Humorous History

In our group blog post last week summarizing our storyboard for our video featuring the Centennial Monstrance we took a humorous bent as we showed the monstrance literally crossing from Fulda, Germany, where it was crafted, to St. Louis where it dwelled by photoshopping a picture of the monstrance onto a map. Dr. Roberts commented that some might find our portrayal of the monstrance a bit trivializing in light of its religious importance, which opens the door for a larger discussion on the relationship between humor and public history. While I can understand his concern, I also think that humor should have a place in public history. The question is, how can humor be used effectively?

In the case of my group’s Centennial Monstrance video, we considered and discussed the fact that some people may find it trivializing in the process of creating our storyboard. But we ultimately decided that the purpose of our video was to reach a broader audience than those already interested in Catholic material culture. We also hope to engage the viewer and bring new understanding to the term “crossings and dwellings” for those not familiar with Thomas Tweed’s book (aka most people) through the use of humor. The point of the video is to draw people in – certainly to the online Omeka exhibit, and perhaps even the exhibit at LUMA this summer.

I received an unsolicited, extremely positive response from one of my blog readers. I believe she said something to the effect of, “I was laughing so hard I nearly fell out of my chair,” and it actually led to a conversation in which I learned something new about altar societies and religious material culture. Obviously one person is not representative of everyone, but she was engaged with the material and it was memorable enough that she mentioned it to me.

Because there are so many voices in public history there will always be some kind of controversy. The challenge is to have controversy be productive and ultimately stimulate discussion. Additionally, humor varies from culture to culture (try watching 30 Rock dubbed in German) and individual to individual and everything else in-between, so it is impossible to please everyone. Should public historians shy away from humor because it may isolate some?

Using humor in public history walks a thin, uncharted line. When I think of humor and public history, I think of web series like Drunk History (which is now a tv series produced by Comedy Central) and Ask a Slave rather than products of “credible” history institutions. Does it differ when a history institution or organization uses humor to portray history versus other people, groups, or organizations? Drunk History’s primary purpose is to entertain, not educate. Both History and Ask a Slave aim to entertain, but Ask a Slave also strives to highlight the racism that exists today as well as the general lack of knowledge about America’s history, especially when it comes to slavery, and begin a conversation about it. Can humor be used to educate or does it just function as a conversation starter?

Was our attempted use of humor in our Centennial Monstrance video successful? Maybe. We hope it will be. Regardless of who it will isolate, we hope it will engage multiple groups, both those already familiar with Catholic material culture as well as new audiences. Humor is a powerful tool and public historians should continue to experiment with it.

Monstrance of Mobility: The Story of Crossing and Dwelling

For the final project of the semester, our group is creating a video about and an Omeka exhibit featuring the Centennial Monstrance. We met this weekend to create a storyboard for our video and created a simplified version for this blog post:

Although, unfortunately, our video will not actually feature the Centennial Monstrance crossing and dwelling with the Statue of Liberty or Darren Helm, it will highlight the ritual and history of the monstrance. Our Omeka exhibition will tie the Centennial Monstrance to larger themes of Catholic materiality and ritual. Pairing the monstrance with items such as a photograph of mass at Mundelein College, the Balopticon Lantern, and devotional books like Flowers of Mary will illuminate how Catholics have used both ritual and material culture to express their religious beliefs.

Our exhibit will also highlight the changes and continuities of ritual over time. Despite changing landscapes, new forms of Catholic art and material culture, as well as the development of new spiritual practices – such as the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises – our online exhibit and video seek to unify the constant of the Eucharist at the heart of Catholic living, with the Monstrance as a part of Catholic material culture that literally keeps the Eucharist physically centered and revered for all to see. Other objects and images in our exhibit, including some of Nicolas Point’s (1799–1868) drawings of rituals like baptisms and funerals, as well as twentieth century photographs of events such as mass and first communion at Mundelein College and St. Ignatius College also demonstrate keeping Christ, through the Eucharist, at the center of Catholic spirituality.

Geschichte lebt! – But whose?

I stumbled upon Das Gedächtnis der Nation (The Memory of the Nation) in one of my German Studies courses in college. After reading this week’s prompt which asked us to find and critique a public history site that uses videos, I immediately thought of Das Gedächtnis der Nation and decided to revisit the site. Das Gedächtnis der Nation began in 1998 when Zweite Deutsche Fernsehen (ZDF), a German public-service television broadcaster, began a collection of interviews recording memories and experiences of the 20th century. Additionally Guido Knopp, a producer of many history documentaries for ZDF (he also holds a doctorate in history and political science), took his “Jahrhundert” (Century) Bus around Germany and interviewed pre-selected (usually well-known) people as well as volunteers.

gedaechtnis der nation

Das Gedächtnis der Nation (The Memory of the Nation) – Geschichte lebt! (History lives!)

