Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Experiences of a History Detective

I’ve recently had the delightful opportunity to play history detective. One of my projects this summer at the Oil Museum of Canada involved investigating the identity of the man who struck Canada’s first oil gusher on January 16th, 1862. Secondary sources over the last sixty years have generally cited Hugh Nixon Shaw; however, recent scholarship has suggested that it was a man named John Shaw. I had the chance to investigate a question that will be extremely relevant in two years, when the Oil Museum of Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of Canada’s first oil gushers, accompanied by special events and an interpretive focus on the oil men who brought in over thirty gushers in 1862.

Sometimes, the research is extremely satisfying, and you stumble across a tidbit you couldn’t have imagined existed; other times, a source that you’re positive will reveal something imperative is a near bust. Here are two examples from my work that demonstrate these principles of historic investigations.

I’ve been working with a lot of 1860s newspapers that were reporting on the oil region. While scanning through microfilmed pages of the Sarnia Observer of 1866, I happened to pause on May 11th’s issue, and the name “John Shaw” jumped out at me. As I proceeded to read the article, it was a piece reporting that “Mr. John Shaw, who suddenly found himself famous one day early in 1862, is about to give the old spot another good ‘try’ over again.” Pure dumb luck, and I’d found a gem; an article I hadn’t seen referenced in any secondary material that strongly suggested John Shaw had brought in the gusher (especially when one takes into consideration the fact that Hugh Nixon Shaw died of noxious fumes in an oil well in 1863).

Now, the flip side of pure dumb luck is the source you’re expecting will be your Holy Grail, and turns out to be disappointing. I’d found some vague references to the fact that Hugh Nixon Shaw kept a journal between 1861 and 1863, but no historians discussed the journal’s contents in detail. Upon discovering the Archives of Ontario had a copy, I arranged a bus trip to Toronto, and spent hours on various incarnations of public transit to get to York University. When I got to archives and settled down with the microfilm, I was disappointed to discover that the handwriting was nearly illegible, the machine’s light/focus knobs could offer little assistance, and the journal was incomplete (entire months missing). I’d imagined that the journal would prove my case one way or another: either he brags about the gusher, so he brought it in; or there is no mention of the gusher whatsoever in his January 1862 entries, meaning that he most likely didn’t bring it in (the increase in oil production should show up in his business tallies.) Unfortunately, there were no January 1862 entries, or entries for several months before or after January. While the source was interesting, it was inconclusive for my research.

With historic investigations, prepare to be happily surprised and crushingly disappointed, but always eager to keep looking for the next source that will help make your case!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Oil Field Tour With Charlie Fairbank, Fourth-Generation Oil Producer in Oil Springs

Tuesday, July 6th, I had the pleasure of accompanying Charlie Fairbank and his eighteen-year-old son, Charles, for a private tour of his oil land. Charlie Fairbank’s oil fields in Oil Springs are an amazing experience, because the Fairbanks have been producing oil in Oil Springs for almost 150 years (they are celebrating their 150th anniversary in 2011). His great-great-grandfather, J.H. Fairbank, came to Oil Springs during its 1860s boom, and introduced the jerker-line technology that facilitated oil production and would be widely emulated by his peers. Each succeeding generation of Fairbank men has continued to produce oil around Oil Springs, gradually accumulating additional land.

What makes Charlie’s field so amazing is that he continues to produce oil using nineteenth-century technologies. The jerker-lines creak and groan, and the smell of oil permeates the field. A lot of the old wooden structures remain standing, and Charlie acknowledges them with casual, familiar stories. I was surprised to see that portions of Charlie’s land which are not currently useful for producing oil have been converted to crop land, growing beans and alfalfa.

One aspect of the tour I found personally delightful was the herds of sheep that roam the fields. The sheep help to take care of the grass and the weeds in the area. There are llamas that accompany the herds of sheep! Apparently the llamas offer natural production against coyotes. I had the pleasure of spotting three llamas, Ron, Sam and George.

