Exploring History on the Web

Exhibits, Films, Scholarship, and Essays

he web offers a vast new canvas on which historians can depict and interpret the past, as we have formerly done in scholarly monographs, popular histories, museum exhibits, documentary films, high school classrooms, or family gatherings. Hundreds of thousands of secondary sources have materialized on the web in its short history. Yet although the medium is new, the interpretations are not. Most digital interpretive historical materials simply translate analog materials like museum exhibits, scholarly articles, and popular essays to the new medium. The much smaller corpus of born-digital historical sites more often originate from the computers of amateur rather than professional historians and offer few historiographic innovations. But although such digital history—whether created for the web or not—rarely departs from historiographic conventions, it vastly expands the traditionally limited audience for historical presentations and sometimes offers features not possible in print.

Online museum exhibits, for example, transcend the barriers of time (most exhibits are temporary installations), distance (museum visitors must be area residents or tourists), and space (gallery space is a scarce resource) that have often frustrated museum curators. Physical exhibits also translate naturally to the web because of their combination of text and images. After a $20 million gift allowed the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to acquire Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 portrait of George Washington, the museum sent the famous portrait on an eight-city tour. But even that ambitious nationwide tour left most people unable to see the exhibit. Through the web, anyone with a computer can visit the full exhibit, although not share the experience of seeing the original painting. Even Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York, which the Smithsonian American Art Museum closed in August 1996, continues to have a virtual life. Virtual exhibits also overcome the space limitations of their analog counterparts. The online version of the New Jersey Historical Society’s exhibit What Exit? New Jersey and Its Turnpike includes many full-length documents that the physical exhibit represented only through brief excerpts.28

Some online exhibits have incorporated additional features that physical exhibits cannot offer, or at least not as well. The San Francisco Exploratorium’s Remembering Nagasaki (on exhibit in the museum in 1995) combines a straightforward presentation of twenty-five photographs taken by Yosuke Yamahata with an invitation (unconventional a decade ago) to website visitors to “share their recollections of learning about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” and “their ideas and opinions . . . about the nuclear age in general.” The curators then posted 150 of the responses on the site, where they offer a public memory space about the nuclear age. As one of the curators later commented, “The extraordinary discussion that developed during the months that this exhibit was online far exceeded any of our expectations of community dialog.” Writing in the still early days of the web, he concluded, “this new tool of the Web provides museums with a new way of interacting with its public.”29

Although most online exhibits have not fulfilled this promise, some web exhibits on resonant or emotional subjects have evoked strong responses from online visitors. The site Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America features little more than a movie narrated by the man who collected these disturbing images. But hundreds of visitors to the site have offered deep and heartfelt responses.30 The online version of the Smithsonian’s September 11: Bearing Witness to History has led more than 6,000 people to contribute personal reminiscences about their experiences on that date. Bearing Witness has also attracted more traffic and kept visitors on the site longer than any other Smithsonian website.31 (Chapter 6 explores in greater detail ways of turning sites into receivers, as well as exhibiters, of historical recollections and materials.)

Personal reflections on websites such as Bearing Witness and Without Sanctuary testify to the web’s ability to permit and promote interactivity. Some exhibits have allowed visitors to interact with artifacts from the past. The Getty Research Institute’s exhibit Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen enables you to turn the crank of an 1870 choreutoscope (a magic lantern slide device) or watch a dancing skeleton displayed by it. Many other exhibits make use of Apple’s QuickTime VR technology or Macromedia Flash to allow visitors to virtually rotate historical objects they might not be able to touch (e.g., African masks, antique motorcycles) or explore places that are difficult to reach or that no longer exist (from the Chetro Ketl Great Kiva to Julia Child’s kitchen). Others engage visitors by having them solve historical puzzles or click or rollover images for more information on an artifact. The Smithsonian’s The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem asks visitors to explore a group of primary sources to “solve mysteries” such as “why the flag was altered” and “who made the flag.” Rolling your mouse over the evidence reveals hidden clues that help you in solving the mystery. Then, you can compare your answer to what a Smithsonian historian says about the same primary sources.32

Done poorly, of course, such interactivity can border on mere gimmickry. But done well (as at the Smithsonian), these additional web features can engage users in interrogating historical evidence closely. Increasingly, major history museums such as the Smithsonian have turned their website design over to professional firms like Second Story, which gives their exhibits a much more professional feel than most history websites. Smaller museums and historic sites generally have the homemade look of less well-off relations.

