Monday, June 30, 2008

"I know nothing of Canadian history"

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of fighting D.C. rush hour traffic a with one of my colleagues at the Center for History and New Media. For anyone who doesn't know D.C. rush hour, that means we had a really long time to chat.

She is a Russian foreign exchange student; when I found this out, I instinctively went over everything I knew about Russian history in my head (I know, only a history buff would do something like that).

I recalled the book I read about Catherine the Great for a first year history essay; the battle of Stalingrad, which "Enemy at the Gates" brought to life; the communist regime which dominated sections of nearly every 20th century history course I've ever taken, and a dozen other facts.

When I mentioned that I was a Canadian foreign exchange student she said, "You know, I hate to say it. But, I know nothing of Canadian history." "We don't learn any of that."

This surprised me a little. I figured since we both shared soul crushing winters, that might evoke some interest in how we had coped with the bitter cold. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. That very same day at the George Mason University bookstore I had noted that you could buy history books on everywhere from Eithiopia to Finland, but not one on Canada. Last time I checked, even Harvard doesn't teach anything about Canadian history.

She probably thought of most of it as British history, I informed her. Prior to 1919, Canada had never even signed a treaty in its own right. That doesn't leave for much history to know, really. We found some common ground in the 1972 summit series between Canada and the USSR, and shared a laugh that Americans take so much pride in the 1980 "miracle on ice" (a tournament in which the best hundred or so Canadian players were too busy being paid in the NHL to compete).

I felt a bit wounded that this Russian girl knew nothing of my nation's history, but then I recalled that I know almost nothing about New Zealand's history. Even less about most sub-Saharan African, South and Central American, Scandinavian, Adriatic, South East Asian, and South Pacific countries.

In fact, I really only know the histories of a dozen or so nations. And perhaps only three or four well. The ones I do know tend to have had rather unwelcome influences on the world at some time or another, be that British colonialism, German expansionism, or American cultural dominance. So maybe no publicity is good publicity when it comes to history? Maybe we're just not obnoxious enough to be studied.

At least, that's what I'll tell myself.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Living Historic Documents?

You'll all be happy to know that citizens of D.C. were given the green light by the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday to walk around with handguns (District of Columbia v. Heller). It turns out that the law previously preventing this was in violation of the U.S. Constitution's second amendment that allows Americans to arm themselves.

I know Americans love their constitution, but when it comes down to it the US Constitution is just a historic document, written by people with different hopes and dreams and needs than anyone alive today.

This 2nd Amendment was written generations ago by men who likely associated the right to carry weapons with the privileged life of the nobility back in Europe. Eighteenth-century European riff-raff couldn't carry guns, and these men wanted to show they were gentlemen. Carrying a gun suggested equal status with nobles. And of course it made it easier to ward off the danger of British invasion - which could still happen at any moment.

The whole situation reminds me of a book I'm currently reading: "The Year of Living Biblically" by A.J. Jacobs. The author tries to live for an entire year without breaking any of the rules of the Bible. His book repeatedly makes it clear that living literally by a historical text results in some ridiculous outakes. My favourite so far was the story of the old man who Jacobs was forced to throw pebbles at in Central Park to uphold the biblical rule to "stone adulterers." A close second is the ritual of stealing a pigeon's egg - quite clearly outlined as a rule in the Bible.

Excuse my lack of zeal for the U.S. Constitution - not being an American and hating guns - but it seems to me that this quest to live by a historic document (the U.S. Constitution) that has been taken out of context by the passage of more than a hundred years, is not far removed from Jacobs' liberated pigeon egg. Which, I would hazard to suggest breaks the "Thou shalt not steal" rule. But, maybe that doesn't apply to pigeons.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Spoils of an ongoing Afghanistan war, in a National Museum?

The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is currently exhibiting "Hidden Treasures from the National Museum in Kabul." The collection on display was saved from the wrath of the Taliban by the Afghan curator and hidden for several years before being smuggled to Washington for this temporary exhibition.

The artifacts are beautiful, and the gallery has done an excellent job on the show, but something felt distasteful seeing these artifacts in the United States, especially while NATO troops are currently engaging combatants in Afghanistan.

I realize that these artifacts - mostly elaborate gold jewelery -would have been destroyed by the Taliban who seek to carry out their interpretation of the Qur'an. I realize that the American people have an opportunity to learn a little bit about Afghani culture and history. And I realize that these artifacts will one day, God willing, go back to Afghanistan for as a record of the past for future Afghani's.

But, why now?

To argue that the museum is neutral in this conflict is hard to swallow. The Smithsonian - of which the Gallery is a part, is an American national institution. The conflict in Afghanistan is everything that post 9/11 American culture stands for.

It is one thing for the Americans to help safeguard the collection during a time of danger, and entirely another to put it on display. If the tables were turned and the insurgents held the U.S. Constitution in a museum in Kabul, the American people would surely see the situation differently.

