Digital Humanities and William Byrd

Digital humanities are hard to miss (if you don’t know what I’m talking about then shame on you!) At the moment USF has a number of Digital Humanities groups and initiatives: Tampa/USF Digital Humanities Group, the History department offers a 400 level course called “Introduction to Digital Humanities” and I believe the library is creating a group too. There is no doubt that the future of history and other humanities fields includes digital components.


William Bryd II

One example of how digital humanities works is my friend Michelle Davison‘s William Byrd project. William Byrd wrote a diary, and Michelle digitized it here and twitter-fied it here (Byrd tweets about as much as any other celebrity, which is to say hilariously often. Get off your phone William Byrd, don’t you have dancing to do!)

The web page features a daily dose of Byrd and a search function that allows visitors to hunt for the needed document by word. (Ex: you want to read what Byrd says about letters, search “letters” easy peasy)

A while back I had a fit about on-line museums (Digital tourist, shmigital shmoulrist on-line museums are for research,) because people were not recognizing the diverse benefits digital humanities, archives, and exhibits had for researchers and the public alike. Digital humanities offers new ways to interact with the past,through documents. The William Bryd twitter feed reminds us of our human commonalities and difference with past peoples and the web page offers Bryd’s journal in an accessible format.

It is important to recognize that digital humanities are not limited to museum exhibits, they offer an endless opportunity for researchers to create interactive and accessible outlets and for visitors to start interacting with documents.

Take a moment to check out and explore what Digital humanities has to offer!

How to Reinvigorate House Museums

This week I came across a Boston Globe article that reiterated the question , “Are there too many house Museums.” The article argues that museums (the traditional “stuff and exhibit space” museums) are experiencing new found popularity and are stepping-up their game with new exhibits, wings and architectural wonders. House museums, on the other hand, lag behind focusing more on preservation (staying the same).

Lets not be so negative, there is some hope yet for house museums! Case in point, Arcadia Farms.

Arcadia Farms is an agricultural project that teaches child about sustainable farming and brings organically grown produce into D.C. food desserts. Produce food trucks give D.C. shoppers the opportunity to have the kinds of foods all people deserve (fresh and chemical free)  AND Arcadia’s food truck accept food stamps, so the food is accessible. (I really like this project, so excuse me if I turn this post into a love letter to Arcadia Farms)

Here is their blurb:

“Arcadia Farm is located just a few short miles from downtown Washington, DC, on the historic grounds of Woodlawn Estate.  Arcadia’s demonstration farm and educational children’s garden currently encompasses four acres, providing a sustainable model of agriculture to new farmers, students and the public through hands-on community engagement. “

Arcadia Farms works out of Woodlawn Estate, a historical Washington family plantation. (Once an 18thc farm, now a sustainable community conscience organic educational farm! <3 <3) Instead of allowing the vast land surrounding the house to simply be pastures of grass, Arcadia repurposes the land to do what made it valuable in the first place –GROW STUFF! The project not only feeds people, it gives the house museum a new purpose, new educational opportunities and makes the estate a community investor.

So, are there too many house museums? No, there are too many of them have the same goals. House museums need to diversify their output (educationally, socially, and economically). I want to see house museums with functional wineries, breweries, farms, textile mils. House museums need to embrace the buy local, eat local, drink local (very 18thc btw) movement or like Kenmore in Fredericksburg, really get into theater. We need to ask historical homes, “What makes you so special? What can you DO” In order to compete with other house museums and traditional “stuff and exhibit space” museums, historical homes need to show the world their special talent and single themselves out in a world of preserved plantation homes on picturesque landscapes.

In my world there is a lot of talk about sustainability and what it means for Public History and historical sites, this is one way historical sites can take part in sustainability movement. House museums can take the lead teaching future generations the arts/science of sustainable farming. They can teach people about, not the arcane nature, but the possibly and reality of sustainable farming at home. It is not weird to get your food from your lawn it is doable!

Let’s stop this anti-house museum talk and start focusing on how we can use these places to make the world a better, healthier, sustainable place.



Landscape: The Abandoned and The Haunted

It was recently brought to my attention that “Ruin Porn” is a thing –and a problematic one at that. I am no stranger to the draw of abandoned places, I recently found an abandoned Renaissance Fair, and I never pass up the opportunity to look at photos of defunct amusement parks or detailed architecture made more beautiful by an envelope of lush greens. I understand why critics justifiably rail against the many photographers who lurk around Detroit, capitalizing on the city’s DSCN0246busted economy. It is voyeurism; porn is a strong word, but voyeurism, slumming, insensitive all those work just fine.

