Technology and the Humanities: the Fort Vancouver Mobile App

The NEH Office of Digital Humanities is a pivotal supporter of projects that pair technology and the humanities. Just this year, the Office gave 23 awards to new projects through the Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant – one of many ways the Office encourages the development of digital tools with a humanist purpose.

The Fort Vancouver Mobile App is one such digital tool that received a Start-Up Grant in 2011. Since then, the app has won numerous honors including the Historic Preservation Officer’s Award for media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation and the John Wesley Powell Prize from the Society for History in the Federal Government – one of only two projects nationwide.

Creation of the App

Dr. Brett Oppegaard, an assistant professor at Washington State University, assembled a team of historians, archeologists, and academics to create a mobile device for the Fort Vancouver National Historical Site. Though it was already one of the most popular historical attractions in the Portland area, the device has completely changed the dynamic between park and visitor.

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The app connects to landmarks at Fort Vancouver and encourages user interaction.

What it Does

The app – designed to suit most smartphones – lets guests learn about the people who lived at Fort Vancouver throughout its history. It includes maps, images of archived documents, and other interactive features such as video portrayals of interesting individuals. All of these materials can be accessed through visitors’ phones as they explore the Fort’s reconstructed village and stockade.

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Visitors receive a wealth of information about the Fort from downloading the app onto their phone. Photos courtesy of The Columbian newspaper.Vancouver App 3.png

As a 19th century fur trading outpost, the Fort was a hub of commerce and attracted a number of races and cultures, giving it the nickname “New York of the Pacific.” One character in particular – a Hawaiian pastor named William Kaulehelehe – is a star of the app’s Kanuka module, which explains the rich history of the Fort’s Hawaiian community.

A Model for Future Projects

Dr. Oppegaard and others call this innovation digital storytelling, and it has struck a chord with Vancouver visitors. Tourism in the area has skyrocketed, and the app’s website has been visited over thirty thousand times. The app uses open-source technology, which means other parks interested in digital storytelling can replicate Oppengaard’s work. The Fort Vancouver Mobile App marks the beginning of an exciting new trend towards interactive – and mobile – park programming.


Exploring the Constitution Across the Nation

Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, will be asking probing questions about the Constitution to Americans across the country on the new PBS show CONSTITUTION USA with Peter Sagal, premiering tonight.

Peter Sagal. Courtesy of Christopher Buchanan / Insignia Films.

Peter Sagal. Courtesy of Christopher Buchanan / Insignia Films.

With a grant from the NEH, Sagal explores contemporary constitutional debates about free speech in the digital age, same-sex marriage, and separation of church and state. He speaks with everyday Americans as well as legal scholars, historians, and public figures. To collect these intriguing and sometimes surprising insights, he travels on his beloved and patriotic Harley Davidson motorcycle.

The series will air every Tuesday in May. Each one-hour episode focuses on a central theme of the Constitution: “A More Perfect Union,” “It’s a Free Country,” “Created Equal,” and “Built to Last?” For more information on each episode, visit Constitution USA’s website.

The website provides video clips further resources on each of the four themes to be covered in the show. It also has games for younger audiences (take the citizenship quiz!), a summary of the show’s background and purpose, and the episodes themselves once they air.

Be sure to tune in tonight at 9 p.m. eastern time for the show’s premiere!

Happy Earth Day!

Throughout the year, the NEH funds libraries, colleges, and media programs that often have an environment focus. In honor of Earth day, here are two recent projects that promoted the spirit of preservation in different ways.

John Muir Documentary

The documentary John Muir in the New World takes a brilliant and in-depth look at one of America’s first environmentalists, John Muir. Narrated by Jane Alexander, Academy Award-winning actress and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, the film features Muir’s personal journal entries as well as interviews with historians dedicated to studying his legacy.

The NEH’s Division of Public Programs funded the documentary, which aired on PBS on Earth Day in 2011 and is still available on The film went on to be featured at D.C.’s 2012 Environmental Film Festival. It is a beautiful and insightful homage to one of the founders of America’s national parks system.

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John Muir as portrayed by Howard Weamer.
Photo courtesy of Bob Roney, Global Village Media.

