Category Archives: Reflections

Module 4 and Module 5 Reflection

In the maze of metadata, labels, collections, exhibits, oral history and interfaces, I found a pleasant comfort in Suzanne Fischer’s “Developing Your Synthetic Powers” article. Just as I thought that I was drowning in too much information attached to multitudes of images without a vision of how they might appear to an audience, Fischer’s take on synthesizing it all calmed the waters. “Absorption is the keyword. Don’t sweat it too much but read for argument and citation, so you start to map the field in your mind–what ideas and what people are important to understanding the topic” (Fischer).  Stepping back and letting the material settle and form its own story finally started to happen. The following points were also helpful in gauging my direction in the project:

  • “Need to have a sense of how many of the things you’ve learned will fit in the project and where.”
  • “An important caveat: an artifact can be a small detail, and artifacts may be the heart of your project. This means that you need to constantly test your high-level ideas interactively against the artifacts.”
  • “Either you go too far and lose the fascinating particularities that attracted you to the topic in the first place or you don’t go far enough and end up with a list of facts.”

As I was reading through, “Telling an Old Story in a New Way: Raid on Deerfield, The Many Stories of 1704,” it made me reconsider the purpose of my project. How am I engaging my audience? Are my collections organized with the aim to educate or simply inform? What sort of historical, social, or cultural questions am I posing? Are there new perspectives I can present or solicit? Surprisingly, some of the simplest answer emerged as I began working on the metadata and fussed over attempting to describe the items. I kept thinking – what would my persona want to see  or know – and changed many of the metadata elements. Eavesdropping at the Well: Interpretive Media in the Slavery in New York Exhibition presented a wonderful reminder that within the project we are also creating a narrative. My responsibility is to engage and interpret, but also tell a certain kind of truth about the life of the pilots at Mesa del Rey in my project. By collecting images, anecdotes, and gauging the responses of my personas, I am enthralled and unnerved to know that all that gathering, reading, and viewing has so much meaning to others and they are awaiting patiently to see what will this project become.

The Curator Rules and Exhibit Labels reminded me of times browsing in museums and passing on reading the labels for the very same reasons this presentation explained. I appreciated Steven Lubar’s  candid opinion regarding the rules, “They’re not natural laws: they are customs we have accepted.” Thus we must learn them and break them, just like great writers who know grammar, so they may break the rules at will. Modules Four and Five emphasized what building blocks are needed to create a strong digital project. This foundational work is crucial in defining a good solid plan for a digital history project that includes a clear purpose, attainable goals and specific audience in mind. Creating the personas seemed almost silly at first, especially because I had talked to a good number of real people during the course of my research. However, taking the time to think through the project from the perspective of these people and writing their profiles out extended my vision and goals for the project. I kept adding more and more details to the personas as I combined the different people I had met.

Storyboarding gave me the push to reshuffle my items, the collections, and truly begin to build and develop the project. However, in the same time, Shawn Medero’s “Paper Prototyping” slowed me down once more to reflect on colors, arrangements, images, layers, and how it all fits together. The pages and connections started evolving more and pointing in directions that led to new layers.

Overall, this project is really just beginning. I am still maneuvering to figure out better ways to describe metadata, or just be able to keep up with describing the items accumulating. Contemplate how to include maps or how many and what kind and learn to work the plugins. There is so much more information I haven’t gathered that people are offering – most of the human elements (personal anecdotes, photos, and handwritten notes ) of this project are non-existent on the few available websites. As Richard Rabinowitz tells, the way an exhibit (site) is created will “shape the conditions of how visitors encounter and make meanings,” and while “visitors themselves bring the most potent mediating devices—their own experiences, expectations, and habits of mind,” we have the opportunity to provide the platform on which they may embark to read, connect and discover.

 

Reading Response on Audiences

In the introduction to Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections, Whitelaw describes how organizing collections on a digital platform expands its viewership, especially if the interface of the site offers more than just a research box. He mentions that “a significant number of visitors do not have a specific goal: in a survey of the motivations of some 34,000 visitors to Dutch museum websites, 29% report seeking specific information, but 21% visit to “engage in casual browsing,” thus laying out the road for digital collection builders to follow. He goes on to elaborate that “browse features are valued highly by non-expert visitors to online art collections . Thus from the user’s perspective, search is an incomplete solution.” As I am frantically gathering and digitizing public history for my Pilot’s Log site, this is a good reminder not fall into the trap of building a collection without considering the audience. The interface should invite audiences a variety of ways considering multitudes of reasons for research. As Whitelaw adds, “The stakes here are high, because the interface plays an inescapable role in mediating digital heritage.”

