Story Maps and Medieval Texts

In an earlier post I talked about my upcoming independent project and how I hoped to work with GIS. I knew that I wanted to use the Itinerary Through Wales, which had also been the main topic of my podcast. However, I was struggling to come up with a clear purpose or method. Mapping the stories that I discussed in my podcast seemed logical, but I did not want my map to be a simple visual reiteration of the podcast. I decided to use Esri Story Maps and create a map that would tell the stories from the Itinerary and locate them on a map. Story Maps were the ideal software for this project because they allow a map, large sections of text, and images to appear alongside each other. Unlike my podcast (the goal of which was to analyse and explain these stories), the point of my map is purely to entertain; I know that medieval history is very niche, and I know that medieval Welsh literature is VERY niche, and all I want to do here is tell these stories in a manner entertaining enough to hopefully pique someone’s interest in the subject.

Although my map is coming along well and I do think this will be a successful project, I had a few issues with both the Story Maps software and with the material I chose to map. Here are a few:

  • The Welsh language has changed in the past thousand years (SURPRISE) and the places that Gerald names as the settings for the stories have different spellings now and were tricky to find.
  • These little stories are all unrelated and I’m not sure I’ll be able to unite them into a cohesive narrative.
  • There are too many churches in Wales named after Saint David.
  • I struggled with the aesthetics and design. I wanted the colour scheme to resemble the medieval maps of Britain by Matthew Paris, but Story Maps doesn’t allow for much customization and I had to use an external editing program.
  • It is impossible to change the size of inset photographs.
  • Cameras did not exist in the 12th century (SURPRISE) and there are next to no photos of the places I mapped. Most of the buildings no longer survive and I had to use pictures of ruins or modern reconstructions.
  • The Itinerary is not an illustrated work. I wanted to include illustrations of the stories. I cannot draw to save my life. Shout-out to my best chum @lauvande for providing me with some top-notch drawings to supplement the stories.
  • I went through a mild existential crisis consisting of
    • “Story Maps is capable of so many impressive things like georeferencing/swipe and spyglass comparisons/video inlays and I’m doing the most basic thing possible”
    • “WILL ANYONE ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT THIS”

In the end, I’m quite proud of my map. It still needs a bit of work before I can say it’s done, but my classmates seemed to think it was entertaining and that’s all that matters. I’ll try to get a link to it posted here when it’s all perfect and pretty.

 

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Augmented Reality & Aspects of Accessibility

The discussion in today’s Digital Public History class was about the future of public history and the development and uses of new technology. We focused primarily on augmented reality (AR) and ideas like the CHESS Project, wherein participants use apps or programs on their personal smartphones to display a different view of the object or location in front of them. We also discussed technologies like the Microsoft Hololens, Google Cardboard, Google Glass, haptic AR, and other projects that use headgear (masks, goggles, glasses) to display images, videos, or other graphics. Included in our discussion were the potential issues in accessibility for such technologies.

There are obvious benefits to AR programs: users can “travel” to a place or time and witness events they normally would not be able to, visually impaired persons can “touch” an artefact or object they might not be able to see, and so on. But these technologies are not universally useable. I am not personally able to use headgear technologies like Hololens or Google Cardboard and I am curious about whether any more accessible versions of these technologies will be produced in the future.

I started wearing glasses when I was about 10 years old. I very suddenly became nearsighted and couldn’t read the blackboard in my classroom. My eyesight has progressively worsened since then, and getting new glasses with stronger prescription lenses has become something of an annual/bi-annual tradition. I now need glasses to clearly see anything more than a foot away from me. I have also been suffering from chronic headaches for about 10 years and frequent migraines for about 5 years. I have confidently identified screen time as one of my many headache/migraine triggers and must monitor how long I spend looking at my phone, watching TV, or researching and writing on my laptop. I must also be conscious of how close my screens are to my face: if I’m too close for too long, I’ll get a headache and my eyes won’t be able to properly focus for several hours. My current glasses have very thick progressive lenses with one prescription for general use and one prescription for looking downwards at phone and computer screens. The lenses also have special coatings designed to reduce glare and blue light. I wear my glasses every waking hour.

