Briefly Noted for October 28, 2008

The Oral History Association has launched a new and improved website, including a social network and an instructional wiki.

Jim Spadaccini has a great post about the special kind of planning involved in building museum and other cultural heritage websites that incorporate social networking features. Jim writes, “While the standard methods of web design—such as wireframes and mockups—are still part of the process, we’ve been concurrently working on plans for social interaction.”

AHA Today points to TimesTraveler, a new blog from the New York Times. The premise is simple: TimesTraveler excavates Times’ headlines from exactly 100 years ago, giving readers a sense of what was happening on this day in 1908. Surprisingly compelling and very well done. For a more entertaining and more creative glimpse at 1908, however, I suggest TweetCapsule—time-twittering life in the last century. (Thanks, Tad.)

Briefly Noted for October 14, 2008

Jeremy Boggs at Clioweb continues his must-read series on design process for digital humanities with some notes (and code) for Front End Development.

Again on front ends and again via Clioweb, the Indianapolis Museum of Art has unveiled a new “dashboard” user interface, a numerical, widgetized overview of how IMA’s online collections, programs, and social networks are being used.

The National History Coalition reports the welcome launch of the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative, a collaborative effort by a dozen federal agencies “to define common guidelines, methods, and practices to digitize historical content in a sustainable manner.” Anyone thinking of applying for federal funding in the next few cycles would be wise to keep an eye on this initiative. The standards established by this group are sure to turn up shortly in NEH, IMLS, NHPRC and other grant program guidelines.

Briefly Noted for April 11, 2008

A few quick notes from the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Louisville, KY.

Bill Turkel has a terrific post on the nonlinear character of many academic careers, comparing planning our professional trajectories to solving nonlinear optimization problems in mathematics. “Nonlinear” definitely describes my own career path, and Bill provides his own poignant nonlinear story. Students, especially those interested in careers in digital history and humanities, should hear more of these stories.

The Powerhouse Museum joins the Library of Congress in Flickr Commons. Though not officially part of the Commons, the Boston Public Library also added its own photostream to the online image sharing site. Maybe this Flickr thing has legs. 😉

Jeremy Boggs is starting a much needed new series on the nuts and bolts of doing digital humanities work. I am first to plead guilty when I say that too much of the digital humanities blogosphere is taken up with reflections on the discipline, project announcements and press releases, and wishful speculations that will never bear fruit. Jeremy is boldly taking us down the path of real work, by explaining the basic methods, processes, and tools necessary to produce quality digital history and humanities projects.

Newton v. Einstein

Mike Ellis at Electronic Museum posted a terrific entry this weekend entitled Newton vs Einstein, providing some welcome physical grounding for CHNM’s longstanding motto, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Drawing inspiration from a recent BBC Radio 4 program on Newton’s three laws of motion and their displacement by Einstein’s theories of relativity, Mike writes:

Einstein’s brilliance – his “rightness” – matters a huge amount when we’re nearing the speed of light. But down here as we plod about our normal daily lives, we can cope with the innacuracies. Relativity matters not a jot; actions do have an equal and opposite reaction; gravity acts downwards and relativity is merely a philosophy … [The point] is this: just as we accept Newton over Einstein even though we know he is essentially “wrong,” if we (and by this I mean me, museums or anyone with ideas) want to shine, we too need to accept imperfection. In fact, I believe we need to learn to actively embrace it.

A slightly mangled translation of Voltaire‘s “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” “the perfect is the enemy of the good” has long summed up CHNM’s philosophy that it is better to do something well than nothing flawlessly. Other oft repeated phrases among CHNM staff include “release early and often” and “get over yourself.” They all boil down to this: Digital history is easily as much about doing as it is about thinking, and doing means getting dirty, making mistakes, and breaking proverbial eggs.

Omelets anyone?

Omeka for All

Omeka As Steve Brier, Josh Brown, and Mike O’Malley pointed out in Episode 2 of History Conversations, CHNM’s late founder, Roy Rosenzweig firmly believed that it wasn’t enough for the historian interested in popular memory simply to be an analyst of popular historymaking. He or she also had to be an active practitioner of public history, making him or herself available to community, enthusiast, and other non-professional historians to help them in their efforts. True to Roy’s example and admonition, I aim to be both practitioner and analyst. But as the recent dearth of postings here on Found History attests, I have been doing a lot more practicing than analyzing lately.

Aside from general management stuff at CHNM, I have been spending most of my time and energy on Omeka. Just launched for general public download today, Omeka is CHNM’s latest software offering, a free and open-source platform for publishing collections and creating attractive, standards-based, interoperable online exhibits. It complements CHNM’s successful Zotero project, providing cultural content producers with innovative, open-source presentation software in the same way that Zotero has provided cultural content consumers with innovative, open-source research management tools.

