“Evolving” at Canada’s History and the CMA

Anyone who has gone through this Public History program can probably relate to how I feel right now.  With just 3 weeks left in the term, there is SO much work still to be done.  Yet, it’s very hard to focus on school because I’m much more excited and interested in the next part of the program.

In just a few weeks, I will be packing up and heading to the sunny prairies for my internship at Canada’s History Magazine (sorry, Southern Ontario, I know it’s cold in Winnipeg, but at least the sun helps keep your spirits up). I’m looking forward to my internship for many reasons:

Feb/March Issue of Canada’s History Magazine

#1. Canada’s History is doing great things with new media and utilizing the internet.  In addition to publishing the magazine, they have a ton of content online and they really seem to be exploring the potential of the web.  I like technology for technology’s sake, but even more importantly, this signals to me that they’re an energetic and innovative organization and I’m really inspired by the atmosphere this creates.

#2. I’ll be working with Joel Ralph, the magazine’s Education and Outreach Manager. I’ve always been interested in education, but never quite felt like I should be a teacher, so I’m excited to get involved with other forms of teaching (isn’t that what public history is all about?).  Also, Joel is a graduate of Western’s public history program and did his internship at Canada’s History a few years ago, so I plan on picking his brain about the field, job hunting and the ultimate question – how did you turn your internship into a job (which is every intern’s goal and why Joel is a bit of a celebrity in the program).

#3. I have a (not so) secret dream of being an editor.  The job is a bit of a mystery to me.  What exactly is it? How do you become one? It seems that it is something I might enjoy and be good at (despite the fact that I ended that phrase in a preposition), so I’m pleased that my history internship landed me at a magazine.  I’m looking forward to learning the ins and outs of publishing.

As part of the “energy and innovation” I referred to earlier in this post, Canada’s History has put me to work already.  Next week, I will be attending the national Canadian Museums Association conference here in London.  I have gathered a few of my peers and we will be forming a “News Action Team” for the conference.  We will be speaking with presenters, panelists and participants and finding out what’s happening at the CMA this year.  Our interviews will be filmed and featured on the magazine’s website, so that the public and history professionals can learn about the conference.


My first copy of Muse – the CMA’s magazine

The conference’s theme this year is “Evolve or Die” – a bit drastic, perhaps, but accurate for the most part.  It’s time for museums to liven up and engage with the public.  I’m looking forward to learning about new approaches and initiatives in the field.

Are you going to be at the CMA this year? Are you interested in an interview and sharing your experiences at the CMA? Feel free to leave a comment, email (jdawso43@uwo.ca) or tweet (jo_dawson).  Or just track us down at the conference – we’ll be the ones in the awesome Tshirts!


Looking ahead: Canada During it’s Centennial Year

Yesterday, for Jonathan Vance’s Social Memory class, I presented on Canada’s Centennial celebrations.  Dr. Vance provided me with the official guide to the Centennial year and asked me to consider what role history played in the celebrations.  Was the 100th year anniversary of (the start of) Confederation looking at the past or toward the future?

Based on my review of the guide and some additional research, I decided that Canada’s Centennial was much more about the future than it was about the past.  To illustrate what I mean, here are a few of the events / programs from Canada’s Centennial year.

Confederation Memorial Buildings

In honour of Canada’s Centennial, approximately $88 million was spent on the creation of new cultural institutions all across Canada. This program was designed to encourage and facilitate a national culture.  These buildings are located in Canada’s capitals or larger cities.

Investment in Infrastructure

In addition to this program, another $88 was made available to communities for local projects.  Parks, recreational structures, community centres and recreational areas were the 4 most common investments (at 78% the total number of projects), while the top 4 history-related projects (museums / art galleries, historic building restoration, erection of memorials) made up less than 10% of the total number of projects

Focus on Youth

Many programs were designed specifically for youth. There was a Youth Travel Program, where teenagers could travel to other areas of Canada using funding from the provincial and federal governments.  6,000,000 bronze medallions celebrating the Centennial were presented to school children all over the country.  Communities also participated in beautification programs, where primary school children helped plant trees and shrubs throughout their community.  The purpose of these programs was to instill a sense of nationalism and civic duty in the next generation of Canadians.

How was the past used?

I found that when history was used during the Centennial, it provided a very linear narrative to reinforce notions of progress.  The Confederation Train for example, which traveled across the country and was visited by 100,000s of people, contained a series of exhibits relating to the country’s history.  The themes of the cars were as follows: Prehistory, European Exploration, Settlement, Confederation and Industrialization. At the end of the train, visitors were encouraged to contemplate the future of Canada.  Using one of Canada’s most powerful historic symbols, the Confederation Train was an example of looking at history in order to think about the future.