 Eco-Friendly Museum

Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library holds an unparalleled collection of American antiques from as early as the seventeenth century. Its sprawling grounds bloom all year, thanks to founder Henry du Pont, who wished to present nature as a work of art. After receiving a Cultural Heritage grant from the NEH, the Museum now protects its collection with updated, energy efficient heating and cooling systems.

The Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections allows museums such as Winterthur to improve the preservation of their collections and save on energy costs. Museum directors can then put money towards better programming and continued research. Visitors benefit from the richer exhibits and the environment benefits from lowered energy use.

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An example of the gorgeous artifacts on display at Winterthur Museum.
Photo courtesy of

Illinois Humanities Council’s Challenge to Strengthen American Democracy


This month, The Illinois Humanities Council asked: how can we strengthen American democracy? Looking@Democracy is the Council’s national contest for creative media pieces that answer that important question.

The challenge—which is open to all Americans, not just to citizens of Illinois—looks for submissions that demonstrate why government is important to daily life, or how the government might be improved. The catch? Responses must be in media form. Any digital format will be accepted, including audio stories, iPhone apps, short videos, and others. As long as the political discussion is in digital form, the entries can diverge from or personalize the original question.

The Council has already received 300 submissions, and the projects are as diverse as they are creative. One is a guitar song about diversity written by fifth graders in Michigan, and another is a video produced by students in New York urging people to take action outside of social media:  “Don’t just like it, go to it.”

The challenge offers $100,000 in prize money, with $25,000 going to First Place for Best Entry. The submission deadline is April 30. Go join the discussion.

Don’t Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetry

national_poetry_month_logo_blackAs National Poetry Month moves along, we’d like to share a NEH-funded poetry program.

In response to renewed interest in contemporary poetry, the University of Kansas Project on the History of Black Writing, in conjunction with the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, has initiated the fifteen-month program Don’t Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetry.

The program will focus on the history of African American poetry. Three critical periods—1900-1960, 1960-80, and 1980-present—will be covered. Don’t Deny My Voice features a three-week summer institute, part of the Division of Education Programs’ Summer Institutes for College and University Teachers, as well as subsequent public events and webinars.

The summer institute will take place July 14-August 3 at the University of Kansas’s main campus in Lawrence. The program will enable twenty-five college and university teachers to learn about the history of African American poetry in the 20th and 21st centuries. The institute will be led by experts. Institute participants will collaborate in teaching and research projects and will explore the depth and diversity of African American poetry.

Don’t Deny My Voice will also offer events that are open to the public. These events will take place in late July, including a poetry slam in conjunction with the American Jazz Museum’s poetry forum and festival. More information about the events can be found here.

Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey signs a copy of her book Native Guard at the University of Michigan. Photo courtesy of Jalissa Gray.

Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey signs a copy of her book Native Guard at the University of Michigan. Trethewey was named Poet Laureate in Fall 2012. Photo courtesy of Jalissa Gray.

In addition to the summer events, the program will host a series of public discussions online with a group of well-known poets. These discussions will take place in the fall of 2013 and will feature poets such as Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Rita Dove, Terrance Hayes, Ishmael Reed, Nikki Giovanni, and Leigh McInnis.

If you are interested in learning more about Don’t Deny My Voice, or participating in any of the in-person or online public events, please visit the website.

Preservation Assistance Grants: Providing Care for Humanities Collections

In his April 1 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, Martin Scorsese expressed his great dedication to film preservation and education. The NEH shares this dedication by supporting libraries, museums, historical societies, and universities through the Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions.

Big Help for Small Institutions

These grants provide up to $6,000 and are designed to help smaller institutions protect their humanities collections. These can range from books and journals to prints, photographs, film, and digital materials. The money can go towards a number of preservation initiatives, including storage-related training and safety assessments of collections.

As photographs, letters, and old movies can be difficult to protect, these grants ensure that even small museums can safeguard their artifacts. In fact, small to mid-size institutions that have never received an NEH grant are especially encouraged to apply.

Southern University at Shreveport received a Preservation Assistance Grant that will assist in proper long-term preservation of its Black Ethnic Archives.

Southern University at Shreveport received a Preservation Assistance Grant that allowed them to improve preservation of its Black Ethnic Archives. The DeArdis and Annie M. Belton Collection. Courtesy of Southern University at Shreveport.