This week I read Paul Mullins’s Aug 19, 2012 blog post “The Politics and Archaeology of “Ruin Porn”.” Mullins details the many objections to what has been called “Ruin Porn” and suggests how these photographs can be used to ask compelling archaeological questions. He says “There is tremendous archaeological potential to develop reflective narratives about modernity that weave the decaying ruins of contemporary cities or industrial sites to a complex range of social, political, racist, and class factors that would illuminate how archaeologists, states, and communities value spaces, heritage, and things.” He goes on “We should obey our own fascination with and curiosity in these old spaces—the decayed amusement parks, ruined factories, asylums overtaken by nature—and accept that there is something far more consequential in that curiosity than simply compelling aesthetics. If “ruin porn” helps us see those spaces in new ways, then photography, narratives, and material analysis might collectively provide us an exceptionally powerful way to interpret such places and dissect the concrete social and material forces that create abandonment and ruination.” (Ugh, I love it)

Because I look at ghost stories and rumors of hauntings, as ways that people understand landscape and historicity, I completely understand where Mullin’s is coming from. Reading his post and talking with a fellow researcher, I am left wondering the connection between “abandoned” and “haunted”. Can there two understandings of place co-exist? Are they one in the same? If they diverge, where?


“Abandoned” places are not scary because of ghosts, they are scary because you don’t know who else is there with you.

My answer: They are two totally different concepts of status.

Abandoned places don’t have ghosts; if they did they would be haunted not abandoned. The descriptor “abandoned” means that a place is forsaken, discarded, not thought about anymore. “Abandoned” places become non-places (as odd as that sounds). In order to be a “place” or to exist something needs to be recognized, in order for a place to be a place it needs definition, it needs people to interpret it.

“But” you ask, “what if it is a ruin? Are ruins places? Can ruin’s have ghosts?” Of course ruins are places, they are ruins. They are “ruins”/remains of a former recognized place. I think ruins can have ghost stories or hauntings. I have not read anything about a haunted ruin yet, but I think there is potential simply because ruins are recognized as places. Abandoned places are abandoned places until something thinks about them, then they are ruins, or if there is a ghost story, they are haunted.

Saying “That abandoned house is haunted” is like saying “That yellow dog is cat.” It can’t be both, because they are not arbitrary titles and they mean more than just a description of outside appearance. You can say “That abandoned house looks like it could be haunted.” But you can’t say “The abandoned house is haunted” because once you claim that something is haunted, you are saying that it has 1) a recognizable past and 2) a resident (conceptually).

Abandoned places don’t have a past, because they are recognized as abandoned spaces. Being an abandoned place is a status, and status’ change. In archaeology you could say it is an abandoned landscape until you excavate and find a cellar. Perhaps the phrase “landscape bastard” would be a better, less convoluted, term than “abandoned.”

Why is this and important distinction to make?

As we begin to take seriously both ghost stories/rumors of hauntings and abandoned places we need to recognize them independently. While they both give evidence of time and illustrate a way of thinking about landscape and the past. They are two different statuses.



Making Small Children Cry at Historical Sites

Like many public historians, I read this season’s copy of The Public Historian with long awaited enthusiasm. What stuck with me was a very small part in Amy Tyson’s interview w/ Azie Mire Dungey, the actor in “Ask A Slave.” The article touched on what it is like for African American women (more specifically Dungey, but it was presented as widely applicable, and I tend to believe that) to perform a slave at historical sites. In the beginning, Dungey mentioned visiting Colonial Williamsburg for the first time as child, after reading The Addy, American Girl Book.(Addy was an escaped slave) Dungey said that as a child she recognized C.W. as so accurate that she was afraid that the colonial whites were going to pick-up her and sell her into slavery.

Whoa guys, Lets think of the children!

I was initially shocked by this, and saddened at the thought of a child being afraid. It is heart breaking. We like to think of our children as innocent and delightfully ignorant of the world. They know nothing, because they are new here, so new. Can we/ should we protect children from the past?

