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.
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:
Helene Bloom, or Fran Levine
Any additionaly suggestions are greatly appreciated!
a) PhilaPlace is an interactive website about space, time, and Philly. It was created by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 2005; it connects stories to places across time in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. It has different formats: text, pictures, audio and video clips, and podcasts. It also includes community programs and publications, from workshops for teachers, to trolley tours, and exhibits.
PhilaPlace focuses on two areas: Old Southwark and the Greater Northern Liberties, they were always home to immigrants and working class. Philadelphia was known as a multi-ethnic “workshop of the world.” By using the landscape as a lens, PhilaPlace reveals how each population that arrives in a neighborhood creates new histories, traditions, and memories tied to place. Residents of Philly are encouraged to interact with and contribute to this project. Studies showed that younger users of this website wanted to experience the neighborhoods on their own while older audiences wanted to continue to have a guided experience.
Perhaps the most fun aspect of this website is its map. By clicking on any pin, you are given a well-written and easily-digestible information about the place. You would feel like you are walking through the city with a very-knowledgeable friend who tells you about Philadelphia’s past and present. While using it, you become ever-more aware of the concept of space in an exciting way.
b) Historypinis a website that collects, curates, and structures stories to bring people together, one story at a time. It hosts 365,951 stories pinned across 27,844 projects and tours – across 2,600 cities. It is built by a community of 80,000+ storytellers, archivists and citizen historians. Historypin is a not-for-profit organization. It no longer has a community forum due to technical issues, and also probably online harassment. To sign up, go to the top right corner; the easiest way is do so through Facebook. Everyone with a profile can create a collection, and upload images and story to the website. To add a pin: go to the profile page, “add a pin” or “create a tour” would be on the right side. One of the most popular collections is San Francisco MTA archival collection. By navigating the arrow on the map, you can view pins, which then appear as old archival photos. It feels like you are traveling in the past but with useful context provided in text. This website is useful for small organizations that want a platform or to create even an easily accessible tour.
c) Wordle helps you generate “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. Because the Wordle web toy does not work, you should install a desktop version of it on your laptop. Do not try to use the web one, even after downloading Firefox Extended Support Release, it does not work. Instead, if you do not have it, download and install Java. Then download Worldle for Mac or Windows, the link is on their website’s main page. It’s pretty straightforward after that, you just copy and paste the text.
Instead of boring you with every inane detail of my project, this post will weave a narrative of the most important trials, tribulations, and things I learned from constructing my project: stereomap, a site devoted to geocoding animated stereographs.
Trial 1: Overcoming a Dead End
Many (or should I say the few?) of you who read this blog outside of the students in the class might be thinking “hey, isn’t that the guy that was doing that project of mapping unbuilt spaces in Washington, D.C.?” Yes, you are right, it was me but shortly into starting the project I discovered a number of distressing details that made me switch my topic. First, it turns out the Histories of the National Mall site is in the process of doing a number of explorations on my very subject and will be releasing them sometime soon. To make matters worse, I learned the National Building Museum did an exhibit called “Unbuilt Washington” in 2011 and created an online map for it detailing the unbuilt spaces. My exact project idea! This was my lowest point in this process, I had no clue where to go from here.
Enter: the Stereograminator
Having attended a MITH digital dialogue earlier this year, I learned about the Stereogranimator, a tool from NYPL labs for animating stereographs and it came back to me when I was racking my brain for a new project idea. In an “MTV Cops” moment I thought, “wouldn’t it be cool if you could take these animated stereograms and map them in the style of HistoryPin?” These images typically feature a distinct location and could benefit from the context of geographic space. I chose NYC for the ease of using the over 3,000 stereographs focused on the city and held by the NYPL. With my crisis averted by deciding to create a map and website to fulfill this project idea, I started figuring out the logistics of its implementation.
Trial 2: You Can Map GIFs, Right?
While there is a glut of mapping software out there, few handle animated GIFs well in their information boxes, often cutting off images, making them static again, or not displaying the images at all. Finding a tool that overcame these challenges became my top priority in making this project feasible. Along with my main goal, I hoped to find an easy-to-use, mobile friendly, free, and still decently attractive interface. Looking through many map options (Google My Maps, Mapbox, OpenStreetMap, CartoDB, WorldMap, Scribble Maps, and on and on), I finally found one that actually would work: ZeeMaps. While not gaining full points on the attractive interface scale, this site fulfilled the rest of my requirements mentioned above. In finding the right mapping service, I learned a lot about evaluation of digital tools, compromise, and to understand practical limitations. With this crucial element decided, I started building the map and the website to host it.
Trial 3: Building Diversity
As I began constructing my site and its elements, I started to learn more about the collections themselves. It was difficult to create a diverse mix of selected points due to the biases towards certain subjects and areas. If historians were to look at the collection as a documentary example of the late 19th to early 20th century, then it could summed up as a white man wearing a bowler hat in lower Manhattan.
While lower Manhattan was a cultural center then as it is today, the collection overlooks important segments of the Black population in Harlem and other parts of the city. Even in stereographs focused outside of New York City where Blacks are subjects, they are depicted in racist ways as minstrel characters. Women and the lower classes were also seldom depicted other than to emphasize their need of saving from destitution. These characteristics made it difficult for me to create a wide ranging selection of subjects, however, it drove home the point of the photographers’ biases and the frequent inadequacy of the documentary record.
