Our scholarship informs our work at Omnia History, whether engaging public audiences online, through exhibits, or in classes and workshops. Understanding the past is a critical part of our mission to promote change in the present. In an upcoming adult education seminar at the Newberry Library, we will be focusing on women in turn-of-the-century Chicago to explore the changing nature of gender and violence in an industrial city.Check out this excerpt from my research to get a glimpse of what we’ll be discussing in the course.
“Biler Avenue” was the nickname for a two-block stretch of Pacific Avenue in late nineteenth-century Chicago made notorious by “women without husbands” who “got ‘biling drunk,’ and were in a “state of constant riot and effervescence,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The women of Biler fought, drank, stole, and engaged in sex work to forge tenuous lives in an unforgiving industrial city. Although the women’s economic activity rarely translated into expanded wealth, it did provide the foundation for ward bosses to secure personal fortunes and political power.
For the past several years, articles on Midwestern History and Culture seem to follow this same basic outline:
~ Personal anecdote
about author’s small town roots or first visit to the Midwest~
description of a cornfield~
~Cutting remark about
liberal coastal people’s perceptions of the Midwest made by an author from a
liberal coastal publication~
that Midwesterners are not simple provincial folk~
to 2016 election~
~Cautionary warning against generalizing a region at the end of an entire article generalizing the Midwest~
Even as Seemingly Every Article on Midwestern History and Culture aims to complicate understandings of the Midwest, they still start with the assumption that the Midwest is a static, white, rural place. This assumption is not reflected in the historical record, contemporary scholarship, or the lived experiences of so many Midwesterners (including myself); rather, it is a harmful and political statement. For example, in Minnesota the narrative justifies elevating violent legacies of colonizers while erasing past and present Indigenous presence in battles over place names at Bde Maka Ska and Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote. Meanwhile, the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota is unwilling to reckon with the racist histories associated with campus building names. The nostalgic characterization of the Midwest as perpetually white and simplistically rural is not cute or benign—it perpetuates the violence of colonization and racism and should no longer be entertained as the uncritical starting point for the next reflection on America’s heartland.
Wow, what a conference. I met and reconnected with so many public historians doing fantastic work and had many opportunities to reflect and work on my own complicity in oppressive structures that shape our field. I also spoke to many fellow practitioners who are struggling to make a living or secure health insurance as they cobble together jobs or rely on partner incomes. There are too many stories of public historians lacking support when facing sexual harassment (see Dr. Lyra Monteiro’s Twitter thread or Hope’s blog post) and others who risk losing their jobs while trying to do ethical public history within inflexible institutions.
I was disappointed to hear a few well-established public historians I respect dismiss some of these concerns as “career anxieties” or “entry level” folks needing to “pay their dues.” This is not an issue relegated to a few nervous emerging professionals—the widespread inability to earn a living doing public history affects the ability of a diverse range of people to access and sustain involvement in the field. Labor conditions also profoundly affect the (lack of) racial and gender equity within the field. Addressing public history as work is a critical link within the broader repair work discussed at #NCPH2019.
After announcing Omnia’s database management services in my last blog post, I now offer a broader reflection on the role of digital products for small cultural organizations. Specifically, I want to assert that digital services and platforms are not ends in and of themselves, but merely tools to advance an organization’s mission. This is certainly not a new sentiment in the digital humanities world, but it bears repeating especially for small organizations with precious limited resources. It can be all too easy for institutions to spend money on digital tools or produce digital products that do not meaningfully engage audiences or advance an institutional mission; on the other end of the spectrum, some organizations are understandably wary of engaging with digital services because of the initial cost of change. I believe there is a middle ground where cultural institutions can responsibly approach digital services by asking how the tool will help the organization accomplish its work. To that end, here are three critical questions for cultural organizations to ask before adopting a digital tool, whether for social media, digital collections, database management, and beyond:
We are excited to announce that Omnia History is officially offering a new service to help cultural organizations center the needs of the public and thrive as agents of social change: database management. We have been doing this work for years and are intentionally growing it into a core part of Omnia History because we have witnessed how effective database administration can positively impact cultural organizations.
