01: Welcome to Futures Past

A new newsletter by Jim McGrath

Welcome to the first issue of Futures Past! My name is Jim McGrath, and I use he/his pronouns.

First, some shameless self-promotion.

I wrote a short piece on “Museums and Social Media During COVID-19” for the new issue of The Public Historian (if you don’t have access to this issue via a subscription or an academic library, you can read a preprint version of the essay). I called this piece a “snapshot” because it’s by no means comprehensive, but I hope it gives readers some sense of ongoing work and concerns.

I was recently part of a panel on “Teaching The COVID-19 Archive” sponsored by the Journal of The Plague Year digital initiative. My remarks start around the one hour mark but some of you may be interested in seeing how K-12 and college teachers have been talking about the pandemic and archival contexts in their classrooms. My own remarks urge some caution and deliberation before diving into this kind of work, given the traumatic condition of our ongoing situation and the need to reflect on best practices and ethical dimensions of archival labor. I also wrote up some recommendations and questions to consider if you’re thinking about taking up this kind of work in a classroom context.

Finally, if you’re interested in some of the topics that come up in this newsletter, then you might be interested in Doing Public Humanities, a collection of essays edited by Susan Smulyan. I have a chapter in here about doing digital public humanities work with graduate students and the Providence Public Library.

Strictly Handheld

I’m in the home stretch of a graduate-level course called “Publics, Projects, and Methods in Digital Public History” for Northeastern University’s History Department, and this week we talked about “Digital Public History and New England.” This topic was selected by general consensus by students: I’ve gotten in the habit of leaving one week on my syllabus open for a subject we may not have covered extensively (or at all) in previous weeks.

In addition to talking about time periods and topics from the long histories of New England that were covered in recent digital initiatives (The History Project’s Boston and Stonewall 50 project was one students particularly valued due to its subject matter, its interest in spatial history, and its collaborative dimensions), we spoke about the challenges of doing place-based storytelling with digital tools. Specifically, we discussed the ways that digital tours and augmented reality projects available via mobile devices can at times put the user’s focus on phone usage rather than draw their attention to the physical spaces they have visited, or the potential for social interactions and discussion with their traveling companions. 

While digital technologies have made it possible to complement and augment the materials, monuments, and markers in indoor and outdoor spaces of historical and cultural significance, these forms of curation at times seem to misinterpret or ignore the user experiences of tours, forms of sightseeing, or walks around town in favor of more academic outputs: blocks of text, a “kitchen sink” approaches to context, the privileging of detail over investments in engaging forms of storytelling.

This conversation led me back to Boston’s Freedom Trail and the differences between its role in spatial storytelling and some of what we see in digital contexts. The Trail has been a success by various metrics in its 50+ year history, and it is so recognizable that Fallout 4 even devoted a special mission to it in its 2015 post-apocalyptic reimagining of the city.

In a 2003 piece for The Public Historian,Nina Zannieri wrote an overview of The Trail and its history from her perspective as Executive Director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association (which runs the Paul Revere House, a key node on the Freedom Trail’s network of sights to see). As Zannieri recounts, the first iteration of the Freedom Trail was implemented by Mayor John Hynes in 1951, after William Schofield recommended in the Boston Herald Traveler that “a clearly marked and charted trail” of Boston’s historic landmarks and sites of interest might address the “chaos” of the city’s tourist scene. Initial signage was soon replaced by a marked trail approach, which current Boston residents and visitors recognize as the red-brick path spanning a few miles of the city. Zannieri observes that “the Freedom Trail was established as a wayfinding device and a marketing tool, not an interpretive framework,” distinguishing between the aims of the Trail and the curatorial, preservation, and storytelling work that spaces like the Paul Revere House must take up to engage interested travelers. This condition of the Trail can lead to both good and bad kinds of variety, but Zannieri notes that many of the organizations on its path are in regular dialogue with one another to reflect on best practices. The Trail requires a lot of its visitors and its curators: “[E]ven in the best of worlds,” Zannieri says, “it is necessary to be realistic about how much one can hope to teach in the context of a thirty-minute visit to a historic site by a hot, tired, distracted visitor on a tight time schedule.” 

