Monday, April 21, 2008

Written in the Stars: Digital History Project

Unlike other Public History programs in the province, the program at the University of Western Ontario includes a mandatory Digital History course. This course is designed to familiarize students with different ways of integrating history and technology. From learning how to blog, to practicing code, this course has introduced many of us, including myself, to new technology that improves exhibit success.

As part of our class we were asked to make an interactive exhibit focusing on how the history was presented using technology. This was a useful exercise because it helped me to think about the visitor’s experience and the benefits of dynamic displays that encouraged visitor involvement. The overall theme of the exhibit was “The Sky” and our section was “Constellations”. Our group sought to portray some of the many different cultural interpretations of constellations throughout the ages. In our section, we used both SMART Board technology and a interactive display containing a microcontroller, to display information and promote interactivity with the material.

A SMART Board, shown above, acts similar to PowerPoint programs, but are manipulated through their touch screen. Visitors were able to select one of the twelve constellation images through a simple touch of the screen. This took them to a page describing the constellation and showing the stars that constitute the constellation.

The visitors loved this page which encouraged them to draw their version of the constellation on the SMART Board, before dragging down the correct image. There was also an interactive game similar to Jeopardy for visitors to play which tested their knowledge. As most visitors were briefly passing through,it seemed the game would be better suited to a camp for children or times where visitors would have more time to use it. Programming the SMART Board was a good opportunity to learn a new technology and how it can be used to present history to the public.

The second part of our project involved a BASIC stamp microcontroller that allowed us to program four constellations with information that would appear on a laptop screen at the push of a button. We built a model of a Greek observatory that had a pointer in the form of a cross-staff carried by Ptolemy. Visitors enjoyed selecting one of the four formations in order to learn more about them.

Both the SMART Board presentation and the representation of an ancient Greek observatory with digital pointer adds another dimension to the user-directed learning experience that our group sought to create. Through creating digital concepts that present the material in a dynamic fashion, we created an interactive exhibit that was modern and educational.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Can you spot a fake?

Many of us have received emails that have been digitally manipulated to create humour. This doctored photo of Tom Cruise is a personal favourite of mine.

Many altered photos, however, can be more serious than Cruise's fictitious turn towards sanity..

Some people may remember the scandal of Lcpl Boudreaux who was under investigation by the Marines because of the picture of two Iraqi children holding a sign saying “Lcpl Boudreaux killed my dad, then knocked up my sister”. Another version surfaced on the internet saying "Lcpl saved my dad, then rescued my sister".

However, despite software able to detect fake photographs, they were unable to tell which, if any, of the photographs on the internet were real. The investigation was inconclusive and dropped, but not without Boudreaux's reputation being questioned and attacked in his local paper.

Altering pictures is not something new, or unique to digital photographs. Throughout history traditional photographs have been changed for many reasons. Many people alter photos for political and historical reasons. For example, many Russian photographs after the revolution have 'erased' traitors and those gone astray from the party.

More recently, John Kerry was the victim of photo alteration that placed him at an anti-war rally in order to discredit him.

Other people alter photos in order to sell more newspapers and magazines. For instance, Time magazine made O J Simpson's face darker in order for him to appear sinister.

Also, New York Newsday used a digital composite of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding on one of their covers.

As people have painted over, cropped and edited pictures in various fashions it has and always will be important to assess the validity of photos. It comes as no surprise that digital photographs would suffer the same manipulations as traditional photographs.

As forgers become more skilled, the software available to detect tampered photographs increases. The naked eye alone can no longer spot inconsistencies in the perspective, proportions and lighting of a photo as doctoring photos become more advanced. Cameras are being developed to make it very difficult to manipulate a photo without it leaving evidence.

People like Hany Farid, a Dartmouth College computer scientist, have created sophisticated programs which can detect changes in digital photographs. The problem with Farid's, and other software used to validate photographs, is that they require a high quality image file such as a RAW file that is often compressed and not available. However, the technology is thought to be good enough to catch all but the most advanced forgers.