Whereas most online exhibits have relatively directly translated gallery installations, some originate in a digital form. One of the earliest and most impressive examples is The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory, mounted in 1996 by the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University under the leadership of the historian Carl Smith. It mixes extensive archival materials (maps, photographs, lithographs, letters, newspapers, and pamphlets) with interpretive essays by Smith, making the site into a combination archive, museum exhibit, and historical narrative. Some virtual exhibits have involved even more wide-ranging collaborations. For example, Voices of the Colorado Plateau brings together eight libraries and museums to present oral histories and historic photographs documenting life in the Four Corners region.33

At its most venturesome, the web therefore undercuts the most basic features of museums (their location in specific places, their possession or borrowing of specific objects, and the fixity and “sacredness” of those objects) and museum going (the tendency to share the experience with others). Whether or not online visitors find this virtuality as appealing as an actual museum visit remains an open question, and one that is still asked—with skepticism—by numerous museum curators.

Despite the web’s ability to incorporate film footage, producers of historical documentaries have been even less inclined than curators to use the web to do something fundamentally new. Almost every major historical film has its companion site, but these web pages generally just advertise or supplement the video. Their connection to projects with extensive resources, including large advertising and marketing budgets, gives these websites some of the best production values on the History Web. American Experience, the PBS series that has broadcast more than 150 programs on U.S. history since 1988, offers sixty websites covering such diverse program topics as Abraham and Mary Lincoln, Coney Island, and Marcus Garvey. The sites generally offer timelines, images, primary sources, program transcripts, and teaching materials as well as “special features” such as games, interviews done for the programs, online forums with historians, and QuickTime VR explorations of historical places.

Not surprisingly, websites that supplement films and videos tend to be shaped by the interpretive stance of the original production. Historian Donald Ritchie observes that the website for the PBS series The American President reflects the focus on the character and personality of the presidents that characterized the television production. “Students using the site,” he notes, “will find as much or more information about presidents’ homes, spouses, and children as about their dealings with the cabinet, the Congress, and the courts.” Similarly, Western historian John Mack Faragher complains that the companion website to the documentary The Oregon Trail does “little to suggest new historical perspectives on the trail experience—the history of gender roles, epidemic disease, or environmental impact”—and primarily promotes the film and related products.34

Historical scholarship translated into the online environment has been even less daring in format than museum or film efforts—a reflection of the formal conservatism of most scholars, the power of conventions in scholarly writing, and the heavily textual nature of most scholarship. Although vast quantities of scholarly work appear online, the mold of that scholarship is overwhelmingly traditional. Indeed, in some cases, online work is merely an electronic reproduction of an existing print format, with some of the major advantages of the digital form, such as searchability, tacked on. This conventionality has not, however, limited interest in these websites. JSTOR, which presents page images of the full runs of more than forty historical journals (with the exception of the most recent issues), attracts 8,500 visitors per day to its history publications despite the highly specialized content and the hefty licensing fee libraries must pay. Project Muse, which offers the current and recent issues of almost forty historical journals in searchable text, and the History Cooperative, which offers seventeen journals, similarly attract substantial readership.35 Quicker access than a trip to the library and the ability to search the journals by any word, as opposed to flashy multimedia or interactivity, attracts these users.

Most major online history journals open themselves only to paying customers, but some scholarly historical publications have created open-access, electronic-only journals. Not surprising, given their focus, the Journal of Multimedia History and the Journal of the Association for History and Computing have taken this e-route, as have more than 400 other history journals. Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life seeks to transcend the narrow confines of the conventional historical publication by being “a bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine.” Common-Place also seeks to exploit the web’s potential to bring “people together to discuss ideas,” although it has only had modest success in providing the space for online discussion. History News Network (HNN), a more avowedly popular publication that combines history and journalism, has been more successful in sparking conversation and debate on the web. In the first six months of 2003, readers posted more than 6,000 comments.36

Another hybrid approach combines the article with its underlying cache of historical documents and artifacts. Virtually every scholar who writes an article or book assembles an archive of sorts. Previously they could not readily share that archive given the expense of print publications. But web-based versions of journals have begun to offer supplements of primary sources. For example, Robert Darnton’s 1999 presidential address to the American Historical Association on news and the media in eighteenth-century Paris, the first article with an electronic supplement published by the American Historical Review, includes a map of Paris, links to police reports, illustrations, and even songs.37

