Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Where the universal present meets the personal past: "The Wilderness Downtown"

For most of us, music videos don’t immediately bring to mind historical engagement. What’s more reflective of the current epoch than a viral YouTube video featuring feline euphony or Rebecca Black’s ultra-present-focused “Friday”?

But Arcade Fire’s “Wilderness Downtown” collaboration with Chris Milk, featuring their hit 2010 single, “We Used to Wait,” is a remarkable exception to this rule. Chris Milk’s interactive video, a “Google Chrome experiment,” got some significant buzz in tech  and advertising circles after its release, but why should it interest public historians?

This interactive video is essentially an exploration of personal nostalgia, providing a bridge between childhood and the present through the wonders of Google street view. There have been some notable digital history projects in recent years that work with this feature, enabling users to superimpose historical views on the present or even overlay multiple historic maps on a given geographical region. But this video gets directly to the emotion of the matter by enabling users to plug their childhood addresses into the video’s algorithm, generating scenes from the places where they grew up as the music evokes a ever-more-distant past when, “we used to wait for letters and sign our names.” At the end of the video, viewers are given the opportunity to “write their childhood selves a letter” using a remarkable digital paint program that turns their words into branches and floods the scene with birds. This evocative moment concludes a “trip” through the universal present and the personal past.

In The Presence of the Past, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen conclude that our personal histories provide the strongest, most present connection to the past, providing a gateway for broader interest. When I began the process of reviewing this video, beyond my initial “Oh cool!” first reaction, I asked some friends and family members for their thoughts. My brother, Micah Langer, a 21-year-old almost-college-graduate provided a wonderful personal analysis: “Arcade Fire seems to really speak to a generation of people who grew up in between spaces--in the suburbs and edge cities of North America. Growing up in such places, at least for me, it is easy to feel adrift and disconnected from the rest of the world. Perhaps those are universal growing pains, but I think the anonymity and uniformity of suburbs amplify them. It's interesting how the video gives one a bird's-eye-view of a town or a school, places that seemed to be the beginning and end of the world during our childhoods. Seen through a wider lens, one sees how these places fit into a bigger picture. It is an exploration and elaboration of the dizzying nostalgia and disorientation one might feel upon dialing in their sentimental places on googlemaps, and it's somehow comforting to realize that you aren't alone with that feeling.”

I think it’s that notion of not being alone with this fascination with the personal past that makes this video particularly resonant. It’s a useful reminder for public historians that the place we start when we explore history is inevitably our own backyard. 

~ Adina Langer

Monday, December 19, 2011

A New Paradigm for Institutional History?: Looking at the Smithsonian Archives’ New Website

The Smithsonian is, of course, not the only institution associated with the federal government that maintains an archive about its own history. The National Park Service, for example, has made a substantial investment in documenting the histories of its parks. The Park Service's institutional histories, however, generally exist on a park-by-park basis while the Smithsonian's efforts are more centralized. For the Park Service, this allows for great diversity in its histories. It also means, though, that few people will access the information contained in them. Indeed, most of these histories are for park staff and NPS administrators, not broader public consumption—although some, like Seth Bruggeman’s Here, George Washington Was Born, reach a somewhat larger academic audience when published as books. With the launch of its new website, the Smithsonian Institution Archives points toward a new era of accessibility and engagement for institutional archives.

 When I first visited the Smithsonian Archives almost a decade ago, the reading room and staff offices were located in the Arts and Industries Building (above)--the original home of the United States National Museum. A far cry from its heyday in the late nineteenth century, the building had been emptied of exhibits and collections, and everyone kept telling me that the ceiling was going to collapse. Still, it was a thrill to be working in this historic structure, especially since I was researching a dissertation on the history of cultural exhibitions at the Smithsonian. From a comfort and convenience standpoint, however, it was less than ideal. There was nowhere to get lunch--I usually ended up eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the Hirshhorn sculpture garden--and the reading room was cramped. Consequently, I was pleased when, a few years ago, the archives moved to a newly constructed building a couple of blocks from the Mall. What this shiny, climate-controlled office building lacked in character, it more than made up for in creature comforts.

Now the Smithsonian Archives has a new website to match its new home. Happily, with its digital presence, the archives has not had to sacrifice character for comfort. In fact, the new site does a much better job than the old one of highlighting the services available for researchers and showcasing materials from the collection. Simple, clean, and user-friendly, the website also features the extensive institutional research that archives staff, volunteers, and interns have done. The value of this website, however, may go beyond practical concerns. It just might suggest a new paradigm for institutional history.

Unlike NPS's mostly internally-oriented histories, the Smithsonian's new website is geared towards engaging a broad audience of online users with its content. On the homepage are links to a blog, discussion forum, featured exhibits, and a section called "Today in Smithsonian History." Perhaps most interesting is the extent to which the institution has embraced the interactive web in creating this site. For example, the current front page features a link to the Smithsonian's photostream on Flickr, which displays rare photographs from the Scopes trial. (These photos were discovered by a volunteer researcher at the archives in the records of the Science Service and published in Reframing Scopes: Journalists, Scientists, and Lost Photographs from the Trial of the Century.)

And from a social media perspective, the website is a gold mine, with lots of fascinating things to tweet and post to Facebook. Given the prominent social media logos on the homepage, this was clearly a major topic of discussion in the development process. As someone who is always looking for interesting content to disseminate to my students and others, I appreciate this focus on sharing. The deeper question, however, is whether a website focused on sharing institutional history with a broad audience will be successful. Or, to put it more bluntly, does anybody (other than a relatively small group of public historians and museum professionals) care about institutional history?