People are often fooled by photographs believing them to be real. However, everyone, especially historians, should be critical of images as well as any other source. The danger is not new or increased, but must be treated with the same vigilance and skepticism historians have used in the past.

Can you spot the fake? ; )

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Archives in the Classroom: Letters from the Trunk

"And when the settlers arrived in Western Canada ..."


Teachers are constantly trying new weapons in their arsenal to fight Historytitis (the attack of boring history classes!) We have all witnessed the glazed-over fish faces that grace classrooms when teachers try to get their students interested in history.

While the tiger cage has potential, a better strategy to fight off the vacant stares is through the use of interactive media such as smartboards and website presentations that involve the students directly. One website worth considering is the Archives in the Classroom: Letters from the Trunk.

It allows students the ability to explore Alberta's immigration history in a virtual train station. The train station contains historical documents, maps, student journal activities, and additional resources for teachers linking the archival material to their curriculum. Students can open up trunks and 'discover' for themselves the stories of French immigrants, Italian immigrants and the life of British immigrant Dr. Mary Percy Johnson.

There are many different kinds of mediums, such as newspaper clippings, interviews, photos and journals. The materials in the trunks are all from archival sources and teach students to look at sources critically. There are also tutorials teaching students about archival materials, the difference between a library and an archive and the principles of archival practices. The student journal allows students to bookmark and comment on important materials and it is saved for the next time they visit the site.

This site is a blend of interactive graphics, primary source materials and thought provoking questions which creates a dynamic site full of fun historical learning!

ChEcK it OuT @

Friday, November 16, 2007

History’s Inferiority Complex: The Unsung Hero of Academics

In a recent Ipsos-Reid survey, subjects English, Math and Science have taken the spotlight, while History hides bashfully in the wings. The poll indicates that Canadians feel history is not relevant to daily life. “Only one in ten (8%) young adults rank history as the academic subject that has most prepared them to succeed in their everyday life”, while English, Math and science ranked at 47%, 28%, and 16% respectively. [i]

History’s low ranking is somewhat surprising as 89% of respondents felt that history was an essential subject which should be mandatory in high school. It seems while the value of history in the classroom is recognized, there is a disconnect between history and its real life application.

While English, Math and Science unquestionably provide students with life skills, history should not be overlooked. History teaches people a very significant life skill that is often forgotten: the ability to think critically. So, maybe history doesn’t teach a person something tangible, such as sentence fragments or algebraic formulas, but it does teach them to be skeptical and discerning. Contrary to the popular belief of history studies, studying history isn’t about knowing as much as possible about any one past event, but rather, it is about understanding how to interpret the past. In developing skills to evaluate history, we are also developing skills that pertain to our everyday lives. The skills acquired through the study of history aren’t as obvious as those acquired from science or math; however, they are pervasive and essential to daily life. Perhaps, if it can be acknowledged that history is relevant in providing life skills, more than 4 provinces will have mandatory high school history courses...

[i] Ipsos Reid / Dominion Institute Remembrance Day Survey:This Year The Annual Dominion Institute / Ipsos-Reid Remembrance Day Survey Looks What Can Be Done To Improve The Teaching Of History In Schools. These Results Form The Basis Of A Series Of Practical Policy Recommendations That The Dominion Institute Is Making To Improve History Instruction In Canada. November 8, 2007,

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Exhibit Review

The Free Press Print Shop Exhibit--Fanshawe Pioneer Village (London & Middlesex Heritage Museum) 1424 Clarke Road, London, Ontario N5Z 5B9.

Reviewed Sept 22 & Oct 26.

The Print Shop exhibit at Fanshawe Pioneer Village was originally created in 1967 by the London Free Press as a centennial project. The building was not designed after a particular Free Press structure, as it had burned down several times, but a conglomeration of characteristics from many early print shops. After being displayed near the London Free Press building, the replica went on exhibit at the Western Fair grounds. The London Free Press subsequently donated the Print Shop replica for permanent display at Fanshawe Pioneer Village. The Print Shop fits well with Fanshawe Pioneer Village’s mandate to showcase life in Southwestern Ontario from 1820s-1920s. It is meant to illustrate a late nineteenth century print shop, displaying varying successions of printing presses and print technology. In addition, the exhibit presents the print shop as being an influential and important feature in early Canada.

