Harsh warnings: a digital history review

New semester, new reason to use this blog! I will primarily be writing for my “Digital History” class, but I will try to write some extracurricular blog posts as I remember/am able.


It’s hard to engage with anything, much less history, while ignoring current events since the inauguration. Suddenly every topic or historical theme I read about seems like either a failed warning of what’s passed, an omen of what’s to come, or an unfair distraction. Some of these warnings or omens are coincidental, like stumbling across a documentary with a timely subject, or deliberate.

One such example of a deliberate omen is the Twitter account @Stl_Manifest, launched by the software developer Russel Neiss and Rabbi Charlie Schwartz as a direct response to Donald Trump’s executive order that places extreme limits on travel and immigration from certain countries in the Middle East, all of which have predominantly Muslim populations. The executive order most severely affects Syrian refugees, all of whom had to go through about two years of intense vetting before being granted entry into the country. The poignancy of this account comes from Trump having signed this executive order on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The twitter account is simple: it spits out tweets that name a passenger of the St. Louis, explain that the US turned them away at a time in need, and then identify the death camp or other location where each individual was eventually murdered by Nazis or their supporters. A simple bot most likely assembled these tweets from a database from the US Holocaust Museum (USHMM), filling in as much information as was available, such as photographs of the victim. The account, which was only active on the day Trump signed the executive order (Jan 27), generated 252 tweets, most with several hundred retweets and likes.

Evaluating this project depends on the goals. As a tool to learn about the St. Louis and its passengers, the site gives little information. The profile links to USHMM’s encyclopedia article about the ship’s story, but that’s it. We also learn only their name, location of death, and occasionally what they looked like. This risks objectifying the passengers, seeing them only as their deaths. This runs counter to the approaches taken by other Holocaust museums, such as the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which strives to highlight and enliven the lives victims had before the Holocaust.

However, the goal of this project is not to learn about the St. Louis but to spread awareness of it, and of the US’s history of denying refugees. This account was everywhere on Friday. Everyone was retweeting this account, evoking this history while condemning the executive order. Neiss and Rabbi Schwartz were not the only ones to make this connection; major publications such as The Washington Post and The Guardian wrote articles evoking the ship’s story. However, Twitter’s condensed format lends itself to the goal of spreading awareness: it is much quicker and easier to share a single tweet than it is to read an entire news article. The tweets slip easily into one’s Twitter feed, whereas a news article linked to in a Twitter or Facebook feed would need to be opened into a separate tab. Additionally, the 140-character limit forces the tweets to be blunt and harsh, and paired with the first person language, each tweet’s message is succinct and tragic.

Twitter also lends itself to easy engagement with these stories. Many individual tweets had direct replies or were quoted, with other users sharing additional information, emphasizing the tragedy of the St. Louis, or reflecting on the timeliness of the account. However, this also offers the opportunity for users to respond inappropriately, such as commenting on the demographics of those the Nazis murdered or asserting misinformed arguments about contemporary refugees and terrorism. Twitter does not allow for irrelevant or distracting comments to be deleted, but even on a different platform, where are the limits of acceptance and curation? Steve Zeitlin asks this question about curating based on quality of writing and content in his essay, “Case Study: Where Are the Best Stories? Where Is My Story? – Participation and Curation in a New Media Age,” where he argues in part that it’s okay to delete badly written or uninformative contributions: those authors won’t care, because they most likely put little work into their submissions.[1] How does this change with inappropriate Twitter replies, where the issue is opinion, not quality, and where the replies’ authors most likely do care about what they’ve said? [2] Does the old internet adage of “Don’t feed the trolls” apply outside of forums and social media to academic/historical projects?

Since these questions don’t have easy answers, the only other part of this project that I would question is its goals: while it was certainly effective at raising awareness, I wonder if this Twitter account could have larger goals. How could this account benefit immigrants, refugees, and the current situation beyond alerting Twitter users to the issue itself? In an interview with The Atlantic, Neiss and Rabbi Schwartz mention a few other goals they have for their audience, namely for more people to visit USHMM, to donate to organizations that assist immigrants and refugees, and to continue speaking about the Holocaust the rest of the year. [3] Is there a way to do this without detracting from the tragically methodical format of the tweets?

