Responses to questions for the grant proposals

1) My initial inquiry question was framed in response to a problem posited by public historian James Horton Smith. “Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Presenting America’s Racial Story,” observed that “public historians giving presentations on the history and impact of slavery on America and Americans immediately confront a daunting problem…generally Americans believe that slavery was a Southern phenomenon, date it from the antebellum era, and do not see it as central to the American story.”[i]   Horton concluded that the “first task” for a public historian dealing with slavery is to “assess and attempt to address popular ignorance of slavery’s diversity, longevity, complexity, and centrality.”[ii]  Thus, my inquiry question was: how can we design an interactive, accessible program that conveys to visitors the national scope of slavery on the eve of the Civil War?

2) I want my users to learn that slavery was an institution that was national in scope, and to do so in an accessible, engaging manner via the use of primary source material. While we as historians take the use of primary source materials for granted, interaction with historic maps, political cartoons, letters and diary entries will be a relatively new experience for much of the public. I also wanted users of the “Lincoln Slavery Footprint” program will use historical role-play to foster a deeper connection to the past, and hopefully find the use of Lincoln and his cabinet as comfortable “hooks” for dealing with one of America’s most significant historical problem.

3) My methodological stance is that interaction (zooming in, rotating, and providing transcriptions) with primary source material, and allowing visitors to connect with the past via interactive historical role play is the most innovative, engaging way to stimulate the widest amount of public interest while at the same time facilitating an in depth level of historical inquiry.  I also proceed from the stance that the institution of slavery proved to be the most pervasive, central political problem of the early-mid 19th century, and that its centrality to the American history is misunderstood by a significant amount of the general public.

4) The touch-screen design will facilitate easy, intuitive interaction with primary source material.  I wanted an uncomplicated multi-media platform so that visitors could concentrate on the programs content, and spend the most amount of time digesting the primary source material of the program as possible, rather than simply figuring out how to use the program. Usability was an incredibly important concern because the story of slavery in America is one that is tremendously complex, and visitors cannot hope to gain a better understanding of this historical problem if they are concentrating of how to operate the program.

5) I need to learn more about different ways to make Open Exhibit work in a manner that will best enhance the program.  Initially, my mistake for the first draft of the grant was trying to convince a recalcitrant supervisor and some advisory board members that utilizing this software was going to give our proposal the greatest chance of success as a result of its ease and accessibility to a wide audience.  I should have simply gone ahead and put it in there initially, and focused on convincing them later.  Lesson learned: serving two masters never works out for anyone.

6) I will go about learning more about Open Exhibit by using the tried and true principle of messing around.  I will follow up this activity phase by compiling a list of questions that will be answered by the computer programmers and digital historians that act in a consulting capacity for President Lincoln’s Cottage.

7) The rational for choosing the primary source documents were the ones that I felt most convincingly depicted slavery’s national impact.  Maps and political cartoons were given especially heavy consideration because they enhance a visitors comphrahensive capacity through visual learning.  It was also important to provide are visitors with examples of primary source materials that could convey a sense of Lincoln or his cabinet members private thoughts, thus the use of private letters and diary entries.  Examining an historical actors private thoughts would also serve the dual purpose of facilitating a direct connection to history.

8) I would say the greatest question that remains is how to convey what I believe to be a unique, viable grant project in a manner that does not get in its own way—i.e. can I convey the main points without using as much academic language?

[i]James Oliver Horton, “Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Telling America’s Racial Story.”  The Public Historian, 21, no.4 (1990): pp. 19-38, (accessed September 20th, 2011), pg. 21.

[ii] Ibid, 21.



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