Internship Time

This blog was defunct for a semester (my apologies, devoted readers…) but it’s being revived! I’m interning this summer with the Evanston Women’s History Project, and will be cheerfully blogging away about my work on a project to uncover the ways in which the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (the WCTU) was involved in the fight for women’s suffrage in the early twentieth century. Now, I know what you must be thinking–she says she’s an early Americanist! What on earth is she doing?!–but I’m also interested in women’s history and digital storytelling, and this project is perfect for exploring both of those in more depth.

There’s not much else to report now, but stay tuned!

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“Loading Video:” Building Digital Stories with the UMN Immigrant Stories Digital Storytelling Tools

The Immigrant Stories project and website are a fantastic tool for building and sharing digital stories. The website does a lot of things right: the steps are easy to follow, the video tutorials are clear, and the process of writing the digital story isn’t painful at all. However, the process of actually editing the video was more difficult than I had anticipated, given the ease of the initial steps.

Writing the script was straightforward; the prompts were clear and easy to follow and the space provided for writing looked like any word processor or text input box, and the familiarity was nice. One thing missing was a word count; the site asked that the script be between 300 and 500 words, but didn’t count the words automatically. I appreciated, too, the video tutorials on recording a voiceover and selecting photos. The video on how to actually edit the story was straightforward and covered the most important essentials. However, once I got past the video tutorials and tried to get into the actual WeVideo editing process, I ran into some problems.

The first problem was just getting into WeVideo itself. I hit a login screen, and tried my login and password for the Immigrant Stories site–they didn’t work. So I tried creating a username and pscreen-shot-2016-11-28-at-2-33-21-pmassword with those credentials, only to be told that my email address was already in use. This was frustrating and out of the blue, as none of the preparatory parts of the site had told me that I would need to create another account. I ended up using a different email address entirely to make my WeVideo account, and I thought I was good to go after that. Alas, twas not to be.

Once I got logged in, I ran into problems with my browser. My default browser is Google Chrome, and I hadn’t seen any advisories or notices telling me that I needed to use a particular browser. However, before I even made it to the video editing page, I got this notice: screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-2-27-48-pmI’m honestly not sure what WebGL is, and a quick Google search led me to all sorts of crazy settings pages to fiddle with in my browser. Clicking “please follow the instructions here” led to a blank screen. I tried other browsers, and in Safari, I couldn’t log in; WeVideo would take my credentials and bounce me back to the login screen. I decided to just stick with Chrome and use the old editor. Like the new editor in the tutorial video, the old WeVideo editing interface was fairly straightforward, with some minor annoyances (trying to scroll by swiping my fingers across my mousepad sent me back a page, which was temporarily terrifying because I thought I had erased all my work). Frustrated with the interface, I decided to try the video editing in Firefox, to see if working in the new editor would be better.

After logging in on Firefox, I was told that editing my video in the new ediscreen-shot-2016-11-28-at-2-54-04-pmtor would disable the ability to edit in the old on I had been using in Chrome, and got a loading screen. And there it sat. For ten minutes. So I did what every self-respecting computer user might: I quit Firefox and went back to Chrome. Surprisingly, nothing had changed, and I was able to put my video together from there without too much trouble. Recording the voiceover on my headphone microphone was easy, and the voiceover track came out really quiet but that was easily remedied by turning the volume on the track up. I wish I’d had time to really play around with the effects and add music and titles, but it all seemed pretty intuitive, especially after watching the video tutorial. I have experience with iMovie, so it wasn’t a completely unfamiliar process to put a video together.

When I decided I was done, I hit “finish” and had a moment of panic as the exporter told me it wouldscreen-shot-2016-11-28-at-3-15-56-pm take almost ten minutes to finish my video. Luckily, it only took about a minute. At this point, the other major snafu in this process kicked in: I had finished my video, and downloaded it from the WeVideo site, but was never redirected back to Immigrant Stories. Instead, my only option to get off the screen was to close the window or go back. I chose to close the window, and when I went back into Immigrant Stories, it was as if my video had never existed at all, even though I had downloaded it already. I didn’t make it to the screen with the option to submit the video to Immigrant Stories. Had I had time to try again in Firefox, I would have. I don’t know if this is a common problem or only a problem because I used the old version of the editor rather than a new one, but I would have liked a clearer way to move forward from step 6 to step 7.