All in all, while this project did not provide a lot of contextual information about the St. Louis, it succeeded in drawing attention to this event and its warning signals regarding current political events.

[1] Zeitlin, Steve. “Case Study: Where Are the Best Stories? Where Is My Story? – Participation and Curation in a New Media Age.” Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-generated World. Ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Philadelphia, PA: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011. 34-43.

[2] Required clarification that “opinion” here excludes hate speech, which never has a reason to go uncensored.

[3] Norwood, Candace. “A Twitter Tribute to Holocaust Victims.” The Atlantic 27 January, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/jewish-refugees-in-the-us/514742/ 

From Storefront to Monument

This blog post is very overdue, and so it’s going to be filled with messy, finals week thoughts. In a way, the questions that Andrea Burns asked in From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement have been stewing in my mind for so long that pinpointing things to talk about has been difficult. Her focus on community, and the role that museums play in serving various communities, is a pertinent concern, especially in the aftermath of the recent election.

In her book, she talks about the genesis and development of various museums dedicated to serve African-American communities, such as the DuSable Museum in Chicago, the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit, and the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Detroit. For these museums, political and cultural developments in the 1960s led the African-American communities in these cities to create a public center for the celebration and promotion of Black history and identity. While the museums discussed in Burns’s book run into issues as communities, locations, and institutional missions change, they still had to grapple with how to maintain the original intention to serve local communities.

These questions have been on my mind, as museums and other cultural institutions have been releasing statements about their mission post-election. I already wrote about the Tenement Museum’s statement, and a few other museums focusing on specific ethnic groups have also released statements. For example, the Asian Art Museum strengthened its identification as “a museum for all,” and the Japanese American National Museum referenced WWII internment camps in a call for Donald Trump to be more inclusive and learn from the past. While it has been discussed, NMAJH still has not put out any kind of statement, and even though a statement promoting our mission in these contentious times is fairly innocuous, I wonder if the hesitation is about community, and whether a statement like that would be uniting or divisive. How would a statement released by this museum, which aims to represent all American Jews, be received by American Jews who supported and voted for Trump? I saw a lot of parallels to the objections to the creation of the national Museum of African American History and Culture, such as Charles Wright and John Kinard arguing that a federally-funded national museum would fail to hear and represent all Black voices and opinions.

I wonder if this is a problem that all national museums have, as opposed to smaller community-oriented museums: the larger a “target” group gets, the more needs and opinions and preferences that museum’s audience will have, leading to the potential for more people to be upset by a given decision. With the new NMAAHC building opened, there have already been criticisms by certain curatorial choices, such as the exclusion of Clarence Thomas. The Smithsonian responded to this criticism, explaining they simply cannot tell every story, but many are still upset by this.

This leads to questions about the relationship between museums and their audiences. Is it an institution’s responsibility to please every single visitor? Is this even possible? In the case of things like post-election statements, which is more important: staff members’ idea of ethics or visitors’ potential comfort?

I don’t think there’s a single correct or easy answer to these questions, but I also don’t think a museum can be relevant without trying to answer them.

Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority

I was pretty inspired while reading this book. The different projects and exhibits highlighted were so fascinating, especially the series of performances telling the stories of Black Bottom. Personally, I found the first essay by Nina Simon the most useful. In it, she explains what it means for an exhibit or program to be participatory, in the spirit of Web 2.0: not only can visitors interact with and contribute to the program, but their contributions have a direct role in changing how the program develops. One example she gives is of the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum’s Top 40 program, where visitors vote on their favorite paintings, and the ranked organization of how paintings are hung changes based on visitors’ votes (20). So often, programs will take that first step towards participation by inviting visitors’ contributions, but then stop short of having those contributions directly affect the program at large.

This got me thinking about how participatory NMAJH’s programs are. I feel like it’s a lot harder to approach this topic from an interpretive, rather than curatorial, approach — you don’t have the freedom to create something from scratch, but rather you’re building upon a set arrangement of artifacts in a permanently-constructed space, and so it seems like the limits are much tighter. One idea that has come up, regarding our Traveling Suitcase program, is to encourage students to create their own suitcases that would help others learn about them. Would that run into the same problems that Matthew MacArthur points out, about how user-created “galleries” are underused and abandoned (60)? Or would this be different, since students would fill their suitcases with their own possessions? But then what would be the next step – students could analyze each other’s suitcases to learn about their classmates? But then what after that?