Another aspect of Charlie’s tour that surprised me was his interest in the natural plant life. Not only could he describe the technological aspects of oil production, but he also had a genuine concern and interest in the native plant life, and certain species that were becoming threatened.

A tour high-light was when we trotted past the east gum beds, where the 1860s oil boom really got going when J.M. Williams opened surface wells. This portion of Charlie’s land is situated a fair distance from the Oil Museum of Canada, but Charlie is currently brainstorming ideas about how to attract visitors to the east gum beds, and enhance their interpretive potential. They have played a significant part in the history of oil production in the area, and Charlie would like to see museum visitors have a chance to experience and learn more about them.

It was an excellent opportunity to get an inside perspective not only on the oil industry, but also about the man whose family has been so vital to the history of oil heritage in Lambton County.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

ACO's 37th Annual Geranium Heritage House Tour

Earlier this June, I had the privilege of volunteering with the ACO's 37th Annual Geranium Heritage House Tour. The tour focuses on one of London's most beautiful neighbourhoods, and explores historic houses on Ridout, Talbot, John, Albert and Kent. I had the opportunity to assist with a portion of the guided tour at 601 Talbot Street, a lovely Ontario Cottage-style home that was built in 1875 and has a variety of attractive Gothic Revival features.

I was curious to see what age groups and genders would choose to take part in the tour. For the most part, I would put visitors over the age of 45, and generally female. Many chose to take the tour in groups of three or four, although there were also solo visitors. I would estimate that over 100 individuals visited 601 Talbot Street between three and five o'clock that afternoon, and only two small groups were young people (approximately 20-30 years old).

I wonder why more teens or young adults are not interested in participating in this type of event. I told a variety of my friends that I would be volunteering for the tour and they should check it out; a pair of them even live in a condo at 500 Talbot Street, so they wouldn't have had to go very far! Unfortunately, the interest wasn't there. I believe the admission fee was a deterent for many; the tour cost $20.00, which may seem steep to some, for a tour of older homes. I still found it surprising that young people aren't interested in learning more about one of London's nicest neighbourhoods. The Geranium Heritage House Tour has been active for thirty-seven years, and I noticed advertisements in local papers leading up to the event, so I don't believe that it's an issue of "nobody heard about it."

Hopefully, great events such as the Geranium Heritage House Tour can find a way to attract a new, younger, and more diverse audience. Especially for individuals who have grown up in London, they could only benefit from learning the history of some of London's most beautiful houses.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Fun With Google SketchUp!

Playing around with Google SketchUp is much easier than I'd thought it would be! Looking at the program is pretty intimidating, especially for those of us with limited experience. However, with a bit of tinkering and the patience to follow some tutorials, it's pretty great to see how much you can get done. Google's Video Tutorials are a great place to start, and they are arranged by expertise (so beginners can stick to the easy stuff, and advance through more difficult tutorials as they improve). Part 4 of these tutorials leads you through the steps to create a simple chair:

I was surprised at how a bit of patience with the tutorials allowed me to fairly easily come up with this chair.
I decided to try something a bit tricker, and ran into some problems:

It's a bit hard to see from this screen shot, but as I tried to wrap my name around that cylinder, I had problems effectively grouping the letters into components. I effectively dragged each letter onto the cylinder individually, and as is evident by the picture, they are not evenly spaced out, properly aligned, or protruding from the cynlinder at the right depths. It was still a learning experience to go through the effort though!

Wanting to incorporate a 3D image into the posters I am creating to accompany my LilyPad Arduino Interactive Exhibit project, I opted to try the 3D letters again. This time I decided to put them onto a rectangle instead of a cylinder to facilitate the process. Since my project is military themed, I went with "WWII" as my letters, and was pleased at the results:

Google SketchUp is less frustrating and a lot more fun than I would have guessed! As mentioned above, the tutorials are an excellent source. There are tutorials not only on the official Google site, but also littered throughout the Internet.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Vector Representations and Coffee Mugs: The Value of Perseverance

Eureka !

