Final Project: The Spirits that Linger: Haunted History in Lafayette Square

Those who read my blog will remember that earlier in the semester, I outlined a proposal for my final project. To briefly recap, my colleague Amanda Zimmerman and I were interested in creating a self-guided walking ghost tour app for smart phones and tablets for the White House Historical Association. Since that blog post, we had meetings with Dr. Kerr and the White House Historical Association, and while some objectives, design or function aspects have changed, we are very excited to announce our final product and if I do say so myself it is pretty great. But before the big reveal, here is a little background information on our spook-tastic app.

Practicum Project for White House Historical Association

Our final project for History and New Media was born out of the work we did for the White House Historical Association. For our practicum project, we were elected to create a seasonal guided walking ghost tour that would take place in Lafayette Square. For those unfamiliar with Lafayette Square, it is a seven-acre public park across the street from the White House. In the nineteenth century, the square was a cultural and fashionable residential neighborhood that housed Washington, D.C.’s elite. With powerful politicians and individuals calling the square home, it was the backdrop for scandals, murders, suicides, and pivotal moments in American history. Yet due to government agencies taking over the square in the twentieth century, it is very easy to walk through the square and not recognize the rich history.

We wanted to breathe life back into Lafayette Square and wanted to create a fun opportunity to engage visitors with the square. Due to the vast range of folklore attached to Lafayette Square, a ghost tour was the best way to accomplish this goal. However, unlike other ghost tours, that readers of this blog may be familiar with; this tour is not about scaring visitors, but instead is a cleverly disguised history lesson. The in-depth primary and secondary research we did on dark tourism, Lafayette Square’s ghost stories, locations, and individuals has transformed into an entertaining interactive one-hour walking tour. Visitors get to hear the ghost stories but the emphasis is on accurate information and historical interpretation. It should be up and running by the end of summer, and I recommend everyone in the area checks it out!

Why an App?

One of History and New Media’s objectives is to teach public history graduate students to recognize the potential that new media has when producing products or programs for the public. One of the fantastic benefits of using digital resources for a public historian is the opportunity to reach new audiences. The downfall of creating a walking tour is that people need be locals or visiting tourists to experience it. Another problem is that we had to eliminate a couple locations due to distance or material. However, modern technology has opened a door that allows us to solve these problems. Throughout the semester, we have learned about different digital platforms and resources that we can apply to the way we present history. After careful consideration, we settled on creating an app. It is one of the best new ways to engage new audiences-as almost everyone has a smartphone, tablet, or a friend with access to one. Those who are interested in learning about the nation’s capital can download the app or if people do not like going on guided tours they now have an opportunity to receive the tour’s content. An added bonus is that the locations like the Octagon House and the Tracy House are no longer eliminated. This is because with an app, we do not have to worry about time or distance. The app we designed is easy to navigate and inviting to all age groups. In addition, it allows people to learn on their own time, and allows users to actively find people or locations that interest them.

Our Process

As we began to design the app, we chose to eliminate the audio and testimonial option. While those two options the White House Historical Association can flesh out in the future, we realize it did not fit with our vision for the app. Our agenda behind the app was to focus on the square and the history behind it. Dan Brown’s book Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning recommended that we start with creating a structure outline, below is our flowchart.

The Flowchart Amanda and I Created

The Flowchart Amanda and I Created

Next, we began to sketch our designs for our wire-frames. Please forgive my handwriting and my ugly deformed ghosts. I promise that I am artistic.

sketches1

sketches2sketches3

In case, you cannot tell from my scribbling, Wire-frame 1 is the home page. We decided that it would be a map with ghosts hovering over the haunted locations. After clicking on a ghost, the user has four options to select: Architectural History, Biographies, Ghost Stories, and Images. When the user clicks on one of the four options, a new screen appears with text and images. If they click on “Biographies” or “Images” they have the option to select and view the numerous biographies we wrote or the images we discovered. So for example, if the user clicks on ghost over the Decatur House, they can read a history on the house; read Stephen Decatur, Susan Decatur, and Commodore James Barron’s biographies; read the ghost stories associated with the house; sift through photographs of the house and individuals.