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Where did my video go?

I can see using this tool in the classroom really productively, especially in history courses that want to explore alternate ways of telling stories. It’s a great intro to basic film editing, and would make a great final project for, say, an undergraduate class in lieu of a research paper–make a documentary!–or a high school class as a group (or individual) project. Immigration and migration narratives are a great theme to build around, but a creative teacher could have his or her students use this editing software to make stories for any subject (I’m sure you could even do something math or science related, for the non-humanities folks…). In larger or community-oriented projects, I would feel comfortable introducing people to the tool and then asking them to use it on their own. The video tutorials are in-depth enough that, were I running a program or workshop, I wouldn’t feel the need to explain what is already covered in the video tutorials. As we discussed in class last week, though, it takes a committed group of people to sit down and make these outside of a class. At the US National Archives, the staff runs genealogy workshops, showing people how to effectively use sites like Ancestry.com and the records at the National Archives to put together their family history. A digital story might make a suitable end project for such workshops, depending on how much time the participants, and the institutions, have. Aside from the technical glitches, I think this site is incredible for helping people develop their own stories. I can’t wait to see where the project goes from here!

Enjoy the story!

(And in case you’ve never heard the song “Merry Merry Merry (Red Sox) Christmas,” I’ll just leave it here.)

 

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Minnesota Immigrant Stories: Narratives of Identity

Every refugee and immigrant has a unique story, one shaped by personal drive and motivation as well as international political, economic, and social forces. In working with refugees, I learned quickly that there is no such thing as a “standard” immigrant experience, and that individuals often take pride in sharing their stories with whomever is interested in listening. The Immigrant Stories project at the Immigrant History Research Center at the University of Minnesota is a powerful, moving collection of individuals’ immigrant narratives. These short videos, assembled and narrated by their subjects, are the site’s strength and an invaluable contribution to public history. Together these digital stories make a fascinating and important collection, though the site’s structure occasionally leads to confusion about its purpose.

The most powerful digital narratives were those which combined meaningful images with

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Renita Sebastin and her mother, Mercy.

a focused narration. Though the narratives were all about immigration broadly, the most impactful covered a subtopic, such as struggles with identity, or the importance of a saree, and were able to assembe a set of photographs that made sense in the context of the story. For instance, Renita Sebastin’s narrative of her mother’s immigration story, through the lens of her mother’s wedding saree, uses images of her mother on her wedding, family photos, and images of the saree’s variety of uses, to demonstrate for the viewer the importance of the saree as a memory object, a tangible connection to the past. Personal photographs, in general, made a stronger narrative than staged photographs or stock photos, like the ones used by Mohamed Boujnah. Boujnah’s narrative suffers because the photos, staged and arranged to match what he is talking about in the narration, feel somewhat contrived. Clearly, the images were chosen, or created, intentionally, and their artificiality does not negate Boujnah’s story or experience, but lessens its impact.

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Nasser Mussa

Other videos use sound to explicitly enhance or set a particular tone for the narratives. Nasser Mussa‘s narrative of identity is backed by a hip-hop track. While the lyrics are for the most part hard to hear, the phrase “self-determination” emerges several times. The driving beat of the music and Mussa’s story of frustration and determination to make his own life in the United States on his terms go well together. Though the visuals in this video don’t always enhance the narrative Mussa is telling in his narration–indeed, I found the acrostics distracting–the combination of narration and music works to move the story forward. I found Mussa’s narrative to be one of the most powerful, despite the distracting visuals, because of the combination of the driving music in the background and his passionate, sometimes emotional narration of his struggles with identity in a less-than-welcoming America. Mussa’s story is especially important in the context of this collection because it emphasizes that immigration, particularly the refugee experience, does not always have a happy ending. Many of the other stories focus on hopeful things, ending positively, while Mussa reminds us that the immigrant experience to the United States is challenging in a host of ways, including the forced assumption of identities–black, Muslim, refugee, immigrant–with little context or consideration for the individual.