I am clearly not able to use headgear-type AR technologies. They require me to remove my special glasses (EEK!) and wear some kind of screen directly in front of my eyes for extended periods of time. WHAT COULD GO WRONG? In class we tested out a Google Cardboard headset and my results were about what I expected. I took my glasses off, wore the headset for fewer than 10 seconds, and had to stop because my eyes went wonky. They remained somewhat wonky for the rest of the class, but I thankfully did not develop a headache.

All things considered, my sight and headache issues are not catastrophically bad. There exist far more severe conditions with stricter limitations, and I imagine that individuals with such conditions will feel even more frustrated and excluded as these AR technologies and programs become more commonly available and affordable.

This post isn’t meant to be an angry rant about inequality in AR, nor is it meant to be a complaint directed at developers. It’s just a reflection on my personal experiences. I like to think that developers will keep headachey, glasses-wearing folks like myself in mind as they work on upcoming AR projects. These technologies have amazing potential in innumerable fields, and I’d love to be able to experience some of it myself.

The Return of Gerald

And so begins the next project in my public history studies.

We’ve been assigned an independent digital history project, wherein we have free rein to produce anything from a 3D printout to a video game based on an historic field of our choice. When it comes to assignments, I generally prefer strict instructions over total freedom. Having to completely start from scratch is just a tad overwhelming. I’ve been floundering around for the past couple weeks trying to decide what to do but not really getting anywhere.

Then I started browsing the lessons and projects on https://programminghistorian.org. They’re very heavy on coding, network and data analysis, and a good deal of other techy things that simply baffled me. These would have been a little to difficult for me. There are, however, some lessons on GIS and mapping. These piqued my interest.

I had worked with GIS during my undergrad, when I used another free-rein project from my cartography class to supplement my Honours thesis. My thesis was about medieval Scottish and Flemish political marriage. I used Marguerite of Flanders as a case study to examine the independence and agency of noblewomen within such arranged marriages. I had wanted to emphasise just how far-reaching her influence was in all aspects of the marriage: courting, betrothal, the ceremony, widowhood, and remarriage. I decided to create a map, based aesthetically on the medieval maps of Matthew Paris, that plotted the locations of all Marguerite’s documents and landholdings. The result was a successful cartography project and an excellent addition to my thesis. I’ll include it below.

I decided that my independent project should be something similar, such an Esri story map. But what to map?

It occurred to me that the subject of the podcast I had created earlier for the same class (see relevant earlier post) could work. I had discussed Gerald of Wales and his book, The Itinerary Through Wales. Specifically, I had selected some of the strange little anecdotes and folktales that are littered throughout the book and tried to analyse their meaning and significance. I could map these stories! Gerald does not explicitly state where a lot of them take place, but I’ve been able to find locations for about 15 of them (such as a magic bell, a blood-filled lake, some dog-monkey hybrids, vengeful weasels, a supernatural butler, and a man birthing a calf. Quite the eclectic mix!). I now have to tootle around with ArcGIS and try to refresh my memory of the more intricate details of the software. I shall report on my findings.

So that’s that. A disproportionate number of my assignments this term seem to revolve around good ol’ Gerald. My medieval Welsh history prof would be so proud.

blog post 4 map

DOOT DOOT, BEEP BOOP

from classical orchestral music to electronic modular synthesizers

Think back (or scroll down) to my very first blog post. Right near the beginning, I briefly mentioned that I had a graduate research position that required a lot more technological know-how than I currently possess, and that I would reveal the details of this research position at a later date. Well, hold on to your hats, because today is the day.

