Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Speed Networking, Poster Session, and a Tour of Tavern Culture - NCPH 2012

Previously I wrote about some of the more "traditional" sessions I attended at the OAH/NCPH Annual Meeting.  But of the coolest things about NCPH 2012 is the number of "non-traditional" sessions that they offer.  This can be anything from ThatCamp, to working groups, to local tours.  I had the opportunity to attend and participate in a few of these sessions, and I found that they really enriched my annual meeting experience.
Speed Networking
Since I first read about NCPH 2012, I knew I wanted to participate in the Speed Networking session.  Though it was free to attend (some workshops/tours have an additional cost at the meeting) spaces were limited, so I signed up for my spot as soon as I registered.  As described in the meeting program, this session was a professional twist on "speed dating."  There were about 35 experts representing various public history fields, such as museums, historic sites, historic preservation, government, education, and consulting.  Each of the experts was seated at a small table with their name, position, and institution listed.  The grad students or new professionals participating could chose someone to sit with, and we had fifteen minutes to introduce ourselves, ask questions, exchange ideas, whatever was on our mind as people entering the public history field.  We had five of these fifteen minute sessions, and were encouraged to talk to people in several different areas.

I came to the session armed with a stack of business cards, and a handful of questions in my mind.  I was experiencing an equal mix of excitement and nervousness, but fortunately I'm outgoing enough that I was confident I could keep a conversation going for at least fifteen minutes!  I was surprised by the differences between each of the meetings I had.  Some of the experts asked me a lot of questions, and I found myself spending the whole time talking about the 1812 smartphone app or my interactive exhibit design project.  Some only needed one question about their current position to launch into a detailed step-by-step description of how to get a job with the U.S. government.  Most everyone was helpful, I made a few connections which I anticipate keeping up in the future, and still am in contact with some via social media. I was also pleasantly surprised with the round about way that many of the people I spoke with had ended up in public history.  My career and educational path has been similar to that, and as such I find myself a bit older than the average grad student, but it was good to know there are others who have been successful with a similar path.

While it was a bit of an overwhelming experience - especially for the first day of a meeting I was attending for the first time - it was nice that it took place early, I was able to reinforce the connections I made throughout the rest of the conference.  I also hope to be a participant on the "other side" of the table someday and pay it forward to future public historians.

Poster Session
The Saturday afternoon poster session and reception was culmination of my NCPH 2012 experience.  It was our third day of the conference, and I felt comfortable and confident about discussing our project, with a healthy dose of excitement and nerves mixed in.  As a first-time presenter at NCPH, I appreciated the less formal nature of the poster session, and it helped to have Adriana and Laura by my side.

We arrived early to set-up, filled with enthusiasm from the session we had just left about commemorating the War of 1812.  We knew that there were some people at the conference looking forward to talking to us about our project, as they had already sought us out at previous receptions.  Just minutes after putting up our poster and setting up the table, people started milling around the exhibit area and asking questions (even though the session didn't start for another 30 minutes.)  Some of the most common things I discussed were the difference between how Canada was commemorating the War of 1812 versus the United States, what we were doing to tie this project into other regional tours and events on both sides of the border, what our role was in the technical side of project, and when it would be available to the public.  I also found myself talking a lot about the perspective I brought to the group as the only American working on the project.

I was amazed at how quickly the session flew by.  I took a brief break to walk around and look at some of the other posters, and chat about other projects (we were next to a really interesting project about cemeteries.)  But I could hardly believe it when I checked my watch and we had less than a half an hour left.  

Looking back on the experience I would encourage anyone who is interested in presenting at the NCPH annual meeting, but a bit overwhelmed by the traditional sessions, to consider submitting a poster proposal.  It was much a sharing of ideas and experiences as a presentation of them.  I got quite a bit out of the session from comments and suggestions that people had.  It would also be a great format for a project in progress if you are looking to get some feedback from the public history community.  I am extremely glad I participated.

Riverwest Grad Student Tour of Tavern Culture
Along with the sessions in the conference centre, NCPH 2012 also offered a variety of tours for participants to experience the culture and history of Milwaukee.  Many of these tours do have an additional cost (transportation or admission fees) but they offer a unique venue for exploring the city where the conference takes place. (Check out Krista McCracken's post about Milwaukee's built heritage!)

We decided to spring for this tour which was geared toward graduate students.  It was an opportunity not only to explore a historic district of Milwaukee, but also to mingle and network with other history and public history grad students in a more relaxed atmosphere.