Can we create a place that intends on taking people back in time for educational, social, and emotional amusement, and expect the people who know the very least and visit the most often, (children) not to be terrified. Public historians talk about historical site’s difficulties with presenting slavery alot, but they cite slavery’s general unpleasantness and political implications, perceived by adults. Can we present a “realistic” portrayal of the past to people who do not even recognize the unpleasent realties of contemporary times?

Can we present the past to children, making sure they recognize things like slavery no longer pose them an immediate bodily threat, without closing off further discussion about the long term effects of slavery in contemporary culture? Should we?

This question boils down to: Is it okay to make children cry, if they are going to learn something?

As heart breaking as it is to hear or see a child cry out of fear, it is a rather effective way to teach them about humanity and sympathy. A child crying at a historical site for fear of facing the same unpleasantness (could be slavery, could be the stocks, could be physical reprimand from a boss, ect) has internalized and made real that past. Ideally, they will be unable to separate themselves from the narrative of the past, which is very valuable for understanding the past.

Introducing them to the past before they form ideas of the world as a set given could give them a clearer understanding of the past as possibility not a myth separated from our time by positive progress (something some adults do not even have).

“Yes, Timmy, little kids like you were taken away from their parents to go work for strangers who might want to hurt them. Aw, It is sad, Timmy, it is. And even after slavery was over, people were still mean to Black people, some people are still mean to them today, because they are prejudice and ignorant. Your are right it is awful and scary. Why do people do that? Well, maybe someone was mean to them, or they don’t like themselves or were insecure and lashed out at others.You are right that is not an appropriate way to act, but some people do.” (This is not perfect, but it is an example, that much I say for sure)

Keeping children ignorant of the realities of the past is a selfish preservation of the innocences they have and we wish we could have back. They will not understand everything, but if we “keep it real” so speak, we could see some benefits.

colonial baby

That was a rather depressing, but realist, post. Here is a cute baby who knows nothing about the world. So new.

The Library of Congress & I (& also ghosts): A Torrid Love Affair

This spring break I decided to temporarily put down Virginia folktales (provided by my past love—The WPA) and give some attention to the Library of Congress’s digital newspaper collections (I am going to make this very obvious, the federal government does great things for my education, WPA, the LOC, the grants and loans I got as a Undergrad, all good things, thanks Uncle Sam). My searches in the LOC have been so productive I feel like I finally got on Nickelodeon’s Super Toy Run, and I am running through the isles pulling down newspapers clippings instead of sweet toys and bikes. Its really great. There is so much to read! So much to consider! So much historical hilarity!


As many of you know I am researching historical themed hauntings in Virginia. I have read a lot of ghost stories collected by the WPA in the 1930’s that tend to not talk about historical places or people. The 1930’s stories are usually about someone staying in an abandoned or disused house, finding a ghost, asking it “whats up” (in so many words) and finding out the ghost’s mortal body needs to be property buried or their murder needs to be brought to justice, once the protagonist fulfills the ghost’s needs, our spectral friends tells him where the ghost’s human self hid a treasure. The other stories I have read are more recent ones in ghost-tourist-books, there are published in our millennial period and tend to look at historical places. Two things happen here 1) the historical ghost keeps doing what they always did like Fielding Lewis (Kenmore) who walks around worried about his finances or 2) the historical character knows is 2013/14 (whatever) and wants to talk to you.


Now thanks to my LOC findings I have a new category (?). The LOC has newspapers from the 1830s-1922. Here I have found that Virgins love ghost stories, some stories about VA, but mainly stories about other places. Originally I was very disappointed that the VA papers featured so many non-VA ghost stories, but now I realize this illustrates a love of ALL ghost stories, and gives me the idea that VA started celebrating their hauntings later than I thought.

On the other hand, two papers have been especially productive: The Clinch Valley News and The Richmond Dispatch. The Clinch Valley News was published out of Jeffersonville, VA which is now called Tazewell and is located in the south west tail of the state. The Richmond Dispatch is printed in, you guessed it, Richmond Virginia. It is now called Richmond Times-Dispatch.

My favorite from Clinch Valley News is a 1896 story called “Claudius Smith’s Boots” which is about the haunted or cursed boots of a “bloody Tory cowboy who, withhis following of cutthroats and robbers, terrorized the Schunnemuck and surrounding country for years.”[1] Each subsequent wearer of Smith’s boots meet their end by way of a snake bite right through his boots. This is the most historical ghost story I found, which I not saying that it is VERY historical at all. I like this story because it shows how material items are infused with historical and ghostly meaning.