The resulting website is split up into three main categories: Participate, Educate, and Experience. Participate lays out how people can participate in the project, either by uploading video on YouTube or telling their experience on the Jahrhundert Bus, which does not have any upcoming tour dates. Educate is split into sections for School, Scholarship, and Links. School includes a variety of topics, such as “Guest Workers” or “Youth Culture in the East and West” with brief explanations of the topic and fragments of interviews pertaining to the subject. Scholarship explains the validity and advantages to the use of oral history interviews as scholarly sources.

Experience is the largest section. It contains the video interviews as well as contextual videos produced by ZDF for various topics in German history. Experience is split into three sections: Events, Themes, and Witnesses of the Century. Events provides short three to four minute contextual videos produced by ZDF for topics like “Women in the NS-Reich” and “J.F. Kennedy in the divided city.” Themes include “The Holocaust,” “Life in the New Homeland,” and “Two States – One History,” which features subcategories such as “Social Movements: Protest and Subculture” and “Sports: Rivals in the Ring.” Each theme or subcategory also features its own timeline populated with video interview segments relevant to each topic. Witnesses of the Century features longer interviews (approximately an hour) with well-known people like authors or politicians in Germany.

The timeline format in the Events section.

The timeline format in the Events section.

Events and Themes both utilize a timeline format. But some topics don’t necessarily have a date that they can be tied to. For example, the “Women in the NS-Reich” video is listed in 1934, but it covers a range of years and no single year is mentioned in the clip. A timeline format helps the user to order the information somewhat chronologically, but does this format limit what the producers qualified as an “event”? The Themes section also uses a timeline and assigns a date to each interview clip. Should recollections be given dates? Does this format emphasize the importance of dates and chronology over the content of the experiences relayed in the interviews?

The historical content of Das Gedächtnis der Nation is almost entirely video-based. Each video is accompanied by a brief summary of its content, but there are no transcriptions available. In my German Studies course, I used videos from the site for my research memory and the use of the Nazi past in the 1960s student movements in Germany. I remember I had to go through and watch quite a few videos to find what I was looking for. If transcripts had been available, it would have been less time consuming to skim them or use Ctrl-f to search for key phrases instead of watching the videos all of the way through. Additionally, captions are not available in the videos, so, because of the lack of text, the website is not hearing-impaired friendly.

Although Das Gedächtnis der Nation expressly encourages participation through the creation of YouTube videos (they have all of the videos on their website on YouTube as well), I could not find any videos that anyone not associated with the project has uploaded. If they do exist, Das Gedächtnis der Nation has not done a very good job at compiling them and making them easily accessible. It is a great idea, and they seem to have gotten some volunteers to share their stories on the Jahrhundert Bus. But since Das Gedächtnis der Nation has been online since October of 2011, they may want to rethink their campaign to encourage individual participation via YouTube if they have not attained results.

Das Gedächtnis der Nation proudly claims, “Geschichte lebt!” (history lives!) – but whose history? Currently the site reflects its title, Das Gedächtnis der Nation (The Memory of the Nation). For the most part, the experiences recounted in the interviews don’t have much overlap, creating one memory for the nation. Although it has improved since I used it in college, many of the interviews are with well-known people, such as authors and politicians, rather than regular people. Das Gedächtnis der Nation should strive to become Die Gedächtnisse der Nation (The Memories of the Nation), in order to represent a greater variety of perspectives and experiences.

Sounds of Storyretelling

I started learning the ukulele in college after listening to Sweetafton23’s (Molly Lewis) humorous lyrics with her bright and clear ukulele sound on YouTube. Since then, I’ve learned to play the accordion, mountain dulcimer, and musical saw all through YouTube. This week we read Bryan Alexander’s The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media for class. Alexander concentrates on many of the continuities of traditional storytelling elements in its digital incarnations. In the chapter I read, Alexander focuses on social media storytelling including “web videos.” To me, music is a form of storytelling and the aural tradition of learning music is much like the oral tradition of passing down stories. YouTube allows aspects of this tradition to continue on a larger scale.

Alexander briefly mentions retellings in the form of fan videos in his chapter on storytelling and digital media, which got me thinking about the process of passing on stories. Videos can be passed easily in their original form on the internet with the ease of sharing via Facebook, Twitter, or email, but traditionally storytelling involves hearing the story and transmitting it to others, but, at the same time, leaving your own individual mark on the story. Music as storytelling permits and encourages this.

Folk, blues, and jazz are rooted in oral/aural traditions; they are learned by ear and the lyrics, ornamentation, and even basic tune are adapted by individual musicians. Many of these musical traditions involve improvisation, often following certain chord progressions, allowing for constant evolution and resulting in many versions of the same tune.

