Monday, March 31, 2008

Daring to Make History Fun

Today my former Canadian History professor, Graham Broad, sent me a link to the Ultimate Canadian History Site, explaining that it was created for the Grade 10 Social Studies class and very blog worthy. As I am always looking for interesting things to write about, I clicked on the link and was surprised by what I saw. This site did not appear to be a typical curriculum based history website at all, with the home page containing pictures of people with pretend Maple Leaf tattoos on their faces...but I knew I was at the right place when the first activity I noticed was “History Songs” which encourages students to “sing yourself through your social studies classes”.

Overwhelmed by curiosity I clicked on the History Songs section and started simultaneously reading into the background of the site and downloading a song entitled “Louis Louis Riel”. I quickly learned that this website was created by Shawna Audet, who began writing social studies songs to get her students more interested in Canadian History; not only did her creative approach work with her students, but Audet was also funded by Historica to compile her history songs into an album entitled Beaver Tales (academics will be happy to know she includes notes on each of her songs). Audet has still made all of the songs downloadable on her site, and encourages people to purchase the album to show they support the product.

Audet has also completed historical research in order to create history quizzes that allow to students to find out which historical figures they are most like, and her latest project “Mini-Canada” encourages students to think about what it means to be Canadian. The description of this project asks students, “What does it mean to be Canadian? This question doesn't come with a simple little answer that we can all memorize before we move on to our next social studies lesson. Instead, it leads to more questions. For example, what do Canadians look like? What do Canadians value?” This project involves students doing research using Statistic Canada, thinking independently about their findings, and presenting their information in video format, which can be uploaded and watched on the website.

The website itself has some serious weaknesses: I found it hard to navigate, some of the links did not work properly, and I could not find where to sign up so that I could take the quizzes. I also have not had the chance to really look into the quality of the historical content. That being said, I really like the enthusiasm and sense of fun that Audet brings to the study of history. As many of my blogs have stressed, I am really inspired by people and institutions that dare to present history in unique and dynamic ways. Audet demonstrates that getting people excited about history can be something as simple (and silly) as the history songs, which have the potential to make people laugh and learn at the same time.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Appealing to the Curious George in all of Us

In a recent post, I wrote about the Waterloo Regional Children’s Museum’s attempt to improve the museum’s attendance by working on making the museum appeal to a larger audience and by drawing in visitors through the use of the highly anticipated traveling exhibit Discovering Chimpanzees: The Remarkable World of Jane Goodall”. Upon actually visiting the Children’s Museum, I was equally impressed with both the permanent displays as well as the traveling exhibit.

From the moment one enters the building and walks into the “Grand Atrium” the museum exhibits evoke a sense of wonder and fun. Most noticeable is the abundance of colourful lanterns hanging from the ceiling, which the museum pamphlet explains are part of the Taiwan Lantern Festival of Colour. This cultural exhibit includes 200 lanterns that were hand painted by Taiwanese elementary school students. While waiting in line to pay admission ($5.00 to $7.00 per person during the regular season, and $8.00 to $10.00 during special exhibits), children and adults alike were pointing and gesturing towards the bright lanterns.

Similar to more traditional museums, the Children’s Museum does maintain a small collection of artifacts from Gaudie’s Department Store, who were the original occupants of the building. What distinguishes the Children’s Museum from their more traditional counterparts, is that they are no longer continuing to collect historical artifacts. Instead, the museum is more interested in acquiring more modern and interactive objects. For example, one display contains numerous computers whose manufacturing dates range from 1981 to 2002. Visitors are encouraged to play computer games on each, so that they can see how computers have changed over the course of the last twenty years. This type of focus is typical of children’s museums, as Edward Alexander explains in his text on the history of museums that, “A children’s museum collects objects, not for their rarity, but for their usefulness in interpretation or education. Their exhibitions may include objects, but their intent is to engage, intrigue, and inform their visitors.”[1]

The Jane Goodall exhibit itself was also more compelling than I had anticipated. The children visiting the museum loved the “Chimp Forest” which allowed them to climb into a chimp nest and walk like a chimpanzee. In the “Primates” section, both children and adults enjoyed stepping on special primate scale. The scale informed me that I weighed the same amount as a Chimp and concluded that the eleven year old girl that stepped on it before me weighed the same as a Baboon. My favourite part of the exhibit, however, was the display that mimicked Jane Goodall’s Gombe Jungle home. While sitting in the camp I was able to watch authentic video footage that Goodall took while researching chimps in Africa. As I both participated in the exhibit and observed other visitors’ responses, it was clear that both children and adults were equally captivated.

“Discovering Chimpanzees” has increased the amount of museum members and visitors, while also having a very positive effect on the museum staff’s morale. This was obvious by the friendly, enthusiastic, and helpful nature of the employees. One of the staff members who is in charge of museum fund raising explained that she used to have to call schools and recreational groups to try and convince them to book tours at the museum, but since the opening of “Discovering Chimpanzees” all of the schools and groups in the area have been calling them. Furthermore, the success of this exhibit has allowed for the Children’s Museum to line up a series of additional educational and exciting traveling exhibits. These include an upcoming and highly anticipated “A Celebration of Canada’s North: An Arctic Adventure” and “Dinosaurs Alive!”.