My favorite article from The Richmond Dispatch made me so happy I nearly exploded! This one is called “Virginia Ghosts” (WHAT! Perfect right ?!). What makes this so perfect? This quote:

It has been alleged that Virginia people can tell more ghost stories than those of any other state…“Every neighborhood has its story of the supernatural, its haunted houses, its lonely road, where strange sights and sounds have frightened the nocturnal wayfarer.


The author goes on to explain how African Americans created the ghost story culture in Virginia. He says :

It is difficult to find a negro who does not believe in ghostly visitations. Perhaps therein lies the explanation of the fact that Virginia has more than her share of ghostly tales. The Negros have fed upon stories of local ghosts for generations.

He goes on to explain how black children tell white children ghost stories that they tell their parents and neighbors.Next, In what I am assuming is in true-Virginia fashion he then tells two ghost stories that have nothing to do with Virginia and end by saying “I want to specially tell Dispatch readers about some of haunted houses of the Old Dominion.” Which I have yet to find, but want to.[2] I love this article because it gives evidence to the ideas about Virginia and her relationship to ghost stories and haunting culture that I suspected.

My second favorite  article from The Richmond Dispatch I will save for another time but I’ll give you this these two quotes:

It always struck me that is would eminently appropriate for the Capitol building to have two or three respectable, dignified ghosts in it, who could appear on stated occasions, like the 4th of July and 22nd of February, and get off something appropriate to the occasion.”

“Ghost, as I said, are in great demand among parvenus and “powhite” folks who have recently made money, but are still lacking in genealogy and ancestors…as they buy a handsome mansion, that it should savor of antiquity (just as eggs should when they are to be thrown at offending persons), and so they forthwith proceed to buy up old portraits, and then they try to resurrect a ghost.…”powhite” folks have a hard time coaxing them, and are never successful unless they can purchase some old, historical hall, full of classic memories and cockroaches.

There is a lot here to work with, and I am very excited to cobble together something to present at a conference next year ( I did not present anything anywhere this year, and let me tell you I feel lazy as hell).

[1] “Claudius Smith’s Boots” Clinch Valley News, July 10 1896, Whole No2, 67? (These are messy footnote…I know)

[2] All these quotes are from “Virginia Ghosts,” The Richmond Dispatch, Dec 9 1900

The Tough Stuff is Still Tough Stuff : Slavery in Public History

Part 1

I recently read James Oliver Horton, and Lois E. Horton, Editors. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, which is a bit outdated but creates space for good discussions.[1] One of the main difficulties with portraying slavery at historical sites is the reality of physical and mental abuse inherent in slavery. This makes sense, because most people feel uncomfortable seeing someone, especially someone who is still racially marginalized, abused. It SHOULD make people uncomfortable, however when violent abuses are portrayed on film people think its great cinema!

The logic here is that portraying the violence inherent in slavery lets 21st people understand slavery. But in reality it only shows people the extreme extent of visible physical violence. This creates an understanding of slavery as something akin to an early-modern hell-scape that only existed in a time long-gone, but what people need to understand is how slavery’s oppression is forever.

Ian Baucom’s understanding of time in Specters of the Atlantic further helps further  my point. Baucom says “time does not pass but accumulates,” meaning there is no stopping and changing point in time—it keeps going and keeps building on and exposing the past in the present.[2] The images we see of slavery in films depend on the idea that black people are no longer oppressed by equating slavery with physical violence.

It is hard to find a middle ground between the extremes of violence and Song of the South-type paternalistic images when portraying slavery in the United States. It is even harder to create an image of slavery that does not end in escape or freedom. Most films about slavery have an emancipation theme where the main character sustained abuses and is eventually freed. But these narratives create a false understanding of slavery as temporary. If films want to portray slavery that truly enlightens viewers about the institution they need to understand it beyond the epic violence in Django Unchained, as something that lasted life times and generations and included mental and physical oppression. The slave narratives on film in the 21st century are no different from the nineteenth-century abolitionist slave narratives that showed the most demonized visions of slavery to northern readers in order to call attention to the evils of human enslavement (this is not to say that slavery was in any way acceptable, peaceful or not-violent, I am also not saying the abolitionist had anything but good intentions).

