (with necessary permissions) the videos and audio files with professors and history teachers in high schools who currently use academic articles in their classrooms. Until sufficient resources are acquired for wider distribution, my proposed audio-visual journal will spread through word-of-mouth.

Evaluation and Final Considerations

A successful project will attract a slowly but gradually enlarging base of non-academic users as more articles are distilled as videos and recorded as audio files. That being said, the videos produced using this platform are not intended as permanent substitutes for textual articles. They are meant as teach tools and take on a medium that is often more engaging than readings.

Walk a Mile in My Shoes: LGBTQ Edition

At the risk of centering queerness as the entirety of my personality and professional career, I have decided to focus on a digital project that foregrounds the experiences of the LGBTQ community in Washington, D.C. Historians, sociologists, and psychologists have recognized a pronounced generation gap between LGBTQ-identifying youths and the previous generations. Within a minority group that often cannot not rely on their biological families for support, it is still important for those coming to terms with their sexuality or gender identity to develop a “found” family, or a support system of mentors within the LGBTQ community. The current disconnect can be attributed to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that wiped out nearly 10% of the gay male community, but also to the disappearance of physical queer-centric meeting spaces. This has led to increasing misunderstandings and judgment between generations, that leaves each feeling frustrated. I believe that part of the divide stems from the younger generation’s lack of historical perspective and perceived absence of recognition of the struggles of the older generation.

Within Washington, D.C., LGBTQ history is being preserved and collected by the Rainbow History Project (RHP) and Ty Ginter’s DC Dykaries. Information about gay-owned businesses and venues can be found in collections at the Washington Historical Society and DCPL. Publications like Metro Weekly and the Washington Blade publish articles about activism and LGBTQ landmarks, and there are numerous podcasts with episodes devoted to D.C.’s queer past. While RHP has an extensive interactive map of LGBTQ places and a well-researched walking tour, I feel that there’s still a detachment in the way people remember their history.

I plan on developing an interactive Story Map Tour on ArcGis Story Maps that follows the course of several 1960-1970s LGBTQ individuals through a day/night in Washington, D.C. This virtual walking tour will be shaped by oral histories and other primary source materials from the Rainbow History Project (RHP) archives, DC Dykaries, articles from the Washington Blade, and other caches of D.C. LGBTQ history. ArcGis is an open source platform that offers a series of barebones templates where I can embed photographs, maps, oral history excerpts, and even music (with proper copyright agreements) from RHP’s digital archives. I am still in the process of identifying which community members to highlight, but RHP’s walking tour pamphlets and access to physical and digital collections will be instrumental for constructing profiles for a Story Map Tour. By centering the tour through the perspectives of real people active in the D.C. LGBTQ community, I hope to foster empathy and further engage queer youth with the past.

ArcGis allows for users to make a profile and share their Story Maps on social media. Posting the StoryMap to LGBTQ-centered pages Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are all conducive for attracting the attention of individuals interested in this history as well as facilitating comments or critiques. The scope of the audience will also depend on the people I select to highlight as main characters. In terms of evaluation, I’ll measure my success by how much foot traffic the page acquires and the responses I receive from those participating.

There is only one existing project on the ArcGis site devoted to LGBTQ history. This Story Map, called “Taking Pride,” was created by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to detail the 150 year LGBT history of Greenwich Village. It begins with an embedded map of LGBT sites in the area and as you scroll, images of notable people and buildings appear next to narratives from the 19th century, early 20th century, and the period since the Stonewall Riots. Highlighted plat maps of Greenwich next to photographs of the buildings track the movement of businesses catering to LGBTQ individuals as they emerged or closed. I anticipate using some of this methodology to track the path of my own historical actors as they move through D.C.

So, after all of that–I’m still unsure how to completely construct a intersectional narrative tour that will appeal to a broad population. I hesitate to cast the perspective as a cisgender [person who identifies with the sex they’re assigned at birth] white gay man or woman, because of their historical reputation of gatekeeping and trans-exclusion. I also don’t want to ignore the numerous diverse African American LGBTQ experiences in D.C., but I recognize that as a white (mostly) cisgender gay woman, I don’t want to exploit or misconstrue the lives of LGBTQ people of color, and I hope that following a few people’s lives rather than just one will help bridge multiple perspectives.