We left from the Frontier Airlines Center on a bus and drove to The Polish Falcon in the Riverwest neighbourhood.  Settled in the mid-19th century primarily by wealthy German immigrants, Milwaukee's Riverwest neighbourhood was home to a sizeable Polish American community by the end of the century, and later a large Puerto Rican community as well.  Located just across the river from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Riverwest is now home to many students and young families. 

Once we arrived at The Polish Falcon, we enjoyed some time to mingle and were provided a fabulous meal by Cafe Corazon, a local restaurant.  Following dinner, we enjoyed a spirited discussion of the pros and cons of reenactors at history museums (yep - you read that correctly...) and then continued our tour  to The Public House.

The Riverwest Public House Cooperative, one of the only two cooperative bars in the United States, opened in March 2011.  In addition to hosting concerts, fundraisers, and other entertainment, the Public House is a frequent host to the socials and meetings of area labour unions, teachers' organizations, and other activists.  This evening, the entertainment included folk music and poetry.

Our final stop was the Art Bar (at least, that was the last stop for Laura, Adriana, and I - who knows if others continued the tour!)  This unique Riverwest location is not only known for its eclectic d├ęcor, but also for being a place for local artists to meet and display work.  As a business, they are also very involved in the community.

There were two things I enjoyed about this tour.  I had the opportunity to experience a Milwaukee neighbourhood with a rich history and culture, that without the tour I probably wouldn't have felt comfortable exploring on my own.  But with the UW-Milwaukee grad students, it was like experiencing it with locals.  It also was a great chance to visit and network with other OAH/NCPH  grad students.  I made several connections that I have kept up since leaving the conference!

I'll be reviewing this particular tour in more detail in and upcoming issue of The Public Historian.  

Stay tuned for my final NCPH 2012 instalment, when I talk about my experiences outside the usual sessions and tours!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome - Living with a Thief

For the most part, I try to keep this blog about pubic history, grad school, living in Canada, stuff like that.  But seeing how May is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) awareness month, I thought I would share something a little more personal.  

I've been thinking a lot recently about what it's like living with EDS, and even though Doug is the one with the genetic disorder, as his wife (and by extension, sometimes caregiver) I too live with EDS.

For those of you that aren't familiar with EDS - and most people aren't - it is a genetic connective tissue disorder.  There are four types of EDS, with type IV (vascular) being the most rare and severe.

Doug has type IV.   

People with type IV have blood vessels that are fragile and prone to tearing which often leads to aneurisms, strokes, and organ failure.  There is no cure and the only treatment is a healthy lifestyle, daily vitamins, and trying to avoid "risky situations." (By risky situations I mean contact sports, roller coasters and sky diving.)

Living with EDS is a bit like living with a thief.

In the beginning, before you have a diagnosis - when you're just the guy who always has shoulders that dislocate easily and seem to be prone to headaches - little things get stolen from you.  At first when these things are small - such as when shoulder surgery at the age of 15 ends your days on the school baseball team and you start to umpire instead - you suspect that perhaps you are just misplacing them and don't think anything of it.  You adapt, go on without them.

But then the thief takes something big.  You're sitting in class and one side of your body goes numb and your eyesight gets blurry.  It's terrifying.  A trip to the hospital and several tests later - after your symptoms start to subside - you're sent home with the diagnosis of a "complex-migraine."  It's akin to your house being broken into, calling the police, but the detective says there are no clues, so he can't catch the guy.  You just kind of live in fear.

Maybe for awhile things are fine.  You've been living with the joint problems, so you've adapted, you can relocate a shoulder like no one's business.  You even chalk the other episode up to college stress.  Things are fine now.

Then one day the thief strikes again, big time now.  Pretty much clears out your house.  Thank goodness this time you're fortunate to have a detective with-it enough to find the very tiny clues left behind.

There's a pain in your leg so severe, at the age of 27 you seriously consider a cane to get from your car to the classroom.  At the two week follow-up appointment for your "pinched nerve" the physicians assistant can't find a strong pulse in your lower leg, so you get sent for a doppler ultrasound.  During the ultrasound the nurses go quiet, and within two hours you are getting a CT scan and being prepped for surgery.  Something is seriously wrong.  But then the cardiovascular surgeon looks at your scans and notices an anomaly.  Rather than operate - which could be life-threatening for someone with vascular EDS - he waits and refers you to the Mayo Clinic.  Thank God this surgeon thought to look for zebras. (The symbol for EDS is the zebra, because as the saying goes, "when you hear hoof-beats you never think to look for a zebra." EDS often goes un- or mis-diagnosed.)