YouTube allows a continuation of this tradition on a larger scale. Musicians have been learning tunes from recordings as long as they have existed, but YouTube provides an extra element of engagement and interaction with a wider audience. Musicians don’t only learn from professional recordings, but also other proficient musicians’ original songs and covers. I actually prefer to learn from nonprofessional videos, because I not only hear the musician, but I also see them up close, which makes it easier to pick up fingerings and bowings.

More proficient musicians create tutorials for popular tunes to teach others not only the notes and chords for the song, but also their personal stylistic markers. Users often post questions asking for tuning or chords on a video and many times the original poster will reply with an answer or other users will direct them to further resources or provide their personal suggestions. After the original learner masters the tune, or creates their own rendition, many YouTube users will post their own videos and the process continues with a new group of users learning from the previous learners. For example, Molly Lewis wrote and posted her original song MyHope about her desire for the death of MySpace back in 2008. In 2013, Kelli Oylear covered MyHope, adapting the lyrics to update pop culture references and ultimately made the song about Facebook instead of MySpace, rendering the title infinitely less clever.

At this point you may be thinking, “well, that’s all well and good, but what does it have to do with public history? After all, isn’t this blog called public History basics on acid?” Well, gentle reader, I’m glad you asked. When I think of storytelling, I think of retellings and multiple versions, each different, but just as engaging as the next; it turns the one-time listener into the teller and keeps the story alive. When you search “history” under the channel filter on YouTube most of the hits seem to be “authoritative” forms of history storytelling. Museums like the National Museum of American History features videos highlighting objects in their collection, university history departments present history lectures, history enthusiasts post National Geographic and BBC documentaries, the History Channel spotlights videos like “History Ancient Mysteries – Bigfoot – Documentary,” and high school history teachers post primary source videos. On the other hand, Drunk History, a Funny or Die web series as well as a series produced by Comedy Central, has a few imitators creating their own unofficial drunk histories. While some of the previously videos posted by museums, universities, enthusiasts, and teachers include productive discussion in the comments section, retelling either through the story or format (like unofficial drunk histories that pick their own stories to tell) is a different kind of interaction and engagement. Obviously there are differences between music and history, but what can history videos learn from the constant collaboration and evolution involved in musical storytelling? Would a move away from a documentary or lecture format make the stories of history more open and accessible for a wider range of retellings and engagement? To what degree can (should?) amateurs learn, reteach, and retell history?

Collaborative Redesign

Glessner House website

Glessner House website

Over spring break our Public History New Media class split into teams to redesign the Glessner House Museum website. Although the content is current, the website looks extremely dated. The color scheme is vaguely reminiscent of a Geocities website I created in the sixth grade. At least it doesn’t include an animated cursor and obnoxiously colored text – necessary elements of an attractive website when I was twelve. The site is built in columns and each page contains a great deal of text that you have to wade through to find what you are looking for. Even though we are told not to judge a book by its cover, we all do anyway; this is one book I probably wouldn’t read, or, in this case, museum that would not be at the top of my list based on its website. Because the Glessner House is a small museum, they probably don’t have the money to create and maintain a fancy website like some larger institutions might. But there are many free options that are easy to maintain and have a cleaner look than the Glessner House’s current website.

Our new Glessner House website

Our new Glessner House website

My group opted to try Originally we intended to use WordPress, since we were all familiar with it, but Hope, who was in charge of the general layout and design of the website, played around with a few of the other options and decided Wix might work better for us. Although I didn’t spend too much time playing around with the features, I found Wix to be intuitive and relatively easy to work with. I designed the Upcoming Events page. Instead of formatting the events in a long list, like the original Glessner House website, I opted to use Google Calendar, one of the apps offered by Wix, in part because it was the only calendar available. In order to use it, I had to link it to a Gmail account, so an old Gmail account that I don’t use anymore now houses Glessner House events on its calendar.

Overall the process of working collaboratively to create the website went smoothly. My group met at the beginning of the project to discuss a basic plan and split up duties, but I couldn’t be there, so I communicated with my group exclusively via email throughout the project. For the purpose of this short project, it worked. We each designed a section of the website and gave feedback through email. If it had been a longer or more detailed project, group meetings would have been helpful. Personally, I prefer to work on projects in person; it’s easier to ask for opinions and get immediate feedback or help with problems you may be having. Although everyone in my group answered emails in a timely manner, working in the same place, rather than remotely allows groups to work more collaboratively by avoiding a time-lapse in communication.