The “browsable mosaic” interface of the Manly Images, an experimental web interface for a collection of historic images from the Manly Public Library, in Sydney, Australia creates an engaging entrance into a digital museum. It forces me to re-imagine my own ideas of organizing the collection of news articles, photos of pilots, yearbooks, places, and more. How do I present them? How do they connect? From what perspective will a visitor approach the information? Re-shuffling collections and projecting them onto various audiences can create an entirely new look or new take on presenting history. As “The Real Faces of White Australia” builders commented after using facial detection technology to find and extract the photographs from digital copies of the original certificates, they ended up with “a new way of seeing and understanding the records — not as the remnants of bureaucratic processes, but as windows onto the lives of people.” The more I interviewed people in connection to my project and the more I have heard people talk about the flight school during WWII, the faces of cadets and pilots were becoming more and more prominent. The “The Real Faces of White Australia” called facial detection a ” finding aid… that brings the people to the front.” Among all the available information and digitized items, it is crucial to remember to keep the focus on the faces of the flight school.

Then again, I also have to look at all of the pieces of the puzzle because as the “content discovery is only part of the story. Cross-linked and hierarchical displays emphasize context — complex, multi-dimensional relationships between items — as well as macro-scale patterns and structures within collections.” Thus, now that I have a good start with the initial framework developed for the Pilot’s Log digital history project, I must clarify its intent and audience. Since I hope to compile more photos, more stories, and ultimately complete the list of all cadets who had attended the Mesa Del Rey flight school, determining the degree of engagement will be necessary for the success of the project. I need to determine how the information will be organized, how the uploaded items will appear, and what exhibits I might want to create on Omeka. The first item that provided a path into the history of the Mesa Del Rey flight school was the few scattered yearbooks, King’s Logs, that list the cadets in each class, tell about their daily routines and lives before being sent off to the war, presumably to the Pacific. The goal of this digital history project is to create a site that will pull together the history of the flight school and explore the experiences of the young cadets in an attempt to find out what happened to them after they finished the training at Mesa Del Ray. To engage the public, not only the interface need to offer a convincing and inviting look into the project, but it should also provide a guide of some sort for the audience to contribute and comment. Visitors to the site then will be able to upload their own stories and digital artifacts. In this way, the core audience — descendants of the pilots in the King City community or elsewhere — will be able to shape the project and create a more accurate view of these experiences, moreover, connect the remaining surviving pilots.

 

Dialogue in Creating the Project

As I have found out not only from our readings, but first hand as I began my research, shared inquiry and authority are key components of a public history project. Thus when I read Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. (Dick) Miller’s introduction to their article, A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry, on collecting oral histories and conducting research for the Depression era women’s strike, I was feeling a bit relieved. As they observed, “All good historical practice is reflective, but public history requires a special commitment to collaborate, to respond, to share both inquiry and authority. Because trained practitioners and lay people often seek different pasts for different purposes, public historians may find themselves poised between advocacy and mediation, monitoring and adjusting their own behavior through the process of shared inquiry.” Since I have never done a public history project before, I was desperately searching for a good way to go about it, but soon I had to let that go finding out and being reaffirmed that “Since public history is inherently situational, there is no one-size-fits-all methodology.” While I began with a much broader aspect of local history in King City, I had to pull my reins back and focus on not just a smaller piece, but listen to my immediate audience. It was apparent during the first meeting I had with the couple who inspired the project that what I had intended in unfolding was beyond the ability the scale of this digital history project.  Among all the different artifacts, documents, photographs, and anecdotes, another voice was emerging – I simply needed to listen with a sense to understand what is it that these people want me to present. The tow’s history is rich, there are several historical buildings that deserve attention, the high school has a distinguished place in California history, but instead, before I realized what was happening, we were watching a video created in memory of a pilot and instructor of the flight school at the King City Airport. Thus I found myself i similar shoes to Corbet and Miller, in the course of uncovering facts and  listening stories, my interviewees “transformed a modest academic fact-hunt into a nuanced and empowering story”  of these cadets’ lives and how it transformed theirs along with the city.

