For my digital project proposal, I’m thinking of creating an ArcGIS StoryMap of the international cotton industry in the mid-1800s.
Multiple historians have written about “King Cotton,” slavery, American capitalism, and the global economy:
Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert
Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management by Caitlin Rosenthal
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist
Many, many more.
Based on this existing historical research, I want to create a digital project that allows viewers to follow cotton around the globe, from the plantations of the American South to the factories of England to the markets of America, Europe, and beyond.
Questions to Consider:
Where was cotton grown? What was slavery like on cotton plantations, and how did it change over time? How was cotton transported? Where was it processed? Where was it sold? Who profited? How did the cotton industry change over time, especially as the Civil War approached? To what extent were people in the American South, the American North, Britain, and elsewhere implicated in the persistence of American slavery?
The StoryMap format will allow visitors to interact with maps and historical information in a far more engaging way than a standard paper or blog post. Using a StoryMap will also allow me to include biographies of enslaved and free people who were involved in the cotton industry, adding an essential, personal dimension to a historical subject – American slavery – that’s inherently dehumanizing.
The goal here is to show general readers how slavery birthed modern economies. Even today, many economists continue to frame slavery as an antiquated system that was incompatible with our modern, industrialized economy. They try to draw a hard line between slavery and capitalism, a line that doesn’t hold up once you study the historical reality of the 19th century economy. Nor does it hold up when you examine the modern economy, where multinational corporations continue to exploit underpaid and enslaved workers. Slavery and capitalism is a popular topic among historians right now for a reason – our global economy is still deeply exploitative, and slavery is still practiced around the world. I hope that this project will prompt readers to do their own research into this topic.
What is the first visual you think of when you hear our nation’s capital?
Cherry blossoms? The White House? DuPont Circle and the fabulous architecture of the various embassies? Our National Mall and the Smithsonian’s?
Okay, now that you have that image– I want you to forget about it.
Washington D.C. like so many other urban centers has it’s beauty, but as the 1980s rock-n-roll band Poison says “every rose has its thorn.” Throughout D.C., there lays a variety of locations– abandoned and decaying— waiting for something to happen to them. Some buildings are lucky and are preserved for people to enjoy now, but others are not so lucky. Perhaps nothing ever comes to them except animals, teenagers, mischief makers, homeless, and urban explorers, and they are swallowed eventually by the environment around them. Perhaps development company sees the value in the land and maybe the building and the history of the place is swallowed by the newest apartments, Starbucks, or Wegmans.
As so many people flood the capital seeking jobs, there is always an increase need for new apartments. While developers may not always want abandoned buildings as places to rebuild (as there is always the cost to destroy what is there), some buildings get turned into other things and breathe a new life. We have heard the pros and cons of gentrification a thousand times over.
What I’m more concerned with is not whether developers or the environment may destroy these buildings, I’m more concerned over the loss of history. Of course, we can never save every building. The United States is not at that level to do so.
So, if there is nothing to do on a physical level, how else may we save these buildings?
For my digital project, I propose creating a digital archive and mapping database to preserve these buildings and locations within Washington D.C. We can save these historical buildings in a digital space where they may live on. Of course, it would be fantastic to take 3D mappings of these places and create virtual tours of these places, but I do not have the power to do this. Instead, I would be creating a digital space for these places to exist, whether in photographs, videos, letters, or through other archives and resources. I also want to highlight, if possible, the lives these buildings have now currently as abandoned buildings; this would include the future of these buildings and if there are preservation efforts being made on them.
Searching online and reaching out to historical societies, I want to collect this information in a place to be used to preserve the local history of Washington D.C.
Established in 1852 as the first federally-funded mental hospital in the United States
Doretha Dix was one of the influential people behind its establishment
It became a model for all mental hospitals in the U.S.
Parts of the campus were designed by the architect of the capital Thomas U. Walter, who purposefully designed the campus to segregate races. However, at the time, a campus that would treat all races was unheard of.
It was a hospital during the Civil War, WWI & WWW II
1955 — the hospital was treating over 7,000 patients
Some famous patients include: Richard Lawrence (attempted assassination of Andrew Jackson), John Hinckley Jr. (who shot Ronald Reagan), Charles J. Guiteau (the assassin of James Garfield), actress and screenwriter Mary Fuller, William Chester Minor (a Union Army vet who from paranoia and contributor to the Oxford Dictionary), early modernist poet Ezra Pond, and James Swann (the 1993 Shotgun Stalker serial killer).
Between 1970 and 2003, the hospital lost funding
Currently– a third of the campus is still a mental health facility, another third is run by Homeland Security, and the other third is being demolished and turned into apartments
Without a digital space for this, the history of the hospital may as well be thrown into the Anacostia. The same can be said for any abandoned location in Washington D.C.
Also, to note, there is a great deal done already on this hospital, but other locations I want to look at may not be so lucky. In these cases, there just may not be enough information, or I may not be able to share it without some sort of fee to an archive or wherever. The unfortunate part of this project is that it will be an attempt at preserving these places, in so far as my ability to extract and display the information for the public.
I think a great aspect of this project is that is has the ability to be something more than just D.C. based. This is something that can be done anywhere in the U.S. and even across the world. It’s a new way for preserving places that we may not have the ability to physically save (whatever those reasons may be).
Some of the other locations I am looking at for this project include:
Being able to interact with history is one of the best ways for students and the general public to create meaningful connections between the present and the past. Our present is one of social distancing and online learning, causing many to enter the digital sphere to interact with history rather than going to museums or historical sites. Luckily, there are a plethora of online sources for people to use. One of the challenges is wading through and figuring out which sources can be trusted and are actually engaging.
Since my special interest is in African-American History, I propose to create a website using Word Press that gathers together digital projects centered around African-American History. I will provide a description of each project, examples of how they can be used in a classroom setting as well as general outreach for the public, and resources for those who want to delve deeper into specific subtopics presented in each project.
One of the most well known examples is the Slave Voyages website that gathers together sources from around the world about global slave trades. The project is the result of decades of independent research and collaboration between universities and is continuing to be updated. On my website I would talk about the different resources available (such as the interactive maps and 3D models of ships) and how to best navigate the site, as it can be overwhelming at first.
There are a few websites already that have collected digital projects about African-American History, but they are usually geared towards an academic audience rather than the general public. My project would seek to close this gap.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.