Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Two Lesser-Known Gems in NYC

In honor of my brother's first winter break home from college, I took him and his girlfriend to the city for some low-cost gallivanting.

We started down on the east side of the Financial District at a free concert, and made our way up to the Asia Society Museum on the upper east side via the Municipal Archives and Superior Court Building.

Although I'd spent some time in the Municipal Archives building at 31 Chambers Street for a research project for the Tenement Museum, I never knew that there was a curated exhibit in the basement featuring treasures from the archives from the 17th through the 20th centuries. After walking down from the 7th floor admiring the building's marble halls, vintage mail shoots and bureaucratic-elegant architecture we literally stumbled upon the exhibit in the basement. Sometimes all you need is a chronological display of fascinating documents and photographs to pass an edifying hour. After marveling over bills of sale and freedom papers for slaves, payments to the administrator of the whipping post, architectural drawing for the original elevated train line and photographs of inmates on Blackwell's Island, it was hard to drag ourselves away.

I'm glad we did because the exhibits at the Asia Society Museum were fantastic. The artifacts and compositions on display in the Muslim Calligraphy exhibit were breathtaking. The exhibit space was quiet, informative, uncluttered. Everything about the exhibit experience was meditative.

In stark contrast, the Art and China's Revolution exhibit carefully constructed the visitor's intellectual experience, providing chronological context and contextual information to an evolving array of artwork created between the 1920s and 1980s in China. I was only temporarily confused by the exhibit because the chronological section was in a different gallery space from the artwork, but everything came together after viewing both sections. The exhibition was fun to view with friends because it sparked conversation about what makes "good art" and whether the meaning of "good art" changes based on cultural context. Highly recommended!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Living History Sojourn

In contrast to the weekly standard's scathing critique of social historians' love of the mundane, Emily Yoffe's Slate article is quite refreshing.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

NMAH Review

This article provides a fascinating perspective on (a particular) public perception of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

As a public historian trained as a social historian, I know how tough it can be to strike a balance between striving for historical context and creating something dramatic and engaging that the public can relate to.

I'm excited to visit the newly renovated NMAH next time I'm in DC!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Thoughts on the History Web

While the web has come of age over the past 4 or 5 years, it seems that many historians and curators are still unsure about what to do with it. Back in 1996, a website with visible text, reasonably-sized images and quality content superimposed on a sane and non-flashy background was a work of genius. Today, the quality scholarly content is still out there, but its creators are tearing their hair out worrying about web 2.0, attracting and holding audiences.

As in all things, purpose is key. Just because the web may be unfamiliar, that is not an excuse to throw critical thought out the window. It's not scary; it's just a new way to reach different audiences. If you are embarking on a new website or updating an old one, ask yourself, who do you want to serve? You need to answer this question first before you can calmly determine how best to attract them.

If your audience is scholarly, then don't feel you need to pretend it is not. I've been amazed at the lack of online humanities journals that engage the capabilities of the web. Even the Journal of the Oral History Society does not employ a format in which audio excerpts can be added to text. This would be an excellent feature to pursue online.

Graduate students struggle daily with the creation of "web exhibits." Unsure whether they are attempting to engage a scholarly or general audience, they agonize over text and images, tone and volume. The web offers something museums have long dreamed about and struggled to create: layers.

Don't despair and lock away your scholarly text. Just connect it through layers to your visitors' first impression of the site. If you want a casual visitor to stop and stay, snag her with a slide-show of click-able images. If you want to know more, go here! Even more? Go here!

Don't be afraid of connecting your site to something in another information dimension. Here's a scholarly paper. Here is the blog to go with it.

The internet is about creating communities. There's no reason to believe that suddenly all communities are the same. Just know who you're looking for and direct them to different experiences of your content.

Because no post would be right without examples, consider the excellent Lost Museum. Here is a site that can be experienced by casual users with a rich online environment to explore. Students can use clues in the exhibit to solve a mystery related to the history of the burning of P.T. Barnum's American Museum. Teacher's can use essays posted in the classroom to teach using the primary sources cataloged in the archive. There's a hook, and then there's layers of true quality content below.