To be honest, sometimes I worry that I’m not creative enough to create projects like these. I definitely have the desire to combat the five main dissatisfactions about cultural institutions that Nina Simon names (irrelevant, static, exclusive, stifling creativity/expression, uncomfortable), but when I’m designing a tour or other program, it’s difficult for me to make that creative jump from plain interpretation to engaging and meaningful participation (21-22). A lot of the time, I imagine this is where collaboration would play a major role: obviously I’m not creating entire educational programs by myself, and artists can help bridge that creative hurdle, as well as having that excuse to take risks we discussed in class last week. But reading through these case studies, most of which were spearheaded by artists, I can’t help but ask myself: can I be a public historian without being an artist?

The answer is obviously yes, because, again, collaboration is the key here. No successful program is created entirely by one person. And even if the idea itself is derived from a single artist, say, others must still implement it, maintain interpretive best-practices, conduct supportive research, facilitate, etc… While reading this book maybe got me a little worried about my lack of artistic talent, I need to remind myself that there are so many people involved in the creation of any given program. Just think of all the museum workers who lost their jobs over Mining the Museum!

Jokes aside, this is a book I’ll need to revisit multiple times in the future for inspiration and for questions to be asking myself about the programs I help to create. What is the visitor’s role, and how can they play a role in the program? Who has the authority, and who doesn’t but should? Am I valuing everyone’s voices and stories? Are objects and digital resources being used in modern and relevant ways?

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A student designs a psychedelic poster saying “Breath In Peace,” inspired by the posters promoting concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium. This was part of a summer class NMAJH offered in conjunction with our current special exhibition, Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution. The finished posters are displayed in the museum — the closest we get to a Web 2.0-like program, I think. Students can see that the Museum has created a space for them to express themselves with an encouraging and validating atmosphere.

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

This semester has been my first real introduction to historiography (beyond Alan Bennett’s The History Boys!) and as I’ve immersed myself more and more in historical method, it’s become easier for me to pick apart how exactly a writer is constructing their historical account – what are they focusing on, what are they ignoring, what are their goals. Reading John M.  Barry’s The Great Influenza, it becomes very clear how he’s structuring his book. Barry is a journalist, and his writing flows easily, with history and virology fitting together to create dramatic arcs and suspense. This book could have passed for a horror novel, as he describes “blood … pouring out of some men’s nostrils and even ears” (pg. 189). Many passages involved zingy one-liners that could have served as textual soundbites, such as “in the meanwhile the killing continued” (pg. 296). While the structure of The Great Influenza often feels a bit too manufactured, the back-and-forth between events and their context allows for putting together a traditional, linear idea of the Spanish flu epidemic while understanding the larger picture and the nuances of the situation.

While the style and construction of Barry’s writing does a lot to make the topic accessible and engaging to a lay audience, there are two of his practices that discourage engagement with historical or scientific thinking.

The first practice involves the integration of sources into the body of the text, although I’m not sure if this is a fault of Barry or his editor. I have to laugh at myself here — I knew there were endnotes, but could not for the life of me find the numbered indications in the text. Why? I finally realized: they’re not endnotes, but page numbers that quote the text the reference or note is for, with no corresponding mark in the main text. Barry includes an incredibly diverse bibliography that lists 20 pages’ worth of primary and secondary sources, but the layout of these pseudo-endnotes makes the reader go through extensive work to see how information is cited, if it is at all. This then becomes awkward when the reader checks to see if a passage is cited, only to discover that it isn’t. (An example: Barry describes a quick encounter between William Henry Welch and Rufus Cole on page 188, where a bellboy scolds Welch for smoking a cigar. I’m curious about how Barry knows this, flip to his “endnotes,” but no citation!)

