U of L Students Explore the Challenges of “Digital History” by Creating Online Exhibits

“Digital history” is fast becoming a specialty unto itself.  As historians increasingly rely on the internet for research, presenting information, and engaging audience, public historians are grappling with questions about the most effective options for its use.  Although the U of L does not yet offer a specialized course in digital history, students are already exploring the field.  One example are the final projects that students in Professor Daniel Vivian’s Introduction to Public History (HIST 597) produced during the fall 2012 semester.  For the first time, students  had the option of creating an online exhibit as a final project.  (The alternative was a 20-page paper.)  Using Omeka, a free, open-source software program developed by the Roy Rozenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, students created exhibits on topics of their choosing.  The results are posted below.

We invite you to explore these exhibits and consider how they reflect traditional museums and historical methods.  We also ask you think about the possibilities that the internet offers for presenting historical information.  Commentators such as William Cronon, the distinguished environmental historian, have noted that the internet is changing the practice of history in ways not seen since the invention of moveable type in the fifteenth century.  Online exhibits are part of this revolution.  How to produce rich and challenging exhibits are questions that the generation of historians currently entering the field are likely to face for their entire careers.

As you’re browsing, please bear the following in mind.  First, these are not necessarily polished pieces of work.  They were completed during the fall semester, and most were finished during the typical rush that occurs as finals week approaches.  Hence, typos, a few poor word choices, and other problems are to be expected.  Some are close to being ready for prime time; others could use another round or two of revision.  Second, some students intend to continue developing their exhibits.  Zac Distel, for example, is just starting work on his thesis, a study of the State Department’s Art in Embassies program during the Cold War.  As his work progresses, he intends to add new information to the exhibit.  The same is true for Kim Kelly’s project.  Hence, if you click back on this page several months from now, you’re likely to see a few changes.

Students who produced exhibits found the assignment challenging, engaging, and rewarding.  From the professor’s standpoint, it sought to introduce several problems.  One is the difficulty of developing an “open” narrative.  Like any museum exhibit, an online exhibit presents narrative choices that differ from, and yet bear close similarities to, a written essay.  Getting students to consider the nuances involved was an important goal.  Second, curating an online exhibit requires many of the same decisions involved in creating a traditional, “three-dimensional” exhibit.  What images will be used?  Which objects?  How much text is too much?  These are all part of the process.  Finally, simply introducing students to Omeka was valuable.  This program is rapidly gaining favor among historical societies, historic sites, and museums.  Its flexibility and content-management abilities make it a sound choice for many institutions.   Moreover, it is certainly capable of producing good online exhibits.  Familiarity with the software is an asset in today’s job market.  The youngest people hired at any institution tend to be the most tech-savvy, and historical institutions tend to be especially reliant on new hires for such skills.  For this reason, familiarizing students with Omeka and its capabilities was an important goal.

We hope you enjoy browsing these exhibits.  They represent an important milestone for the students who produced them and the U of L Public History program.

Nicole Cissell.  “The Underground Railroad in the Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio Borderland.”

Savannah Darr.  “The Last Historic Residence in Downtown Louisville.”

Zac Distel.  “Art of Democracy.”

Matt Holdzkom.  “Circus Parade Wagons.”

Kim Kelley.  “Nurse, Missionary, WWI Red Cross Nurse: Grace McBride.”

Whitney Todd.  “Kentucky Women and the Lost Cause.”   http://kentuckywomenlostcause.omeka.net/

Travis Wall.  “Fort Donelson, Yesterday and Today.”  http://ftdonelsonyesterdayandtoday.omeka.net/

Marissa Williams.  “The Family Packrat: What Can You Learn From All That Stuff?”


One thought on “U of L Students Explore the Challenges of “Digital History” by Creating Online Exhibits

  1. Pingback: Omeka and Podcasts | Digging My History

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