Monday, April 28, 2008

Canadian History for Sale!

We all know Canadian history is boring. We live in a new country, where nothing happened until 1914 when the Germans attacked us. Then nothing more until 1939 – Germans again. Naught else worth knowing really.

Nothing man-made worth seeing either. In Vancouver, the only nice old building in town is the Christ Church Cathedral, built way way back in 1895. That’s roughly 2413 years after the Greeks finished the Parthenon. It’s even younger than the Eiffel Tower, the modern addition to the Parisian skyline.

So how are we supposed to compete with the French, who can convince twenty thousand visitors a day to stand in line for three hours to get into the Palace of Versailles? Or what about the Egyptians, who attract throngs of tourists to see the Pyramids despite the travel cautions warning visitors to beware of kidnappers?

How about the same way toy companies convinced us we all needed a Furby, or a Tickle Me Elmo? Make it talk back. Make it make noise and shake when I push its tummy. Make it fun. Sell it to me! This isn’t a case of Canadian history being boring, but a case of Canadian historians not knowing how to sell it.

Historians learn how to analyze, write and present history, but let’s face it, most couldn’t sell a loaf of bread in the midst of a famine – though they might give it away for a donation. Canadian museums and historic sites quite often operate in the red. Too frequently it’s government funding, and your tax dollars keeping these places afloat.

Historians learn how to write grants, not business feasibility studies. They’re taught to write clearly, not passionately. They look for evidence that illustrates their thesis, not that make little boys shout, “Whoa!” and little girls shriek, “Ewwww!”

Happily, this year’s our big chance.

Quebec is 400 this year. And tourist season is just about upon us.

I can only hope that the cheesy reenactments will be out in full force every night – drunken sailors in the pubs, soldiers patrolling the old city and a man with an olde tymey hat and a bell – a loud bell, pointing tourists to the next great historical show.

Not history you say? Too Disnified? Absolutely!

But hey, I don’t remember the last time Walter Disney submitted a grant proposal to the government. And no one has taught me more about pirates than the good people at Disney. It’s a skewed view about pirates, but at least it’s a view. And that's more than most people have of Canadian history.

Quebec 2008 is all about getting our foot in the door with the billion dollar historical tourist market. Because like it or not, tourists don’t want to read journal articles. Most don’t even want to read your text panels. They want to be entertained.

They want to see executions, the changing of the guard and the governor’s wife stumbling around her garden in a drunken stupor. Ok, maybe the executions will have to be dramatized, but you get the idea.

Canada’s a big place. If we can hook them with Quebec, they’ll come back and spend more money; perhaps in a different region of the country. Perhaps even in a local museum. And they’ll tell their friends, who will come too. But, they’ll only come if it’s cool. If it shakes and laughs like Tickle me Elmo, or talks back like Furby.

This isn’t a case of who killed Canadian history? but of who is going to bring it alive?

If we can’t do it this year, it can’t be done. But hey, the government will always be there to bail us out financially, won’t they?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

For those who think History should be interesting

Maureen Ogle's recent article in Historically Speaking is an lively tale of someone who saw the light and embraced the life of a 'loser' - erm, popular historian.

Give it a read. Hustler magazine did.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Interested in UWO's Public History MA?

I'm noticing quite a few people coming to this blog via the UWO public history webpage, which leads me to believe they have been receiving/are expecting offers of acceptance to the program for next year and wondering what it will be like.

Please feel free to email me at acrymble [at] if you have any questions about the program. I'm not on staff so I can tell you the truth. And I'm sure most of the other students in the program would be happy to answer questions as well.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Jstor, meet Kindle: Simulated Page-Turning

I've essentially gone paperless over the past year. No longer do I print off articles to read; especially if they're available on the internet.

However, I've always hated the way most websites with articles on them are set up - especially sites that scan in images of journal articles or old books such as Jstor or Early English Books Online. More often then not, users are forced to click a tiny little "next" button at the bottom of the page. Call me fussy, but the 1/18th of a second it takes me to move my mouse to that itsy bitsy button makes me hate using these sites. It's even worse when the next page loads and to find the button, I have to scroll my screen down. Set-ups like that just reinforce the complaints of the book-lovers who would rather trudge into the library and use a hard-copy than use the online databases.

Amazon's new electronic book-reader, Kindle came up with a rather novel way of dealing with the fact that most readers like to quickly turn the page, rather than click a little button. The Kindle has two large buttons that run the length of the 'page'. The one on the left, predictably takes the reader to the previous page, the one on the right goes to the next page. Not only are the buttons placed where the readers thumb will likely anyways be - to avoid any effort on the reader's part at all - but they're the best way I've yet seen of a simulated page turn using an electronic device.

Apparently, the people at Jstor took notice. The scrawny little next buttons and clumsy navigation are gone and instead, large Kindle-like buttons appear on every page. They're the tan-coloured bands in the image. Rather than having to scroll around looking for the button, I can see it no matter where I am. Sure, the change probably hasn't saved me that much time - in fact, they've so far cost me the time it's taken to write this post - but they've made the interface that much more user-friendly.

I'm sure in a few years everyone will be on board and this style of navigation will be the norm. But for now, it's a nice step in the right direction.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Stonehenge Videos

Here are the two videos I created for our class digital history project.

Originally, Stonehenge was aligned with the Summer and Winter solstices. On the summer solstice at sunset, someone standing at the central "altar stone" would see the sun rise and appear to float between two "slaughter stones" 80m from the centre of the circle. (The names "altar" and "slaughter" are modern tags and don't represent the stones' actual purpose).

On the winter solstice at sunset, a person standing at the central "altar stone" would see the sun set on the opposite side of the monument. The result is a dramatic display of shadows.

This sunrise and sunset are the only two of the year in which the shadows line up in this fashion. Contrary to what you may have been told, the sun does not merely rise in the east and set in the west. It moves throughout the year. And the builders of Stonehenge were able to capture that.

The videos were created using "Bryce 3D".

These stills show the shadows formed.