The emerging experiments in electronic book publication such as the Gutenberg-e project sponsored by the American Historical Association and Columbia University Press, and the American Council of Learned Societies History e-book project, have also followed this practice. For example, Michael Katten’s e-book Colonial Lists/Indian Power: Identity Formation in Nineteenth-Century Telugu-Speaking India includes photographs, sketches, maps, petitions, manuscripts, videos, statues, and palm leaf verses. The e-book version of Joshua Brown’s Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded Age America, which the University of California Press published in hardcover, has more than 180 illustrations, including four slideshows comprising twenty-sixty images—much more visual evidence than could be encompassed in the print edition.38

Scholars have made only very tentative steps toward employing the digital medium to break free from the scholarly forms of the book, article, and conference paper, to reconsider such basic matters as the form of narrative, the role of illustrations and multimedia, and the writer’s authority. In 1999, American Quarterly published four online articles on such topics as films and the Spanish-American War and photographs as legal evidence that looked very different from the standard journal fare. The most unconventional was Louise Krasniewicz and Michael Blitz’s “Dreaming Arnold Schwarzenegger,” which includes descriptions of more than 170 dreams about the actor (now governor), totaling more than 31,000 words of text, brief comments on at least eighteen of his films and detailed essays on two, fifteen magazine covers of Schwarzenegger, and dozens of 1995 emails between Krasniewicz and Blitz discussing love, life, and Arnold. Krasniewicz and Blitz embraced hypertext because the usual scholarly forms did not seem to meet the needs of their subject and their analysis. “We needed a medium, a forum,” they write, “that would allow us to incorporate not just the more formal components of investigative research, but also the kinds of discoveries and reflections that are more traditionally relegated to the margins of qualitative research.” For Krasniewicz and Blitz, hypertext doesn’t merely do a better job of representing the fullness of their work on Schwarzenegger; it is the only way of representing it.39

Figure 10: Not your ordinary scholarly article: Louise Krasniewicz and Michael Blitz created the hypertext “Dreaming Arnold Schwarzenegger” because they believed it was the only way to represent the fullness of their work on the actor-turned-politician.

Two online articles from the American Historical Review hew more closely to conventionality while still pressing the scholarly boundaries. Philip J. Ethington’s “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge” combines a massive historical archive with a theoretical discussion of issues of historical certainty. William G. Thomas III and Edward Ayers offer their hypertext article “The Difference Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities” using digital media and a highly structured presentation “to give readers full access to a scholarly argument, the historiography about it, and the evidence for it.”40

An even more experimental form that has begun to attract some academic historians is the blog. Jorn Barger, the proprietor of the Robot Wisdom Weblog, first coined the term in December 1997. Originally, weblogs (in Barger’s definition) were simply web pages “where a weblogger . . . Ôlogs’ all the other webpages she finds interesting.” But rapidly blogs (the truncation of the word quickly took hold) became something closer to personal journals, especially popular among twenty-somethings working in dot-coms. Starting in 1999, blogs spread rapidly across the net, fueled, in particular, by the availability of easy-to-use software packages like Blogger that simplified the task of creating and maintaining a blog.41

Figure 11: Like millions of other Americans, historians have taken up “blogging.” James R. Davila, a Lecturer in Early Jewish Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, mixes together commentaries on the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ with reports on the state of the field, including here the death of an esteemed colleague.

In the next few years, some historians began joining in. By 2004, HNN, which sponsors eight blogs of its own, could list another twenty-three history blogs, most of them coming from academics of one sort or another. Taken as a group, the history blogs appear more about historians than history, particularly historians’ takes on life and politics. Thus HNN editor Rick Shenkman’s own blog, Potus, compares Bill Clinton’s memoirs to other presidential memoirs and ruminates on how Ronald Reagan should be ranked compared to other presidents. The Invisible Adjunct chronicled a year in the life of a young history Ph.D. teaching without any employment security. Josh Greenberg’s Epistemographer offers reflections on life, leisure, teaching, and progress on his dissertation.

