Web Map Project: Visualizing Immigration

For my map project, I created a Google Maps that shows some of the major ports for Eastern European immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, as well as some of the larger departure ports in Europe. While simple, I think that this is a useful way of looking at topics relating to immigration, considering that immigration is all about movement: using a map helps people to visualize this more easily.

I used Google Maps primarily because I’m already familiar with it, and because most potential users would be too. I think this is an important consideration when creating digital projects, in terms of increasing ease of access. While this creates a feedback loop of sorts (where users are losing an opportunity to learn about new technologies) and Carto has different features, for the purposes of my map, I would want users to focus on analyzing the content rather than having to wade through learning how to use a different site, such as the beautiful but opaque The Knotted Line. (Also, to be honest, I had a lot of difficulties navigating Carto’s website!)

I think one of the biggest takeaways from this map is how large immigrant populations correspond with geographic convenience. It makes perfect sense that huge populations of immigrants lived in East Coast cities like New York and Philadelphia because those are the ports that they enter. However, this map helps to demonstrate why those East Coast ports were so popular: because the distances make sense to go from Latvia, to England/Netherlands, to America’s NE coast. One can also see why other programs, like the Galveston Plan, were so important in terms of redistributing immigrants throughout the rest of the country.

Taking this project further, I would be interested in incorporating train lines that brought immigrants to populous inland cities, such as Chicago. How far west did immigrants settle? It would be interesting to compare this with Asian immigrants entering through Angel Island and other West Coast ports, although legislative restrictions such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 directly impact the number of incoming immigrants. It would also be interesting to see how these numbers and paths change over time, similar to the New York Times’s Immigration Explorer.

100 Years Later: Making Statistics Usable Again

Last semester, I wrote a historiography on Jewish immigration to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, a period that is typically defined as ranging from 1881 to 1924. During this time, approximately 23 million immigrants came to this country, about 2 million of which were Jews from Eastern Europe.

While researching books to write about, I found a fascinating dissertation (political science PhD at Columbia University) on the subject: Jewish immigration to the United States from 1881 to 1910 by Samuel Joseph, notable because it was written in 1914, while mass immigration was still happening!

In his dissertation, Joseph took a primarily statistical approach, quantifying newcomers into categories based on things like country of origin, destination, port of entry, occupation, and even literacy levels.

When I read this book last year, I realized that this information might be really useful in  my work at NMAJH. However, while this book has been digitized, Joseph’s statistics are presented only in chart form, which is difficult both to interpret and to feed through an OCR.

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Destination of Jewish Immigrants, 1899 to 1910, by division. The percentages help to visualize the difference in these numbers, but can this be improved?

So for his assignment, I wanted to see how I could make these statistics more useful, both to visualize them, and to make them more convenient than having to scroll through a slowly-loading 200 page book on Hathi Trust. I made the following charts through Excel, which I had to learn how to do last year to create board reports at work. Here are a few reasons why I love Excel:

  1. You can make a variety of charts super quickly.
  2. You can manipulate/fix the data and see how that changes your chart.
  3. It’s really easy to customize how the chart looks, such as making colors easier to read, including data values, etc.
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Here is that same chart, which I translated into a pie chart. Now it’s a little easier to quickly see that same distribution! If I had a little bit more specific information (such as how he’s defining these divisions), I would consider a heat map of the U.S. that shows people’s destinations.

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These show the number of Jews with certain occupations in the Russian Empire in 1897, and then what percentage that was of the total amount of people with those occupations. So even though the most Jews work in manufacturing, those Jews only occupy 10% of total manufacturing jobs. I tried to fit these two data sets into a single chart but couldn’t figure out how to do it without having two axis or simply labeling the first bar chart with the percentages.

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This line graph shows, over time, how many immigrants were arriving in Philadelphia from each country. A footnote on the graph explains that, in 1891, Austria-Hungary and Roumania [sic] were counted as “Others.”
I think it could prove useful to eventually continue doing this for the rest of the book, or at least transcribing Joseph’s charts into plain text. If possible, that would involve checking his statistics against his original sources, which come from a variety of places (census records, synagogue and charity reports, etc), so this information can be made more consistent and to clear up any uncertainties.