I applaud the National Gallery of Art for helping to preserve these priceless objects. But, let's not rub it in anyone's face. It wasn't Andrew W. Mellon who brought these objects here. It was bullets. Good intentioned bullets, perhaps. But bullets none-the-less.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Taking Interactivity Into Your Own Hands: Touching in the Museum

"Daddy, I want to touch him."

"Him" is a rather large fellow who lived approximately 65 million years ago. In this case, the skeleton of a T-rex standing in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

The young boy's father looks around coyly to check for security and quickly picks up his son. Excitedly, the boy reaches over the Plexiglas barrier and places his hand on the dinosaur's leg-bone. His eyes light up.

We learn by touching. Babies are the best evidence of this. They'll put things in their mouth that even the dog would turn its nose up at, just for the chance to learn a little bit about an object.

This boy, now about six years old, has graduated from licking things he wants to learn about and has moved on to touching them. And I can't say I blame the kid for his choice of object to touch. If he is anything like I was at 6 years old, he knows that the T-rex is the most scarriest, most meanest dinosaur ever, and it could chomp him in one bite. Who wouldn't want to touch him while he's in this less harmful, yet awe inspiring state?

It will be many years before he realizes that the leg he touched was made from a mold. Meanwhile, that experience he just had will remain the coolest, most precious thing he's ever touched - until he gets married, and not a day sooner.

After about a half-hour in the dinosaur exhibit, it became clear to me. People want to touch what they see in the museum. They want to connect with it in some way. The little boy and the dinosaur now have a relationship: they touched once. And if they ever meet at a cocktail party, at least they'll have something to discuss.

What is more, on the most fundamental level, the little boy turned what was a static display into an interactive experience. Sure, not too much happened to the casual observer, but for the little boy it was magic.

I saw evidence of this touching all over the Natural History Museum.

This object, prominently labeled "Cast" is situated so that the front few teeth on the bottom jaw are within arms reach of anyone over three feet tall. Even though it's not authentic, the teeth have either been created to show extreme plaque build up on these front teeth, or thousands of hands have brushed them over the years, wearing off the paint until only the white cast remained.

I stood and watched for less than a minute and nearly everyone passing this skull touched the teeth. Even the adults who were able to read the sign - or who knew better than to think the Museum would put a real T-Rex skull so carelessly close to visitor's hand - couldn't resist at least grazing the tips of the teeth with the palm of their hand.

Understandable. Dinosaurs are cool; they bring us back to our childhood when we read stories about them and were able to recite endless facts about them to any grown-up who would listen. Did you know that stegosaurus have spikes on their tails and that diplodocus is a plant eater?

However, that doesn't explain this:
This poor couple in the Western Civilizations wing of the museum are in serious need of restoration.

These aren't artifacts, nor do they pretend to be. They don't have nearly the same 'wow' factor as the T-Rex. Nevertheless, thousands of fingers - mine included, have worn away the paint.

I'm inclined to suggest that this is a cry for help by the visitor. The museum has provided such a rich assortment of visual stimuli, that people take the first chance they get to change that up. They touch it.

It's a harmless action that fulfills that need for an interactive experience. It may sound silly, but I would rate my nose-touching experience among the most memorable of my day at the Smithsonian. If nothing else, it was a little bit naughty and it was a change from walking around with my hands neatly folded behind my back.

I must thank the Smithsonian for including these interactive, tactile exhibits. Though they weren't overly complex, they allowed me and everyone with a little boy still inside them to get some pent-up energy out. They gave my eyes a momentary rest, and let me contribute to the slow, meticulous destruction of objects in the museum with just a hint of oil from my fingers.

Oddly enough, there was no evidence of the same wear on text-panels. And nearly all of them were within touching range.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Canadianization of Zotero

Zotero is a pretty amazing computer program for historical researchers using the internet. What makes it even better are the translators. Translators allow you to click on a little icon in the address bar and automatically save all the bibliographic information found on the website. This is a great time-saver as those of you who use Zotero for this purpose already know.

If you're not familiar with this feature and already have Zotero installed, go to, search for your favourite book, go to the entry and click on the little blue book icon on the right hand side of your address bar. Then take a look at what got saved in Zotero. Pretty nifty for one click of a mouse.

However, they're not as easy to make as they are to use. The translator for only works for Each website that is supported - and there are a lot - have a custom-coded translator, specific to that site.

Right now, most of the sites that are supported are American. I say it's time for a change.

So, in the interest of promoting Canadian history research, I'm offering you a chance to get the translator of your dreams, free of charge.

I am taking requests for translators for sites that are used by CANADIANS for research.
These sites can be in English or French (or both), and priority will go to historical databases, and requests made by UWO history professors who gave me good grades.

If you know of a site that fits these criteria that you would like a translator for (or if you operate such a site), please post your request HERE, and include the word "Canada" somewhere in your message.

I will do my best to fulfill all suggestions, provided they are posted prior to July 15, 2008.

