Feb. 20, 2007

The Six-Word Challenge

We’re discussing the encounter of history and fiction this week in Public History. The Six-Word Challenge is inspired by Hemingway’s “best work,” but the concept is easily adapted to fit this week’s topic.

The purpose of the Six-Word Challenge is to write a story that is fictional but refers to a historical event, movement, or figure. Obviously, the story must be six words long… although a Seven-, Eight-, or Eleven-Word Challenge might be more appropriate, depending on the group.

The leader should choose a theme for the group to focus on, and then participants have five minutes to write their own definitive work on the subject. Afterwards, participants can share their historical fictions with the rest of the group.

After playing Encore: History last week, Alan MacEachern suggested that we deconstruct the results of the game and types of films that came up in the course of playing. This was not only a swell way to transition from focusing activity to the day’s discussion, it also made us more aware of where historical film was heavy or light. In a similar fashion, Six-Word Challenge participants might try identifying patterns in the stories in order to understand what literary techniques or elements of history are used frequently or should be employed more often.

Hopefully this activity highlights for historians the challenge that authors face when producing a fictional account of a historical narrative. It will likely also help to identify where individuals sit on the spectrum of how much fiction and fact should be included in the novel based on historical events, which should make subsequent discussion exciting!


Feb. 18, 2007

History LP

After reading Molly MacDonald’s assertion that Canada’s English-singing talent wasn’t putting more effort into singing about Canada’s history, I thought, “Ha! I bet I can prove her wrong.”

Although my two-hour search was by no means exhaustive, it appears that it was I who was wrong. There are a lot of quality Canadian artists putting out music that refers to Canadian culture, but few songs deal with our history. Even Stompin’ Tom Connors’ songs were for the most part historical because of their age!

The lone song that I could that I was sure referred to Canadian History was Sam Roberts’ “An American Draft Dodger in Thunder Bay;” however, there were a number of songs by Sarah Harmer, Susan Aglukark, The Tragically Hip, Classified, Moxy Fruvous and The Weakerthans that could refer, in a poetic, abstract sort of way (Gord Downie – you make good music, but I don’t have a clue where you come up with your lyrics!), to Canada’s past.

So Molly, it seems that you’re right; we need to make some intentional music about Canadian History. I’m thinking we listen to The Guess Who, Sarah Harmer, Sloan, The Hip, Sam Roberts, Sarah Slean, and The Trews for our influences and think about what events have defined each decade since Confederation – that will give us about sixteen songs for our first album. That covers Confederation, every conflict Canada has been in, the addition of new provinces and territories, the expansion of women’s rights, aboriginal rights, and minority rights, prohibition, the evolution of the welfare state… and we can always sing about Prime Ministers if we’re a loss!

Feb. 13, 2007

Invention to Innovation Open!

This past weekend the Invention to Innovation exhibit at Museum London opened! This year’s Public History class has worked very hard to create an exciting presentation of the history of innovation in London, Ontario. We all hope that you be able to take the time to come visit both the museum exhibit and the virtual exhibit!

Encore: History

This week in Public History we are continuing to discuss how film can be used to inform an audience about historical events and movements. This week’s game is simply an adaptation of a classic game called “Encore.”

The purpose of Encore: History is to get the class focused on the discussion for the week, which in this case is history and film. The goal of the game is to think of the greatest number of unique movies, actors, or historical subjects.

Each player needs a piece of paper and a pencil. The leader than chooses a topic; for example, films dealing with history (It might be a good idea to specify a time period). Players then have five minutes to create a list of as many films as possible. At the end of the five minutes, players will share the title of one of the films that they brainstormed, starting with the player whose birthday lies closest to the professor’s birthday on the calendar. Once a film has been used, other players must cross it off their list, and it can no longer be used. The person who can go on listing unique movies for the longest wins bragging rights.

This is an effective focusing activity because it challenges individuals to come up with poorly-known films. As a result, more films are brainstormed than might be thought of by one person, and this larger list can be used in the subsequent discussion!

Have fun!

Feb. 9, 2007

Why Are Special Lecturers Coming During the Day?