I’m a research assistant with the *inhale* Electronic Platform for Interdisciplinary and Community Collaboration in Sound and Music Project. The project is the brainchild of UWO’s Prof. Bill Turkel and is in its early stages, and (in the words of Prof. Turkel) it “will use a particular technology – a relatively obscure electronic synthesizer that is in the process of becoming popular – to provide opportunities for hands-on exploration and collaboration among artists and musicians, humanists and social scientists, educators, engineers and entrepreneurs, between academics and community partners.” Effectively, we’re trying to make modular synthesizers accessible to anyone who is interested in learning about or working with them. Hopefully the project will eventually acquire enough funding to purchase some equipment that will be available for community use. We’ve had one open community meeting so far, and I’ve realized that I have A LOT to learn. The participants were from the university’s computer science, mathematics, physics, music, and engineering departments; the experienced individuals showed up with their own gear and were experts on the topic, and even the self-proclaimed “beginners” seemed to have some instinctive knowledge on how to use the synthesizers to produce their desired sounds and effects. I, however, have no such skills or innate wisdom.

This position required some enthusiasm or experience with music, which I have, but electronic music and synthesizers are way outside my musical comfort zone. I’m a classically trained brass player (my main instruments are trumpet and French horn – dorky performance photos below – and I’ve dabbled in tuba, trombone, bugle, violin/fiddle, ukulele, piano, and highland bagpipes). The synthesizer is not something I’ve ever worked with, nor is it something I ever thought I’d be working with, and I felt lost from the start. Thankfully, Bill didn’t seem to mind my inexperience, and even let me borrow a Korg “Little Bits” kit to help me better understand how synthesizers work. These kits consist of extremely simplified modular synthesizers and a booklet with oodles of useful information and project ideas. They’re aimed at children and beginners, and, I’m glad to say, served as a very informative and entertaining introduction to the world of electronic music. I’ve taken to just sitting down with the kit and making noise when I’m bored or in need of a study break. (That being said, anyone else in the general vicinity will cease to be entertained after about ten minutes of listening to the sounds you produce. Sorry, mom.)

My current research task for the project is to compile a basic yet comprehensive history of modular synthesizers and their uses and functions. This information will be available either shortly before or during our next community meeting, and will cater to inexperienced and curious beginners, like myself. The meeting isn’t for another few weeks; until then, I’ll keep learning and beep-booping.

 

P.S. I highly recommend listening to this hugely entertaining album by the late Jean Jacques Perrey, an early pioneer in the electronic music realm. My friend and I sort of stumbled upon his music a few years ago without knowing anything about it, and I’m taking this opportunity to learn more about artists like Mr. Perrey.

 

The Fickle Podcast

In this latest installment of my public history adventures, I’m going to describe my experience attempting to complete an assignment unlike anything I’ve ever done before. As part of my Digital Public History course, my classmates and I must write, produce, and post a fifteen-minute-long podcast about a historic topic. From the moment I first read the syllabus, I knew that this project was going to push me out of my comfort zone, particularly regarding the necessary equipment and software. I did not, however, expect to run into so much trouble with the writing process. I figured that I’ve written enough academic essays and research papers to efficiently write a short, informal script. Choose a topic, come up with an argument, read some articles, write the thing, BOOM done.

If only.

I decided to write about Gerald of Wales, a medieval archdeacon and academic, and his work The Itinerary Through Wales, which contains a lot of really bizarre anecdotes and stories. My original intention was to use these stories as an example for exploring folklore as a form of historiography. However, as I re-read Gerald’s book and started writing my script, I found that it was moving in a different direction. When I was about half done I realized I was actually writing about Gerald’s use of anecdotes as his way to place emphasis on the experience of the general medieval Welsh population rather than the nobility, contrary to what his predecessors had done. Realizing this, I threw in a section about the 20th-century “history from below” movement and tried to tie it to both another new section about folklore and oral history as well as what I had already written.

