Can History be Photogenic?

I have talked a lot about “the web” and history lately. We have already seen the potential in Twitter and author-created websites for generating or sharing historical knowledge, but what about other social media?

Many of my peers in Professor Robert’s course have written about the use of Instagram, in particular, as a platform. While part of me wishes to cite another example, I struggle to name another that I have used as often for entertainment, updates, and exposure. It would be difficult to deny that Instagram has grown to such scale and depth that it could be a model for what Sam Han and others considers the “Web 2.0.”

First, a brief history.

Instagram was founded in 2010.

Co-founder Kevin Systrom created the first ever post on July 16, 2010. This photo, taken of his dog at a taco stand in Todos Santos, Mexico, like others early in Instagram’s life, was simple in terms of the features it offered. A photo, a caption, a comment section, and like/share buttons. That’s it.

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Kevin Systrom (@kevin) on

Over the years, Instagram has added features and tools that have helped to distinguish itself from other media sites as a Web 2.0 platform. As my colleague, Anna Claspy, traces in her own blog (which I highly recommend), the addition of a web-browsing interface, video sharing and instant messaging and even “stories”–that is, photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours–have helped make Instagram more than just a photography app.

Instead, it has become an easy-to-use tool across multiple devices capable of generating discussion and exhibiting recent and distant history in a variety of forms.

Pilsen Chicago Pic
Pictures of murals found along the overpass bordering 16th street in Pilsen, Chicago.

The use of location tagging, for example, has been particularly helpful as an organizational tool and as an avenue for engaging target communities. The ability to map and tag where an artifact, building, or experience exists not only helps to ground history into physical space, but can invite contributions from others who appreciate the history behind the picture.

Many institutes and organizations devoted to history and the humanities operate their own Instagram pages, offering their followers updates on ongoing projects or previews of future events or exhibits.  Some, such as the Chicago History Museum, have even used the platform to regularly engage in object history to mark the significance of items in exhibit.


With all that said, is Instagram a flawless Web 2.0 tool for public historians? Probably not.

The organization of content on Instagram leaves much to be desired. For individual and organizational accounts, posts may only be displayed chronologically by upload date or by the number of likes. The inability to, for example, search for a particular post on a museum Instagram page makes it difficult to envision using Instagram as an archival source.

As we have seen with history websites as well, the quality or durability of an organization’s Instagram page can diminish without regular use or updates. Unsupervised accounts can make for easy targets for bots, spam, and other unwanted content, whose presence could turn away audiences interested in the creator’s content.

In terms of discussion, Instagram does have the capability to tap into and spark conversations with subject tags, location markers, and informative captioning. By that same token, however, posts could be subject to trolling, inflammatory comments, or invalid flagging for removal–for instance, if a piece of art features nudity.

Overall, I would argue that the benefits of Instagram as a tool for public history outweigh the limits and risks it shares with other social media.  Its accessibility on mobile and laptop devices, ease at finding tagged content scholars and the layman care about, and connectivity other forms of social media and web content makes Instagram a great, potential nontraditional tool at engaging in public history.

Perhaps the greatest strength and challenge in Instagram lies in its non-linearity, both in terms of the ability to segregate content you want and to avoid entertaining (but distracting) material unrelated to the knowledge we wish to gain or share with others who share our interests.

It is by no means a replacement of other methods of sharing content and communication, but with a determination to maintain and publicize content in such a way that peers and the interested public can find, public historians should be able to count upon Instagram as just one of many tools in their academic arsenal.



Unraveling the History Web

Last week, I talked about the benefits of using Twitter as a platform to share work and news in the historical community. The organizations and individuals I have found on Twitter have proven time and again the potential of online platforms for reaching audiences and peers.

That being said, how are scholars using “the web” to author original content or collections of historical material in the form of archives or class sites?

Reference sites such as list dozens of active sites separated by field, time period, and theme. From public organizations like the National Archives or the Library of Congress, to academic sites from universities such as George Mason University, the size of the history web is vast and growing.

Digital History Home Page Shot
The Home page of “Digital History,” with a table of contents as well as a clickable timeline with links to different periods in American history.

One site that caught my attention was one designed by the College of Education at the University of Houston simply titled “Digital History.”

After exploring the website, it became clear to me that Digital History satisfied many of the advantages of the medium that David J. Cohen and Ray Rosenzweig listed in their book, which is also titled Digital History–that is, non-linearity, interactivity, and accessibility.

Choosing Your own Adventure

On the site’s home page, users can utilize a table of contents to search through material by historical period or topic, as well as by function, such as lesson planning, interactive activities, or multimedia. Additionally, by clicking on any one of the historical periods (such as the Progressive Era), users can access a wide range of period-specific materials–  pdf files of primary source documents, music playable by stream on a popup tab, art and photographs, handouts or quizzes, to name a few.