During Wednesday's Interactive Exhibit Design (February 24th, 2010) class, Bill asked us to work through one of 10 of the Best Inkscape Tutorials. We are learning about Vector Representations, which are a really fabulous way to create images: instead of using pixels, vector representation identifies specific points and parameters to make much sharper images. I'd worked through the tutorials before class and felt fairly confident as I began Peter Anglea's "Creating a Coffe Cup with Inkscape" (an ode to my favourite beverage).

I was absolutely stumped by the Bezier curve. I'd played around with Bezier curves with Mark Hoefer's demo, but didn't really understand the concept. I got frustrated and couldn't figure out how to make the curves and points settle in the spots I needed them to. I finished Wednesday's class with an image that was about half-way through the tutorial, and the Bezier curves forming my coffee mug were unfortunately shaped. Instead of using the Bezier tool to form the entire shape, I was creating small curves and then copying and rotating them to form the mug. When I tried to fill in the mug with color, the fill looked terrible because instead of creating my mug as a single shape, it was a mongrel of various curves.

Lesson learned: what looks like a shortcut only caused me grief! Instead of persevering with the Bezier tool, I got fed up and decided to try things "my way." Well, even if I thought my shortcut was brilliant, the computer disagreed. Moral of the story: don't try to use shortcuts, since the computer can tell you're not doing it right.

I decided to revisit the tutorial this afternoon, and spent some quality time playing with the Bezier curve. Low and behold, after practicing with it enough and getting a feel for it, I could create my coffee mug! After getting the hang of the Bezier tool, I could effectively work my way through the rest of the tutorial.

Now, not only do I have a lovely coffee mug, but I've also learned a valuable lesson about shortcuts and the value of perseverance when working with computers.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Olympic Opening Ceremonies: History, Heritage, and Patriotism

I’m not ashamed to admit that I sometimes feel that swell of pride for my country. I attended an Oilers vs Canucks game last season, and sang the national anthem for the first time in over a year. It had been too long since I’d heard it, and I almost welled up with tears (although it might have just been the pre-game beers playing tricks with my emotions).

What better celebration of patriotism than the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Opening Ceremonies. Given the topics I’ve been considering in my coursework this last year, I couldn’t help but watch the opening ceremonies with a mix of my old patriotism kept in check by a critical eye considering the implications of history, heritage and patriotism.

Benedict Anderson argues in the introduction to his book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism that the nation is a construct, a powerful imagined political community. These imagined political communities are intimately linked to and shaped by heritage.

It seemed like the opening ceremony committee armed themselves with a checklist of Canadian heritage points and made sure each was addressed. We saw Mounties carry and raise the Canadian flag; tap dancing and fiddling from Eastern Canada; First Nations groups welcoming the world to Canada; flashbacks to immigrants being received at our shores; a heavy emphasis on Canada’s natural beauty, with displays showcasing the forests, prairies, mountains and animals; and the necessary Canadian celebrities (Sarah McLachlan, Nelly Furtado, and my personal favourite, Bryan Adams). Slam poet Shane Koyczan’s “We are More” inventively summed up many of those themes.

The opening ceremonies lead to questions about the relationship between patriotism and heritage. Is Canadian patriotism dependent on a misguided sense of heritage? In the case of the opening ceremonies, patriotism was grounded in the story of Canada’s landscape and people. Disputed aspects of Canada’s history were glazed over to weave a multi-cultural quilt. I was intrigued by the fact that the ceremonies moved seamlessly from an introduction of various First Nations groups to a celebration of the settlement and exploration of Europeans without mention of the disconnect between those events. This patriotism is dangerous: it selects sections of Canadian history and highlights them out of context to tell a disjointed and manipulated story.