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.

Interpreting Difficult Histories, and a jumbled mission statement of sorts

If I could have my way, I would definitely radicalize the children. There are many opportunities to do this at NMAJH: discussions about creating communities, mutual support in the face of discrimination, activism, and stories about people like Clara Lemlich, Abraham Cahan, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Sally Priesand. Ways to encourage my students that they don’t need to live within the limits that society places on them, that through knowledge and effort and teamwork, they can make the world a better place.

Except… I don’t. Granted, my position has shifted to more back-end work so I don’t lead tours as often as I used to, but I always shy away from really engaging topics that some might consider controversial, such as the labor movement. I’ll interpret them in an enthusiastically affirming way, but then stop short of necessarily bringing it to the present, or in ways that relate to students’ lives. “Something to think about,” but only on particularly brave or daring days.

Why can’t I take that last step? Maybe not of actually radicalizing children (a joking accusation about one of my interpretive plans for Dr. Bruggeman’s class) but of engaging in these topics in immediately relevant ways. Fear plays a large part. Of trying to persuade students and risk not holding my ground, of angry teachers or parents, of offended visitors, of misrepresenting the Museum. While NMAJH’s Mission Statement centers education on a personal level, we still have a policy of nonpartisanship, and I have certainly heard stories from docents about intense political discussions with visitors that they weren’t able to de-escalate.

Discomfort, too. I saw a lot of my own practices paralleled in Cathy Stanton’s descriptions of the Acre tour in Lowell. While I always try to be conscious of how I emplot topics, there is always the temptation to take the easy path that Stanton’s tour guides often did, of simplifying stories with the purpose of displaying multiculturalism and positivity. There is a discomfort of addressing my whiteness in relation to my students of color, of my being a third-generation American talking about immigration to students who are themselves immigrants or first-generation. An uncertainty about which is better: trying to talk about students’ experiences with the risk of getting it wrong, or letting students tell their own stories with the risk of losing my historical (or general) authority. (The second one is always better, no question, but it’s hard!)

Jill Ogline’s description of NPS’s priorities also resonated with me: I want the students on my tour to have an enjoyable and comfortable time, possibly similar to the “good vibes” described by Handler and Gable, in the hopes that a positive experience will encourage them to visit museums in their free time. (Especially given that many of the students I guide are from demographics that tend to be excluded from these kinds of institutions.)

A main component of Stanton’s conclusions is that, to create effective and relevant interpretive experiences, we must embrace these discomforts and fears through a critical questioning of traditional narratives, systems of power, and our emotions and assumptions. As I further my career, study both the field of public history and the content, improve my interpretation techniques and even develop my confidence and comfort, I intend to follow Stanton’s advice.

Not just because of my own politics, but especially after the recent election. It’s barely been three days and the number of stories about hate crimes, threats, and violence is terrifying. While I have not yet experienced any direct harm and probably will not for a while, museums must take a hard stance to promote messages of unity and calls for mutual support while warning against the mistakes of the past. Morris J. Vogel, the president of the Tenement Museum, released a statement explaining,

We explain to visitors that Americans in the past sometimes lost confidence in their national future and lashed out against immigrants in reaction. We try to help visitors appreciate that immigrants often had to build new lives in the face of hostility. Generations of newcomers prevailed even in these circumstances; it is our strong hope that today’s immigrants will prevail as well. […] Renewing our shared commitment to tell stories of the American past can help us comfort and strengthen one another—and shape America’s future.

This is what I hope to achieve in my tours, when I give them – acknowledgment of the pains and triumphs of the past while asserting a hope that can only be achieved if we actively strive towards it. When developing tours, I hope to leave space for docents to have these tough conversations, supported by trainings that address topics like cultural sensitivity and skills like facilitated dialog and I ASK. I also hope to improve in these skills myself. I hope to use the museum as a space both to educate and validate. While I may not radicalize the children, I want them to leave my tours inspired to make the world better than it is right now.