My questions of purpose somehow suddenly disappeared and instead I was full on into the research mode, at first simply listening to the suggestions from contacts I was given. Soon it became clear that there is a story that needs to be told and the audience is eager and willing to share and explore with me along the way. Besides the news articles and logs, I was made aware and also discovered surviving members of the cadets and was offered a transcript of an interview with one of them, while encouraged to collect one on my own from another pilot who is more than willing to tell his stories. So Michael Frisch’ words in his article, From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back where he relates the digital process, the power of words, and the idea of letting go and sharing historical authority in a user-generated world, made me feel that I was standing again in the same place he describes, “smack in the middle: these new modes of access make the raw collection a legible and explorable hub, and in so doing make the framing and fabrication of usable cooked products more dispersed as a capacity and more open-ended, fluid, and continuous as a process” (129). I was examining the news articles, which were readily “cooked” for me to serve, the transcripts, and the logs, but I was curious to work with the “raw” material to see where that leads and what more we can discover or cook up beyond the prepared recipes provided. I also agree with his analysis regarding digital modes being the vehicle that will ” help to overcome the dichotomy between knowledge creation and knowledge consumption”  (130).  Similarly to Frisch, I see “possibility of new approaches to making meaning…a stance directed less toward the either/or of collection stewardship and fixed outputs, and more toward the active in-between—a more creative, more open-ended, less linear, and hence a more sharable space” (130). These new ways of making meaning are guided by the perceived audiences and the input of their efforts in collaboration with the researcher. I believe that a new presentation of history catered to specific audiences could be the most exciting and telling of any project could offer.

Thus, in conclusion, creating personas, as much as it has never occurred to me, is a good way to expand the understanding of a project.  It is a “way to model, summarize and communicate research” (Goltz), it is a way to build the dialogue, and allow for us to pause and reflect about the process and its reception through these collectively imaginary personas. It also forces us to relate and consider what  John Kuo Wei Tchen explains in Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment, when he says “a resonant and responsible way of engaging any community in the interpretation of its own history needs to balance local, intensely private uses of history with the larger-scale understanding of why and how life has become the way it is. A variety of historical insights need to be brought together in a cultural free space for open discussion (295). The raw material, the casual inquiry from the archivist, and the sense of personal and public presence during the collection of oral history may yield an insight that cannot be ignored in the outcome of the project.

 

USER RESEARCH FINDINGS

As I believe Kathy Corbett mentions in “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry,”  that during an interview we might get less than what we expected and more than what we hoped for – and that is exactly what happened to me right at the start. The process of my user research began with collecting information pertaining to my project, which at that time was going to cover the entire history of King City. My first interview  gave me less than what I had expected in terms of timelines, events, and some sense of vision – it made me drop the idea entirely. I was, however, provided with a new perspective and a new topic that I did not hope for, the untold story of the WWII Flight School in King City’s Mesa Del Rey Airport.  With each step, I was acquiring more information, but I was also expanding my perspective about the audience the King City Flight School project might reach. Many of the local, long-time residents are quite passionate about the history pertaining to the city and are more than willing to assist me in my endeavor. They are  making themselves available, contacting me via email and phone, teaching me delicate details of the town and its people that I would not have ever found out without this project. It seems that there is a secret circle of people within the community who know each other and dedicate much of their time to bring this history to life.  I have been teaching at the high school in King City for two years, but have not really gotten to know anyone outside of school since I do not live in town. All of a sudden, it seem that I am moving closer to the people there and instantly becoming a familiar face.

As I am slowly opening Pandora’s box (words of the archivist) – that’s how it feels diving into the archives at the Monterey County Agricultural and Rural Life Museum – the material arriving at my presence seems to be acquiring overwhelming proportions. Each new discovery leads to a dozen more possibilities to consider about the flight school. Each aspect manifests in dozens of questions and decisions for the project. The flight school does not seem such a small aspect of King City, it is rather filling up proportions previously unimaginable. In addition, I am beginning to feel the weight of an enormous responsibility to fulfill expectations as the facts and stories unfold. My so far small known audience is tremendously supportive and in the same time anxiously anticipating something more whit each turn. At this point of the project, all I think about is serving and not letting down the local community because it has its eyes on me, of course in a good, generous, and inquisitively expectant way. The dialogue has begun and questions arise on both sides that move this project in unexpected directions and into unforeseen dimensions.