Combining the Sound and Sight of History

 

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Immigration, by Anna Zarshin (2017)

As we draw close to the end of the semester and of my first foray into public (and digital) history, I return to a question that has remained with me since starting this blog: in what way can we produce public history in a way that represents multiple experiences effectively? How can we use the digital form to craft narrative?

Projects like “Immigrant Stories” provide an example of how digital public history can be created and utilized for the future. This online project, ran by the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, features exhibits, oral interviews, and curricula ideas aimed at helping to guide teachers in how to discuss immigration issues and experiences in the classroom.

The representation of said experiences (as well as the site’s use of multimedia) shines through on its “Stories for the Classroom” page. This page features videos and transcripts of immigrants and new generations of citizens describing the journey their families have made to the United States and the struggles they faced along the way.

As tools aimed at the classroom, many of these short biographies tell engaging stories by effectively combining narration and music with photographs or videos.

In the video above, for example, Magnolia Yang Sao Yia (born in France, but raised in Detroit, Michigan) talks about her family and recites a poem capturing her love and appreciation for Hmong dance and its role in identifying her family’s roots in Southeast Asia. Splicing together home movies and pictures of herself, her family, and history with tight narration, this “digital story” has the potential to engage students and casual fans of history with empathy for its subject matter.

Other stories take advantage of the creative works created by their subjects in order to illustrate their stories and voices.

In the video below, Banlang Phommasouvanh (originally of Laos) draws upon her experience as a public school teacher to tell her story through a storybook that she authored and has used in her own classes.  Listening to her story about her family’s  journey to the United States juxtaposed with cartoons of her family and defining events in her life (especially the Vietnam War) allows viewers to empathize with and better understand these experiences.

 

The quality of the “Stories”, in their ability to balance and wed visual and narrative information, is not evenly distributed. Some, like the story included below, rely heavily on still photographs and narration unaccompanied by music or any sort of creative punctuation. Without a more consistent standard of varying media and presentation, it is likely that stories such as this will be less engaged with by academic and popular audiences, making it difficult for the videos to speak to each other.

Making Public History

Creative differences aside, “Stores for the Classroom” has great potential as a public history site.

The best of the stories avoid a bland formula of Omeka pages filled with text, punctuated with a few photographs, and oriented entirely toward the historical, and instead focus on the humane aspects of immigration history. Watching young girls dance the same styles practiced in their culture for generations and listening to a speaker narrate a literal storybook of their lives is crucial for not just explaining the history of immigration during their times, but what that process meant to them.

For our class, my group project teammates (Bianca Barcenas and Zack Stella) and I have been trying help people represent their experiences in the same way by creating an online photo exhibit that would both illustrate changes to industry in Gary, Indiana overtime and allow residents to share their personal histories in and around areas affected by these changes. In so doing, we, too, have had to grapple with questions of how to capture and represent the voices of the communities we seek to engage, rather than to speak on their behalf or to allow photographs of shuttered factories and narratives of the “rustbelt” of the Midwest do the same.

Fulfilling this goal of accurately portraying someone else’s history will always be difficult for public historians. There may be points at which our project will fall short of that standard.

In the end, all that we can do is to continue to try to use the voices of the past as much as possible and as many mediums as it takes to bring their stories to light and understanding–to see the past as it was and to hear what it has to say.

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