Philadelphia is a city filled with colorful, weird, and prominent public art, and when I was a student I often asked myself “Why is this here?” Public history allows questions like this to be asked and answered in new ways. With projects like Phillyhistory.org, I might raise my phone to Claes Oldenburg’s giant clothespin opposite City Hall and see a very different image of construction and row homes. Digital Public Humanities, coupled with new technology, allowed for deeper explorations of space than the human eye can see unaided.
Christopher Tilly in his “Phenomenology of Landscape: Paths, Places and Monuments” (Bloomsberg: 1997) argues that archaeologists (and other humanities scholars) cannot fully understand the past without physically walking through the landscape. I often had this book in mind as I read through the readings assigned for this section of my Digital Public History course. All the readings seem to offer new ways of implementing many of Tilly’s principles. I can’t sit in a library and expect to fully understand the Via Appia, nor can I hope to understand its use in antique without the resources of the library.
This new work in digital public history most facilitates questions about change. How did a landscape change? When did these changes take place? The “why” is easy to ask, but most of the project I’ve seen don’t seem to answer it. Taking Phillyhistory.com as an example again, I can see that the giant clothes pin wasn’t always there, but not why the change took place. These projects seem to be very good at looking into a landscape’s path, but not a analyzing it.
In regards to my own project, I haven’t gleaned much information from these project. I do find them very exciting, because I absolutely think layering experience with historic information is a part of good historic research. Although my project is place-based, I shy away from either encouraging or requiring users go to those places to use my website. My places are churches. I feel, and many of the parishioners and clergy feel, that a house of worship is not the place for mobile devices. I am thinking of the Pokémon go faux pas, where players were trying to capture virtual Pokémon outside of the Holocaust Museum. It just wasn’t appropriate. Although my website, I hope, respects and honors each place, I wouldn’t want to have clergy discourage people from using it because they’re on their phones during a baptism. I won’t be making my website mobile compatible, but I do hope it is used in the spaces I talk about on laptops during after-service educational programs.
I was given the task of finding a digital public history project that required the user to be in the landscape she is learning about. This was challenging for me. From the examples provided to us, I assumed that major metropolitan areas would have an abundance of such resources. I, however, live in the suburbs of central Connecticut. In fact, I searched for such a project any where in Connecticut, and came up short. (Well, the Wentworth Athenaeum has a pretty cool mobile experience, but that’s an art museum). My boyfriend lives in North Eastern PA, which is equally devoid of mobile history experiences. As a result, I turned to historypin.org , a community of public historians and public history organizations that use google-maps style pins to plot historic resources across the landscape.
I choose the University of Scranton Library’s tour of the campus. Having never been to the campus, I had zero base knowledge to work from. It was clear to me from the start that the designers had intended their tour for people already familiar with the campus. The information about all the buildings assumed I already knew what they were. For example, “Photograph of St. Thomas Hall taken from the corner of Linden Street and Monroe Street. The Catlin House (Lackawanna Historical Society) can be seen in the right corner of the image. The photograph was taken prior to the construction of the University Commons.” I had no idea where St. Thomas Hall is or what its function is. This description tells me next to nothing. The stops were not entered in the order a person walking in the commons would encounter them. They seemed to be entered in the order the curator encountered them in the archives.
Historypin.org is in Beta, so hopefully the interface improves. Despite it’s mission to add historic information to the landscape, the website is not particularly mobile-friendly. The layout did not resize to a smaller screen. And finding St. Thomas Hall was very difficult. There was no address, and the google map image didn’t have street names! I didn’t even know where the commons were. So I wandered around trying to follow Google Maps.
Once I found the building I was supposed to be looking at, I really didn’t feel like I understood the historic building any better. The current University of Scranton commons is a pedestrian walkway through campus. The archival photos showed how the campus was once integrated into the city. Because I didn’t come in with much familiarity with the University, all I could get out of the tour was that the streets of Scranton had been closed and reopened as pedestrian paths.
Although History Pin uses geolocation data to integrate the web experience with the landscape, just placing a pin on a street map doesn’t help the user. It was kind of neat to stand in front of the building with the archival photo in my hand, but I didn’t feel the text helped me understand the historic landscape. Perhaps students who have a better understanding of the relationship between the city and university could pick up on a historical argument, but to me it just seemed like interesting facts. There is room for improvement, to be sure.