When we designed the app, we opted to use the user-friendly program called Prototyper. The program gave us a range of templates and widgets to choose from and showed us how our design appears in various digital platforms. The program also provides a space for the app designer to write notes and outline the functions of the app. It was a great resource to tap into and made our wire-frames a 100x better. If anyone ever has to design an app, I highly recommend downloading it.

Wire-frames

Below are our wire-frames. The script and images were fashioned into a binder for Dr. Kerr and the White House Historical Association. I hope you enjoy looking at our app and please let Amanda and I know what you think in the comment section of my blog!

1.LoadingPage 2.MapHomePage 3.LocationHomePage 4.Arch.Hist.Page 5.BioHome 6.ExampleBio 7.ImagesPage 8.GhostStories

 

 

 

 

Apps, Apps, Apps.

Large group of business people text messaging elevated view

Kids these days…..Always on their phones!

Before I am accused of sounding like an eighty-five year old grumpy old man, look around you. Everyone is on his or her smartphones. Kids, teens, adults, even senior citizens are constantly looking at their smartphones. People are responding to emails, texting, snapchatting, updating Facebook, taking a selfie, or failing to beat Level 183j of Candy Crush (seriously who can beat it for me?). And I will be the first to admit, that I am looking at my beloved iPhone 5 from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep. I feel like a panicked parent if I happen to misplace it.

Recognizing that we are in the throes of a cultural shift, museums want to capitalize on the usage of smartphone apps to enhance the museum experience. In June 2010, the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Policy and Analysis (OP&A) began surveying visitors in hopes of one day designing apps that compliment exhibits and objects. The purpose of their research was to “understand visitors’ mobile phone usage; what type of information they seek for when in a museum; and what type of information that might want in a mobile app.” Since the apps are for the visitors not curators or experts, the Smithsonian believes development should center on the responses of current visitors. Listen here to Nancy Proctor’s presentation about focusing on content of an app and evaluating the needs of the visitor.

While I think it is great that they are embracing the high tech world we live in and trying to engage the visitor on another level, I have my doubts. When I am in a museum, I want to spend time with what is in front of me, not what is on my phone. This is one of the rare moments; I can divorce myself from apps, emails, and texts and immerse myself in art or culture. I can see how sometimes certain additional videos or information can enhance an experience, but honestly it can really feel like an overload. Looking at an iPhone for information, to me detracts from the museum experience. I am also not interested in cluttering up my phone with apps that I will use once or twice. I would much rather have a museum provide me a smart device that provides audio and sometimes visual information. I personally enjoy audio tours, as they don’t distract me from what I am looking at.

Technology offers us a lot of new possibilities and opportunities, and museums need to be careful about the experience they are creating with it.

Tool Review: Omeka

 

omeka

Last semester, I was introduced to the digital tool Omeka, and I must confess I was not in love in with it. For my Visual and Material Culture class, I used the resource to create an online exhibit about Maidenform bras. I would insert the link here, but due to copyright, I cannot reproduce it. However, recently I have talked with others who did not share my feelings and for this last review, I decided to learn about and review the digital tool.

What’s an Omeka?

Omeka. A Swahili word meaning to display or lay out wares; to speak out; to spread out; to unpack; which is incredibly appropriate since Omeka is a project of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, located at George Mason University in Virginia. According to Omeka’s About page, Omeka “is a free, flexible, and open source web-publishing platform for the display of library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions.”

The website goes on to further state: “Omeka is designed with non-IT specialists in mind, allowing users to focus on content and interpretation rather than programming…Its robust open-source developer and user communities underwrite Omeka’s stability and sustainability…By making standards based, serious online publishing easy, Omeka puts the power and reach of the web in the hands of academics and cultural professionals themselves.”

.net versus .org

There are two versions of Omeka. Omeka.org offers a variety of themes, styles, plug-ins, and personalization, but requires individuals to secure their own servers. Whereas Omeka.net runs through the website, thus its capabilities and capacity is severely limited. It is the basic package for an online exhibit with only 500 MB of storage. Since I do not have my own server, I used omeka.net for my online exhibit.