Last year’s recipients

Here are three of last year’s Preservation Assistance Grant winners, whose stories demonstrate the grant’s positive impact.

Central Michigan University can now purchase disaster recovery kits and secure training in emergency preparedness in its Museum of Cultural and Natural History. The training will strengthen the museum’s ability to protect its 48,000 objects in a disaster.

Southern University at Shreveport now has proper long-term preservation tools for its Black Ethnic Archives. The archives contain the Shreveport Sun­ — the oldest African American newspaper in Louisiana— as well as local activist papers that provide a picture of community life and conversation in the civil rights era.

The Danish Immigrant Museum in Elk Horn, Iowa, purchased storage supplies to rehouse its collection of 800 paintings, photographs, and documents that depict the history of Danish immigrants and Danish Americans from the mid-19th century to the present.

A full list of last year’s recipients can be found here, and general information about the grant program here.

Poets House: Expanding Knowledge of Poetry

The Poets House in New York City has one of the most comprehensive poetry collections in the country. It holds 50,000 volumes of poetry, and is open to the public for workshops and readings throughout the year.

The NEH awarded a Challenge Grant to the Poets House in 2007, which allowed for the hiring of a full-time librarian. These (Challenge Grants offer institutions funding that they match with private dollars to endow a long-term program.) Last year, the House celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Poets House, NYC.

Poets House, NYC.

Purpose of Poets House

The Poets House hopes to expand the audience for poetry by offering resources and holding events that spark conversations about poetry in modern society.

Twice-appointed U.S. Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz founded the Poets House in 1985, and since then it has been a space for new audiences to hear well-known poets and enjoy the multitude of poetry published in the U.S. Kunitz also developed Poetry in the Branches, which spreads poetry programming in local communities.

For more information on the Poets House, please visit its website.

Martin Scorsese: Film Preservation and the Importance of Cinema

The NEH awarded film director Martin Scorsese with the Jefferson Lecture this year, the highest honor the federal government gives for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. On April 1st, Scorsese gave his lecture to a full audience at the Kennedy Center. Titled “Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema,” Scorsese spoke about the history of cinema and the movies that first inspired his love of film.

Martin Scorsese. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

Martin Scorsese. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

History of the Jefferson Lecture

The award, although given annually since 1972 by the National Endowment for the Humanities, has never before been received by a filmmaker. NEH Chairman Jim Leach commented on this notable decision in his opening remarks, and mentioned the increasing importance of digital humanities, and the need to acknowledge the groundbreaking and influential work of film-making.

Scorsese’s Remarks

Scorsese began his lecture with images from cinema’s infancy, including Lumières’ train footage and Thomas Edison’s video of  two cats “boxing.” He also discussed the contributions of filmmakers such as Georges Méliès, D. W. Griffith, and Stanley Kubrick. With humor and a clear gift for storytelling, Scorsese regaled the “Golden Age” of the 1950s film industry and spoke on the challenges of the 21st century.

Today’s Film Industry

Scorsese cautioned his audience that today, classical cinema is at odds with the great influx of available media; we are “overwhelmed by moving images coming at us all the time and absolutely everywhere.” In another quote, Scorsese reiterated his point:  “We’re face-to-face with images all the time in a way that we never have been before. Young people need to understand that not all images are out there to be consumed like, you know, fast food and then forgotten. We need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling them something.”

The Importance of Preservation

Just as Chairman Leach encouraged digital humanities projects, Scorsese stressed the significance of preserving films. As Chairman of the World Cinema Foundation and Director of The Film Foundation, he has been instrumental in helping restore and preserve dozens of films. His lecture clearly reflected his dedication to this endeavor: “We need to say to ourselves that the moment has come, when we have to treat every last moving image as reverently and respectfully as the oldest book in the Library of Congress.” Like books, films have the ability to “tell us who we are.”

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Photo courtesy of NIcholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

For those interested in hearing the lecture in its entirety, it is available courtesy of the NEH on its website.

Happy April Fools’ Day!

April Fools’ Day  – though not a national holiday – has long been synonymous with practical jokes and hoaxes. One of the earliest mentions of a foolish April 1st is in the “Nun Priest’s Tale” of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the spirit of April Fools’ Day, here are a few NEH projects that celebrated authors known for their trickster characters.