These functions grant students and teachers the ability to pursue topics on a chosen path, with opportunities to interact with different kinds of sources and media along a self-guided, nonlinear path.

Additionally, Digital History goes to great length to connect students and teachers with other  websites or digital archives that are either drawn upon or that offer additional information they may find useful. “Resource Pages” provides links to primary source material on third party sites–such as the “Famous Trials” archives developed by the University of Missouri, Kansas City–that focus on more specific topics related to American history.

In so doing, Digital History both makes its own resources more readily accessible to both students and educators, while also introducing its users to a larger network of historical and digital humanities materials and websites.

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Lingering Issues

Digital History is, however, not without its flaws.

Though it seems to promote interactivity with students, the technological requirements of the website make it difficult to access all of Digital History’s features. For instance, some “eXploration” modules with activities designed for student input require using a specific version of the Windows Media Player to access content.

Although the authenticity or accuracy of the site’s historical content seems consistent, it becomes clear upon closer inspection that it requires further maintenance and updates. Some of the links to featured archives of primary source material, for instance, failed to connect to the original archive’s website.

Furthermore, it seems as though the site’s creators sacrificed opportunities for greater interactivity with their target audience for quality control.

According to Digital History’s “Credits” page, the site was a collaboration of professors from the University of Houston, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Hawaii. Nowhere is it indicated whether student-created content or feedback was utilized in the design of the site.

Thus, the well-curated store of sources and activities of Digital History remains a one-way style of learning (from its creators to its audience).  To avoid fatigue or passivity on the part of students, the sites’ creators should seriously consider opening up opportunities to publish user-created content, such as projects that utilize their collected material or student-led, original research.

Overall, Digital History represents a good history website that could better serve as a hub for digital humanities. Its vast content and use of third-party sources is certainly a great resource for historical education. If it were to provide more opportunities for input to the public it serves, however, Digital History would go much further toward making education not just digital, but communal as well.

Continue reading “Unraveling the History Web”

History in 280 Characters

When you think of historians, what do you picture? A bunch of older academics reading books and writing in leather armchairs?

In last week’s post, I examined how Jeffersonian era citizens reacted to physiognotraces (or shadow silhouette portraiture) and discussed how historians ought to evaluate what “new” media contributes or signifies in their unique historical contexts. One such medium that is now embraced by the public and, increasingly, by historians is social media–in particular, Twitter.

Like Facebook and other sites, Twitter has proven to be an accessible tool for anyone to share or digest entertainment, news, or information in general. With that goal in mind, some public historians, humanists, and universities have been using this platform to share their work and that of others to inform and provoke curiosity in the digital commons.

One of the benefits of Twitter is that content is easy to search for and find. Utilizing hashtags or usernames that are unique to organizations or neighborhoods, for instance, allows content related to those identifiers to be easily found. The ability to share links to larger articles or websites with hyperlinks also allows creators and educators to provide content to their audiences without sacrificing the brevity in length for which Twitter is known.

In so doing, public historians can make and share content relevant to particular neighborhoods, such as #RogersPark or #WestRidge, as well as the National Council of Public Historians (@NCPH) in a way that is easy to read and share with others.


Boyle Pic

Posts from the Twitter homepage of Dr. Rachel Boyle, a Fellow at the Newberry Library Mellon Major Projects.

Academic institutions and digital humanists have also kept pace in adopting Twitter for their own unique goals. Many have taken to the platform not just to publicize work, but to bring to light issues not just impacting their campuses (such as union disputes or emergencies), but to broader concerns facing their field and discipline.

For instance, the recent fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro (#MuseumNacional) has provoked reflections among historians and humanists about how easily historical memory can be lost and the importance of building and maintaining museums and archives for the public bodies they serve.


Current top posts from a  search for #MuseumNacional page on Twitter. 

Meanwhile, academic institutions and historical and humanist organizations have increasingly used Twitter to inform the digital public about the latest projects and achievements being made in the field. Digital Humanities Now, or #dhnow, provides links to job postings and articles targeted at digital humanists for their benefit.

@csuDigitalHumanities of Cleveland State University and (sigh) @LUCTSDH of Loyola University’s Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities are both good sites that regularly post new material and updates about achievements by their members and ongoing projects and events at their campuses.

In spite of its popularity, Twitter does have certain disadvantages the aspiring academic or artist should consider before embracing it as a medium.

As I have mentioned, the character limit (though now higher at its current 280 cap than before) can be a hurdle for scholars who tend to be verbose and write perhaps more than is needed…such as myself.

Furthermore, by putting out your job title, personal information, and work, you submit yourself to the public eye. Should controversy erupt over a subject you cover, your site could become a site for biting criticism and vitriol from readers.