 

The individual stories presented on this site are powerful in their own right. The particular page we looked at this week, “Stories for the Classroom,” presents just some of the stories that the Immigrant History Research Center has collected, organized for use by classroom teachers. The narratives themselves are organized into categories based on main themes, and these themes are sorted alphabetically. While this is a relatively efficient way to organize a page, I think this is also a missed opportunity to communicate the shape of a larger immigrant and refugee narrative. Organizing the stories to align with the various aspects of the immigrant experience–arrival, acculturation, building communities, shaping identities, and the second generation experience– rather than alphabetically would make the page feel more like an exhibit than simply a collection, since there was curatorial work that went into shaping this collection. Not all of these narratives fit into the chronological layout I just suggested, and to remove those would certainly have a negative effect on the collection. Shoehorning them into categories would also be confusing and possibly detrimental to the project as a whole. Another confusing aspect of the site is the set of buttons beneath the video. The thumbnails indicate a video, a photograph, and a document, but without labels, it is unclear what the photos and documents are.

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What do the buttons do?

Currently, clicking on the document leads to a PDF download of the video transcript, which is wonderfully helpful. Clicking on the picture, however, leads to the image from the thumbnail, in a new tab and out of context. Either putting the image in context with a caption or expanding that button to lead to more than one image from the narrative is another potential avenue for expanding the viewer’s interaction and engagement with the digital narrative.  The site as a whole is a really important contribution to public history, and the larger purposes of the project make a lot of sense, but I found myself confused about whether this particular page was an exhibit in its own right, as it says at the top, or whether it was simply a resource page. Either way, the individual digital narratives are moving and powerful.

 

 

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The Thingness of Things

Digital representations of analog objects are everywhere. We can’t get away from them; they’re ubiquitous, from the scarf someone knitted and posted on Instagram to the images of merchandise that pop up, unasked for, in our Facebook newsfeeds. A natural assumption is that these digital representations are accurate depictions of the analog objects. But are they? Those shoes you ordered online might show up and be a completely different shape or color; before your friend posted the picture of that scarf, he or she went through at least three or four different filters to find the one that made it look artsy–that scarf could be a completely different color in real life (no, I’m not talking about this from experience, what makes you say that?).

These examples are, perhaps, cases of a transaction gone amok, or a statement about the staged nature of social media posting. But, I would argue, the creation of a digital surrogate asks the person doing the remediation to consider how best to “stage” that analog object, like the scarf on Instagram, to create that digital surrogate. This isn’t a process with a negative connotation; instead, it asks the digital humanist to consider the “thingness” of the object in order to best remediate it into a digital form. What’s the best way to digitize a book? How about a piece of clothing? Or a cultural artifact? Techniques and technologies will vary, but an awareness of the object’s physical nature is essential for appropriately remediating an object from analog to digital. That thoughtfulness and adherence to best practices is what fosters trust between those doing the digitizing and those using the digital representations of the analog object for analysis (or just online shopping). Users trust that the digital object is a “true” representation of the analog, the “real” thing.

Is a digital object the “real” thing? Certainly, the cookbook I used last week for textual analysis is a real book; it exists in a library and can be taken off the shelf. But the digital object, the book online, is, separately, also real. The digital book has elements that the physical book lacks; layers of plain text and other data are attached to the digital version, not the analog. But the analog, as I alluded to last week, has aspects that the digital version lacks: a binding, perhaps an odor or evidence of silverfish or other damage, texture to the paper, that wonderful crinkling noise when you turn the page. One is not better than the other; they are both objects in their own right, as Whitcomb argues.

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Elizabeth Capell cookbook manuscript, c. 1699. What do we need to understand about the object in order to understand the text? 

 

Both the analog cookbook and the digital version are, as Bruce Sterling argues, “frozen
technosocial relationship[s],” or, as Steven Jones puts it, “the sum total of innumerable acts of materials-mining, design, production, marketing, use, recycling, or disuse.”  Understanding the components of the technosocial relationship is crucial to understanding the digital and the analog objects on their own terms. For the analog object, that means understanding the acts of creation that shaped it; the processes of paper making, printing, bookbinding, and the life cycle of the book itself–was it used? What did it mean to the people who owned it? What collection is it part of, and what does it mean to us now? The questions that establish context for analog objects are often more difficult to answer, because analog objects rarely carry that data in themselves. It is more often the product of research into provenance and use, preserved in library metadata, separate from the analog object. The digital object should be the subject of the same questions–how was it created? What shaped that process and the decisions in it?–but the digital book has an advantage over the analog in that the data that makes up its technosocial relationships are more often part of the object itself.