Several trip to the Mayo Clinic and a whole team of fancy doctors later, and your geneticist confirms the diagnosis of vascular ehlers-danlos syndrome.  Your given all the information they have on the disorder (which isn't much, you found all that info researching EDS on the internet), some genetic counseling, and told that you should come back once a year to have your cardiovascular system monitored.  The geneticist is great, but there really isn't anything else he can tell you to do.  You're body will heal itself as best it can (as it did with the stroke that you had three years earlier, that went undiagnosed) and you can be as active as your pain levels will allow you.

So now you know the thief is in the house, but you have educated yourself so you think you can live with it.

Then something else goes missing and you just get really angry.  How do you cope with a disorder that you can't even fight?!  They say the best offense is a good defense.  But how much safer do you really feel with a thief in your house when all you can do about it is constantly take an inventory of your stuff and wait for the next item to go missing?

Will it be something small?  Like recognizing that you can't play soccer or hockey anymore, because even if you keep the contact to a minimum your body aches for days afterwards?  Or will it be something big?  Like getting a call from your husband in the middle of the afternoon because he can't see?  And just when you think you've come to terms with EDS, something else happens and throws you for a loop.

So you sit and wait.  Some days are good.  You enjoy all the things that you can do - ride your bike, play golf, and generally enjoy a high quality of life.  Some days are not so good.  Like when you try to explain to people that even though you look like a perfectly healthy 29 year old, you actually live your life in almost constant pain.

EDS is a thief in your house, and even when everything seems fine and you can't see him, you know in the back of your mind eventually something else will be gone.

To learn more about EDS, visit the Ehlers-Danlos National Foundation website.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Group Project - War of 1812 Smart Phone App

(Note: I started this blog post on April 24, the day we handed in our final project, as per usual life got in the way, and as a result I have just now finished it!)

This morning, I handed over the final draft of our public history group project.  A good portion of our time this academic year has been devoted to the development of content for a War of 1812 Historical and Commemorative Smart Phone App.  This project has certainly been a learning experience, and not just about local history related to the War of 1812.

A little background about the project:  We partnered with the War of 1812 South Western Ontario Region, Tecumseh Parkway Committee, and Western Corridor Alliance to produce a regional smart phone app.  Our portion was to provide the historical content about Procter's retreat from Fort Amherstburg in the fall of 1813.  This included researching 22 sites from Amherstburg/Windsor area to London relating to this campaign which culminated in the Battle of the Thames where Tecumseh was killed.  To make the project a bit easier to manage, we were divided into four groups of three, and each group was given a selection of geographically close sites.  (My group had all the sites in the Amherstburg/Windsor area.)

Tour of 1812 Sites
We started by taking a bus tour of most of the sites last fall.  We were accompanied by representatives from South West Ontario and Tecumseh Parkway, to give us some background on the area and the 1812 sites (as much of this was new to us.) We learned how after the Battle of Lake Erie, the armaments from Fort Amherstburg (present-day Fort Malden) were used to outfit the HMS Detroit, leaving British General Procter low on supplies and with little choice but to retreat from the approaching Americans lead by General  Harrison and Commodore Perry.  The leaders of the First Nations alliance, most notably the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, did not wish to retreat.  However, retreat they did, up the Thames River, until the two sides met on October 5, 1813 at the Battle of the Thames, just two miles outside of Fairfield.

It was a significant victory for the Americans, seeking revenge for what they considered the River Raisin Massacre.  It was also quite a blow to the First Nations - whose leader Tecumseh was killed during battle - and the British.  General Procter found himself court-martialed the next year as result of the retreat and the battle, effectively ending his military career.  (This has been your cliff-notes version of Procter's Retreat...)

Once the groups were decided and sites assigned, we commenced our secondary source research.  Books such as Glenn Stott's Greater Evils: War of 1812 in Southwestern OntarioSandy Antal's A Wampum Denied, and George Sheppard's Plunder, Profit, and Paroles: A Social History of the War of 1812 in Upper Canada were passed around the office, and each small group hunted for resources pertaining to their particular sites.  

We started to visualize what we wanted the app to look like, and how we hoped people would use it.  Grand visions of interactive time-lines, moving maps, and fancy interfaces left many of us feeling overwhelmed and in over our heads at first.  As we started to scale back and just concentrate on our content - developing an interpretive plan, and coming up with a narrative - the project started to seem more manageable.

