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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

IED (Interactive Exhibit Design): Starting point - HTML and CSS

So, I think I have made conceptual progress on my project.

I am still pursuing the idea of an interactive map. However, what I believe I would like to do is try and spatially locate in Canada aspects of medievalism, like Gothic architecture, and historians and artisans who work with medieval themes. As well, I will try and map as many different interpretations as possible for the location of Vinland.

I am going to approach it from the perspective of HTML, XML and CSS, and design a website where one can call up different parts of the information at will. That will be the basis of the project, which, if it were part of an exhibit, would be best used in conjunction with a Smart Board, so that visitors can call up the information by touch.

This will allow me to start with something basic, and to continuously add to it. It also gives me the opportunity, once I get some of the basics together, to expand and learn other technologies, like GIS, and other forms of interactive and digital mapping.

The next step is to gather the building blocks, a.k.a. the information and documents that I want to situate on the map, and the basic maps that will be the basis for the site. Because I will be gathering documents and information from different sources that may be tangled up with copyright I won't publish so much what I have found, as describe it here on my blog.

But I am going to start with some of the resources found at the Great Canadian Mysteries Website we investigated in Public History class, and try to get some basic representational map of Canada to start.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Robin Hood for a New Generation (revised from writing for the public workshop in Public History)

On January 21st the Public History MA class had a writing history for the Public Workshop where we all submitted a short piece (500 words) and had it critiqued by established author, Professor Jonathan Vance. I have made the suggested changes to my piece, except for making it the right length. While I realize this means that by not adhering to the length guidelines a publication like a newspaper or a magazine would have to discard my article, I decided that too long was okay for my blog. Here is the revised version.

Robin Hood for a New Generation

In 2007 I met the Sherriff of Nottingham. She was friendly, soft-spoken and very well mannered. We were attending a talk being delivered about the historical Robin Hood at the University of Nottingham. Before the talk began she got up to speak herself about how good Robin Hood had been for the city. The Sherriff talked about how each new media incarnation of Robin Hood represented each new generation finding some way to make him their own, and how that was good for tourism. This was the first time I heard about the new movie directed by Ridley Scott, which at that time was called ‘Nottingham.’

It has been almost twenty years since Kevin Costner played the title role in Prince of Thieves, and the Robin Hood of 1991 is no longer appropriate for modern audiences. Each time a new movie is made we expect something new of our Robin Hood. For instance, we did not expect Sean Connery in Robin and Marian (1976) to be the swashbuckling adventurer that Errol Flynn was in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Instead we wanted a more mature Robin Hood. In 1991 the filmmakers made it clear that the world of Robin Hood extended beyond the forests of England. The addition of Morgan Freeman’s character Azeem, both a Muslim and black, satisfied our expectations that Robin Hood’s goodness included tolerance for other cultures. Some might think it is making Robin Hood more accurate, but really it is making the tale fit our own values.

This is not new to the twentieth century. The process of adapting Robin Hood to fit the needs of a community has gone on since the first Robin Hood tales. In some of the earliest stories Robin is not a dispossessed noble but a yeoman and a forester. Maid Marian was not coupled with Robin Hood until a few centuries later. The tale of Robin Hood changed over the centuries through his inclusion in Mayday games, folk plays, ballads and other ‘media.’ The nineteenth century in particular loved tales of Robin Hood, and it is their overly romanticized version of the character that was passed on to early twentieth-century filmmakers.

The upcoming movie, due to be released to North American audiences May 14th 2010, is bound to be an interesting incarnation of the story of Robin Hood. Originally entitled ‘Nottingham’, the movie was supposed to focus on the Sherriff of Nottingham and his bouts with the outlaw Robin Hood. It is easy to see why the filmmakers’ decided to follow the more traditional route and focus on Robin Hood. There is a problem when an American production uses such a traditional, beloved tale of outlawry to praise authority. That is not the incarnation of Robin Hood that we want to reflect our times. It will be interesting to see how this version of the tale does reflect our expectations. The tagline in the trailer totes “the story behind the legend, the hero behind the outlaw,” implying that what we are looking for in this Robin Hood is realism, or at least Ridley Scott’s version of realism. In any case, it looks to be the most epic Robin Hood ever, but we would expect nothing less from Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Interactive Mapping Medievalism Exhibit Design at the Canadian Frontier?

From my last post you will see that I am involved in two projects (among many) this year that have special significance. Just for clarification these are initial thoughts about the Interactive Exhibit Design project, not my project for Mapping Medievalism, however the title will become clearer as my thoughts unfold (or unravel, one of the two).

Self doubt is about as attractive in academia as it is in dating. The rule is fake a little self confidence until you actually become self confident, then pretend you were sure of yourself all the way along. If you believe in you, then others will too. Of course, looking back through my previous blogs one can tell that I have not always followed this rule. In fact I am not very good at it. See.. there. I often feel that the only way to have control over my insecurities is to admit to them ... frequently, perhaps somewhat annoyingly.

For instance, all through the Christmas Break I was trying to come up with an appropriate project to start in Interactive Design. The thoughts kind of went like this ... "well maybe if I make a map of where ... " "maybe I could map out where..." "maybe people could press a button and have it show up on a map where ...", and so on and so forth. I kept coming back to map, but it occurred to me that I am still missing something key to this project.