The second practice, which I think is much more dangerous, is the lack of women in this tale. Barry structures his tale by focusing on the achievements of those he deems medical heroes – the Spanish flu epidemic is “a story of science, of discovery, of how one thinks, and of how one changes the way one thinks” (pg. 5). The main issue here is that, for Barry, all of these medical heroes are men. While he does include a few women by name, such as Anna Williams and Jane Delano, their presence is marginal, an admission of Barry himself when he praises the “men and some very few women” who helped end the epidemic (pg. 5). First, nurses played a vital role during the epidemic as they attempted to prevent the spread of influenza and help hopeless victims die in peace, to the point where “nurses were literally being kidnapped” by families too desperate to let them leave (pg. 276-277). James Jackson, a Red Cross division director, even states that the most important prevention tactic is nurses caring in victims’ homes (pg. 316). But, more importantly, Barry’s omission of women from the larger narrative contributes to increasing the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Through the absence of positive female scientist role models in his book, Barry indirectly increases the “psychological sense of belonging that female students so often lack when they enter STEM environments.” With this lack of representation and acknowledgement of nurses as a class of medical heroes, women are told that their contributions to science don’t matter as much. Even though Barry repeats again and again how nurses are “needed desperately,” and even though women continue to make important contributions to science today, their story takes a back seat to male scientists (pg. 329).

mathAn unhelpful strategy, via SMBC.

I must admit that reading this book was a frustrating experience, particularly due to the issue of gender (I don’t care that Anna Williams never married!), but now what to do with these thoughts? I think that approaching the text from this angle will help us as a class to hone in on what should be a significant matter as we develop our programming: accessibility. Who is our audience, and how can we make our programming available to everyone in that group? How do we encourage more people — regardless of level of education, and especially women and others typically underrepresented in STEM fields — to engage with history and science? Moving forward, I look forward to exploring how we can make this topic accessible, welcoming, and non-intimidating while also being meaningful, useful, and relevant.

An introduction

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A portrait of me, courtesy of a 6th grader at
Francis Scott Key Elementary School in Philadelphia.

My name is Mr. Charlie Charlie Hersh, and I am a first-year Master’s student of Public History. I received my BA from Temple in 2015 in Religion. While I did not have a formal concentration, I wrote my thesis on an imagined Orthodox Jewish reconciliation of asexuality, drawing from Talmudic passages about relationships and procreation. I also earned a Certificate in Spanish, and I hope to continue my love of learning new languages.

Honestly, I feel like I’m approaching this field from the opposite direction as everyone else. My training as a historian is minimal, having worked significantly more with secondary than primary sources throughout my schooling. That said, I have been working as a museum educator for about two years, first at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC through their Lipper internship, and later as the Education Assistant at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), here in Philadelphia. What started as a near-impulsive and convenient internship has turned into a passionate love of the field – for figuring out how to interpret complicated subjects for younger audiences, for often being students’ first gateway into museums, for encouraging children’s curiosity and critical thinking.

So, what exactly do I do at NMAJH?

suitcase image

This is the Traveling Suitcase, an element of our signature program titled Becoming American: History of Immigration 1880s-1920s, which I coordinate and often facilitate. Inside are replicas from a real immigrant named Eva Baen, who came to Philadelphia in 1913. Students learn about the time period and about immigrant life while also learning how to analyze and extract information from primary source objects. They also come to the Museum, take a guided tour about post-arrival immigrant life (e.g. how did Jewish immigrants choose between maintaining traditions and Americanizing?) and even “meet” Eva Baen in person. (The set, which represents her 1921 kitchen room, is my header image.)

This program kind of got dumped on me when I first started, and I still haven’t managed to climb out from under it. Not that I want to – I love this program, I love introducing students to the idea of learning from objects, and I love the potential for meaningful connections to contemporary immigrant stories  – which, in many cases, includes the students’ own stories. I hope to use my thesis to further develop this program in some way.

I also help research and develop lesson plans, do professional development workshops with teachers, lead tours when we realize last-minute that we’re short on docents (a frequent occurrence), and act as the Museum’s Official Character Wrangler.

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The pilgrims on their way to see Pope Francis speak at Independence Hall in
September 2015 had a great time with Lyle the Crocodile. Of course, none
of them came to see our exhibit on Bernard Waber!

What else is there to know about me? (Besides the fact that I’m terrible at writing about myself!) I currently live with my partner, our cat (who’s currently climbing on me as I write this), and our two rabbits, who destroy everything we love. I enjoy knitting and conlanging, although mine has been neglected for quite some time. And, honestly, it’s really hard for me to not find a way to be interested in anything.

I look forward to starting this program and filling this blog with my thoughts about my readings, and especially looking at how they can be useful in a museum education setting!