After turning in our secondary source research report, we had an opportunity to talk with the company we were told would probably be handling the technical side of the app.  We had been contracted for content, they were taking the content and creating the actual app.  Reality set in as restrictions on images, audio, and video became a reality.  But at least now we had a framework we could work in.

Image from Windsor Community Museum
Following the winter break it was time for primary source research.  My group made plans in January for a trip back to Amherstburg and Windsor to spend the day at the Windsor Community Museum, as well as visiting the sites we hadn't had time to stop at on our first tour.  The visit to the museum was extremely helpful in acquiring many of the images that were ultimately used in the app.  We also spent many afternoons going over the resources at Western's Archive and Research Collections Centre, and hours pouring over digitized documents and images from Library and Archives Canada, National Archives and Records Administration, and the Library of Congress.

We turned in our carefully detailed primary source research reports, and it was time to start writing.  Hours of research now had to be summed up into 300 word text boxes with images and audio.  For some of us, keeping it short, sweet, and to the point was not easy.  We had to discuss with others what they were writing as well, to make sure not to waste precious words repeating ourselves.  Along with the 22 sites, we had also decided to address some of the themes we found reoccurring throughout the research, such as farming, transportation, and family participation during the War of 1812.  It was also necessary to provide an introduction, not only to the war, but also to Battle of Lake Erie to put the retreat in to context (as it is all about context...), and have a conclusion to the retreat and the war itself.  
Mock-Screen Shot for First Draft

Once assembled, this first draft needed to be edited.  We were taking content  about 29 different sites and themes, authored by 12 different people, and making it into one cohesive narrative.  That was a very long weekend for the group leaders and editors...

During the time between the first and second drafts were were thrown a curve-ball.  The partners had contracted an entirely different company to create the app.  The technical framework with which we had been working was going to change.  Work temporarily paused, and we knew that new specification from this company could change some of our plans.  How many images would there be per site?  What were the format requirement for the audio and video?  Was there a limit on the number of sites?  These were all important questions we had to address before we could start ordering digital copies of our images, paying for the rights to use them, and record our audio.

After a Skype call between our team, the partners, and Weever (the app company) we were all - for the most part - on the same page, and we kept working toward a final draft.  Weever was eager to start adding content as they were planning on a launch date in May, but we were still waiting for feedback from the partners on our second draft.  I had been serving as a large group facilitator, and I lost track of the number of email sent with images and audio.
Final Draft PowerPoint

Finally, I sent the last of the content to Weever, and gave Professor Mike Dove a hard copy of our final draft, along with a final budget and permissions for all of our images, audio, and video.  It is hard to express the relief that followed.  

There have been a few changes since turning in our final draft.  We were sent a temporary link to the app in progress, which I opened to discover our sites had been combined with dozens more in the south west Ontario region.  It had been decided rather than to do several small regional apps, to just do one large app.  This meant that while our narrative was still there, it was a bit lost among all the other sites.  There were also some edits that needed to be made to the content, and missing captions (which provided information about where we got our content - which was sometimes a condition of permission to use it.)  These issues are being addressed, and I look forward to having a final product I can proudly show to prospective employers when I start interviewing for a job this fall.

Like I said at the beginning, this whole process has been a learning experience.  Those of you who know me, know that I take great pride in my work, and like to have control over the process (that may be what lead me to the role of large group facilitator...) as well as the final product.  I had to keep reminding myself, especially toward the end of the project, that we were just providing the content.  It isn't solely our app, we were contracted to work on it.  

This also became part of one of the biggest lessons I learned about graduate school - it isn't always about the product, sometimes it's about the process.  Is this project what I envisioned it would be when we started? No, not even really close.  Did I learn a lot in the process?  Absolutely.  I researched in archives, made contacts with local historians, sought permission to use images, work on maintaining a project budget, wrote historical text for public consumption, leaned how to be flexible in a contract position, lead group meetings, and with my small group presented our project at a national conference.  So regardless if the end product is what I thought it would be, it was certainly a successful one!

Stay tuned for the Route 1812 app!  As soon as the final app is available I will be sure to let my faithful readers know!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Interpretation, Commemoration, and the Future of History Museums - NCPH 2012

My original intention was to spend each evening at the conference in Milwaukee blogging about that days experience - what I was learning, and who I had met.  Little did I know that days filled with sessions and tours, and evenings busy networking and socializing would leave very little time for sleep - let alone blogging!  Since returning home life has been busy as well - the end of the semester, starting an internship, planning for a move - but there is still much I want to discuss about the NCPH conference.  Better late than never!