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The user interface of Google Books is just one of the entryways into analyzing the technosocial webs in which this digital object is embedded. And, one could argue, Google Books itself is a digital object, existing in its own technosocial network. 

The challenge with both analog and digital objects is to remember the social aspect of “technosocial.” It’s all well and good to understand the technical aspects of the creation of both of these objects, analog and digital, but without social context and social meaning, what use is that? Particularly for digital objects, when usage data is most often quantitative rather than qualitative, re-positioning the object in a social context and reflecting on the processes that allowed its creation, from mining heavy metals for the scanning technology to the meticulous scanning by a library technician, is vastly important for understanding a digital object as a “thing.” Separation from these processes allows us to forget that digital objects are “things” and takes away the possibility of authenticity. I would argue that “authenticity” comes from Sterling’s technosocial relationships; that an object is “authentic” when we can see and understand the technosocial relationships in which it is situated. Without those, an object, analog or digital, is meaningless. Digital and analog objects are both authentic because they both exist in an identifiable web of technosocial relationships.

 

Works Cited:

Andrea Witcomb, “The Materiality of Virtual Technologies: A New Approach to Thinking About the Impact of Multimedia in Museums,” Cameron and Kenderdine, Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage (MIT, 2007): 35-48

Steven Jones, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities (New York: Routledge, 2014).

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DIY Textual Analysis: Fun With 17th Century Cookbooks

OCR, Voyant, nGram, and Bookworm are all really useful tools for digital textual analysis. I found, however, that the older the text, the more difficult it is, and the more things you need to work around, to get a useful result. For this blog post I played around with a couple of different texts, the oldest of which was Gervase Markham’s Country Contentment, or, The English Huswifepublished in London in 1623. The Google Books copy is from the British Museum. The first thing I noticed, before I even got into any textual analysis, was how different it was to see this book online than it would be to see it in person. I only got the very basic idea of how large it is, what the cover is made of, and whether or not it had been re-bound. While those things are less relevant to the sort of textual analysis we’re looking at here, they do have an impact on analysis at a micro-level, if I were interested in the book as an object and not just as a text.

That aside, I started with looking at the OCR. 17th century print is distinct and very different even from print in the 19th century, so I was expecting the OCR to be pretty dirty. Unsurprisingly, it was pretty messy.

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The original

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The OCR 

Once you get used to reading the long s and the generally cramped nature of 17th century print, this edition isn’t terribly difficult to read. There’s some bleed through the paper, and the way the page is laid out, with headers in the margins, is a little strange, but the human eye can learn to see past or around those things. The OCR software, however, struggles, especially with the spacing of the text and the italicized headings in the margins. The software returns a text with strings of words smushed together, and italicized margin headings interspersed through the text. The OCR does recognize the long s as an f and replaces u with v wherever that happens in the text, although that is less detrimental to analysis than the words strung together, as anyone reading a 17th century text expects those things. Making the OCR useful is less about correcting spellings to fit a modern standard, and more about training the software to recognize the different page elements (such as the italicized margin notes and the catchwords at the bottoms of each page).

Since this book didn’t have chapters, I took the first fifteen pages or so and plugged them into Voyant. These pages were the introduction and dedication, a cataloging of the virtues of a good English housewife, and the beginning of the section on physic, constituting mostly cures for various types of fever.

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Logically, then, “fever” (“feuer”) and “wife” were two of the most-used words in this section. The other word that stands out is “good.” This was a bit of a surprise; in approaching this, I was looking for data that would tell me about the frequency of ingredients or ailments. That “good” shows up as many times as it does tells me that this author is doing his best not only to provide receipts for fever cures, but also to convince his reader that they ought to use those receipts, particularly since “good” shows up in conjunction with another frequently used word, “drinke,” on a fairly regular basis. It could merely be convention; this is where a more in-depth assessment of the book as a whole and of this book in comparison to other 17th century cookbooks would be helpful. This frequency is something I might not have noticed by simply reading the text; to be sure, the analysis of the word’s appearance in the whole text is certainly something that couldn’t be done by reading alone.