Museum Education

Finally, the week I’ve been waiting for! Not just because museum education is what I do for a living, but because my education/preparation with it has been so “as needed” that I’ve been anxious for more resources to grow and improve.

My main interest in museum education – again, due to my job – is in school programs. Creating positive, educational experiences in museums for children is essential to helping them grow up into museum-going adults. [1] However, many of our readings this week, when they did discuss children, it was in the context of self-guided family units. Focusing on children accessing museums in this situation can be problematic; families that cannot travel to the museum’s location, parents that are too busy working to bring their children on an outing, or people who might feel excluded from an institution for whatever reason, are all left out of this scenario. While individual families visiting with children are an essential part of any museum’s visitor base, and while there are strategies museums can use to encourage excluded families to visit, school programs offer a structured opportunity for children to visit museums (where logistics are all taken care of!). Not only do school programs help students access museums regardless of economic or familial circumstances, but they also offer unique resources, a change of scenery, and fun activities that can’t necessarily happen in the classroom. [2]

I really loved The Museum Educator’s Manual, which elucidated a lot of areas (such as logistics and docent management) that I had never considered before starting my position. So much of my job involves helping docents, interacting with teachers, and doing promotional outreach, way more than actually giving tours to students or visitors. I’m terrible at organization and logistics, so I appreciate the authors laying out steps and advice, and I know I will return to this book for some upcoming projects I have planned (such as re-designing the professional development workshop I lead on object analysis).

The one aspect of museum education that I thought was curiously missing from this is the actual educating part. This is probably just the specific selection of readings we were given, but there was no discussion of how to create tours, or pedagogical strategies that lead to dynamic and educational museum experiences. (I did see a bit in the tables of contents, such as John Hennigar Shuh’s “Teaching yourself to teach with objects,” also found in The Educational Role of the Museum.) One of the most difficult aspects of museum education, in my opinion, is taking complicated subjects (such as the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, America’s response to the Holocaust, the movement to save Soviet Jewry…) and making it accessible to children while still keeping the subject rooted in its historical context and significance. As I mentioned in my post on exhibit labels, when you’re giving a tour, you can’t rely on self-editing and often have to improvise based on specific groups’ needs and interests, and regarding complicated subjects, I have trouble striking the balance between interpreting “too much” or “too little.” Maybe it’s just a skill I’m still in the process of developing?

You do see a bit of overlap with curricular creation in Judy Rand’s “Write and design with the family in mind.” While her essay focuses primarily on creating exhibitions that are family-friendly from the start, a lot of her techniques and emphases apply to creating family guides, or other worksheets that adults can use to translate an adult-oriented exhibition into child-friendly terms. Through supplementary materials that ask questions, help parents read out loud to their children, and express historical subjects in the first person, children are better equipped to actively immerse themselves into an exhibit. [3] Family guides are useful tools to offer to parents and can be very helpful for seeing the exhibition through a certain lens, or from a certain perspective. We have family guides for major holidays like July 4th, and we’ve created guides for certain audiences, such as finding parallels between Jewish and Catholic experiences when the Pope came.

As we saw in Creating Exhibitions, and like any other aspect of museum work, museum education is an art that requires a lot of collaboration (with curatorial, visitor services, development…), must be specific to each institution’s mission and resources, and cannot really be reduced to an exact, comprehensive “how to” guide. But these readings offer a really nice, though broad, idea of what museum education looks like.

captureSuccessful child-friendly interpretation can lead to super cute results like this letter, written with a feather quill and ink during a President’s Day family activity, which reads: “Dear President Jackson, I am not happy with your service to America. You  must treat everyone as equal. Yours truly,  Emmie B.”  Photo credit: the author.


[1] Charles F. Gunther, “Museum-goers: life styles and learning characteristics” in The Educational Role of the Museum, edited by Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (New York: Routledge, 1996) 124.

[2] Alan S. Marcus, Jeremy D. Stoddard, and Walter W. Woodward, Teaching History with Museums (New York: Routledge, 2012), 5.

[3] Judy Rand, “Write and design with the family in mind” in Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions, edited by D. Lynn McRainey and john Russick (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2010), 262-267.