I wonder if some of these realities could be better anticipated and acknowledged in place-based digital storytelling. I like the idea of moving beyond the general need for more “user stories” and UX in digital public history project development to think specifically about the experiences of audiences who are invested enough to make the trip but also may be exhausted or otherwise preoccupied. We know that people may be more likely to quickly Google a Wikipedia article for additional context on their surroundings than read a short essay or click through a photo carousel. I’ve also thought a lot about the potential of place-based audio storytelling, given that we know that many people are already inclined to augment their walks with podcasts.

The Freedom Trail also reminds me of the ways that physical markers can serve as important sites of engagement to history. One of the projects we discussed in our class review of New England Digital Public History was 41.8219° N, 71.4171° W, an exhibition on vacant places and spaces in Providence created by my friend Angela DiVeglia for the Providence Public Library. This project came about in part because the physical exhibition space normally used by the PPL was unavailable due to renovations. So Angela took to the streets with her extensive knowledge of urban space, utilized the Rhode Tour initiative as a mobile publication platform, and, with the aid of the PPL’s Special Collections materials and other research, asked local audiences “to consider the landscape as a palimpsest, a surface on which humans have built and erased repeatedly over the ages.” I especially loved the signage used on this project, which served the purpose of identifying locations for folks taking the tour and raised questions relevant to the project to anyone who happened to be walking in their vicinity.

The Paul Revere House, like many historic houses and smaller, place-based cultural heritage institutions, have been hit hard by the pandemic. Some spaces have created short videos or virtual tours to bring stories of these spaces to the homes of audiences, but these efforts do not make up for the revenue lost by the absence of admission fees, gift shop purchases, and membership tiers. And lingering health concerns will no doubt impact uses of certain technologies like touchscreens in spaces that are able to reopen their doors or restart programming. While an initial wave of visitors will likely materialize as audiences take opportunities to travel and return to forms of tourism when a post-pandemic kind of normalcy takes hold, we may see some fairly radical reimaginings of efforts in historic tours, preservation, and curation, driven more out of economic necessity than by desires for innovation. Given these conditions, it may be valuable for public history practitioners in academic spaces with comparatively-better access to resources (institutional funding, support for grant-writing efforts, among other contexts) to reflect on how they might support their peers in these spaces through forms of collaboration, digital and otherwise. 

And Now, Some Links

Sharing links to various events, projects, and pieces will be a staple of this newsletter. Feel free to email me recs at jimmcgrath.us@gmail.com!

Next week (December 7-11), African-American History, Culture, and Digital Humanities at the University of Maryland is hosting a fantastic-looking symposium titled Black as X: Platforming Experimental Scholarship. The virtual events are free to attend, but registration is required.

Students in the Program in Mathematics for Young Scientists at Boston University wrote a piece in Storybench about their work with Prof. Diana Davis (Swarthmore College) to research and visualize racial segregation in Pennsylvania public schools.

The New York Times continues its recent series of fantastic, place-based digital storytelling initiatives with a look at NYC’s Chinatown that includes a virtual walk through the history of Doyers Street (thanks to Chuck Clough for sending this link my way).

The Los Angeles Times recently published a map that highlighted the public libraries and bus routes that Octavia Butler relied upon in her daily life.

Technoprecarious is a new book out from MIT Press by The Precarity Lab research collective that discusses “the role of digital technology in multiplying precarity.”

The new issue of Logic is available for pre-order and focuses on the topic of “Commons.”

While I’m plugging small-press publications, check out Boston Art Review (their latest issue is good, and some readers may be particularly interested in their “Public Art” issue as well).

What Else Is Going On?

Not a whole lot, tbh. I’ve been reading Hangsaman (Shirley Jackson), Remain In Love (Chris Frantz), and (rereading) The Great Darkness Saga (Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen, et al), and I recently finished Maids (Katie Skelly), which is great. I’m also trying to get into the holiday spirit but I’m pretty beat due to the usual end-of-semester exhaustion, the pandemic, the bad vibes, all that stuff. I just saw that my most-played song on Spotify this year was “Expect The Bayonet” by Sheer Mag, which sounds about right, given the state of 2020.

Thanks for reading! See y’all next week!

-December 3, 2020

Futures Past is written by Jim McGrath. Feel free to email me (jimmcgrath.us@gmail.com), or you can find me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.