Contextualizing the Object of History

The first-year DH Fellows started out the year in a seminar with RRCHNM director, Dr. Stephen Robertson, discussing the history of the Center and putting it in the context of other digital humanities centers. The final project for the seminar was to create an Omeka exhibit for the Center’s 20th anniversary site on a RRCHNM project of our choosing. I chose the Object of History, and the exhibit is available here.

I selected the Object of History partly because it was one of RRCHNM’s first projects with a public history orientation. Created in collaboration with Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), the Object of History is a website for teachers and students of U.S. history featuring six objects from NMAH’s collections, contextual information, relevant primary sources, and interviews with curators. It struck me as a website that I would have enjoyed when I was a student, as someone who loved history museums but rarely got to visit them on field trips.

But creating the exhibit wasn’t just a way to learn about a particular project; the larger goal was for us to develop a fuller understanding of the inner-workings of digital humanities centers. One of the most important take-aways for me was seeing how every project is entwined in broader issues and developments in the field of digital humanities. To tell the story of the Object of History, I needed to explore the collaborative nature of digital humanities, the transition to content management systems, and the connection to 3D printing.

I also came to understand that even a seemingly small project shapes a digital humanities center and the other projects around it. In the case of the Object of History, the Center received the grant for the project at the same time (October 2005) as the grant for SmartFox (later renamed Zotero). This meant too much work and not enough staff for the Center, so project staff needed to delay the timeline for the Object of History until more staff could be hired. I found that within a year, the number of staff at the Center went up from 24 to 39, including an increase from two to four programmers and the addition of a budget and grants administrator. A primarily grant-funded digital humanities center can only grow its staff in relation to the number of funded projects, otherwise financial troubles are imminent. For this reason, work on smaller projects, like the Object of History, was essential to the Center’s ability to expand. Not every project is as big as Zotero, but the smaller projects help build the staff that create the big projects—and conceive of new ones. After all, centers are made up of people, not just projects.

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