But some history bloggers stick more closely to scholarship itself. In PaleoJudaica.com, James R. Davila, a Lecturer in Early Jewish Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, “chronicles and comments on current developments (mainly as recorded in Internet sources) in the academic field of ancient Judaism and its historical and literary context.” He mixes together commentaries on the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. It may be that history blogs will succeed where scholarly journals have failed so far and will be the basis of a new form of historical writing that challenges existing forms like the journal article. At the very least, the format represents a way to break down long-standing barriers separating academics and the public, text and image, research notes and finished narratives, and past and present. Another even more radical departure from professional norms and conventional notions of historical authority is the wiki—a piece of collaborative software that allows people to edit web pages directly through any browser. This makes it possible for history to be written and then re-written in an iterative and participatory—and some would say troublingly anarchical& —process. The most dramatic example so far is the Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia with more than a half million articles, hundreds of them on historical topics and most written by enthusiasts rather than professional historians.42

Web-based commercial history writing has generally not taken such an experimental approach and has moved from print to screen with few changes. The online articles at TheHistoryNet: Where History Lives on the Web—the offshoot of such popular history magazines as Civil War Times and Aviation History—are actually less interesting than the print originals. The web versions display mostly text and steer clear of the lavish illustrations of the print magazines—presumably to avoid the expense of picture permissions.43

Enthusiasts and amateurs have put the greatest energy into posting new forms of secondary literature online. Unlike the professional scholars and commercial popularizers, these amateurs traditionally have not had access to the print medium. They do not see the web as merely a new way to disseminate what has long been offered in print. Rather, it represents in many cases their first opportunity to be published. Thus the web features a new genre of popular history writing that formerly only had limited representation on library shelves—the passionate commentaries of those with a deep personal, but not professional, commitment to a historical topic. As William Thomas notes in his survey of Civil War websites, most “are not the product of universities or libraries” but rather “the work of dedicated individuals without financial reward or scholarly credit.” These individuals generally display an unswerving commitment to a particular point of view rather than the detachment to which most professional historians (ostensibly) aspire. Sites devoted to such Civil War military leaders as Patrick R. Cleburne, James Longstreet, and George B. McClellan come from what Thomas and his colleague Alice Carter describe as “fans” and “partisans.”44

The historical “fanzine”—sites created by people who are devoted to a particular topic, e.g., jazz aficionado Scott Alexander’s wide-ranging Red Hot Jazz Archive—has become a major feature of the History Web. Many such sites originate out of a particular passion; others come from a strong personal connection. For example, descendants of veterans have developed many Civil War and World War II sites. Historical fanzines find an outlet on the web because the authors lack the professional credentials to find a commercial or scholarly publisher or they have a historical enthusiasm that is too narrow to merit publication. Still others emerge out of a strong connection to a particular locality. On the web, Kevin Roe’s Brainerd, Kansas: Time, Place and Memory on the Prairie Plains tells the story of a community that is now virtually abandoned but even in its heyday had only 500 people, hardly the basis of a successful commercial market. Nonetheless the site has found a small, but engaged, audience among a few dozen former town residents and their relatives, who have created a virtual historical society for a community that has largely disappeared.45

Figure 12: Kevin Roe’s Brainerd, Kansas: Time, Place, and Memory was created initially to fulfill a course requirement but has been sustained by the author’s passion for the now almost abandoned town where his grandmother once lived. It has become a virtual historical society for former residents and their relatives who have deposited a rich collection of memoirs in the site's guestbook.

Professional historians appreciate the ways that such enthusiasts have brought large quantities of primary sources online. Thomas praises entomologist Thomas Fasulo’s “vast archive on the Battle of Olustee,” with its official records and letters from participants. But historians often view the interpretations offered at these sites with more skepticism. Thomas notes that many Civil War websites “broadcast old prejudices, ancient theories, and long-disproved arguments about the Civil War” such as the “idea that the Civil War was fought not over slavery but over economic differences having to do with the tariff.”46 The amateurs may have leapt ahead of the professionals in using the web as a vehicle for original publication, but their interpretations often look backward rather than forward. The amateurs could learn some historiographic lessons from the professionals while in turn teaching those who practice history as a vocation to think beyond traditional forms of publication.

28 National Portrait Gallery, George Washington: A National Treasure, ↪link 1.28a; Smithsonian American Art Museum, “Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, ↪link 1.28b; New Jersey Historical Society in conjunction with ASHP, What Exit? New Jersey and Its Turnpike, ↪link 1.28c.