Five years ago, Hope and I became involved with a local historical society that was financially struggling and working to reorient its strategic priorities. Among other issues, the organization’s mailing lists, event registrations, membership rolls, donations, and volunteer information were all located in different software, spreadsheets, and physical files, if they existed at all. In an effort to prioritize outreach, a team of volunteers and I decided to install and maintain CiviCRM, an open-source constituent relationship management system that could consolidate the organization’s contact data. Since then, I have transitioned to a contracted consulting role as I continue to refine the system, streamline data input, and integrate forms into the society’s website.
Over the course of the last eleven weeks, I had the honor of joining a cohort of historians, librarians, and other scholars in a course sponsored by Wiki Education and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). We received technical training on the ins and outs of Wikipedia and contributed to articles relating to women’s suffrage in anticipation of the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment and an associated exhibit on the topic planned by NARA. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to be a student again, and benefited greatly from the excellent facilitation by Wiki Education staff and thoughtful conversations with fellow Wiki Scholars. By the end of the course I contributed to Wikipedia pages on the Sheppard-Towner Act and Catherine Waugh McCulloch. Here are three things I learned from the experience:
Nestled on page 112 of The Leopold and Loeb Files, Nina Barrett features an excerpt from noted social reformer Judge Ben B. Lindsey of the Juvenile Court of Denver who declared that the Leopold and Loeb crime was symptomatic of a “modern mentality and modern freedom of youth, with the misunderstandings between parenthood and childhood…the indifference to the rights of others in the stealing of automobiles, in joyrides, jazz parties, petting parties, freedom in sex relations and the mania of speed on every turn.”
Although Lindsey’s comments were perhaps unduly alarmist, he does hit upon how the Leopold and Loeb case struck a nerve in the historical moment of 1924. The trial became a way to explore fears about modern life in the Progressive Era, including anxieties about:
the limits and risks of science and rationality
the meaning of intellectual, urban masculinity
the effects of improper femininity and maternity
sexuality as action, orientation, and identity
the questionable security promised by wealth and respectability
the proper social and psychological development of children
Kristin Emery and Rachel Boyle are longtime friends, colleagues, and collaborators in the humanities who frequently reflect and strategize together. Here they grapple with the value of digital exhibits by considering their potential educational value, intended audiences, and the realities of online habits.
Rachel: I’ll be blunt: What is the point of a digital exhibit? Is it just unsuccessfully shoving an analog idea (physical exhibits) into a digital space? If I am looking for a cultural activity out on the city I might stop by a gallery exhibition, but if I have downtime on my computer or phone, there is no way that I will purposefully explore a digital exhibit. I might try to learn something new by going down a Wikipedia hole, settling in for a #longread, or following a social media thread, but I have never once sought out a digital exhibit. And I’ve proudly curated several! Hence the crisis—why am I building something I would never seek out myself?
Kristin: When I took the first iteration of Kyle Roberts’s “Digital Media for Public History” class at Loyola University Chicago in 2012, we spent the first several class sessions on the “digital versus analog” debate. A 3-D model of the Lourve could never replace the experience of going to the museum; but at least it gives those who may never be able to actually visit a chance to experience the museum in part. Digitized collection items can be viewed with the help of enhancing software that might allow for more complete analysis. You get the picture. We also talked in those early sessions about the concept of hypertextuality (lol that is literally an example of hypertextuality) and the exciting opportunities for digital exhibits to use the concept to break down the constraining linear nature of physical exhibits.
I am proud to announce the launch of a brand new digital exhibit: Place of Protest: Chicago’s Legacy of Dissent, Declaration, and Disruption. Featuring collection material from the members of the Chicago Collections Consortium, the exhibit covers fifteen events spanning nearly 150 years to explore how protesters in Chicago occupied space with their bodies, voices, and possessions. Visit the digital exhibit by clicking here or read on to get my take on the curatorial process, see what ended up on the cutting room floor, and learn more about upcoming events.