Anecdotal evidence points strongly to the fact that people like to go behind the scenes at museums and historic sites--to pull the curtain back on the processes that go on in collections storage facilities, exhibits labs, and staff offices. Therefore, maybe the Smithsonian Archives’ new website will encourage more people to take a peek behind the curtain and begin to think critically about the ways in which history, culture, and science are packaged and presented by institutions such as the Smithsonian. And, maybe they’ll have some fun doing it.

~ Will Walker

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Participatory Mapping: Place-Making as Process in Montréal’s Mile End

Maps are more than pieces of paper. They are stories, conversations, lives and songs lived out in a place and are inseparable from the political and cultural contexts in which they are used.   (A. Warren, cited in Giacomo Rambaldi, "Who Owns the Map Legend?")
Places resonate. They are keepers of stories and avenues for remembrance. As the Mile End mapping project demonstrates, community place-based projects offer opportunities to give shape to the past, outline the present and envision the future.

Home to 24,000 residents, the Mile-End boasts eclectic architecture, locally-owned businesses, vibrant streetscapes and a diverse population mix of ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, Eastern and Southern Europeans, university students, creative types and émigrés from France. Increasingly, African, Asian and Latin American immigrants to Montréal are settling there as well. While fears of gentrification and the sanitizing properties that accompany it have been raised cyclically since the 1970s, today the Mile End remains the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in Canada.

Since 2007, the artist and volunteer storefront collaborative articule in Montréal’s Mile End neighborhood has drawn attention to the area’s arts organizations and creative spaces by producing a biannual community art map. Last year, spurred on by activist artist and articule outreach coordinator Coco Riot, the group added a twist to their initiative. They began by asking questions like, “Who decides what is and what is not art?” “What makes the Mile End a creative place, particularly friendly for artists?” “How do we add residents’ daily improvisations in space to our definition of artistic vitality in the neighborhood?”

These questions were explored in a series of community map-making workshops. They were coordinated by local, grassroots groups and individuals--Pied Carré (a nonprofit neighborhood collective dedicated to preserving affordable artists’ spaces in the Mile End), Bricolage urbaine (a newly-formed group dedicated to urban education and community action around urban planning issues), subjective cartographer Emmanuelle Jacques, civic initiative Ouvert/Open and Les Amis du Champs des Possibles, a volunteer-run environmental group focused on preserving green space and biodiversity in the neighborhood. A local sixth grade teacher devoted a month of classroom time to the initiative.

Large, colorful and productively chaotic, the twenty or so maps produced by more than two hundred Mile End residents throughout the series of workshops were exhibited at articule in October. These participatory maps engage history in different ways. A group of former residents of the neighborhood returned to their old stomping grounds to participate in the activity, to reminisce and to affix their memories to a map. Their finished product offered useful and interesting historical data, showing the regularity with which each mapper had moved within the area in childhoods marked by residential displacement in a city of renters, the community’s hubs and boundaries, the fault lines to be negotiated with “outsiders” and “others” and the spaces and institutions that have endured, lending character and stability to a dynamic, diverse community.

One group of urban explorers spent a few hours walking the brownfield site along the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks. They gathered and displayed over 30 different kinds of plants, historic evidence of decades of plant migration due to the transcontinental train route. Another map explored railway rights of way by asking people to use thumb tacks and cue cards to map out their routes and crossing spots along the CPR train tracks, which until recently were accessible to pedestrians but have since been fenced off.

For strangers who made maps together, conversation led to sharing of intimate, personal histories as well as discussion about the area’s most treasured historic buildings and significant places. The map became a process for meeting neighbors, finding points of convergence and drawing shared meanings of place. While some items appeared random – like the running ground of abandoned cats and the best people-watching site in the neighborhood, they reflected a spirited and detailed conversation.

Sixth graders made a series of transparent, overlapping maps that documented historic sites, memorials and monuments as well as traffic flows, bike paths, locally owned business – even the architecture of surveillance through security cameras and locked gates. They claimed their neighborhood, pinpointing graffiti, which they designated either pretty or ugly, “secret passages” and other information known and recognized only by residents of an area.

Riot reflected that the project both documented and created community, adding that the completed maps will be archived in a library for research and community access. Citing it as a strong start to what is hoped to be the first of many mapping initiatives, Riot was heartened by the response.

The process helped organizers identify strategies for wider community involvement and begin to ask, if not answer, tough questions about a problem that confronts most local, participatory initiatives in economically and culturally diverse neighborhoods -- the finished product represented a narrower historical and lived experience of class, culture and ethnicity than the neighborhood itself reflects.

In the first year, participation was dominated by, though not limited to, residents who identified as “belonging” in the Mile End, those who felt comfortable coming to a new place for an event and who had the free time and energy to attend. While diverse linguistically and in age and nation of origin, they were generally middle class and not new immigrants.

Riot is eager to apply lessons in place-making to widen participation. Addressing the practical realities of diversity in their neighborhood, organizers are locating spaces of regular interaction and engagement amongst all residents as sites to hold future mapping activities. They are also working with interested representatives from Hasidic and new immigrant communities to figure out the nuts and bolts of their future involvement in community mapping.

Perhaps the transparent, layered maps made by middle school student participants can be a model for the future of the project. As in any diverse urban neighborhood in the 21st century, there simply is no one map of what it has been or what it will be. But by getting a wide array of residents to create many maps, and by finding ways to look at them together as parts of a complicated and ever-changing whole, articule is poised to develop a model for participatory place-making that acknowledges difference while locating and fostering spaces of convergence.

~ Margo Shea