museums and the web

Two weeks ago, I went up to Grand Marais, on the lovely North Shore of Lake Superior (and convenient jumping-off point for a camping trip on the Gunflint Trail).

Of course we had to visit the Cook County Historical Society, headquartered in an old lighthousekeeper’s house in downtown Grand Marais.  The society and the museum are all-volunteer run, and the museum encompasses the history of the whole country, 70% of which is federal forest/lake/parkland, and which extends up to the Canadian border, though it focuses on the county’s towns:  Grand Marais, Schroder, Tofte, Lutsen.

When I walk into a small local historical society, my conservator’s brain usually starts to scream:  are those original photos on display?  what are those lace dresses doing in front of the window?  there’s condensation on the basement walls!   The CCHS was no exception, but they win points for judicious use of plexiglass and other barriers to visitors handling all their items.

Their local collections are wide ranging, from a spinning wheel brought over from Norway to a dogsled used by a rural mailman.  Interpretative labels are scarce, but exhibits on land surveying, lumber camps, the CCC, geology and shipping in the county were informative and interesting.  Native American history in the county is sadly also scarce, though the mail service exhibit includes information on John Beargrease, who delivered mail by dogsled and after whom an annual dogsled race is named.

The CCHS’s web presence is worth discussing.  They don’t have their own website (hence the lack of linkage), but they do participate in the community portal pages at, the fab local nonprofit community ISP.  Boreal’s county history page (note that the whole site is built in drupal) links to a number of articles on county history, and also features a photo identification page, where community residents can identify people in the CCHS’s photo archives.  With these pieces around, it would be very short work to write a homepage for the museum, with hours and location and collections overview.  Lots of potential here.


Hurrah! I’m in San Francisco. The last few days have been consumed with volunteer committments at the conference and walking up hills,* but I got some leisure at tonight’s reception at SFMOMA to…talk to folks from Minneapolis.

I spent the afternoon at a workshop on managing redesigns with web teams, run by Howard Rosenbaum from Indiana’s SLIS, and it was very interesting and thorough–his presentation won’t be on the web till next week, so I’ll post a link then. I’m volunteering tomorrow at a session on user-contributed content, and one on open architecture, so I’ll get to talk 2.0 more then. This is all very exciting and energizing, and I’ll hopefully have more resources to share with you all by the end of the week.

*And going to the farmers market! You certainly can’t buy local grapefruits in Minnesota.

Brett started with a huge laugh from the crowd saying that he didn’t want to steal IMLS’ thunder but that NEH Program Officers would be waiting in the lobby after the conference, with checkbooks in hand, making immediate grants.

Holly Witchey has all the details over at Musematic.

Update:  Gunter Weibel has more at Hanging Together, and notes that podcasts will be up sometime in the future.

I got tagged last month on the 5 things meme, originally ‘5 things you don’t know about me.’ William Turkel from Digital History Hacks hacked it, turning it into a reflective meta-meme about digital history and the blogosphere, and exposing his own reflective work, even exploring how one decides who to tag. “Should you tag new bloggers, in an effort to bring them into the social flow?” I’m happy to have been included. Brett from Airminded has already responded with “5 Things about PhD Research Blogs.”

I’m further tweaking the meme, in a very literal-minded way. I work in and think about history museums, particularly small local history orgs with collections but no money. At the small museum I work for we’re in the middle of a small digitzation project right now, as well as a web project, and I feel like I’m losing sight of our collections and what they mean amid the scanning and research and everything else. So here are 5 things from our and others’ collections, and what they bring up about digitizing history collections. Through writing this I’ve learned that context, especially, and the metadata around the objects make digitized items more tangible.

1. Watermelon. It’s not in the collections, it’s in my fridge, waiting to be pickled, to join the rows of pickles and preserves I made last summer and entered in the State Fair. But despite the long popular tradition of home canning, you just can’t keep that stuff in a museum. General wisdom is to pour it out and keep the container. The contents might draw pests or pose danger from leakage or decay to other items. A major problem here is with the limited sensorium we can capture digitally. Until someone develops smellovision, we’re stuck with visual and audio documentation only.

