Conveying the Holocaust through Video

Digital exhibits containing video are harder to come by than imagined. As I searched for new history websites to review for their multimedia presence, I found that very few incorporated video into their exhibitions. Those who did, such as the Gilder Lehrman Institute, simply hosted 1-2 minute videos of a scholar sharing a brief academic commentary on a specific topic. Access to Gilder Lehrman’s online exhibitions page, which promised more videos and multimedia experiences, required a paid subscription. Of the websites I searched, only Colonial Williamsburg, which has its own digital productions team, had a variety of freely accessible educational history videos available online, though even Colonial Williamsburg kept its best material locked behind a subscription screen, and for good reason—video production requires extensive time, money, and effort, which is why so many of the sites I visited had little video to show.

However, I eventually stumbled across Yad Vashem’s online exhibitions, whose multimedia usage impressed me. The site’s exhibits incorporate images and video into their textual narrative to tell stories of Jewish history, culture, and life before, during, and after the Holocaust. The Death March to Volary exhibition’s use of video was particularly powerful. The exhibit tells the story of approximately 1,000 Jewish women forced on a death march from a camp in Poland. An introductory video blends the stories of women who survived the march with images and film clips to make the horror of their experience more vivid. The video served as a compelling introduction to the site, bringing the opening text to life. The rest of the exhibit traces the chronology of the march day by day, from its origins to liberation and return to life. In each section, more videos, images, and artifacts pertinent to the event tell the story of those specific days of the journey. Unlike many other unsuccessful attempts to integrate written historical narrative and video components that I’ve seen, the text, audio, and video on this site complemented one another. Not only does the video enhance what’s described in the narrative, text and photographs situated alongside the videos contextualize the experiences the women describe in their testimonies.

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Challenging Dominant Narratives in the Historical Record

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Image from ncph.org.

Along with several of my colleagues, I attended the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting this past week. This year’s theme, “Challenging the Exclusive Past,” raised important questions about the obstacles to uncovering obscured narratives.

Several panels and workshops I attended taught me powerful lessons on these topics, but one particularly stood out to me in light of much of my own work. Courtney Hobson presented on her experience as a docent at Darnall’s Chance, a historic house museum and the only museum in Prince George’s County in Maryland interpreted from the perspective of a woman, Lettice Lee.

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Darnall’s Chance House Museum. Image from Darnall’s Chance House Museum website.

Courtney recognized that the narrative focused solely on the white elite woman of the household, and relegated discussion of slavery, and the important women of color within this household, to the kitchen. She has sought to reconfigure this narrative to include the women of the Davis-Bentley-Barton family, who were descendants of a white indentured Englishwoman named Mary Davis and a black slave, Domingo, who married during the colonial period. Read more

Access at a Price

This past year, Colonial Williamsburg worked to relaunch its website on a new platform at the domain history.org (not to be confused with the History Channel’s history.com!). In addition to providing information for tourists interested in planning a trip to the living history village, the site also seeks to achieve educational outreach goals by providing a host of digital materials for researchers, learners, and history enthusiasts of all ages. Some of these resources are free and publically accessible. Others, however, require a paid subscription (although some opportunities are available to subsidize these costs). Within some tabs, educational opportunities are mixed with endeavors to advertise and sell products. Sometimes these commercial impositions unexpectedly inhibit open exploration of the site, though they are a clever means for an institution dependent on income to sustain such an incredible physical and online presence.

The site has an almost overwhelming array of tabs to choose from, putting information at an explorer’s fingertips. Some of these include: Read more

Tweeting Public History: Successes and Pitfalls

This course has brought me into the world of Twitter for the first time. Though I’ve carefully avoided Twitter for years, as soon as I started following some of my favorite museums and public history institutions, I grew impressed as I scrolled through their feeds, learning about the institutions and what they have to share. I had a negative preconception that Twitter created a messy, disjointed feed of news, opinions, images, and information that was difficult for anyone without context, or knowledge of twitter abbreviations and hashtag lingo, to comprehend, but I found that many of the institutions feeds were concise, clear, clean, and easy to follow. As I looked at the feeds, I made some observations about the best practices and shortcomings of using Twitter for public history. Here are some of my takeaways that I would give as advice for public history institutions to make the most of their Twitter presence: Read more