As of now, I have a list of individuals who were active participants in the D.C. LGBTQ community during the mid-20th century of which to base a tour around:

  • Wayson Jones
  • Eva Freund
  • Bruce Pennington
  • Helene Bloom, or Fran Levine
  • Essex Hemphill
  • Meg Christian
  • Charlotte Bunch

Any additionaly suggestions are greatly appreciated!

History Unmade: Physical Space Reimagined in Washington D.C.

Historians place emphasis on revealing a part of the past by showing not only what was, but also what could have been. In particular, many focus on how different groups had agency in their situations and the possibility to shape outcomes very different than what actually occurred. What if we bring this notion of agency to the history of the built environment? Few people realize how different the world around them could have been had one building design been chosen over another. These decisions are often contested battlegrounds and the history of Washington, D.C.’s design is no different.

A Very Different Capital City

The designers of D.C. itself made it as a monumental city to represent America to the world. The decisions made about where and what was built were each scrutinized tremendously and the structures that came out of these decisions have become the iconic symbols associated with this country. Notwithstanding their current greatness, wouldn’t it be cool if this was the Lincoln Memorial sitting at the end of the mall?

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John Russell Pope’s Competition Proposal for a Pyramid with Porticoes Style Monument to Abraham Lincoln. Credit: National Archives

The Library of Congress has highlighted some of these designs and their history in the book, Capital Drawings: Architectural Designs for Washington, D.C., from the Library of Congress. While this book does a good job of explaining the context of these drawings in history, I think that placing them in the context of the space they would have occupied through the visualization on a map is much more powerful. The Center for History and New Media has created a great interactive map site called Histories of the National Mall where users can interact and learn the history of the mall as they walk around. While this site is excellent for actual histories that have taken place, it still leaves room for the histories of the imagined spaces on the mall that never were.

Deliverable

Similar to HistoryPin and PhilaPlace,  by using the Google My Maps application, I will create an interactive map, placing designs never built into the landscape, using images from the Library of Congress, National Archives, Maryland Historical Society, among others. I will start with the monuments and public buildings surrounding the national mall, and expanding to other locations should time and resources permit. Building off the map, I will create an exhibit site for this topic using the Omeka content management system and embed the map on it. The images used on the map will be placed on this site as well, making them browsable and usable in online exhibits on each building. Through the exhibit pages, I will provide the context of each design’s history, found in Capital Drawings and other books on the subject.

Histun
Current Status of Omeka Site

Audience

So there will be a map and website, but who will use it? This idea percolated in my mind for a while and oddly enough, at the beginning of February, the History Channel website posted an article called The Lincoln Memorial’s Bizarre Rejected Designs. This article received 24,000 likes and 8,500 recommends on Facebook. Clearly, there is a sizable audience for this topic in the wider community of amateur history buffs, local Washington, D.C. residents, or even the general populace that has grown up with the iconic monuments. Scholars of architecture, historic preservation, and history would also be interested in examining and learning about the possibilities of a cityscape that does not exist in reality today.

Publicity

To gain interest in the project, I will contact the repositories whose collections I am utilizing, in hopes that they would advertise it on their website, social media, and to patrons. Furthermore, the Center of History and New Media is a good partner to spread the word, as their Histories of the National Mall Site is closely connected and they know the constituents who would be interested in this type of project. Beyond these routes, I will contact local media outlets and use personal social media accounts to publicize.

Evaluation

Once the site is active, I will solicit feedback from users on the user experience and content of the site. Suggestions for future places would be useful to both have new material to post as well as tailoring the website to what the users want. Ultimately, there is no way to know if the users learn from the site, only that it has reached them through usage numbers. Hopefully, this site will give users an understanding that the space they inhabit is not static and encourage them to imagine what can be.