2. Diary.The diary of a first-year nursing student at Minneapolis General Hospital in 1929, in her handwriting, with a dedication in the front and photos pasted in. We can transcribe its contents and mark them up, making them searchable by names, departments, locations; but we lose the aesthetic power of the diary, the handwriting, notes, stains. We can scan the diary, page by page, but we lose the flexibility and interoperability of data that we get from markup. If a local historical society is doing a digitization project, which will they do? Which is more valuable? How can we make the resources available to digitize both the informational and tactile content of the obect?

3. Mysteriously-appearing boxes. Since the museum I work at is infrequently open but is located in the hospital, we often receive mysterious donations. We’ve tried to institute a more rigorous tracking procedure, putting donor forms outside our door, but we still get items without any sort of provenance. How can we accession them? What do they signify? Here, it’s extremely useful to take a picture and post it on the web or circulate it. Someone knows someone who knows what the object is and recognizes it from one of the old wards. Some aspects of digitization can help solve collection management problems.

4. Typewriter. Local historical societies usually have excellent documentation on one subject: their own history. The medical history museum I work for was founded by two retired nurses who began collecting when the old General was torn down in 1976. They gathered an amazing collection of equipment, textiles, photographs, documents, on the history of the hospital and of medicine in Minneapolis and Hennepin County. This typewriter was the one Audrey used to type the labels for all the collections storage, all the exhibits, all the transcribed oral histories. We haven’t accessioned it yet, and we haven’t decided what to do with it.

Things like this typewriter take their meaning from context. It’s a pretty unremarkable early 80s electric typewriter, but it has value for our museum’s history. When we digitize our collections, we need to evaluate these items of metahistory. (As a zinester, I’m moderately obsessed with typewriters, but that’s not the reason we’ve kept it.)

5. Styrofoam Box. Not a particularly interesting box, heavy white styrofoam, like something you might use to chill food or wine. I found it in a cardboard box in our storage space. But this is no ordinary piece of foam! It was used to transport kidneys, here at the hospital that in 1963 perform the first kidney transplant in the Midwest. Like the typewriter, collecting it fufills our mission only when you know the context. That’s why those metadata standards need to be so exacting, and need to be followed so closely. Otherwise, all you’ve got is a box.

Having talked about things, let’s talk people. I’d like to tag Thomas of Biomedicine on Display, Mary from the Morrison County Historical Society in Little Falls (birthplace of Lucky Lindy), Sheila from the CHNM, my bootcamp colleague Chris, and Lila the digital construct (once I track her address down). I hope they continue to perform iterations on the meme.

A recent post on the MN Local History Professionals Blog* asks what’s the rush in getting collections online? What do we need to take into consideration? What are we neglecting? Interesting conversation ensues, and I run off at the mouth about exciting possibilities. Check it out.

*Now that I type that whole thing out, I’m starting to think it needs a neat before-the-colon title, ex: L’etoile du nord: MN Local History Professionals Blog. It’s undeniably descriptive, though.

I love the tools developed by the SIMILE folks at MIT, open-source tools that make interoperability between data collections a key focus. They have lots of neat tools that are more meta, but two in particular could be very useful to off-the-shelf digital historians.

The first is the Timeline tool, which I’m planning to use in an upcoming project. It’s basically an API for visualizing historic events, but there’s nothing to download. All you need is to mark up your data in XML. It doesn’t need to be fancy XML either–you don’t need to have a super sophisticated DTD–or you can mark up the data as a JSON file. They even have a tool (Babel) for switching data formats, so you could dump data from a spreadsheet and turn it into a JSON file, and then feed that into the Timeline tool. And the timeline is pretty and it scrolls in a nice ajaxy fashion, quick and smooth. The developers compare it to google maps, and it seems similarly useful, except you don’t have to know any javascript or download a key. Why isn’t everyone using this? The other open-source timeline tools are a bit clunkier and not so user-friendly.*

The other tool is Exhibit:

Exhibit is a lightweight structured data publishing framework that lets you create web pages with support for sorting, filtering, and rich visualizations by writing only HTML and optionally some CSS and Javascript code.