In order to display the evolution of printing technology through time, the print shop uses many artifacts of varying time periods. As this is a living history museum the interpreter, Doug Teeter, was central to the historical presentation of the print shop. He began with a description of the print shop and the history of printing from a technical perspective. He explained the exhibit’s many artifacts, pointing out which print presses would have been used pre-confederation and some which were manufactured later in the 19th century. It was also helpful to see a working press and he demonstrated how to use it. This proof press was used for single sheets which would have been shown to customers copy before they started printing multiple copies on a printing press. Copies of the The London Free Press from July 1st 1867 are displayed to demonstrate not only the type of news reported, but to focus on the speed at which news travelled. Understandably there is no mention of confederation as the interpreter pointed out because news travelled by boat and then paths loosely defined as roads to get to Southwestern Ontario. Further, there was a tray of letters for printing that you could touch and practice setting for print. This is very effective in relating the tedious and time consuming nature of the printing press. The origin of common words we still use today in reference to writing on computers, such as justification, font points and “putting an article to bed” were explored using tactile examples. Other artifacts include samples of paper that are linen based to show how paper used to be made and how it felt.

The other aspect of the exhibit was the presentation of a clear narrative of the print shop as a fixture in the lives of Londoners. Doug spoke of the political controversy of the Canadian Free Press, as it was originally called when William Sutherland owned it. He recreates the world of reformers and the conservative family compact, while explaining the integral role the print shop played in the politics of the 19th century. The history of the London Free Press is told including stories of the burning of the Canadian Free Press when owned by liberal Sutherland to the success of Josiah Blackburn’s Free Press after he bought it in 1853. This was not supported with as many artifacts beyond a picture of Blackburn, but it brought a local interest to the print shop exhibit.
What could be a living history exhibit’s greatest flaw is also one that allows it to easily adapt to different audiences. Interpreters are central to disseminating knowledge to the public in living history exhibits. This can be damaging in the sense that the information might not be the same as different interpreters focus on divergent themes. However, the interactive and malleable nature of the interpreter does allow the exhibit to target a broader audience.
This is evident in The Free Press exhibit as it tailors its exhibit to different patrons. There are educational programs through the school that allow children to get a more hands-on approach. They are given a history of how the printing presses were used, allowed to play with the letters and even use the proof press to make a keepsake certificate with their name on it. The same principle applies to the general public as well. Doug had a general interpretation to give to visitors, but they were in control of building their visit, by choosing to listen to his interpretation, to ask further questions and handle the artifacts.

Through its use of primary sources and interactive interpretation the exhibit fulfills its purpose of expressing the history of printing and its place in the landscape of 19th century Southwestern Ontario. The volunteer interpreter Doug Teeter did an excellent job both of the times he was reviewed. Despite the fact that Mr. Teeter is not an employee, or perhaps as a result of this, his passion for the subject comes through in his interpretation of the Print Shop. He is knowledgeable and is quick to offer titles of secondary sources for further reading. While the history of the Free Press is highly relevant to London’s history, it would be interesting to have information presented of lesser known presses in the area. In addition, it would be convenient to have labels and written text inside the exhibit. Although admittedly this could detract from the display, it would help to identify the many different print presses. Also, while there is a plaque outside briefly describing the print shop and its history, there is nothing inside at all to give any interpretation. Should the interpreter be busy, or for those visitors who would prefer to read information, it would be beneficial to have the information available inside the building. The exhibit also seemed disjointed, in that the span of technology was not labelled and not sectioned into time periods. The ‘feel’ of the print shop is not authentic as there would be more drying lines and a greater amount of paper spread around. In this sense it felt more like a collection of printing artifacts on display rather than an actual replica of a print shop. Overall, the print shop exhibit clearly described the process of printing in the 19th century and the history of the London Free Press. It was educational and interactive for general adult visitors as well as for children. The ability to interact with the artifacts was extremely important in recognizing the utility and history of the print shop.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Weltner’s ‘Scholarly’ Site