Trial 4: Becoming a Bot
As I was building, I also was promoting the site at the same time. Taking an idea from the Trevor Owens, I decided to “curate in the open” and publicly share each image I made and considered using as I went. This was both to generate interest and to aggregate all the links to use in the project. I chose Twitter as my main sharing platform because I already had an account (although not too many followers) and all my tweets were open to the public. Overall, judging from my Twitter analytics, my tweets were mainly seen by my followers but some of them did seem interested. Some of them seemed disturbed:
I realized that Twitter may not have been the best platform for this part of my project. In sending out multiple tweets in rapid succession, it seemed to my followers that I was becoming a bot, taking over their timelines like the bots of conviction we read about earlier this semester. Certainly some were alright with this, but I’m sure many did not appreciate having these images forced upon them. Perhaps a more image focused site like tumblr would have served this purpose better. Whether or not I chose the right social media platform, I do believe the effort was worthwhile and drew more attention to my project than simply keeping it behind closed doors until a big reveal in the end.
From all my trials I learned how to weigh options, choose between resources, and create a deliverable product. In the end, I overcame my trials and created a usable website that met the goals I set when beginning this journey. Thank you, dear reader, for following along with me throughout the semester and in this post. I hope you take a look at the site and send me your thoughts.
The advent of digital technology allowed a greater exchange of knowledge and ideas to enter homes at an astonishing new level. This change brought information and services straight to users that before may have required someone to actually leave their home to seek it. The advancement of mobile computing technology furthered the trend of information coming directly to people but without restricting its access in one physical place. Many cultural heritage institutions have noticed these changes and adapted to become not only places that house information, but resources that increasingly push it directly to their patrons wherever they may be. The affordances of this new media also allow institutions to bring their materials into geographic space, adding another layer of interpretation and context while bringing to the public’s attention that history is all around us.
Histories of the National Mall
One site that takes advantage of mobile application and a spatial understanding of history is Histories of the National Mall created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media run using our old pal, Omeka. Taking their own advice from their report Mobile for Museums, the site is device independent, made to run on a web browser allowing for use across desktop, laptop, and mobile and is not a native downloadable app that needs tailoring for each device. As the title indicates, the site is an interface for learning about the histories of the national mall through maps, explorations (short examinations based on questions people might have about the mall), people, and past events. Most of these sections can be filtered into different historical periods. Some of my favorite sections, and much to my chagrin, are the great explorations of unmade designs of the nationalmonuments. There are also a number of scavenger hunts that send you to a specific part of the mall and have images of places for you to find. Once you find the images, you tap or click them and can read or listen to more about it.
The key feature of this site is the map, which has over 300 points containing historical information, audio, video, images, and documents. The user can filter by each of those categories as well as by place and event. As stated above, the site is web browser based and largely looks the same when using on a desktop/laptop or a mobile device. Using GPS, Histories of the National Mall centers the map on the user’s coordinates and locates them within historical context. What is good about the map is that there are no set way to explore the points, you can wander around and discover new facts and events that shaped the environment all around. This allows the user to set their own narrative in a serendipitous combination of explorations.
While Histories of the National Mall is a ready made site, Aris Games is both an open source application to create geographically based games and a mobile app to play the games. The back end is not the scary coding or programming that some in the cultural heritage sector may fear, but a simple interface so even those without the technical skills can make the games with the infrastructure invisible to them. One downside to the Aris created games not encountered in the mall histories site is that the mobile app is only available on Apple products and has a much more limited audience because of it.
The Aris editor interface to create is simple but it is by no means easy to understand without first reading the manual or viewing the helpful video tutorials on certain topics. It is important to understand the different elements (especially non-obvious ones such as scenes, plaques, and locks) and how they function so you can create a working game. The games are largely tours or explorations of certain areas. Building a game is based on creating “scenes” or different scenarios that the user can encounter as they travel around. You can make conversations for the user to have at each location that can lead them further into the game. All of the features you create can be mapped to a certain location to create an exploratory geographic environment. This feature is unfortunately cumbersome to use as the only way to find your points is through precise GPS coordinates or by dragging the point to where you want with no way to search for your general location so you can get there quicker. Also there is no way to see how your game will look in app without having and opening the app. Since I have an Android device, I needed to borrow an iPhone to do this. Despite these drawbacks, Aris editor is a good way to make games without requiring programming experience.
Playing the games is fairly simple but, as mentioned above, does require downloading their Apple based app. Inside the app you can play any number of games created with the editor. You can either find games based on your geographic location, sort by popularity, or search for a specific title. Aris provides a demo that will give you a good overview of what it is like to play these games (avert your eyes if you dislike semi-obsolete media):
Overall, National Histories of the Mall and Aris Games are good examples of the creative ways spatial history and mobile technology can work together to engage the public. By embracing this new trend and the ubiquity of mobile phones, institutions will add layers of meaning, attract a wider audience than before, and bring content out from behind closed doors.