Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Conversation Out of Controversy

Often, people think of museums as institutions filled with artifacts and static exhibits, imparting information and stating historical facts.  But many modern museums are evolving from edifices with objects and answers, to arenas with questions and conversation spaces.  These museums discuss broad themes, stimulate debate, and encourage people to talk.

Well, people certainly have been talking about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.  There has been discussion surrounding the institution since it was established as a national museum in 2007, and five years later people are still talking - and the building is not even complete.

As a national museum, Canadians have a sense of ownership of the CMHR, and controversy has surrounded many aspects of its development.  Multiple issues are up for debate – from how much it is going to cost and who will foot the bill, to the architecture and location of the building.  Content and exhibit space are hot button topics as well.  Who and what will be represented?  Is the museum to commemorate those who lost their lives as a result of genocide and other atrocities?  Or should we celebrate those who have triumphed over adversity?  How much should focus on Canada specifically, how much internationally?

Conversations have been at the core of developing the CMHR and its content.  A Content Advisory Committee was put in place by the Minister of Canadian Heritage to gather input from Canadians regarding the content of the museum.  Focus group testing was done in 2008 in cities across Canada, and again in 2009.  The goal was not only ask what stories need to be told in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights; but also to start an early process of story-gathering, and to stimulate a desire to engage with the museum now and into the future.

Discussion is important; debate encourages a sharing of differing ideas and options.  The questions get hard, and the answers are not always pretty.  The CMHR has already provided Canadians an opportunity to contemplate the history of the struggle for human rights, both nationally and internationally.  Part of the museum’s mandate is “to encourage reflection and dialogue,” it has succeeded in this - even before there are official doors to open. 

The CMHR and the conversations it encourages, have the potential to provide us with a better understanding of Canada’s role in the human rights struggle – past, present, and future.

*This piece was written for an op-ed assignment for my Public History class.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Adventures With Arduino

Me: Guess what I did in Digital History today? 

Doug: What? 

M: I played with an Arduino board! 

D:  You played with a what?  Arduino board?  Like that waffle-board looking thing? 

M:  Yeah, an Arduino board !  You know...a little computer-like thing that...um, it has all these inputs and outputs.  We plugged it into a computer, copied some code, and made a light bulb turn on!  And then we turned it on and off with a button, then we made it blink and fade.  We tried to get two different lights to fade in and out at the same time, but we couldn't quite get the code right.  Okay, it was a lot cooler than it sounds now.... 

D:  And this was in your history class.....?


Admittedly I am not a techie.  My foray into HTML last semester was a leap for me, so actually programming?  That would be crazy!  What an interesting challenge!  Prof. Turkel opened the class by telling us that we would be making two things this semester:
  1. stuff
  2. mistakes
As he pointed out, it's not often professors encourage you to make mistakes.  He said he'd rather have us dream big, fail spectacularly, and learn something along the way than to play it safe.  I figured even if it's scary, what's the worst that could happen, I make a mistake?  Cool!

For those of you, like I, unfamiliar with Arduino it's "a popular open-source electronic board that is capable of controlling just about any DIY hardware project."  I figured if this girl could handle it, so could I:

So armed with our box-o-Arduino supplies, and big dreams (or at least big dreams in the making) my partner Adriana and I dove in!  Our kit came with an instruction manual, but we find illustrations much easier to follow so with the help of this comic we got to work.  Adriana had downloaded the software onto her computer, so we sped through the instructions, hooked up all the wires, copied the code into the computer, and voila - our light blinked! 