The Olympic version of Canada’s history is really patriotism mixed with a dash of heritage. There must be a way to make “Canada’s history” fair to the chequered events that blot the past while retaining an enthusiasm for what it means to be Canadian. Perhaps the Olympics are not the best platform for discussing those matters, for fear of making bold statements in front of an international audience. Still, there must be a better way to tell our story: a way that pays tribute to the good and the bad; a balanced perspective that celebrates Canada’s history while acknowledging past mistakes; a new portrait of “Canada’s history” that would continue to inspire Canadians and remain fair to the past.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Grad School Mental Checklist

One of the most challenging experiences as a graduate student is justifying your studies to friends and family. I’m generally met with two reactions when I talk about my M.A. in Public History: disbelief and scepticism (the primary response); and excitement and enthusiasm. Any students entering a Public History program should arm themselves with a solid set of answers to both reactions. Since Public History is intimately connected to the general public, we need to be ready to get people excited about what we learn.

While you’re thinking about applying to a Public History program, or completing your M.A. upon acceptance, be prepared with a mental checklist of the best aspects of a graduate experience. Here are suggestions of the most significant aspects of a Public History education that you should be ready to discuss with anyone who inquires about your studies:

  • Have a firm grasp of what Public History means. Public History is not a generally used term, and much of the scepticism that arises from people outside the field is because they have never encountered the phrase before. Make sure you have a solid definition of Public History to jumpstart your discussion. Not only will this help with friends and family, it will also be important when you are interviewing for jobs after you finish your M.A.
  • Emphasize the guest speakers you meet. I have heard from an array of individuals who currently work in the Public History sector, and anyone asking about your program wants to hear about where you can work after you graduate.
  • Don’t be afraid to discuss your projects. The hands on aspect of Public History has been one of the best experiences of my academic career. You will work on these projects in conjunction with organizations outside the University, and there are amazing opportunities to work in the community. Make sure you emphasize the great, practical projects you will be completing.
  • Talk about Digital History. After completing the course, I realized that even if I didn’t completely understand all the material, I am now ahead of many people in terms of digital interactions. Talk about the website you will be creating, the blog you will be writing, as well as the potential of the Internet as an exciting medium for historical interpretation and interaction.
  • Mention your peers and their experiences. As one of only ten Public History majors at Western, I have had the privilege of being part of a close-knit group. My peers come from a variety of different backgrounds and all have different goals, but each one has a unique story to tell.

If you assemble a mental checklist of the most exciting aspects of your Public History education, you will always be ready to discuss (and defend!) your graduate experience with friends and family. Best of all, you will be an effective ambassador for an important and growing field.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Shedding Some Light on the Darker Side of Historic Interpretation

Human begins retain a fascination with the most gristly aspects of the past. Battlefields, cemeteries, and murder sites become a beacon for interpretation and tourist activity. J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley’s Dark Tourism defines the phenomenon as, “... the commodification of anxiety and doubt [about modernity and its consequences] within interpretations offered and the design of the sites as both products and experiences (including merchandising and revenue generation) that introduces 'dark tourism.'"

‘Dark tourism’ has thrived because visitors possess an interest and fascination with unsavoury aspects of the human experience. While visiting Edinburgh last March, I took a "Ghost Tour" which led us through some of the city’s most ghastly areas, including murder sites and the tombs of famous Scots (picture on the right from a cemetery on Calton Hill, the resting place of David Hume's tomb). Visitors arrive at ‘dark tourism’ sites prepared to be shocked and appalled.

I would like to address the question of how historic sites with varied histories can interpret both the negative and positive aspects of the past. For certain historic sites, the darker sections of their history have been ignored in order to celebrate the more positive (and public relations friendly) aspects of heritage. Pier 21, toted as “Canada’s Immigration Museum,” has been accused of representing Canada as a multicultural beacon when in fact our immigration laws were not all-inclusive. The official website asserts, “We aim to be a national centre for celebrating Canada’s rich culture and diversity.” Tamara Vukov’s “Performing the Immigrant Nation at Pier 21: Politics and Counterpolitics in the Memorialization of Canadian Immigration” argues that the museum has systematically “forgotten” the ethnic and racial exclusion that formed a substantial portion of Canada’s immigration policy.

