Digitization makes it easy to crop, combine, or touch up historic images before putting them on exhibit. There are many tools for this job, with Adobe Photoshop as the name brand professional choice. For my own projects, however, I usually prefer another app: GIMP (The GNU Image Manipulation Program), which is free, open source, and offers all the features I need even though it isn’t as powerful as Adobe’s product. Below I look at a couple examples of how either tool can be used to prepare images for exhibit.
Collaging and Layering 2D Images for Display
For my class project this semester, I have the opportunity to use Photoshop in the campus computer lab while preparing a new web exhibit on early Chicago history. Most or all of the materials for this exhibit will be two dimensional historic images or documents, many of which are black and white or grayscale, like the following images that my classmate Kyle Mathers uncovered.
One way to liven up these gray images while also situating them in more historical context might be to create a collage layering them over a more colorful background, like this painting of Kinize’s House and Fort Dearborn as they might have looked around 1812.
Using just a few quick steps in Photoshop, for instance — selecting image excerpts with the “Magnetic Lasso” and “Magic Wand” tools, resizing and layering them into place, and adding a slight drop shadow — I was able to create a collage-like scene that put Kinzie’s portrait and signature into the scenery of early Chicago. The result certainly has more color and depth than the portrait alone, but the collage effect is a bit tacky for my tastes. What do you think? Is the more immersive image worth losing the integrity of the original items? What role might collage serve for history exhibits?
Making 3D Artifacts Stand Out in 2D Photographs
Another challenge of web exhibits is that two dimensional screen images can never fully capture the depth and texture of three dimensional museum objects. I don’t know yet if I’ll use any 3D artifacts for my exhibit this semester, but in my role as curatorial assistant to the Crossings & Dwellings Exhibition at LUMA in 2014, I took photos of several exhibit objects and used GIMP to try to pull these artifacts to the foreground of flat images. The effect is deliberately much more subtle than the collage above — I wanted the photos to remain naturalistic while spotlighting their primary subjects.
Simply by blurring the background a bit, adjusting the contrast, and using semi-transparient gradients to focus the lighting, I was able to make artifacts like a Gold Dalmatic acquired for Holy Family Parish in Chicago in the 1870s and a funeral cope at the Shrine of St. Ferdinand made by St. Rose Philippine Duchesne in about 1840 stand out more their from busy, colorful backgrounds.
Distributed social networks are not well-known, but their tumultuous history offers a range of opportunities and challenges to public historians on the web. Distributed networks, such as GNU Social, Diaspora*, or Friendica, exist as an alternatives to more popular sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, which are centralized networks. Each centralized network exists on a single website, owned and controlled by a single business with whom all users of the network must register accounts. Distributed social networks, by contrast, run on free community-built software that can power any number of different access points. This allows users to join the network from their choice of sign-on providers, or even to access the network by creating a server of their own, without relying on a single centralized authority.
Public historians can learn from both the aspirations and failures of distributed social networks. For historians who aim to collect digital history, these fragmented, privacy-conscious networks pose a dilemma about how to preserve online communications while respecting user privacy. For museums and cultural institutions who aim to build sociability into online exhibits and collections, distributed networks offer an ethical model for open development, interoperability, and privacy protection — as well as case studies in the difficulty of attracting engaged users.
History of Distributed Networks: GNU Social, Diaspora*, Friendica
Distributed social networks began to appear around 2008-2010 in response to fears that centralized networks threatened their users’ privacy and autonomy. The companies that own centralized networks like Facebook or Twitter dictate lengthy terms of service that can change at any time, freely utilize users’ data to sell advertising, and create a single point of failure giving users little recourse if the company suspends an account, merges into another company, or goes out of business. Distributed networks promise to give users the ability to access a network without being locked into a single company’s product — just as a telephone user with AT&T can call someone with Verizon, or a Yahoo! Mail user can send a letter to a friend at Gmail. This empowers distributed network users to choose the provider whose terms they like best, to switch providers while still being able to socialize with the same contacts, and even to set up their own service for fine-grained control over their personal data.