[1] Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion (New York, Altamira Press: 2008), 168

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Podcastic History?

My Digital History class is making a digital exhibit on the History of the Sky. My group in particular is making a display that will inform the public about the History of Comets. The idea is that a visitor will touch a button on a globe, which will then project the computer program Google Earth onto a large screen. This will display the precise location and description of where a famous Comet has been seen and the affect that the Comet had on History. My portion of the project so far has included making a Google Earth KMZ file, that works whenever someone clicks London, England, and shows a picture and brief description of the history of Halley’s Comet.

Today it was suggested to me that my group could look into making a Podcast to accompany our display. I must confess that until approximately an hour ago I knew very little about Podcasts, aside from the general idea that they are basically online radio shows that can be downloaded and listened to on an IPod. I have mentioned in previous posts how attached I am to my IPod, which has progressed to not only taking it with me everywhere, but also having a special IPod alarm clock that wakes me up each morning. So needless to say, I decided it was about time to become more informed, and I have started looking through what ITunes has to offer.

There are many Podcasts that grabbed my attention, and I have already become a subscriber to The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos. The second I clicked on this Podcast I was greeted by The Long Tail, and was informed that listeners who liked The Hour also liked “BBC History Magazine”. I decided to try out the latest BBC History Magazine Podcast, and although I did not find it nearly as entertaining as The Hour, I immediately understood Podcasts’ potential.

I think that Podcasts could definitely be used to get the public engaged with history. I do not think it will be easy, but some creative thinking could allow for students and/or the public to listen to interesting historical accounts the same way that they currently listen to their favourite songs. I am not positive that a Podcast will work for this particular project, but regardless I think this is something I will continue to look into, because Podcasts could serve as a fantastic tool for the Public Historian.

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Successful Combination of History and Celebrity Gossip

I was introduced to the historical fiction The Luxe by Anna Godbersen in the Style section of last Saturday’s Globe and Mail.[1] There was something very appealing about the idea of reading a novel for “blog research”, so later that day I visited Chapters and purchased my own copy. I knew I had made a good decision when I read the blurb on the back cover of The Luxe by Cecily von Ziegesar, who is the author of the popular book/television series Gossip Girl, and describes the novel stating, “Mystery, romance, jealousy, betrayal, humor, and gorgeous, historically accurate details”. The Luxe most certainly contains all of these qualities, as it follows the lives of both rich adolescents and the young people who serve them, with the former being forced to choose between maintaining a life of luxury or being with the people they love.

Within two evenings I had begun and finished this easy and entertaining read, having reached many of the same conclusions as the Globe and Mail reviewer Leah McLaren: this novel is an 1890s version of Gossip Girl, that is also very reminiscent of today’s celebrities such as Paris Hilton, who are famous solely because they are rich. What McLaren failed to mention, however, is how brilliantly Godbersen understands the importance of “audience”. The Luxe is written for teens and young adults, who will easily be lured into the world of the 19th century through the familiar theme of the wealthy behaving badly. Furthermore, once Godbersen has her readers firmly planted in the 1890s, she envelops them with an accurate historic atmosphere, which is created through the use of well researched details. Margaret Atwood, who covers a much more serious historical topic in her novel Alias Grace, takes a similar approach to writing historical fiction, and points out how involved in the details she became. Atwood explains, “...I found myself wrestling not only with who said what about Grace Marks but also with how to clean a chamber pot, what footgear would have been worn in the winter, the origins of quilt pattern names, and how to store parsnips.”[2]

My public history course touched on many of these same topics in our recent discussion of historical fiction. We came to a general consensus that novels should not replace academic texts, but rather they should be used as educational tools to set a historic tone and spark the reader’s interest to learn more about history. Although I would like to claim that The Luxe will inspire young girls everywhere to start researching 19th century New York City, I am satisfied with that fact that if nothing else, this novel does give readers a glimpse into a historical period that they may never have previously encountered.

[1] Leach McLaren, “Tabloid Tales with a Twist” in The Globe and Mail , Print Edition 23/02/08 Page L3

[2] Margaret Atwood, “In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction”, in The American Historical Review, Vol. 103, No. 5 (Dec., 1998)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The CBC Digital Archives: An Entertaining Presentation of History

The more time I spend learning about Digital History, the more I become convinced that what makes the digital world such an important tool for the Public Historian, is that it allows us to give the public access to materials they otherwise would not easily be able to view. That being said, it still has been difficult to try and understand both the theoretical and practical components involved in actually doing digital history; nothing has motivated me more to continue to acquire more digital skills, than CBC’s Archives.