Acknowledging our country’s refusal to allow certain nationalities into Canada is not an aspect of Canadian history that fills visitors with pride. The question becomes how to communicate the darker aspects of Canada’s past to a public that wants Pier 21 to reaffirm their stereotypes about living in a flawless country. A visitor takes the Edinburgh Ghost Tour ready to confront the nastiest side of human nature; at Pier 21, the visitor wants to ignore the darker stories that lurk beneath the celebratory facade.

Visitors expect to be confronted with dark stories at a certain kind of historic site. It is imperative that sites with mixed histories address the darker aspects of the past. The public deserve a fair interpretation of the history. It has been demonstrated by the public’s voracity for ‘dark tourism’ that they are comfortable confronting the worst that humanity has to offer.

Visitors should leave Pier 21 understanding the complexity of immigration in Canada, retaining their patriotic fervour while acknowledging the mistakes that have been made in the past. Heritage site planners who ignore those aspects of the past are being unfair not only to the individuals who have suffered throughout history but also to their target audience, which is misled by the interpretation. These sites need to strive to present a balanced view of the past, and they need to realize that the public is sophisticated and ready to hear the bad along with the good.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Interactive Exhibit and Website Updates

I have created a website to chart the progress on my interactive exhibit project: Interactive Exhibit: History and e-textiles. For my exhibit, I have decided to work with the LilyPad Arduino to create an e-textile that integrates historic content with an exciting new technology. It's fun to dream big!

I also made some revisions on my main website. I've uploaded the major projects we've been working on so far, as well as providing descriptions of the work. If you've got it, flaunt it, right?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Thoughts on Public History Readings from January 14th

The Internet has sometimes been perceived as a dirty and scary place for academics. After all, the walls of the ivory tower are torn down, and anyone with the slightest inspiration can quickly and easily design their own website to glorify any topic they please. Peer reviewing and proper references seem to be flung out the window in this new and uncertain world.

However, there are historians currently working with this new medium to produce exciting and extremely interesting work. The article “Towards a Theory of Good History Through Gaming” suggests that the Internet offers amazing opportunities for historical education in immersive environments. Said piece describes how history-centered games can be incredibly advantageous, since “multimedia fosters engagement and facilitates critical thinking.” Additionally, historic sites have incredible new opportunities, such as the Tower of London’s program which allows visitors to use their cell phones and learn about the history of the famous site while helping virtual prisoners escape from their cells.

John Bonnett’s “Following in Rabelais’ Footsteps: Immersive History and the 3D Virtual Buildings Project” lauds the potential of new technologies to enable individuals to reconstruct their own three-dimensional historic buildings using sophisticated computer software. Students engaged in such an activity become acutely aware of not only the typical difficulties historians face during their research (for example, inadequate primary sources) but also the problems that accompany historical representation. History becomes an active and engaging pursuit, and students emerge with real critical thinking skills as opposed to the headache and frustration they might feel after spewing names and dates onto a final exam.

When I began reading the first article, “History on the Internet: The ‘Atlantic Canada Portal,’” I found it ironic that a piece praising the presence of exciting history online was only available in print; however, towards the end of the article, Corey Slumkoski, Margaret Conrad and Lisa Charlong admitted that the periodical Acadiensis is “unhappily” not yet available on the Internet. This article detailed numerous endeavours that are currently bringing history alive online. One of the points I found most interesting was the assertion that online syllabi are not only convenient, but also far more engaging than their paper counterparts because of the potential to provide hyperlinks to readings, pages of interest, and pictures.

Slumkoski, Conrad and Charlong sum up these innovations nicely: “When used critically and judiciously – in other words, when we apply the same standards to the Internet that we do to any other source – the Web can be a great boon to the scholarly community.”