Online exhibitions and digitized collections provide many new ways to collect, author, and share history. Planning these digital projects involves many considerations, some new, but most familiar. Digital history is still history, after all, and I would argue the best digital projects follow many of the same planning procedures as analog ones, even if specifics vary.
Putting Mission First
The first step for any public history project, even before considering technology, should be to determine the project’s purpose and set out its intended audiences and outcomes. What is the theme of an exhibition? Is digitization intended for preservation, accessibility, research, or to provide resources for educational materials? How does the project fit with the institutional mission?
These are basic questions, but it is vital that digital history projects stay focused on real human outcomes. When museums and archives rush toward a new technology without having a clear idea of how it furthers their mission, the “gee whiz” impact of new media and the dictates of the platform can distract from these institutions’ core historical materials and programs. Technology should be a tool to support the institutional mission and project goals, not an objective in itself.
Twitter has become a popular platform for sharing history since its launch in 2006. Although it is only used by about 23% of online adults, more often in urban than rural areas, Twitter is a useful resource for connecting with segments of the online public. The Minnesota Historical Society and the Ohio History Connection were among the first big history institutions in the Midwest to embrace the platform. A casual comparison of their current Twitter profiles illustrates some best practices while revealing how these organizations differ in using Twitter to advance their missions.
Minnesota Historical Society (@mnhs)
The mission of the Minnesota Historical Society is “Using the Power of History to Transform Lives.” This is an ambitious mission, but the society’s Twitter use appears to work towards it.
The society’s main Twitter profile, @mnhs, was created in August 2008 and now has 14.9 thousand followers. Its popularity attests to its longevity and its content. While the Minnesota Historical Society uses Twitter to promote its own programs and collections, it also connects these promotions with interesting or informative content such as trivia and historical images, as in the tweet below:
A class at Richfield HS, 1955. Don't forget to visit Suburbia and get 2-for-1 tickets w/ the code word "Richfield!" pic.twitter.com/Pn1AJg5lMT
In addition to self-promotion, the Minnesota Historical Society frequently retweets or promotes related material from other history and news organizations in Minnesota and even beyond, such as the following item about the New York Times’ Black History archive first tweeted by PBS’s Frontline:
Minnesota Historical Society’s willingness to share content from beyond its institutional walls makes its Twitter profile a general hub of discussion for history and its present relevancy in Minnesota. Despite the breadth of its content, however, the society keeps the number of tweets on this profile to an average of 3.1 a day (according to Twitonomy), a steady but manageable volume.
In addition to its primary profile, many of the Minnesota Historical Society’s divisions have their own Twitter accounts and followings. The Minnesota History Center, for instance, promotes its events and programs at @mnhistorycenter. Another profile @MNopedia, tweets facts and historic images from the society’s online encyclopedia. The society press shares news on its publications at @mnhspress. The institution facilitates programming for teachers and students at @historyedmnhs and @mnhistoryday. Many MNHS historic sites also have a separate profile.
How do other Twitter users engage with the Minnesota Historical Society and its many profiles? The graph below shows the network of tweets that mentioned or replied to one of the Minnesota Historical Society’s Twitter handles during the week from January 28 to February 5, 2016. Activity varies from week to week, so this sample is too small to make scientific conclusions. Still, it provides a quick impression of how Twitter users discuss the society. Lines connect accounts to the other profiles they mentioned (or to the accounts that mentioned them). The more mentions an account made of other users in this network, the larger the circle representing it appears. Accounts are colored according to their modularity, which helps distinguish different communities of users.
The Minnesota Historical Society’s mention network is sizeable, but although several different conversation groups can be distinguished, they are mostly well connected. The large size of the @mnhs profile in this graph indicates that it is not only being mentioned, but also mentioning, retweeting, and replying to other users — a healthy sign of two way conversation between the institution and its constituents.