29 Rob Semper, “Bringing Authentic Museum Experience to the Web” (paper presented at the Museums and the Web 1998, Toronto, April 1998), ↪link 1.29.

30 James Allen, “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” Musarium. We viewed this site a number of times between 2000 and 2004, but it was no longer available on the web as of August 2004.

31 Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy and Analysis, September 11: Bearing Witness to History: Three Studies of an Exhibition at NMAH, ↪link 1.31.

32 “Devices of Wonder,” The Getty Center Exhibitions, ↪link 1.32a; Logan Museum of Anthropology, A World of Art: Museum of Virtual Objects, ↪link 1.32b; The Antique Motorcycle Club of America, ↪link 1.32c; John Kantner, “Sipapu—Chetro Ketl Great Kiva,” Sipapu—The Anasazi Emergence into the Cyber World, ↪link 1.32d; Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Bon Apptit: Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian, ↪link 1.32e; Smithsonian National Museum of American History, The Star-Spangled Banner, ↪link 1.32f.

33 Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University, The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory, ↪link 1.33a. The same partners produced The Dramas of Haymarket, an even richer archive since the narrative site was produced in conjunction with the creation of the Haymarket Affair Digital Collection, a project supported by the Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library Competition. ↪link 1.33b. Southern Utah University, Voices of the Colorado Plateau,link 1.33c.

34 John Mack Faragher, “The Oregon Trail,” History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, ↪link 1.34a; Donald A. Ritchie, “The American President,” History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, ↪link 1.34b.

35 Robert B. Townsend, “Scholarship, History, and the New Media,” unpublished paper submitted in fulfillment of New Media minor field requirement at George Mason University, in possession of authors.

36 Stefan Blaschke, “Periodicals Directory: Electronical Index: E-Journals,” The History Journals Guide, ↪link 1.28b; Stephen Railton, “Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life,” History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, ↪link 1.36b; data provided by Richard Shenkman, email to Roy Rosenzweig, 18 July 2003.

37 Robert Darnton, “An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris,” American Historical Review 105 (February 2000), ↪link 1.37.

38 Michael Katten, Colonial Lists/Indian Power: Identity Politics in Nineteenth Century Telugu-Speaking India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), ↪link 1.38a. Ignacio Gallup-Diaz, The Door of the Seas and Key to the Universe: Indian Politics and Imperial Rivalry in the Darien, 1640–1750 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), ↪link 1.38b; Eileen Gardiner and Ronald Musto, “ACLS History E-Book Project,” OAH Newsletter (August 2003), ↪link 1.38c.

39 Roy Rosenzweig, “Crashing the System: Hypertext and American Studies Scholarship,” American Quarterly 51 (June 1999): 237–46; Louise Krasniewicz and Michael Blitz, “Why We Did Not Produce ÔDreaming Arnold Schwarzenegger’ as a Book, Several Articles, an Encyclopedia, a Video, an Annotated Bibliography, and a Museum Installation (or Did We?),” American Quarterly 51 (June 1999): 258–67.

40 Philip J. Ethington, “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge,” American Historical Review 105 (December 2000), ↪link 1.40a; William G. Thomas III and Edward L. Ayers, “The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities,” American Historical Review 108 (December 2003), ↪link 1.40b.

41 Jorn Barger, “Weblog Resources FAQ,” Robot Wisdom Weblog, ↪link 1.41.

42 “History Blogs,” History News Network, ↪link 1.42a; POTUS, ↪link 1.42b; Invisible Adjunct,link 1.42c; Epistemographer, ↪link 1.42d; Paleojudaica.com, ↪link 1.42e. See also Scott Smallwood, “Disappearing Act: The Invisible Adjunct Shuts Down Her Popular Weblog and Says Goodbye to Academe,” Chronicle of Higher Education (30 April 2004), ↪link 1.42f; Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, ↪link 1.42g.

43 TheHistoryNet.com, ↪link 1.43.

44 William G. Thomas and Alice E. Carter, The Civil War on the Web: A Guide to the Very Best Sites (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2001), xviii, 147–53.

45 Scott Alexander, Red Hot Jazz Archive,link 1.45a; Kevin Roe, Brainerd, Kansas: Time Place and Memory on the Prairie Plains, ↪link 1.45b.

46 Thomas and Carter, The Civil War on the Web, xvii, xix.