Turning to Ngram and Bookworm, I decided to look at three slightly broader (though still topical) terms: sugar, cinnamon, and dessert. I wondered if these tools could help me pinpoint when each term came into use, and how that usage expanded or changed over time. I thought this might be able to indicate usage trends, although just because the word shows up doesn’t mean that it showed up in cookbooks or that people actually used the product (or, in the case of dessert, the term). screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-4-38-32-pmscreen-shot-2016-11-01-at-4-34-29-pm

Sugar was the far more popular word, which, again, makes sense. NGram shows a spike in the use of the word sugar around 1620, a spike which is mirrored by the Bookworm graph. Why this is, I’m not entirely sure, especially since the use of the word drops off again significantly until the middle of the 18th century. The term “dessert” doesn’t become popular until the late 18th century, which makes sense, but when I looked into the books Google had analyzed (on the NGram) which dated to between 1600 and 1800, there were bills from the 1977 California assembly and Jacques Olivier’s 1623 Alphabet de l’imperfection et Malice de Femmes (the earliest book in Google’s set). This speaks to me of one of the biggest pitfalls of the NGram and Bookworm: it depends on OCR, which isn’t entirely reliable for older texts.

As a public historian, I could see how these tools would be really cool to use in an online exhibit or something on those lines. For the numerically inclined visitor to a site or exhibit, playing around with data about how something has changed over time can be another way to engage with the content. As a historian/digital humanist, particularly one interested in the 17th and 18th centuries, I wish that Google’s OCR was better trained to recognize and deal with older fonts, spacing and page layouts. Another frustration as a researcher that I encountered was that with NGram in particular is that it’s designed to search the entire corpus of digital works. What if I wanted to search only cookbooks, and only those published between 1600 and 1800, but still want the data sets and visualization that NGram provides? I can search cookbooks on Bookworms, but for the date range I’m interested in (1600-1800) the data set is small, maybe too small to provide any useful information. These are certainly cool tools, and helpful, but I would need to refine my research interests and think hard about whether or not this data is useful to me before I commit to them wholeheartedly.

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Sights and Sounds: Chicago, 1940-1960

Sights and Sounds: Chicago, 1940-1960 explores the vibrant musical culture of the city of Chicago in the middle decades of the twentieth century. A center of jazz, Chicago was the home of many of the great musicians who pushed the boundaries of music to create “Chicago blues” and later rock n’ roll, including Muddy Waters, one of the first to make that leap. Chicago also played host to touring jazz groups and big bands, like the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, from across the country, who came to participate in the city’s thriving nightlife and be seen on the Chicago scene.

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“Morbid Morsels” and Other Medical Marvels: The Mobile Story at the International Museum of Surgical Science

The International Museum of Surgical Science (IMSS) bills itself as “North America’s Only Museum Devoted to Surgery,” and so my expectations prior to visiting were pretty high. I was hoping for cool interactive elements, possibly some weird specimens in jars (jellied spleen, anyone?), and a well-organized narrative of the development of modern surgical science from a global perspective.

Unfortunately, I struggled to find a cohesive narrative in the IMSS. The layout of the museum felt disjointed, as each individual exhibit seemed to clash rather than mesh with the ones around it. Each exhibit had its strengths, but overall I was frustrated by what I perceived as a lack of structure and a strange imbalance across the museum in the interpretive strength of the exhibits.  The iPhone app provided by the museum was helpful in navigating this disjointed narrative, but it also had significant drawbacks and occasionally felt redundant.

Downloading and installing the app was straightforward, and once I had turned my phone’s Bluetooth function on, I didn’t have any trouble with basic operation of the app. Occasionally, the app would send me notifications about objects or exhibit content on a different floor, but those small quirks were not distracting enough to detract from the overall experience. The app allows the user to choose from four different tour “interest areas,” about the house itself and the woman who lived there, highlights from the surgical collections, “Architectural Fun Facts,” and “Morbid Morsels,” a “seasonal” tour. Designating these as “tours” was, in my opinion, a little misleading, because rather than taking you around the house on a particular route following a particular narrative, the app sent notifications when you were in a room with a tour item on it.

I opted for the “Morbid Morsels” tour. It started out strong; on the first img_7313floor, I received a notification pointing me to a paragraph about William Burke and William Hare, the notorious nineteenth-century body snatchers who occasionally snatched bodies who weren’t quite dead yet.