I know believe this is why I was frustrated. Omeka’s promise of ease and flexibility does not truly apply to the .net version. It only offers four themes and ten plug-ins. The three that I used and liked were the Exhibit Builder, Social Bookmarking, and Coins (which makes your site Zotero readable). The limited options where frustrating, especially since the .org version offers over fifty plug-ins and actually does have flexibility with themes and design. Furthermore, the .net version is not very intuitive when one has to upload images and input the metadata. There was a lot of clicking and trial and error until I figured out the proper way. Creating pages for the site also was problematic, until I understood how the different templates would alter the images I selected. Even now as I click around my old exhibit to get reacquainted with the website, I am growing frustrated.

Looking at some of the public exhibits created with the .org version, I am slightly green with envy. Main pages have rotating images, tag clouds, videos, and multiple pathways through an exhibition. The ability to have larger storage is clearly a game changer. However, I will be the first to admit that I am proud of the product I was able to produce. In the end, it did flow nicely. The limited viewers of my exhibit cannot see my technical difficulties, but only a seamless and simple online exhibit.

Studying the .org creations, I can understand why people have been so receptive to the site. The main thing I have realized from reading reviews and poking around the .org site, is that I wish I had used that version! At the end of the day, this tool is really an asset to the museum and public history world. It is a platform for a variety of museum professionals, librarians, archivists, educators and even enthusiasts to come together, share collections, and start new conversations. I would just recommend the .org version to do so.

Please check these two examples: Battersea Arts Centre Digital Archive and Gothic Past to see what Omeka is capable of and check out their vimeo website here.

Let’s Go to the Movies!

lets-go-to-the-movies-sign-in-sepia-carol-groenen“Take visitors to the movies instead of showing them the credits,” said Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) director Maxwell Anderson in 2009. His speech was designed to encourage museums to “tell stories behind and about the objects, their context in history and in the life of the museum, and providing experiences that are ‘tactile, sensual, and visceral’” via digital technology.

A growing number of museum individuals, like Anderson, are seeing the perks of using social media. Erika Dicker’s article, “The Impact of Blogs and Other Social Media on the Life of a Curator” highlights how using social media has affected the work of curators. Typically curators are seen as guardians of collections and as the top specialists in their field; but not someone the public has easy access to. Dicker points out that as museums become more comfortable with “open culture”, it allows curators to have two-way conversations and gain visibility. With “open culture” accessibility to objects and curators has fundamentally changed and I think it is great.

For those curators who engage in tweeting and blogging, they are creating an opportunity to expose the public to the fantastic collections and fun/drama that occurs on staff floors. For example, National Museum of American History has millions of objects in storage and collection rooms, and only a tiny portion on display. The objects on display are carefully selected and researched to compliment an exhibit’s big idea or theme. But what about the objects that cannot be put on view due to preservation or conservation concerns? Or the objects that are a little weird but interesting, and can never find a place in an exhibit? Until social media, the public never saw these types of objects…unless you had a friend who was a project assistant and could arrange a private tour. Social media can only enhance the public’s understanding and appreciation of museums. But that is a different story.

The National Museum of American History has really pushed itself to produce content for the web and for social media. It recognizes the value and the benefits of letting the people in. In recent years, the museum’s blog, flickr page, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, has allowed for our collections and curators to be more accessible.

I hope that as social media continues to grow, more and more curators will start sharing more with the public.

I encourage everyone to check out and get involved with the social media websites of the National Museum of American History as well as their favorite museums!

Remember Your Audience

Throughout my professional life and my academic endeavors, I have been involved in numerous projects that utilized project teams, project managers, documents, and deliverables. However, I have never been associated with a website or design project, so reading Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning, by Daniel M. Brown was familiar and new. Brown’s book is excellent for those who are interested in managing a project as well as actually doing a design job. Communicating Design is a step-by-step guide for creating clear design documents or deliverables for a project; but also how to effectively establish communication between the various groups associated with a project.

An important chapter of Brown’s text is his discussion on personas (also known as user profiles, user role definitions, audience profiles). Brown articulates the purpose of personas is to “focus design activities by helping the team prioritize system features and content that best support the audience.” By using personas from the beginning, a team can:

  1. Capture the organization’s understanding of the target audience to help drive design

  2. Provide a means for prioritizing a long wish list of system features.

audienceBrown’s advice is applicable for web and non-web projects and as a public historian; I greatly appreciate the time he spent on this chapter. For any successful project, thoughts about an audience and how to effectively meet their needs, must be top priority for designers. Yet so many times, project teams lose sight of their intended audience as they move forward in their work. By having, a clear constructed and detailed vision of an audience, a team will remain focus on their goals and have fruitful results.