Shakespeare Uncovered

 “Shakespeare Uncovered,” is a six-episode series that takes a fresh approach at the study of Shakespeare by combining a close look at Elizabethan England with interviews and performance clips from the passionate actors inspired by Shakespeare’s plays today. The show received an America’s Media Makers production grant from the NEH, and was positively reviewed by both the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.

The hour-long segments focus on the multitude of stories behind the production of Shakespeare’s works and feature actors such as Jeremy Irons, Jude Law, and Ethan Hawke. Funded by the Division of Public Programs, “Shakespeare Uncovered” also includs opinions and stories from local community productions. Full episodes are available on the show’s website, as are accompanying classroom materials.

Jeremy Irons talks shop at the Globe with Dominic Dromgoole.

Jeremy Irons talks shop at the Globe with Dominic Dromgoole.
Photo courtesy of Alex Brenner and NEH.

The Mark Twain Project

Two of America’s favorite young tricksters – Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – have been revered for decades through The Mark Twain Project. Started in the 1960s, the Project is an ongoing initiative to publish the definitive editions of Twain’s fiction, letters, and journalism. In the over forty years since its inception, the NEH has supported the Project through multiple grants from the Division of Research Programs.

To date, The Mark Twain Project has published 37 volumes of Twain text, and the complete first volume of Twain’s autobiography is now available online. As the project continues to expand online, it will offer wider access to Twain’s texts, editors’ notes, and newly discovered letters until there is a fully annotated digital edition of everything Mark Twain ever wrote.

Mark Twain. Photo courtesy of NEH.

Mark Twain. Photo courtesy of NEH.

A Chaucer Seminar

Last summer, Eastern Illinois University held a four-week seminar at the University of London centered on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Funded by the Division of Education Programs, the seminar explored the relevance of Chaucer’s ideas on artistry, philosophy, and emotion to modern society.

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Photo courtesy of Eastern Illinois University.

Spring Break Activities: NEH on the Road

NEH on the Road is an exciting program that brings scaled-down versions of NEH-funded exhibitions to mid-sized museums, libraries, schools, and universities, locations around the country. For seven weeks at a time, these places offer exhibitions normally unavailable to local audiences – and thus expand the reach of these interactive displays.

From Carnivals to Civil Rights

Seven exhibitions are currently circulating throughout the country. One of these is “¡Carnaval!,” an exhibit that examines eight communities from around the world where some kind of carnival is an important cultural event. New Orlean’s Mardi Gras is featured, as well as a lesser-known carnival in Laza, Spain. The exhibition includes photographs, video clips, and the gorgeous masks, necklaces, and shoes that feature heavily in the celebrations. “¡Carnaval!” is currently in Moraga, California, until April 14.

¡Carnaval! Courtesy Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM. Photo: Shirley and David Rowen.

¡Carnaval! Courtesy Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM. Photo: Shirley and David Rowen.

Another exhibit currently on its way to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is “For All The World to See: Visual Culture and The Struggle for Civil Rights,” which explores how visual culture affected the struggle for racial equality in America during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. The exhibit claims photographs of Emmett Till’s murder, for example, changed American perspectives of racism.

For All The World To See. The exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York.

For All The World To See. The exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York.

Please find the locations for all other current “NEH on the Road” exhibitions below.

“¡Carnaval!”: Hearst Art Gallery in Moraga, California, Feb. 2-April 14, 2013

“For All The World to See: Visual Culture and The Struggle for Civil Rights”: Chippewa Valley Museum in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, April 6-May 25, 2013

“Wild Land, Thomas Cole, and the Birth of American Landscape Painting”: Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, New York, April 6-May 25, 2013

“Our Lives, Our Stories: America’s Greatest Generation” will be exhibited in Red Cloud, Nebraska, starting on June 16.

“The Bison: American Icon,” “Farm Life: A Century of Change for Farm Families and Their Neighbors,” and “House & Home” will all resume their traveling schedules on September 1, 2013.

If your community is interested in hosting one of these traveling exhibitions, please take a look at the “NEH on the Road” website or its Facebook.