I intend to break my discussion into three posts, with the hope that none of them will be too long.  This is because I feel there were different aspects of the conference, all with different things to offer.  Today I start with a discussion of three of the "traditional" sessions I attended at the NCPH/OAH annual meeting.  Not really a summary of the presentations, I'm going to talk more about my overall impressions, and the lessons I brought home with me from Milwaukee.

Lessons Learned in Researching, Preserving, and Interpreting Women's History at Historic Sites
Those of you who know my public history background, know that I got into the field because of my interest in interpretation.  It was positive experiences with excellent interpreters at historic sites that got me interested in working in history to begin with.  I was excited to hear what the participants in this session would have to share.

What stuck with me most from this session is what Heather Huyck, of the National Collaborative for Women's History Sites, said - rather than just asking "were women there?" assume women were there (wherever "there" might be for each site), and then tell their stories.  Don't limit yourself to specific and significant contributions, think about what the experience of the women would have been at a particular site.

This reminded me how important it is to think outside the box when it comes to interpretation.  Places have so many different stories to tell, we can often get stuck in a rut of what has always been done, or even what people expect to hear.  

Pam Sanfilippo, of the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, talked about how visitors are often surprised to find how little time is spent discussing the Civil War or Grant's presidency at the Grant's family home, White Haven.  But as she pointed out, it is not the White House, and it is not a battlefield.  White Haven belonged to Julia Dent Grant's family before being passed on to the Grant's.  This makes it an ideal location to tell the First Lady's story, along with interpretations of the Grant's courtship and lives after the presidency, which took place at White Haven.  People are even more surprised to hear about the slaves that worked at the estate.  

Chances are there is women's history to be told at every historic site, the key to find that story, and interpret it well.

State of the Field: The Present and Future of History Museums
Being someone who is just an internship away from graduating with a MA in public history, I was anxious to hear what those in the field felt was the future for history museums.  Though there are many directions I could go in the area of public history, I have always pictured myself working in a history museum after graduation.

This was one of those sessions that left me feeling energized and exhausted afterward.  One of the common themes seemed to be that history museums need to shake the (mis)conception that they are static institutions. (Unless you are static - then you need to evolve into something more active and engaging to survive....)  Phrases like "shared authority," "advocacy and civic engagement," "fair conversation moderator," and "demystification of the history process" were abundant in the presentations and discussion.  

It is no secret that non-profit organizations have been hit hard in the economy, and it is essential to reach out to new demographics without alienating those that are currently attending museums.  New technology and interpretation can give visitors a greater control over their experience, but how to do that in ways that don't completely loose the structure that attracts some visitors.  Shared authority with communities is a great way to get people involved in a history institution, but it is a fine line to walk without completely giving away all authority. 

War of 1812 in History and Memory
I was SO disappointed to have to leave the discussion portion of this presentation a bit early to set up our poster.  I knew this was a session I couldn't miss, as the poster we were setting up was about the War of 1812.  It has been interesting researching and commemorating the War of 1812 in Canada, where there is quite a bit going on - as an American, where in the States 1812 is often referred to as "the forgotten war."  In fact, you only had to flip through the conference program to realize that.  I think I counted 8 sessions with the US Civil War (150th anniversary) in the title and maybe 2 that mentioned 1812.

Historical memory is something that is constantly being created, and that is clear in the way that we choose to commemorate conflict.  There are challenges to commemorating a war, particularly a war where there are no clear winners - and where the First Nations, who are often unrepresented in the conflict, are clearly the ones who lost.  It seems to me that the War of 1812 would be the perfect opportunity for international collaboration when it comes to commemoration, especially since there has been peace at the border ever since the end of the war in 1814.  Instead you see the war being represented in entirely different ways on either side of the border (with the occasional exception of projects like this one.)

Perhaps because there were so few sessions devoted to 1812, the post-presentation discussion was a lively one (made even more so by the lights in the room accidentally being turned off at a particularly entertaining moment!)  It was just the energetic send off Laura, Adriana, and I needed to prep ourselves to talk about our own 1812 commemoration project.

Stay tuned for more of my impressions from the NCPH/OAH Annual Meeting.  I'll be discussing some of the "non-traditional" sessions I attended, and other networking opportunities!