Now, if that description of how things happened leaves you a little lost and confused, you are exactly where I was in class.  I was so excited to see something happen (i.e. make a light blink) that I wasn't really paying attention to what we were doing.  In fact, everything was pretty much happening all at once.  Adriana was entering the code into the Arduino program, I was following the illustration and hooking up all the wires in the Arduino board and breadboard, but I can't say as though I understood exactly what we were doing.  I was just excited to see this happen:

However, at this point I realized that I had done little more than show I was capable of cutting and pasting code text, and following an illustration to put wires in the right place.  And while the end result was cool - I didn't really understand what I was actually doing.  So we slowed down and Adriana and I went through the code step-by-step.  When you put a sketch (or code) into the Arduino software, it looks a little something like this:

Sketch for fading LED

The light-grey text (following the //) is not actually part of the code, but it's included in the Getting Started with Arduino book to help you understand what each line does.  So we went line by line to figure out what the sketch was telling the Arduino board.  Once we had a basic understanding, we wanted to try something new (dream big right?) and have two different lights hooked up and have them fade in and out at the same time.  So we copied and pasted the sketch over again and made a few changes (there is a "verify" button on the software that double checks your sketch to make sure it's correct), added a second light and BAM - nothing happened.  Well, not quite nothing, but just the first light worked, not the second.

We were really bummed at first, we thought we were wizards and had everything figured out.  But then we realized what we had done...made our first mistake!  So rather than fail, this was just an opportunity to learn what we had done wrong.  Unfortunately, at that very moment, class was over and we had to pack up and call it a day.

But the thing about Arduino is once you start thinking about it, it's hard to stop.  There were numerous Tweets flying around that evening among classmates, with suggestions, solutions, and cool websites to check out.  Adriana eventually figured out our mistake in the sketch.  (If I understand it correctly, we had created a second "loop" or entirely separate part of the code, or the Arduino was only reading the first part - hence only one light coming on.)  

The nice thing about Arduino being open-source is that you can find a lot of people on the web sharing what they are doing and the codes that go along with their projects.  So if you're really bored creative, you can do something like this:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Pick Me Out A Winner Bobby

There are many ways in which people connect with the past.  It could be reading a book, looking at photographs, or visiting a site or museum.  In our Interactive Exhibit Design course, we have been encouraged to select an item we might find lying around our house, and by performing an action, imagine that this object somehow connects us to the past.  With the aid of imagination and a little magic - this ordinary item becomes a "history appliance."  

My colleagues have come up with some truly innovative ideas.  There are objects for every interest: the traveler, the java junkie, the fashionista, the meteorologist, and even those who would like to do more than just curl up with a good book.  With all these entertaining ideas, it is clear that we could take this "history appliance" in any possible (or seemingly impossible) direction we wanted.  However, there was one suggestion that caught my eye as I was reading the assignment, and as much as I brainstormed - I was continually drawn back to my original idea.  The suggestion: "an item of sports equipment" - the idea: a baseball bat.

Now, I had started to feel that baseball has played a much larger role in this blog than it actually does in my life.  Don't get me wrong - I'm a fan, and I interned at the Hall of Fame - but there are many other things that interest me, and I am certainly no baseball or sport historian.  But once this idea popped in my head I couldn't shake it.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to hit that game-winning, record-breaking home run? (For my Canadian friends, it's the equivalent of a hat trick.)  With this bat you could experience that feeling.  Simply slip on this batting helmet (equipped with surround sound headphones), pick up the "Wonderboy", and swing for the fences!

The bat will gauge your swing and respond with the appropriate home run experience.  Perhaps yours is the "Shot heard round the world," and you hear this:

Or are you a lefty?  Take a swing and experience Roger Maris breaking Babe Ruth's record:

You could even tailor your experience, if there is a particular announcer you want to hear.  Consider Hank Aaron's 715th home run.  You could choose to hear Curt Gowdy (NBC), Milo Hamilton (Braves Radio Network), or Vin Scully (Dodgers Radio Network.)

For a more authentic experience, you can even opt out of the announcers, and keep it to the roar of the crowd and cheers of your teammates.  For a more in depth experience, screens could project the image of the stadium as you round the bases.  There are so many places the "Wonderboy" could take you.

There is something magical about listening to an exciting moment in sports history.  It's the kind of experience that makes the hair on your arms stand up.  The combination of your favorite player and that amazing announcer:

And then there are those moments I would rather not recreate with the "Wonderboy"...