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.

Vancouver App 1

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.

Vancouver App 4.png

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!

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.

Hidden Kitchens: Communities Unite Through Food

The Kitchen Sisters are a dynamic duo who produce the award-winning and NEH-funded radio show Hidden Kitchens, which explores the range of communities that gather around food.

Sisters, Radio Stars, Food Lovers

Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, though not related by blood, began a collaborative radio career in the 1970s by producing a weekly show about regional California culture. In the decades since, they have hosted many award-winning series, including Hidden Kitchens, Lost & Found Sound, and The Hidden World of Girls hosted by Tina Fey. They have created more than 200 stories for public broadcast about the lives, histories, arts, and rituals of Americans with diverse cultural heritages.

Below are summaries of two Hidden Kitchen broadcasts.

The Kitchen Sisters.

The Kitchen Sisters.

The Club From Nowhere: Cooking for Civil Rights

“The Club From Nowhere: Cooking for Civil Rights” introduces Georgia Gilmore, dubbed “one of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.” After losing her job for criticizing a bus driver who had removed her from a segregated bus, Gilmore helped the Montgomery Bus Boycott by selling pies and cakes to raise money for boycotters using cars to get to work instead of the local bus system.  She called her business the “Club from Nowhere” in order to keep the boycotters’ identities secret.

Her business was so successful that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped her establish a larger cooking business in her home. Gilmore’s house became a trusted meeting place for King and his team. She was a confidante and excellent cook. Her story illustrates how communities can emerge around a kitchen table, including such noble communities as the men and women of the Civil Rights Movement.

Sugar in the Milk: A Parsi Kitchen Story

Niloufer Ichaporia King runs a kitchen that reflects her Parsi roots. “Sugar in the Milk: A Parsi Kitchen Story” features clips from King and other Parsis living in America who reminisce about favorite childhood foods and the diminishing number of Parsis worldwide (Indians of Persian descent), and the disappearance of traditional Parsi dishes.

King thinks of her cooking as an heirloom for future generations, and the broadcast focuses on King’s preparations for the Parsi New Year. She visits a farmer’s market and shares a legend from Parsi assimilation into Indian culture: a Parsi head priest once promised a local ruler that the Parsis would enrich Indian culture without displacing it, just as sugar enriches milk.

Further Projects

The Kitchen Sisters are currently working on eight more installments of Hidden Kitchens for NPR’s Morning Edition, as well as a website and blog that will feature interviews with scholars about the complex relationships between food, culture, and society.

The upcoming Hidden Kitchens World on NPR will be a global exploration of food history—and feature places such as Eel Pie Island in London. NEH’s Division of Public Programs has funded Lost and Found Sound in addition to Hidden Kitchens.

For more information on the Kitchen Sisters, please visit their website.

Crafting Freedom: Black Artisans, Entrepreneurs, and Abolitionists of the Antebellum Upper South

Many inspiring stories of slaves earning or gaining their freedom can be found in today’s history books. As an example, Elizabeth Keckly, who became Mary Todd Lincoln’s modiste later in life, earned her freedom by sewing dresses for wealthy women. Keckly is now discussed in the workshop series “Crafting Freedom: Black Artisans, Entrepreneurs, and Abolitionists of the Antebellum Upper South,” which has been held in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in recent summers.

“Crafting Freedom” is one of the Landmarks of American History and Culture workshops, a program started by the Division of Education in the early 2000s. “Landmarks” uses historic sites to address central themes and issues in American history, government, literature, art, music, and other related subjects in the humanities. The workshops are open to K-12 educators and take place at or nearby a historical site and are each offered twice a summer.

Slave cabin, updated as tenant house, Stagville Plantation, Durham, NC

A slave cabin, updated as a tenant house, at Stagville Plantation in Durham, NC. Stagville Plantation was the largest plantation in North Carolina in the mid-19th Century. Workshop participants visit the plantation to witness the range of artisanship required to sustain a large antebellum plantation. Courtesy of Laurel Sneed.

The “Crafting Freedom” workshops take place near the former workplace of Thomas Day. Day maintained his status as a free black man through his successful furniture-making business, which grew to be the largest in North Carolina by 1850. As the “Crafting Freedom” website states, Day and Keckly literally “‘crafted freedom’ by creating greater opportunities for themselves and their loved ones, as well as for others of their race.”

The workshops started out focusing only on Day and Keckly but soon added seven more “freedom crafters” in response to workshop attendees who were seeking more material that would interest their students. Workshop attendees—known as “NEH Summer Scholars”—engage in “intensive study using the power of place to motivate exploration of the lives and works of several significant antebellum African Americans.”

Crafting Freedom Summer Scholars at Prestwould Plantation, Clarksville,VA in 2005.

Crafting Freedom Summer Scholars at Prestwould Plantation, Clarksville,VA in 2005. Courtesy of Laurel Sneed.

Laurel Sneed, Founder and Executive Director, stated that in selecting attendees for the summer workshops, she looks for “high quality teachers who wish to provide the best historical and cultural scholarship to their students.” She believes that “Crafting Freedom,” as well as the Landmarks program itself, provides that.

Sneed notes that the workshops evolve each year, with new lesson plans and new workshop participants. In 2011, three international teachers attended; one participant, Wallace Monteiro, turned his experience into a video. He provides pictures to give a sense of the workshop, and states at one point that his fellow attendees and workshop leaders were “some of the most inspired and inspiring people I’ve ever met.”

The workshop has benefited teachers, workshop leaders, and the historical sites themselves. Since 2004, “Crafting Freedom” has worked with hundreds of educators from 38 states and four countries. The workshop has consistently been rated “excellent” by workshop attendees. One past attendee stated: “Like Thomas Day whose handmade chairs were not just utilitarian but were also skillfully put together with beauty and care, the organizers of this program did not just put on a workshop; they nurtured it, filling it with passion, thoughtfulness, and sophistication. This love of their craft was demonstrated throughout.” More participant feedback can be found on the project website.

In conducting the workshop Sneed is assisted by master teachers—former participants who expressed an interest in returning to the workshop in some capacity. She said that most of them are experts in some aspect of the history taught at the workshop, and that they love to interact with the participants.

Courtesy of Laurel Sneed.

Courtesy of Laurel Sneed.

Sneed went on to say, “I don’t think we’d be so eager to conduct these workshops year after year if we didn’t find them to be one of the most meaningful experiences of our lives. Certainly it has been one of the greatest professional opportunities for me along with my husband Charlie Sneed [Co-Founder and Financial Manager], to lead this workshop and I’m constantly humbled that others find it to be so worthwhile and affecting.”

A website with ready-to-use resources grew out of the “Crafting Freedom” workshops. The resource website, also funded by NEH, provides materials for teachers who are looking to “reach beyond the black history and literature you already teach.”

The deadline for applying for “Crafting Freedom,” as well as for all other Landmarks workshops is March 4, 2013. Please contact Laurel Sneed for more information. Each workshop accommodates 40 participants, each of whom receives a $1,200 stipend.

Additionally, if you are interested in learning more about Day, the exhibit “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color” will feature some of his pieces produced between 1830 and 1850. The exhibit can be viewed at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.,  April 12–July 28.