The problem is I am still thinking in terms of an 'analog' exhibit, and imposing digital and technological elements on to it. We talked about this a great deal in Digital History, where many scholars, when it comes to the internet, are not exploring what the internet can do when they publish works there; instead they are imposing the conventions of the printed book or magazine on the internet. Stephen Robertson has an article about this phenomenon as he observed it in one of his classes. This is what I found myself stuck on in this project.

Not that the technology should necessarily dictate the ideas, but that the technologies should help you change the way you think about presenting history to the public. For instance, at the fairly new Lincoln Library, BRC Imagination Arts is doing amazing things with what they have termed Holavision to make the history interact with the public, including an 'hologram' of Abraham Lincoln. I was particularly intrigued by Prof. Turkel's vision (and Prof. Robert MacDougall's revisionist version) of the History appliance. This is when the possibilities of what it means for technology to interact with the public started to come across.

While technology should free, not limit the ideas, at the same time I will be limited by it because I am not skilled enough (yet) to make it do all the things I would like it to; so I shall ask not what the technology can do for me, but instead what I can do with the technology. At the same time that is quite a bit. I have been toying with the idea of projecting something, like historic apparel, that people could walk into and pretend that they are wearing. Or maybe I could make a 3D model of a Viking Ship (though my gut tells me someone may have beat me to the punch), or maybe one of a local historic building. I may yet do one of these things, we shall see how things go. Or maybe I could make a map.

I was definitely stuck. It was my colleague, Catherine Caughell, who suggested, hey, you re helping set up an exhibit, why not make something for that. And that, of course, brings me back to map, as the title of that seminar, as has been stated, is Mapping Medievalism. Therefore, if it is possible, I am going to be trying to create something appropriate for that exhibit. That will give me a few extra incentives, including trying to take into account what would be appropriate for the exhibit, and designing it to suit a specific audience. Not that it will necessarily be put in the exhibit, but perhaps if I am able to fake confidence long enough it might turn into something worthwhile. Also, it gives me license to do a map, which my brain was clearly set on.

Some initial thoughts on that project would include digitizing maps that are going to be part of the exhibition (and ones that aren't, but that are relevant to the topic and are available), making them zoom-able, and then locating the maps on a larger map of Canada, so that someone would select the geographic region to see the smaller maps. It would also include some information from the exhibition represented spatially, in a way that is not obvious in the exhibit. I am not sure if I could accomplish this with a screen that you could touch, so that you touch the map to access the information you want, or whether I would go larger and have someone stand back with something more like a remote or a mouse, and access the information that way.

I do not yet know how I will do this. Something in my mind is saying SMART Board, but I am not sure that is the way to go, or if that would be appropriate for what I am envisioning. Nor am I sure that this is what I will do, or that it is worth doing. The map idea still seems a little ... 2D, I suppose is the word, and not quite pushing the limits of what is possible. Then again, this would not be an ordinary map. Again, to be clear, this is not the project that I am doing for Mapping Medievalism, this is what I could be doing in Interactive Exhibit Design. It just happens that I might be able to help the former with something I am already doing in the latter, especially if I was going to be doing a map anyway. If I find it is not useful to mesh these two then I won't, likewise if my professors or colleagues find some of my other ideas more interesting, but for now I like the idea of trying to design with a purpose and an audience, even if the audience is not guaranteed.

So here we go.

Also, I apologize for that horrendous 'ask not what your country ..' joke a few paragraphs back. Had to be said (though many may disagree), and if you can't be cheesy in your blog when can you (implied, never)?

Academic projects: future and ongoing ... and going, and going and going.

I would like to echo my colleagues in Public History's sentiments about coming back to school for another semester. This semester has a lot to live up to; but where last semester we lay a lot of foundations for an understanding of public history, this semester my colleagues and I are setting out to be a part of it. In our core course we will be undertaking some cataloging of the University of Western Ontario's sports collection and learning how to write history for the public, in addition to preparing our heritage district (the Talbot/Ridout area of London Ontario) information for exhibition and finishing our lesson plans for EcoKids. This is just the basics, projects that are common to all of us, but since we are not all that common we are also doing different classes/projects in addition to the Public History Core.

In particular, I, like many of my colleagues, am undertaking the Interactive Exhibit Design class with Bill Turkel, where I will be attempting to build something. Like many academics I don't have much experience with my hands unless you count typing, so it is going to be an adventure. Another adventure that I am undertaking is with the Visual Arts department. I have joined a special seminar entitled 'Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier'run by Prof. Katherine Brush. This project will also involve an exhibition, as well as a publication and a symposium.

These last two projects in particular are going to be large and ongoing. While I will try and mention my other projects, I am going to keep track of my progress on my interactive exhibit and my project for Mapping Medievalism through my blog, and also, if I have anything that is too large or inappropriate for my blog I will post a link to the information which I will post on my website. I am looking for feedback and ideas, in addition to trying to keep track of my progress.

All in all, this is going to be a fascinating semester.