Things of History, History of Things

I have just started listening to an new podcast from the BBC, A History of the World in 100 Objects, written and narrated by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum. Aside from the obvious reductionism and the occasionally irritating interstitials (lots of ambient chanting and pan flute music), the show is excellent, taking one hundred objects from the British Museum’s collections to tell the history of the world from the point of view of its material culture. MacGregor is a natural, and his guests—fellow curators, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and others—are engaging story tellers.

Yet even more interesting from an educational point of view are the live “readings” of artifacts these scholars provide, demonstrating to the audience just how experts tease knowledge from primary source objects. This is much the lesson we at CHNM attempted in our Object of History collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The focus was narrower—six iconic objects in U.S. History—but the idea was the same: objects have histories and their curators very particular expertise in bringing those histories to light.

Briefly Noted: Universal Museum APIs; Raw Data Now!; Publish or Perish

Mia Ridge, Lead Web Developer at the Science Museum, London (where I’m a research fellow, incidentally) points to Museums and the machine-processable web, a new wiki “for sharing, discussing, arguing over and hopefully coming to some common agreements on APIs and data schemas for museum collections.”

Following closely on that, Tim Berners-Lee calls for “Raw Data Now!” at the TED Conference, suggesting that linked raw data may be poised to displace more finished works (journal articles, websites) as the main unit of scientific production. Interesting, provocative parallels to the digital humanities.

And not entirely unrelated, Mark Bauerlein considers the problems of “publish or perish” in Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own [.pdf]. Asking “Do any major works or authors lack editors, interpreters, theorists, reviewers, and teachers?” Bauerlein answers “the ‘coverage’ project is complete” and suggests departments turn back to teaching. “We need honest and open public acknowledgment that the scholarly enterprise has lost its rationale,” he concludes, “that central parts of the humanities are in real trouble, and that the surest way to restoration lies in a renewed commitment to the undergraduate student.” I can’t say I always agree with Bauerlein (see, for example, www.dumbestgeneration.com) but he’s invariably worth reading.

The Object of History

CHNM has just launched a new project called The Object of History. A partnership with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, the project aims at lower cost model for “virtual” museum field trips. It also tries to open up the work of museum curators to student scrutiny. For most students, history exhibits (like history texts) are black boxes, revealing little of the long hours of work and sometimes difficult negotiations required to produce historical knowledge. History students rarely get to see how we make the proverbial sausage. The Object of History aims to show them.

Kudos to Sharon and the rest of the team that produced this incredible new resource.

Watchismo

Watchismo is a collector and online dealer of vintage watches, especially digital watches, from the mid-20th century. He describes himself as “devoted to the highly unusual, obscurely rare and advanced modern designs of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s” and focused on the “rarest styles of the space-age.” There are some interesting galleries on the main website, but more interesting is Watchismo’s recently launched blog, where items from the collection are considered in greater detail and placed in narrative context, for example in this week’s “History of LED Calculator Watches”.

Late Update (11/15/06): Watchismo has done it again with a timeline of Bond gadget watches. That’s “Bond” as in “James Bond.”

DigiCams

One more amateur history of technology site and then we move on to other things. DigiCamHistory.com provides an enormous—if poorly organized and badly designed—wealth of annotated photos and links relating to the development of digital camera technology. Like the evolt.org Browser Archive, DigiCamHistory solicits user contributions, and although it is hard to say how much of its content is user-generated, the organizers’ stated interest in collaborative collecting once again suggests that amateurs may be our best bet for extending the practice of online collecting.

Makings of a Classic

An interview with Phaidon editor Emilia Terragni about his new three-volume Phaidon Design Classics turned up Tuesday on digg. Accompanying the interview is a slideshow of twelve Designs That Never Get Old, consumer products from the last century that fit Phaidon’s definition of classic design. Among these are the table-top Kikkoman bottle and London’s familiar double-decker Routemaster Bus.

The interview and slideshow are themselves pretty interesting. But more exciting as a piece of found history is the long thread of vistor comments that follows the initial digg post. There digg users debate different definitions of “classic” and argue the merits of their own favorite industrial artifacts, including lots of vintage cars (Studebaker Hawk, 1961 Lincoln Continental, BMW 2002, Mazda Miata), a few firearms (Colt Single Action Army, Winchester 94), and a bunch of ordinary household objects (the fortune cookie, the zipper, the jelly bean, the slinky, the push-pin, the Michelob beer bottle). It’s worth a few minutes to see how deeply these people are thinking about the relationship between old and new and the pace and meanings of historical change.