The History Web is a Weapon – Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot

As I was looking for an example of what Cohen and Rosenzweig call the “History Web,” I came across History is a Weapon, a “counter-hegemonic” education project featuring a collection of primary sources.  For teachers or interested citizens looking to find readings ranging from the entirety of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to Tecumseh’s speech to the Osages to the  Riot Grrrl Manifesto, History is a Weapon is a goldmine. As far as design goes, overall the navigation is relatively clear. From the homepage you can get to the sources either by clicking on themes like “Against the War Machine” or “Voices from the Empire,” going to the sitemap to see the sources in chronological order, or clicking on “Author List” to see a list of the authors paired with their available pieces and a small amount of biographical information. From the readings themselves the homepage is always within reach; there’s a link at the bottom of each page. Unfortunately, there is no site search, but if you know the title of what you’re looking for a simple google search will lead you to the site. Although the offerings of History is a Weapon are numerous it probably wouldn’t be too hard to browse the website to find what you’re looking for.


Screenshot from History is a Weapon

As for the design aesthetic, History is a Weapon is clear, clean, and simple. It’s easily readable on a computer or mobile device without any weird scrolling. The color scheme is black, white, and red. The text is black, with a few exceptions, but nothing that affects readability – the red is mostly an accent color, and for a radical “counter-hegemonic” resource, red just seems to fit. There are minimal images including a section of some pretty cool maps and charts like a map of Guerrilla War in the US from 1965-1970 and a chart of Military Dictatorships in the Americas 1830-2010.

Although it provides some great primary sources, there is minimum contextualization. Although you know who wrote it and what year, other information is more sporadic. Sometimes they include a short introductory paragraph from Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States. If it’s an excerpt from a larger work, they cite the source. Sometimes there’s a short paragraph written by an unnamed author. Even with the short, somewhat sporadic introductions, the context is still lacking. Despite the shaky context, there is obviously an interpretation and message in the selection, as well as the maps and charts created by History is a Weapon.

Additionally, because History is a Weapon posts so much text from a variety of sources, many of them published after 1923, copyright is occasionally an issue. Before Howard Zinn’s death in 2010, Zinn enthusiastically gave them permission to post the full text of A People’s History of the United States. After he died, Harper Collins served History is a Weapon with a cease and desist order. Their well-written response can be found here. Obviously Harper Collins did not press the issue, because History is a Weapon still hosts the entire text. Although many of the texts are things like manifestos that the authors created for people to read and not to make a profit, it is not clear if History is a Weapon has asked other copyright holders for permission and if this will cause problems for them in the future.

One of the things that I found most interesting is that the creators of History is a Weapon make a point not to identify themselves. In the FAQs the creators state that they wish to remain anonymous because “this is an anonymous project. If you choose to contribute, we thank you, but you get no public credit. History is a Weapon is something you should tell everyone about; we are unimportant—don’t waste your time asking us who we are.” Does the anonymity erode any of the authority or reliability that History is a Weapon may have? Or because of the seeming lack of interpretation, do people trust that they are getting history “from the source” with no interference, so they can interpret events for themselves?

Photoshopping History

I had no idea what I was going to make when I sat down to create something with Photoshop. I didn’t even know what images I was going to use, so I browsed a couple of collections I am familiar with (the Macalester College Archives and the Minnesota Historical Society) to find something interesting. I ended up choosing images of Eugene S. Kinsmore and Virginia Lee Wight from the Macalester Archives and a photo of the Pomroy Family Orchestra from MHS.

I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do with these images, but upon closer inspection, I decided I didn’t like Mr. Kinsmore (I’m sure he was perfectly lovely in real life – this photo is just not doing him justice), although I really liked the room he was sitting in with the light streaming through the window.

Eugene S. Kinsmore Macalester College Archives

Eugene S. Kinsmore
Macalester College Archives

So I replaced him with Ms. Lee Wight.

Virginia Lee Wight in October 1919 Macalester College Archives

Virginia Lee Wight in October 1919
Macalester College Archives

But she looked so lonely sitting in front of the window, so I plucked Ruth Pomroy (far left) from her family orchestra and placed her with Ms. Lee Wight in Mr. Kinsmore’s room.

Pomroy family "orchestra" from Redwood Falls Minnesota Historical Society

Pomroy family “orchestra” from Redwood Falls
Minnesota Historical Society

But now my background was much larger than my photo, so I found some digitized violin sheet music (entitled “Muted Strings at Twilight,” which seemed fitting for the semi-creepy vibe of my Photoshop creation) courtesy of Duke University Libraries to plaster the background with.

Muted Strings at Twilight Duke University Libraries

Muted Strings at Twilight Duke University Libraries

And this is what I got:


Fortunately, Photoshop did not give me as much trouble as it gave some of my classmates who were working in the lab at the same time. There were a few times when things weren’t doing what I wanted them to do, but I just clicked around a lot and eventually things worked out well enough. Making these types of Photoshop mash-ups reminds me a little bit of scrapbooking. You cut out the best parts of different elements and paste them into a new creation. While perhaps lending insight into the mind of the creator (what could you say about me from my Photoshop invention?), these sorts of mash-ups, both digital and material, decontextualize the selected elements from their sources. Ruth Pomroy, for example, takes on a different meaning standing alone than when she is surrounded by her family.