The CBC Archives website is attractive to look at while still being simple and user friendly; more importantly, the content of the site is so powerful and interesting that I have often been drawn into it for hours. The CBC’s Archives contain numerous audio and video clips from CBC’s vast archival collection, which depict all aspects of Canadian life. This website appeals to the general public as well as to long time CBC fans, because each a/v clip comes with the name of the program and the interviewer, a description of how this episode played into the climate of the time, while still emphasizing the effect it had on the company and particular interviewer.

The best feature of CBC’s Archives is the way in which clips are arranged and categorized. Immediately upon entering the site the visitor notices On this Day which features a past video or radio clip that had aired on this same day in CBC history. Underneath that section is my favourite portion of the site: Great Interviews. These clips feature CBC’s most famous and notorious interviews, most of which I have watched over the course of the last couple of months. Some of the people interviewed are extremely famous individuals, others I have never even heard of before. Due to my love of music, my favourite clip is Peter Gzowski’s interview in 1977 of Iggy Pop, who had been one of the founders of the punk rock movement in the 1960/70s. Interestingly, after watching this clip I realized that one my favourite post rock bands, Mogwai, has made use of this archival footage and used this particular interview in the background of their song “Punk Rock”.

If visitors are not as interested in the interviews as I am, one can easily use the site’s search engine or choose a specific clip category that appeals to them. Essentially, the visitor gets to decide for themselves what portion of Canadian or CBC’s history they are most interested in, which includes a wide range of topics such as interviews with Playboy Bunnies, radio reports about the world wars, or coverage of the past Olympic Games. Regardless of what they choose, users are able to engage with historical materials they otherwise would not be given access to. In this way, the CBC Archives are an example of how Digital History can be used to educate and entertain the public.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Reinventing the Children’s Museum, One Monkey at a Time

Having been raised in Cambridge, Ontario, it is fantastic to see my hometown and the surrounding area, finally getting excited about the Children’s Museum of the Waterloo Region. The museum which opened in 2003 has had its’ share of struggles; these have included the deterioration of exhibits, lack of attendance, and inability to keep a solid director. However, over the past year I have been pleasantly surprised by the numerous articles in one of the local newspapers, The Record, which has outlined the reinvigoration of the Children’s Museum. In particular, one of the most recent articles by Raveena Aulakh entitled “He’s a Wizard in a Place of Wonder: Running a Children’s Museum isn’t Child’s Play” has outlined the multitude of positive changes that have taken place, and attributes them to the successful leadership of the latest director, David Marskell.

The article describes Marskell’s re-conceptualization of the museum as a combination of a children’s place and a science centre, so that the museum will appeal to people of all ages. Very cool exhibits have been installed to accompany this new approach to the museum. As Aulakh reports, the museum has a robotic chair that breaks and then puts itself back together, and has paired up with the University of Waterloo to create an entire floor dedicated to a Digital Media Centre which allows students to interact with advanced technological devices and use video conferencing to communicate globally with other students.

Currently, the region’s attention has been captured by the temporary Jane Goodall exhibit “Discovering Chimpanzees: The Remarkable World of Jane Goodall”. The exhibit which started on January 25th and will remain until May 25th is estimated to continue the Children’s Museum upward climb. This is an expensive exhibit, but Marskell is confident that it will not only bring people into the museum, but that it will encourage guests to come back, even after the temporary exhibit has moved on.

The Children’s Museum in Kitchener has demonstrated how crucial it is for cultural institutions to have good leadership, take risks, and to find innovative ways to allow people to interact with exhibits. Furthermore, I think that the Jane Godall exhibit is a fun and downright brilliant way to engage the public; after successfully completing my Cambridge rite of passage working at African Lion Safari for two summers, I have learned that monkeys truly are the key to the public’s heart.

* Picture by Aaron Logan, from

Sunday, January 27, 2008

"Life-Changing" Museums

I only remember vague details about the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, but I clearly remember how visiting the spot had made me feel. Although I could not have been older than eight years old, the historical interpreters did a fantastic job of explaining the significance of the Boston Tea Party’s defiant behaviour, and the role that it had in leading to the American Revolution. I vividly remember being filled with a sense of awe, thinking how amazing it was that I was standing on the site where a crucial historical event took place. This brief amount of time spent on this old ship in the Boston Harbour had an immediate impact on me. It was my “aha!” moment, the point in time when my love for history had first been activated.

I found myself revisiting this experience when my museology professor asked us to read and respond to the article “Inside the ‘Black Museum’” by the historian Andrew E. Masich. Masich was awarded a grant to travel the world in search of museums that he felt had the power to change visitors’ lives. Museums that Masich deemed life-changing included well known museums such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and the lesser known Black Museum in Scotland Yard, London, which is only open to prospective law enforcers.

I easily reflected on what museum had changed my life, because I have never forgotten that moment of awe, and the wonder and excitement that the site of Boston Tea Party instilled in me towards the study of history. I do not know that the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum would make Masich’s list as one of the top “life-changing” museums in the world, but as Masich's article advocates, every museum has the power to make a long lasting impact if approached with the right mindset.