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.