It’s like Google Maps and Timeline, but for structured data normally published through database-backed web sites. Exhibit essentially removes the need for a database or a server side web application. Its Javascript-based engine makes it easy for everyone who has a little bit of knowledge of HTML and small data sets to share them with the world and let people easily interact with them.

This is terrific. Not only can you show your data as a timeline, you can organize and display it in any number of other ways, all helpfully discussed for you on the exhibit wiki and tutorials. And you don’t have to know anything about databases! This is a big hurdle for public historians with little resources in the way of money and time for web stuff, who probably know a bit of HTML but have no interest at all in learning mySQL or ASP or anything else.

I’m thinking that Exhibit would be a great and easy way for local historical societies to make their basic regional history data interactive. If they have nothing else in the way of data, local history museums and societies usually have a page on “History of ____ County,” usually a long, unformatted block of text (sometimes with paragraphs). With a little bit of data mining but no new research or writing, this could be turned into a neat web exhibit that will keep people on your page longer and inspire folks to learn more about local history! Good work, folks. I’d love to talk to local historical organizations that have been using these tools already.

Just a note: A Companion to Digital Humanities, an edited volume from 2004, is now online. Check it out. (via UIUC GSLIS)

*I’d also love to hear about other timeline tools!
**Update: Thanks to Sheila for telling me that the CHNM has a Flash timeline tool in beta.

I work at a small museum that interprets the history of a hospital. We are located in the hospital, but we are administered by the hospital’s nonprofit auxiliary, which manages volunteers and provides clothing for folks in need, among their other projects. So, we are at the bottom of the hierarchy, literally, since our space is in the basement.

Currently we’re using PastPerfect 3.0 to manage our collections. PP3 is okay, but PP4 has much more useful functionalities, and we actually own PP4. I even went to a training on PP4. So, why are we still using PP3? Because all of the IT folks are working on the Electronic Health Records projects. We have had a work order in for more than a year. My colleagues have said, and I’ve agreed, that our data is too important to risk losing by switching over to PP4 inappropriately. Is this something I could do myself? Any ideas? Maybe I’ll call up PastPerfect and ask them.

Besides cataloguing our object collections, I’ve been scanning and describing our photo collection, which is terrific, photos of nurses and doctors and patients and procedures from 1900 to the present. Pending our board’s approval, I’m putting in a proposal for us to work with the Minnesota Digital Library. They will digitize up to 500 images for us, including slides and lantern slides, or up to 1250 pages of documents, and share them on Minnesota Reflections, which “brings you over 10,000 images and documents shared by over sixty cultural heritage organizations across the state. This site offers a broad view of Minnesota’s history for researchers, educators, students, and the public.”

It’s a fabulous resource, and an amazing opportunity for a small historical society. Among the benefits: they scan the photos for us so I can spend my staff time on other projects; our photos are accessible for the first time to folks outside the hospital; we get a higher profile, with links to our website and collection; and everyone can learn more about the history of medicine in Minneapolis. The only downside is that we need to provide the metadata for the scanned items, which we would be doing anyway when we catalogued them on PP (and by ‘we’ I mean me.) This seems like a fabulous project in other ways, especially in connecting the collections of cultural resource organizations of all types–museums, archives, historical societies, universities, libraries. One thing I think museums and historical societies can take from libraries is the enormous benefits of consortiums and networking. In a small museum with no promotional budget, digital networking projects can not only make collections accessible to the public, but also make your small museum part of a larger project that might attract new visitors. I’m excited to hook our museum into the network.