More importantly, what digital tool did you use in your history presentation??

For my presentation, I traded in my Powerpoint template for the new presentation tool Prezi.  It was the first time I had worked with Prezi and, while there was a bit of a learning curve, I don’t think I will ever return to Powerpoint.  With Prezi, you basically add all of your points and images onto a large canvas and then create a path between each item to formulate your presentation.  It creates an animated and much more visually appealing presentation (although, it is possible to make your presentation too animated, causing your audience to experience waves of dizziness / nausea).

Prezi offers both paid and free versions, the main difference being that Prezis created using the free version are  made public on Prezi’s site (so if you are working on any top-secret projects, you should splurge for a paid account, which allows you to create private Prezis).  Prezis are created in your browser, but you can download a version so that you don’t need to rely on an internet connection for your presentation.

Here is a link to my Prezi presentation, if you are interested in learning more about Canada’s Centennial or Prezi!

Housekeeping Items: Qiqqa and Wikipedia

Sunday is a day for housekeeping.  The dishes are done, the laundry is in, the floors are washed and dinner is in the oven.  So, I thought it would be appropriate to update you on two of my ongoing digital history experiments.  (Totally just kidding about the housework – none of that is done.  I’m a grad student and it’s the end of the term – my only domestic responsibility is to make sure I have enough coffee in the house.  It makes a good metaphor, though).


The first experiment, which I blogged about earlier in the year, is with the document manager Qiqqa.  I have been using Qiqqa for a few months now and, like a fine wine, it only gets better with age.  The more documents I add to my Qiqqa library, the more useful and powerful it becomes.  The tagging feature was particularly helpful for my current Archives essay – I was able to filter my library by the relevant tags (being “archives” and “public history”), run an annotation report that revealed the notes I had made on those articles and was essentially presented with the framework for my essay.  Also, being able to search the text of an article (or my entire library, for that matter) is invaluable when looking for that specific quote or passage you saw somewhere, but can’t quite remember where. Basically, if you make detailed notes and use the tagging feature effectively, then Qiqqa will ensure an excellent return on your (non-monetary) investment.

Qiqqa has made a few updates since I last blogged about my experience, including my recommendation of lightening the colour of the annotations (which I have so modestly circled in red in the image).  Also, you can now share your documents with friends and colleagues by inviting them to join your web library (which is synced up to your computer).  I suspect they will be doing more with this feature in the months ahead to further facilitate collaboration. There has already been a December release, so clearly the people at Qiqqa are always responsive to feedback and are working hard to develop their product.


My other ongoing digital history experiment is with Wikipedia.  I mentioned in a previous post, my first attempt to edit an entry, which edit only lasted 8 hours.  I decided that my edit (to do with the Famous Five monument in Ottawa) was more appropriate in a different article (and one less high profile than the one on Parliament Hill).  I took the same sentence I tried to add to the Parliament Hill article and added it to the article called The Famous Five.  Once my edit made it past the 8 hour mark, I felt like I was making some progress.  I then tested the waters some more by adding another sentence, to the end of an existing paragraph, that read: “The controversy surrounding the women has made commemoration difficult.” I then moved the existing paragraph on commemoration to follow this paragraph, having my new sentence act as a transition sentence of sorts.

Although these are minor edits, they did take some of my time.  I have more changes and additions I would like to make to this article, but my initial experience with the Parliament Hill article has made me hesitant to invest too much of my time in the event that my work is reverted and declared “unneeded.” I definitely have a new appreciation for the Wikipedia process and for those who dedicate their time to creating, revising and editing articles. It actually amazes me that there are so many people who invest this kind of time in a project that isn’t much of a benefit to them individually.  I am inclined to agree with Clay Shirky that people who contribute to Wikipedia do so in the spirit of the common good and out of love.

On Clay Shirky, Wikipedia Rejection and Asphalt

This time last weekend I was in the middle of what could only be described as a Shirky-a-thon. Clay Shirky is a currently a teacher of New Media at NYU and has written about the social and economic impact of the internet.  My fiancé,  Mark, who is doing his Masters in Economics, was familiar with Shirky’s work and we were both excited that our fields overlapped momentarily when my Digital History reading was Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody.  Before I knew it, I was watching video interviews of Shirky, watching Ted Talks, and listening to Econ Talk podcasts. It was a bit intense.