In all honesty before this class probably the only computer term I knew was www as 'world wide web'. I would like to think I am very proficient using my computer, to use hotmail, check my facebook, run most applications, but I had never thought of how it all works. It worked and that was enough for me. In our Digital History class the seeming 'magic' of my computer and the internet is definitely being replaced by a dizzying array of code and format. The last few weeks have been extremely interesting in some respects and in others very disquieting...After watching Epic 2015 I found it a little hard to breathe... What, our emails don't actually get deleted?

A little voice inside of me cries ranking order, TEI, xml vs. html vs. xhtml? Who cares? Although ignorance is bliss, I am happy that this course has forced me to realize (although I'm still stuck in a fuzzy stage) how everything works. One of my best friends sent me this email today and I thought it was a great example of everything we have been discussing in class.

The email describes the racist web-site and the fight to remove it from the Google search engine.

Please copy this message and send it to your
> friends. Thank you *Subject:* Petition to Google to
> remove an anti-Semitic siteWhen you Google the word
> "Jew", one of the first websites that pops up
> is -- an anti-Semitic,
> hate-filled haranguemasquerating as "scholarly,
> factual, informational".Add your name to the
> petition to remove from
> Google'ssearch engine. (Check out the site and you
> will understand why.)In order for Google to remove
> this, they would need a petition of over500,000
> requests.... So let's make it 1,000,000! P.S.
> Current total signatures approx. 325,000Go to:
> to
> sign thepetition. VERY IMPORTANT !! Please pass this
> one on!

The owner of this site is Frank Weltner, a member of the white-nationalist and white-separatist group the National Alliance. An example of the 's racist writing:

"Newspapers: 90% of All United States Newspapers Are Owned and Run by Jews

And They Are Using Them to Elect the Presidents and Congressmen They Want--For Their Plan to Wipe Out White Americans. According to President Clinton, the Jewish/Colored Democratic Party Has Reduced Whites Already from 88% in 1964 to 72% in 1998. Using this Progression, Whites Will Be Reduced (via This Genocide) to 49% in 2040 to 24% in 2085 and to 9% in 2125. After that, Whites will have Been Exterminated Entirely. This is Made Possible Because Pro-Zionist-Soviet-Jews and Not the Tolerant Christian Whites Control the Press of Our White, Christian Nation. They Are Using Their Presses To Tell Us What To Think, To Destroy our Ethical Ways and Our Culture, to Promote Racist Civil Rights Agendas Designed to Destroy Whites, and to Promote Israel's Policies in the Middle East."

Weltner publishes his credentials as a certified librarian with an English MA. He describes his site as "the Internet's Largest Scholarly Collection of Articles on Jewish History" and that the "637 million pages served demonstrate our focus on professionalism". Anyone can say they have 'scholarly' work and post it on the internet despite its blatantly racist undertones. This reinforces everything we have said in class about the need for people to be sceptical of sources. Although this is drilled into our heads as students, sites like this can reach those who don't make clear distinctions between good scholarship, and eccentrics who claim to have 'scholarly facts' that substantiate their own agenda. Although it would be nice if every hate site were wiped off the internet, it is unrealistic to think this will happen. It is also unfortunate that the first site (it fluctuates, it was 3rd when I typed it into Google) that came up when you type in Jew in Google is this biased site filled with propaganda. Simply changing the order or removing the site, isn't enough as there will always be people posting hateful/or simply false information. People need to be vigilant about the information they accept. Another interesting thing I was thinking about was whether or not the fight against this website somehow validates it by recognizing it, instead of treating it as something not worthy of anyone's time? Is the whole controversy getting Weltner more publicity and a larger audience? Hopefully, the effect is the opposite and this example will highlight the need to be wary of any source, no matter how legitimate it may seem.