To be eligible, the site must contain:
  • a large database of records (1000+ entries).
  • each entry must have its own page with a stable URL (if you can cut and paste the URL into a blank browser's address bar and it takes you to the entry, then it's stable enough).
  • Each entry must have a title.
  • The entries must be searchable via a search box.
  • I must be able to access the records. (That means if it's password protected, it must either be accessible to me via the library at the University of Western Ontario's subscription, or you must provide me with access.)
  • The site cannot be under construction, or planning changes to its structure/design in the near future.
Examples include:
  • Glenbow Library and Archives
  • the Globe and Mail
  • CAIN
  • BCain
  • UWO Library
Please forward this request to any of your colleagues who may find this helpful.

Remember, only until July 15, 2008. After which time I'll be on to other things.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Colonial Williamsburg: Experts or Actors?

Colonial Williamsburg has brought one small town in southern Virginia back to 1775. According to the man out front of the cobbler's shop on the main street, this living history museum employs over 3000 people, 1500 of which are costumed re-enactors.

Personally, I've never seen anything like it. At least not on this scale. There are scheduled events you can witness as they would have been like in 1775. My girlfriend and I watched a mock-trial, and caught a bit of a reenactment (essentially a play that occurs in and around the tourists in the streets), and took a few guided tours of old buildings. It's like Disneyland for colonial America history buffs.

While I enjoyed my tour and watching people walk around dressed in silly outfits say Old Tymey phrases, what I really enjoyed was talking to the craftsmen. Colonial Williamsburg has all of the shops and tradespeople you might expect a small Virginia town in 1775. There was a wigmaker (she was a bit looney if you ask me), a tailor, a brickmaker, a blacksmith, a gunsmith, a cooper, a carpenter, a cabinet maker and just about anything you could think of. And these craftsmen work away at their trade while they chat with tourists - in character of course.

I wondered what happened to the products that these craftspeople were making after they were done. Unlike in Disneyland where mechanical elves simulate hammering a nail over and over again until the gears in the machine break down, these people are actually working on what it looks like they're working on. And their labour actually goes towards projects to expand Colonial Williamsburg.

The cobbler informed us that the books he was making would be used by a new employee as part of his costume. All those barrels the cooper was shaping were being used as trashcans on the side of the road. The blacksmith informed us they had an order for 3000 nails to construct a new building in town, which he was making one by one - in between answering tourists questions. Whatever excess they produced found its way into the gift shops.

On the plantation just outside of town, we talked to a man making shingles from a log. He split the wood into boards with an axe, then used some medieval looking tool to split the boards into the proper shape. "Nobody else in the world makes shingles like this any more" he told us, adding "we get orders from museums all over the world looking for authentic style building materials. We asked him how long he'd been there. "9 years." We began asking the other craftsmen similar questions. It seemed like they'd all been there for quite a while. The cabinet maker had been there 25 years, and he wasn't even the senior cabinet maker. These people had devoted their careers to a particular craft, the way it had been done two hundred years ago.

Sure I know they're not really ghosts from the past, and I know the guy in the gunsmiths shop is probably tired to death of telling tourists "You can pick up that rifle, but please don't cock it." And I'm sure there are days when he would rather be drinking a beer and watching the game than answering dumb questions, but when it comes down to it, there isn't a book in the world that can tell you more about eighteenth century craftsmanship than any one of those senior craftsmen.

Sure the researchers found the right tools to put in the cabinet makers shop. And they found examples of eighteenth century cabinets for the tradesman to use as models. But after 25 years of using those tools and building from those patterns, that maker's expertise has far outstripped anything any academic has found in a book.

These are living, practicing experts. They may not have a background in academic history - most were tradesmen before joining the museum - and part of their duties is to act a roll in a grand play for tourists, the Colonial Williamsburg tradesmen show that you can in fact practice history. And you can do it well.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

the Problem with Telling your own History: The Newseum

I went to the Newseum in Washington DC last weekend. For those that don't know, this museum, dedicated to the history of news media opened last month.

History is a bit of a stretch, since 95% of the content is from the past 65 years, but that's a minor point.

The exhibits themselves are quite visually stimulating, the technologically cutting edge and some of the display techniques rather innovative. From an experience standpoint, I'd say they earned my $20.

But what struck me repeatedly was how obvious it was that the members of the news media had created this museum to give accolades to themselves. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the world's spin-doctors have decided to put a little spin on their museum. But, if I didn't know better, after my visit, I'd be sure that if it were not for the media, all truth would vanish and tyranny would envelope the earth.

At the Newseum, you too can learn important life lessons such as:

The problem with the Soviet Union was that they did not have a free media.

The East Germans lived their lives solely to watch and listen to the Western Media secretly at night.

And the reporter who brought to light the Monica Lewinski scandal had performed a great service to America by shedding light on the truth.

I'm sorry, but I just don't see it. The boogie man is not trying to get me, and your reporting did not save me in the nick of time. You did not do the world a great service by bringing us the O.J. Simpson trial 24 hours a day.

The media exists only to sell advertising. And if you don't believe me, you've clearly never written a SEO article for a website, or read an advertising media kit for a magazine. Where were the exhibits on that I wonder?

Rather ironic that an outlet that promotes bias-free reporting of the truth would turn towards such shameless self-promotion.