And, as the saying goes, once something is put on the Internet, it is there forever. That means self-editing is of the utmost importance.

None of that is to say we, as creators or consumers of shareable knowledge, should avoid Twitter like the plague. It, like other media, retains the power to share meaningful information and human experiences with a wide audience. Its quality as a medium depends entirely on how it is used. With editorial discipline and patience with the invisible community they serve, the aspiring public historian or digital humanist could better pursue their mission of education on Twitter and enhance (rather than diminish) their reputations and intellectual reach as scholars.


“A Medium in Shadows:” The Physiognotrace and Issues of Portrayal in Historical Media

How many pictures do you own? What do they say to you about the places and people they capture?

For the historian, visual media such as paintings or photography can present a dilemma. On the one hand, they can shed light simply illustrate forces, events, and characters at work in the past. On the other, they could simply be a suave presentation of facts or features intended to create a narrative.

How people measured the veracity and significance of their chosen media can help determine both their subjective value and their contribution to historical narrative.

Take, for instance, the “physiognotrace,” a technology that created “shadow silhouette” portraits that trended in popularity at the beginning of the 19th century. As Wendy Bellion details in her chapter “Heads of State” for the book, New Media: 1740-1915, this device marveled museum-goers on the Eastern seaboard by recreating profiles in black and white on paper or cloth.

For a small fee, visitors would sit on one side of the device and roll a five-inch length of brass along the side of their head. Upon doing so, a stylus attached to this brass would make inch-long cuts into the paper to create the resulting shadow portrait.

Image result for physiognotrace

Though the concept behind this portraiture was not new (Bellion cites precursors earlier in the 18th century that used candlelight), the reasons for its popularity during the Jeffersonian period were unique.

At the same time, as Bellion mentions, Enlightenment-era values of presentation in the public eye retained a central role in determining social status. The ability to afford quality clothing and to commission paint portraits were just a few markers of such esteem.

The physiognotrace appealed to the broader public by granting access to more affordable forms of self-presentation.

Attendees to the Pennsylvania State House Museum (where the device premiered) and other institutions where the technology was replicated obtain portraits for only the cost of the paper. was promoted by its inventor, John Hawkins, the museum, and members of the press for its ability to capture the likeness of the average museum-goer; to represent those often underrepresented in their time, due to class and wealth. (Bellion 46-47)

Indeed, both the author and historical characters seemed to grasp a deeper, democratic significance to this portraiture technology in its ability to provide citizens an affordable way to seemingly enhance and perform their appearances in visual art.

Such was the popularity of this device at the Pennsylvania State House museum (producing enough original portraits to be stored by the barrel) that Bellion called it a “visual analog of the imagined place Jeffersonian political subjects,” one capable of merging “both the subject and the act of representation.” (Bellion 38,48)

Image result for physiognotrace

This technology, like many others, however, had both limitations and unintended consequences that complicated it’s status then as modern media that served to advance progress.

As Bellion implies toward the end of her chapter, portraiture technology and the philosophies of evoking one’s nature through bodily representation was used toward darker ends. The “father of eugenics,” Francis Galton, for instance, utilized photo negatives of criminals in order to attempt to prove that people with certain facial or skeletal structures were more prone to crime or buffoonery, a concept that would be utilized on behalf of scientific racism and profiling. (Bellion 51)

Additionally, in spite of their claims of accuracy and public availability, the creators and promoters of the physiognotrace tried and failed to prevent their technology from being copied by others, and admitted to limitations in the device’s ability. Bellion even concedes that silhouette portraiture never matched the popularity of neoclassical art, perhaps due to wedded values of greater public representation and attention to appearances (facial and otherwise) in Jeffersonian society. (Bellion 51)

Still, the limits of this device have not staved off descendant technologies of visual portrayal closer to the present.

As Bellion’s chapter reminds us, new technology in the context of a particular period will always have its own advances, limitations, and unintended consequences. More importantly, the seeming objective accuracy of a visual medium, like other sources, retains the power to convey narrative, not just historical truth.

As a historian committed to producing media for you, the audience, I have to check that the content I create presents facts, not just my perspective. The relative novelty of this blog compared to “old media” such as books and pictures does not diminish its ability to say as much about me, its author, as my chosen topic.

And yet, historians must persist with the most modern tools they have at hand for the qualities and limits they offer.

In so doing, we, like our predecessors, submit ourselves to historical analysis and judgment in the future.

In so doing, we too become “both the subject and act of representation”.


Wendy Bellion, “Heads of State: Profiles and Politics in Jeffersonian America”, in Lister, Dovey, Giddings, Grant and Kelly, New Media: A Critical Introduction (MIT, 2010), pp. 31-59.