I ended up with a big hot mess. I was trying to do too much and talk about too many scholarly movements and I just could not weave it all together in a coherent or efficient manner. Just for the heck of it, I decided to do a practice recording of the script. The recording ended up being about twenty minutes long. I knew I’d have to pare down my writing, eliminate a good chunk of it, and rearrange what was left so that it made sense and would actually be an enjoyable (not boring or confusing) fifteen minutes for my listeners (here’s looking at you, classmates. I’m doing my best!).

Sooo, I started again. I decided to be more casual in my approach this time, and I just started writing without having a strict format or end goal in mind. And I think it worked? Maybe? Possibly? I hope?

What I have now is a script for an approximately fifteen-minute-long podcast (yay time limits!). And instead of me rambling incoherently about historic movements, Welsh mythology, and peasant versus aristocratic history, I seem to be focusing simply on sharing these bizarre little stories and doing my best to analyse and explain them. And, honestly, I had more fun writing this comparatively simple script than I did writing the more “academic” failed ones. I think it will be more engaging to listen to than my previous draft, and I think that by going for a more casual tone and speaking less about the politics of history I’ve made it more accessible for a wider audience that doesn’t consist solely of other public historians.

So did I succeed? I don’t know yet. I’m certainly happier with my final draft. And I’m not against going back to it and doing some more editing. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see how it goes. After all, I still have to figure out how to record the darn thing.

Hello, Bonjour

Hello, bonjour! I’m Elizabeth, I like to work in museums (in case you couldn’t tell from my greeting – thank you, national museum bilingual policies), and I started this blog to document my time as a Public History MA student at Western University. Please bear with me here; I’ve never had a blog before and I’m very much trying to wrap my head around the idea of writing 1) informally and 2) for an audience larger than a couple of profs. Heck, I’m pretty behind as far as any social media goes. I don’t have an Instagram account, I didn’t have a Facebook account until 2014, and I didn’t have a Twitter account until last week. I haven’t actually used my new Twitter yet, but hey. I’ll get there. One of my main goals for being in this program is to become more comfortable with and knowledgeable about the realms of social media and technology: not only for expressing my own thoughts, but for the purposes of education and community engagement in museums and other cultural institutions. Technological know-how will also come in very handy for the topic of my graduate research position, which I will reveal in a later post. It would probably benefit from a good deal more explanation than I can fit in here.

I’m originally from Toronto, but I completed a BA Hons. in History (Medieval Scottish) and Italian language at Dalhousie University in Halifax. I stayed in Halifax for a few years after graduating because I loved it so much. I love that it’s beside the ocean, I love that everybody knows everybody, and I love how the city has embraced its history and has a strong network of museums, galleries, and historic sites (at most of which I’ve either worked or volunteered). London is about the same size as the Halifax Regional Municipality, but it’s much more spread out and has a different ~vibe~ to it. I’m still getting used to it, but I’m happy to say that it didn’t take long at all for the History Department at Western to feel like home.

As I mentioned, I was primarily a student of medieval history (hence the extremely cheesy blog URL. I think it’s pretty accurate, though. I still consider myself a medieval academic and I fully intend to return to my medieval studies when I near the end of this program and write a cognate essay). I generally prefer “old” history to “new” history, but the academic world of public history is entirely unfamiliar to me. I have lots of hands-on interpretive and educational museum experience, but I didn’t know much about or really consider the theory behind any of it before starting this program. Let me just say that there is a lot. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed in a field with so many opinions, discussions, methods, learning tools, technological dilemmas, and so on. While I’m fully confident in my work ethic and time management abilities, I know that balancing my regular schooling with my research assistant position, cognate essay, and regular life is going to be difficult.

There you have it. I short introduction to me, my work and education, and how I’m feeling at the start of this academic year. Stay tuned for more on my upcoming projects. And if you have any suggestions or tips for someone just getting used to the whole “sharing personal thoughts on the internet” thing, please do send them my way. Toodles for now!