First and foremost, Omeka is intended to reduce the costs and improve the quality and functionality of online exhibitions. There are lots of software tools in the world of libraries and museums for managing and searching collections. There are almost none to help designers, webmasters, curators, librarians, and scholars publish and present those collections in rich, narrative, interpretive online exhibits. Omeka aims to fill this gap. Free, easy to use, and fully customizable through feature plugins and design themes, Omeka can bring rich, elegant, interactive, and “Web 2.0” ready exhibits to even the smallest and least well-funded of institutions—institutions for which high priced web design vendors are completely out of reach.

In the early days of the web, personal web pages were poorly designed, difficult to update and maintain, flat, and generally ugly. That all changed relatively recently with the advent and widespread adoption of blogging packages and services like WordPress, MovableType, and Blogger. Now a well designed, dynamic, interactive, and standards compliant personal website is just a few clicks away for practically anyone. Why should it be any different for cultural exhibits?

With Omeka, it shouldn’t.

History Conversations

Well, nearly four months after it launched, I have finally managed to record and post the first real episode of History Conversations, this blog’s sister podcast. Episode 1 kicks off with a conversation with Peter Liebhold, Chair and Curator of the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Tom asks Peter about his daily work at the Museum, his straight and not-so-straight road into history, and the role of public history.

Click here to subscribe.

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.

Museums in the Metaverse

Late last week Richard Urban of Musematic announced the inaugural meeting of the “Museums in Second Life” group. In case you haven’t heard of Second Life, it is 3-D virtual online world maintained and governed by a company called Linden Research, but built and owned entirely by users. More than 300,000 people currently “inhabit” Second Life, making friends, doing work, buying and selling property, building homes, and doing most of the other things they’d do in “first life” (and some things that they wouldn’t). Lest you think it’s all a game, however, Linden reports millions of dollars worth of “in-world” business transactions among Second Life “residents” every month.

Now it seems some Second Life residents have created museums in this parallel universe. Presumably some of them are history museums, though I’m not sure what that looks like in a virtual world. I have to admit I’ve never visited Second Life, but this meeting may just push me over the edge. Found History is dedicated to unintentional, unconventional, and amateur history. What could be more unconventional than history in another world?

Correction: Thanks to Nate for pointing out that Second Life is operated by “Linden Lab” not “Linden Research.” A second look at the website suggests that Second Life is actually owned by “Linden Research, Inc.” but operated under the trademark “Linden Lab.” In any case, the technorati (to which Nate certainly belongs) know the joint as “Linden Lab” and that’s what we should go with.

What is a Museum?

This one comes from Found History reader Tim, who wanted to hear my thoughts on NPR’s recent story about the Museum of Online Museums (MOOM), a directory of online collections. Aside from being a treasure trove of found history, MOOM raises the question—at least for NPR’s editors—of what constitutes a museum. Should we or should we not call MOOM’s listings “museums”?

Arguing the affirmative is Jim Coudal, one of MOOM’s founders, who points to one of two definitions of “museum” in Webster’s dictionary: “a place where objects are exhibited.” Arguing the negative, is Wilson O’Donnell, director of the museology program at the University of Wasington, who says that calling MOOM’s listings “museums” is “like calling Wikipedia an encylopedia.” I actually take issue with both lines of reasoning, but ultimately I come down on the side of Coudal and MOOM.

You could say that Coudal and O’Donnell make converse mistakes. On the one hand, Coudal employs a definition that is too vague and too broad and leaves the museum without a distinct identity. If anyplace that displays objects is a museum, then we should consider department stores, the Home Shopping Network, the fun house at the county fair, the row of expensive whiskeys behind the bar, the auto show, and a million other things “museums.” Historians of museums know that our modern notion of the museum was born out of a 19th century “exhibitionary culture” that included things like World’s Fairs and department stores, as well as museums. But no one mistakes Macy’s for the Met.

O’Donnell, on the other hand, makes the opposite mistake, attempting to reify and dehistoricize the museum. In fact, things called “museums” have been around in one form or another for 400 years, and for most of that time they have borne little resemblance to our modern museums. I’m not sure whether it is Wikipedia’s amateurism or its unfamiliar digital format that irks O’Donnell, but the truth is that for much of their history, museums were both largely amateur endeavors and existed in formats that would be unfamiliar to us today. Many of the great European museums (the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums in Oxford are good examples) were founded as private collections in private homes and were organized around criteria and displayed in formats that today would seem very foreign indeed.

For my part, I’d pick Webster’s second definition: “an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value.” I probably have to think about this more, but to me it’s not the simple act of display, nor is it “professionalism,” that makes something a museum. Rather it is the collection and display of stuff with a preservative intent and historical mindset that makes a museum. That is, by my definition, MOOM’s “museums” are really museums … and all museums are pieces of found history.

Apologies to Tim for the long delay in answering his very good question.