Burke and Hare were interesting, but had very little to do with the room I was in on the first floor, a text-heavy exhibit on “Surgicogenomics and Diagnostic Detectives.” Having the app in that particular room was helpful, particularly because I don’t have a head for science (I haven’t taken science in years) and I was more interested in the content of the tour than the content of the exhibit. But the exhibit and the “morbid morsel” had very little to do with each other, which seemed counterproductive. The goal of a mobile tour like this one should be to use parts of existing exhibits to take visitors through a narrative distinct from the ones presented in the exhibits.

Another stop on the tour, in the Orthopedics room on the fourth floor, caught my attention pretty quickly.

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I don’t think I could ever saw off someone’s leg, but thanks for making me think about it! This particular notification both grabbed my attention and sent me searching for a nineteenth-century bone saw kit, which, according to the app, a skilled doctor could use to amputate a limb in less than two minutes. Here, the push notification format of the tour was an advantage. As a user, I didn’t have to do much; information was sent to me and packaged in a compelling notification. To access it, all I had to do was swipe. And it sent me on a scavenger hunt of sorts, skimming through the case to find the bone saw.

The Morbid Morsels tour  was engaging and interesting, in a gross, Halloween-esque way, but it lacked a strong narrative structure. As a user, I emerged with some new, fun factoids, but very little sense of structure or purpose. This part of the app had so much potential, particularly because each visitor had the option to choose from four tours, and so the museum experience could become personalized. Unfortunately, the lack of interpretation and structure to the tour didn’t add another interpretive approach, it simply added more facts.

Another key part of the app was an interactive map of the house, which presented additional information about the exhibitions in each room, and about the house itself and the people who had lived there. This part of the app also had potential to add another layer of interpretation to the museum, but was far more successful in its interpretation of the house than in its interpretation of the surgical exhibits.

The mansion itself was built for Eleanor Robinson Countiss, a Chicago heiress, who lived there with her family in the early part of the 20th century. There is no interpretation of img_7322the mansion or Eleanor’s life in the museum; the only interpretation appears in the app, as one goes through the interactive map. Details about each room appeared in conjunction with information about Eleanor and her family and their involvement in the world around them, particularly World War I and the home front efforts. Eleanor, a socialite, was also heavily involved in charity efforts, and her story was just as interesting as the surgical science presented in the physical exhibits. This was one of the app’s strengths. Eleanor’s story and the story of the mansion are not necessarily of interest to every visitor, and it makes sense why the museum chose not to include them in any of the physical exhibits. However, including that narrative on the app makes it accessible to those who are interested, and gives the museum visitor the possibility to engage on another level with the material aspects of the museum around them.

While the app’s focus on the history of the mansion and the family who lived there was one of its major successes, its interpretation of the exhibits through the map was one of its major drawbacks. Frequently, the information provided by the app through the map was a restatement of the text on the museum labels, and added nothing new to a visitor’s

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Can you read that label?

understanding of either the object or the narrative of the exhibit. For instance, in the library, the app repeated almost word-for-word the sign in the corner of the room, explaining that some of the books were wrapped in white tissue to prevent them being damaged by car exhaust in the air from nearby Lake Shore Drive. In the Hall of Immortals, a hall of stone sculptures of great contributors to surgical science, the information in the app was even less detailed than on the museum labels. The one advantage, in that particular room, was that the labels were pasted on the wall almost behind the statues, making them very difficult to read. Having an abbreviated version of the label on the app made it possible to know the basics about the statues without having to stick one’s nose up against the wall.

The app had the potential to provide several interesting and engaging routes of interpretation for the IMSS and its exhibits. Unfortunately, in many instances, it didn’t live up to that potential. Merely repeating the information on the labels was one of the app’s major weaknesses. And while the selection of certain objects to be included in the app is in itself a created narrative, the app did not do as much as it could have to enhance and advance the narrative the IMSS tried to present. The general lack of narrative in the IMSS overall certainly contributed to this; however, the app is a space in which the designers and curators could have worked together to develop the narrative that was missing from parts of the museum. It was most successful in its exploration of Eleanor Robinson Countiss and the material aspects of the mansion, because that narrative was not present at all in the physical exhibits. The app was unique, and functioned well, but, like the museum, generally struggled to present a cohesive story.

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