The underlying premise of Here Comes Everybody is that the internet has dramatically decreased the transaction costs (meaning money, time and effort) associated with organizing groups.  Because it is so easy for people to gather through the web, we are faced with a vast, new potential for the output we can create collectively (and we are seeing this potential in such forms as Wikipedia and Flickr). We can now afford to write web-articles, attend virtual meetings and create online exhibits for obscure and lesser known topics.

Shirky makes many good observations that are applicable to my field, but here are a few that really stuck with me.

1) Share and then gather. Internet media and social tools have changed the way we share information.  Instead of gathering people together (in a conference or classroom) and sharing information, we are now able to share information (on a blog or on Flickr, for example) and then gather.  If someone is interested in Romanesque sculpture, they don’t need to find an organization dedicated to its study, pay a membership fee or incur the costs of attending a conference.  They could simply join this group on Flickr and participate in the conversations that are happening there.  What’s also exciting about this, to me, is that it allows people to explore interests that don’t necessarily relate to their formal education or their current profession.

2) There is no shelf in the digital world. If you haven’t already watched the video of Shirky speaking at Smithsonian 2.0, I highly recommend it.  He speaks about how systems of arranging and presenting artifacts have been necessarily linear (and therefore limiting) for traditional museums.  He uses the example of the Library of Congress’ history catalog, which was broken down by geographic area (plus a category for Gypsies!).  However, in the digital world, museums don’t need to assign an artifact to a single category or shelf. Rather, they can use a variety of words (or tags) to describe an object, thereby increasing the number of relationships that exist between objects.

3) The internet lowers the cost of failing. Shirky argues that we have an opportunity now to experiment with the tools and the potential of the web.  Because the cost of forming groups and sharing information has been lowered, people and institutions can now experiment with projects that they likely could not before.  Historical organizations, which are traditionally limited by resources, finally have an opportunity to be creative, fun and innovative!

4) Public vs. expert discourse. An audience member at Smithsonian 2.0, said that some people in her profession felt that participatory actions, such as tagging in Flickr, resulted in a “trivialization of their content.”  Shirky’s response was the web has created a space that blends the public and expert spheres.  It’s not that the web is fostering a casual or inane culture, it’s that museum professionals are simply hearing audience reactions for the first time.  Although comments such as “awww” or “cool” may not sound particularly intelligent  when posted on a museum’s message board, these are the same responses people have when they are in a traditional museum.  It seems that museum workers should not be too concerned with the quality of audience reactions (however they would define that) and should instead embrace the opportunity to hear and interact with their audience.

5) You don’t need to be an expert (or publish, then filter). The collaborative processes that the web enables (through Wikipedia, for example) mean that people don’t need to be the authoritative voice on a topic in order to contribute.  If you have an idea, it doesn’t need to be completely researched and perfected before you present it. As Shirky points out, the asphalt article on Wikipedia, which is now a fairly substantial two part article, began with just one sentence. This allows ideas and projects to expand organically.

6) Wikipedia is a process, not a product. This idea cannot be attributed to Shirky and it seems that this is a concept that has been out there for awhile.  I wish someone had told me about it earlier, as it really helps me sort out my feelings for Wikipedia.  I personally use Wikipedia for just about all of my (very) preliminary research, but don’t feel comfortable having it as my only source of information, especially for history-related topics.  However, I now understand a bit more about Wikipedia as a process and I see it as much more than an online encyclopedia.  The conversations that occur on the discussion page give you a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the articles and gives you more information about the thoughts and beliefs of the people who are creating an article.

Inspired by Shirky’s positive view on the use and potential of Wikipedia (oh – and because it was assigned homework), I  decided to get in on the conversation.  I mentioned in a previous post that there was very little information on the web about the unveiling ceremony for the Famous Five monument in Ottawa.  I thought that would be a good place to start my Wikipedia experimentation.  In hindsight, I should have taken on a less ambitious article than the one on Parliament Hill.

In the section for the Famous Five monument, I wrote the following sentence: “It was unveiled on October 18, 2000 in a public ceremony that included French and English singers, Inuit dancers and speeches by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and Prime Minister Jean Chretién.” I had to reproduce my sentence in this post, because it  was removed from the Wikipedia site within 8 hours for being an “unneeded detail.”

I knew that my sentence was fairly vague and its relevance was not apparent. But, it didn’t take me very long to write and, after my Shirky-a-thon, I had visions of this one tiny sentence turning into a whole article about the ceremony, thereby solving the “permanence problem” associated with commemoration.  I’m not sure what my next Wikipedia move is going to be.  The assignment is to edit Wikipedia and then monitor your contribution, so I will have to think of some way to get in on the conversation.

I wonder if I know anything about asphalt…..