For example, in an earlier post, I laid out one my current projects: a ghost tour app for the White House Historical Association. The app is connected to a much larger project that my partner and I are working on. This semester, we have dedicated ourselves to creating a walking ghost tour in Lafayette Square for millennials, also known as the 20-something crowd. From the start we have worked to define and understand our audience, so that we can create a product they will enjoy. Although we did not go as in-depth as Brown suggests, we did first-hand evaluations to properly assess and create a profile of our targeted audience. Now that we have begun to write, we make sure to remind ourselves who we are creating the walking tour for and that keeps us focused on our product.

Mapping Out a New Kind of Research

Mapping History

Throughout the semester, I have been blogging about new ways to interpret history and various new media topics but never thought about the benefits of incorporating mapping into research.

Stephen Robertson’s article, “Putting Harlem on the Map” is an eye-opening article about the potential advantages of utilizing mapping techniques when conducting research.

Robertson and three of his colleagues conducted a collaborative study of everyday life in Harlem in the 1920s. By employing geospatial tools and databases, his team was able to uncover information that would never have come to light using our standard techniques. For this project, new areas of Harlem and new understandings were uncovered because geospatial maps and databases have the ability to merge various types of information and sources into an organized system based on street locations in Harlem.

“Layers of different data, and hence large quantities of data, can be combined on a single map, providing an image of the complexity of the past. You can examine maps of sources at different scales, and “discover relationships…by visually detecting spatial patterns that remain hidden in texts and tables.” Those spatial relationships prompted questions I might otherwise have ignored and facilitated comparisons that I would not have considered.”

A great example of this was mapping out traffic accidents, something Robertson never would have spent time on. By mapping out the accidents, one learns about the flow of traffic of people, thus grasping a new meaning and added context to the social life on those streets. From the article, we also learn that this type of data provoked new questions and provided new understandings about interracial interactions, as white people were also involved in these incidents.

This new method does not solve all our problems as researchers and historians. Robertson does point out a flaw with the digital tool; you need to have an address. Newspaper articles and other sources that omit locations are useless and cannot be included in creating a “total history”, thereby limiting some the primary sources.

In the past, I have been wary of some the new digital media techniques that are being incorporated into doing research, but I have to say I am impressed by what he was able to do by incorporating geospatial techniques. While he still was not able to get the “total history”, he was able to unlock powerful new evidence that he himself said he would have overlooked. As Robertson states in the end of his article, the geospatial tools captures multiple rhythms. It allows those interested in social history a different way to understand the movement of their subjects. I am not sure if I can incorporate this method into every research project I do, but it is something that I hope I can take advantage of someday.

Wordle Me This.

About a month ago, Dr. Kerr showed the History and New Media class the usefulness of digital tools like Time Magazine Corpus, Google Ngram Viewer, Wordle, BYU Corpora, Bookworm, and Voyant Tools. I was particularly intrigued by the concept of Wordle, and decided to spend more time with it.

Wait….Maria what is Wordle?

The free online digital tool describes itself as “a toy for generating “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.”

After removing the footnotes and images, I uploaded my undergraduate thesis, “Debunking Rosie” into the system and was surprised but overall pleased with what I saw.

Debunking Rosie“Debunking Rosie” looked at World War II propaganda and roles women assumed during the war to discuss the power of the Rosie the Riveter image. While I am not surprised that “women” is the largest word, with “propaganda” and “war”  trailing as a close second;  the fact that “Rosie” is medium sized and “riveter” is barely visible was intriguing. I am also surprised that “World War II” has been divided up over the image. Nonetheless, the word cloud hits the key terms and one can get a gist of what my thesis is about.

Historians always hope that their main ideas will be well-received and connect with their audience. This tool is a clever and fun way to visually assess a text’s main points, themes, or most commonly used words. However this visualization is not 100% accurate, as demonstrated by my thesis example.  This is because Wordle thinks some words are “stop words” or frequent and unimportant words. The FAQ recommends that people fiddle with the language settings to get the results they want. This is a bright, fun, and different way to look at a body of text. I would advise people to check it out but also to keep in mind that it is limited in what it can do.