All educated Americans (who are not arguing for or secretly harboring feelings of white-empowerment) understand that slavery was an awful institution. What we need to see now are narratives that explain the mental and cultural conditions that made the treatment of enslaved people acceptable and how that reverberates into race issues after-emancipation and today.  I don’t think public history can do this though, because in order for historical sites to address something awful the awful needs to be over and contemporary Americans still face racial oppression and labor abuses. 

Part 2

A colleague asked me after reading a draft of Part 1, “How can public history do anything? What about holocaust sites?” Which made me think, yes how do historical sites deal with “tough-stuff” (to borrow a term from Horton2)? The most recognizable way historical sites deal with slavery or the Holocaust it to allow the landscape to speak for itself by insinuating that the ghosts of the past can invoke the proper feelings. (eeriness, reverence, ect). But this often recognizes the difficult past without addressing the actual issues. We are still left asking how do we deal with the tough stuff? How can we do anything?

[1] James Oliver Horton, and Lois E. Horton, Editors. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[2] Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2005), 333.

Sexy Founding Fathers: Why Does This Fabric Exist and Why Did I Buy It?

Happy Presidents’ Day!

Over the summer while I was working at George Washington Birthplace National Monument (GEWA) my co-worker and I stumbled upon this

Sexy Founders

fabric at the Joann’s in Fredericksburg, and proceeded to make pillows, sexy, historical pillows.

I, in all my wisdom, bought far too much fabric, which means my computer chair (see below) and my lower back support pillow (again, below) all feature shirtless versions of  the United States’ most honored Revolutionary heroes…and Lincoln. While looking around my front room I see both of these pillows and think “What are these!”I know why I have them, they are nuts, ridiculous and they make me smile. But what do they have to do with Public History?

Lets break it down:

1) Notice the All-American hallo around Lincoln and to the far right Washington’s head. Those remind me of the kinds of halos you see over Saints and Jesus. So this gives us an idea of the Founders as hallowed. But, they are also shirtless, sporting ye-olde six packs. Which reminds me of Sexy Jesus (you know those depiction’s of Jesus

My computer chair

My computer chair

where his hair looks tussled yet great and he has a six pack and no shirt on) There is a large amount of literature that looks at the sexualizing of Jesus and sexual devotion and the like. Is what we are seeing in this fabric a similar situation? Will we soon see little girls promising their virginity to George Washington? There is also a great deal of literature on the Founding Fathers or U.S. history being sanctified and created into a civic-religion.


Abraham Lumbar Support

2) What is the intended use for this fabric? The man who rung up our order memorably said he used this fabric (and the Christmas version) to make “the queerest quilt you’ve ever seen!” My friend and I made pillows. Could this be used in a museum? Could we use it to talk about the sex lives of the founding fathers? The sterile George Washington and notably potent Jefferson, ect ect. Sexuality in American history, and the sexuality of American history. That would be fun, but unlikely. 


Abe “hot body” Lincoln

3) Why do we enjoy “bad” history?  Why do I find so much joy in these silly pillows? For the most part my friends and I really like collecting and commenting on odd historically themed consumer goods. I know a few people who collect Confederate memorabilia, because it is often so off-base it becomes hilarious, because it is innapropriate yet continues to exist.

But, it is appropriate for us to consume hilarious interpretations of the past, even though we work to write and rewrite history? Yes. We need the world of history created by the public to talk about the public’s interaction with the past. I love this fabric because it tells me that somewhere, someone fantasizes about this man (to the right) sexually. I don’t mean that in a mocking way, I am sure each of the Founding Fathers were sexy in their own right, but it is funny. It is funny because we are taught as children to call these men “fathers” which insinuates a bit of incessant, which is inappropriate in its own right. In middle school Americans are made to color in drawings of these guys, learn their stories, where they grew-up, what they were like, and what impressive thing they did. Before too long, maybe, you develop a relationship with them, much in the same way one could develop a relationship with a movie star or an online boyfriend.

But the best part of the Sexy Founding Fathers is that they are only one part of the diverse ways these character are depicted. Observe the range


gw booksexy GW 2sexywashington


.You simply cannot deny the flexibility here.

So why does this fabric exist? Because it can. Historical characters are free for-alls. They are recognizable to most, if not all, Americans and allow people to experiment mixing meanings and creating new ones.These multiple depictions certainly do not illustrate a lack of creativity, but rather the appearance of Historical Fan-Fiction.