Would it be too much to ask guest lecturers give their presentations in the evening rather than during the work day? Western’s History Department alone hosts almost one special lecture a week, and other departments at Western and other post-secondary institutions are likely doing the same. For the most part, these presentations are attended by a mix of students and professors with the odd listener coming from outside the university. For the many people working at the university who have a family to go home to, it is obviously more convenient for guest lecturers to come during the day; however, this arrangement excludes members of the working public who have an interest in a particular scholarly subject, be it the war in Iraq, the history of chemistry, or aboriginal issues.

As long as I have been a History student I have heard people say, “You know, I never liked History when I was in school, but I’ve really become a lot more interested in it as I’ve gotten older.” Special lectures might be a great way to take advantage of that interest; furthermore, inviting the public to these lectures would add value to a university’s presence in the community.

Although some of the special lectures at Western are publicized on posters, departmental mailings, and in the online event calendar, not all lectures receive the same attention and this information more or less stops at the university’s borders. How much more time might it take to place small ads on local community events websites or in a short weekly ad in the local newspaper?

Our Audience(s)

In Shrek 2, Pinocchio swings down into a jail cell to free his friends Shrek and Donkey. Unfortunately, he gets tangled up in his own strings on the way down. The Gingerbread Man, who has slid down to held the hapless puppet, needs Pinocchio to tell a lie so he can walk across Pinochio’s nose. Donkey suggests, “Say something crazy, like ‘I’m wearing ladies underwear.’” “Uh, I’m wearing ladies underwear,” Pinochio mumbles; movie viewers and animated characters alike wait for the nose to grow, but nothing happens! When we discover Pinocchio is wearing women’s underwear, younger viewers shriek with delight because a boy is wearing a girl’s underwear and isn’t that a funny thing Daddy? Older viewers laugh because they realize the irony of the situation: Donkey’s “crazy” statement turns out to be true, and Pinocchio’s taboo cross-dressing habits are unexpectedly and unintentionally revealed. (Gosh it’s depressing to deconstruct a joke!)

This moment exemplifies how film companies like Pixar and Dreamworks have successfully made the children’s movie entertaining for a broader age group. Well-known actors and actresses are now frequently the voices behind animated characters, and there are references made to popular culture that are well beyond the experience of the 4- to 12-year old crowd. What’s going on here?

Film producers have realized that parents will be more willing to take their child to the movie theatre or pop in that favourite video for the umpteenth if the movie being watched is entertaining for both child and grown-up. Consequently, it is a lot more interesting to watch Cars (which plays on NASCAR stereotypes), Robots (On putting together a robot baby: “Making the baby is the best part.”), or Antz (which has insect caricatures of all the people supplying the voices for the characters) than it is to watch The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, or The Lion King (which at best reinforce traditional gender roles, and at worst have hidden messages that earned Disney some negative media attention in the 1990s).

Museums are arguably a more constructive place to bring your kids on a Saturday afternoon than the movie theatre but are nevertheless being used as a form of entertainment. The question of whether History should be educational or entertaining is the subject of another post, but when museum curators and educational officers are targeting their audiences, they might be wise to take a page from Pixar’s book: think of children as the principal audience but remember that adults are present too. Activities should be designed to engage kids and get them interested in the subject, but there should be an added level of depth that will draw parents into the fun too!

Feb. 7, 2007

Shared Expectations and Goal-Setting (2)

I’m pretty convinced that Alan MacEachern eats Funny for breakfast; that or Wheaties, but either way, his Academic Alphabet has had me snickering in my sleeve. In my never-ending search to write Compelling History, I went to ask Alan how to be a funny writer. As I expected, it would appear that practice continues to make perfect. Subsequently, our conversation shifted to broader program goals. Although I sometimes find the broader aims of the Public History program a little elusive, the program’s flexibility is definitely one of its strengths.

It is therefore left up to me, to a certain degree, to set my own goals and then create some shared expectations with Alan. I think that goal-setting is incredibly important in order to maintain focus, stay motivated, be accountable, and measure success. I was surprised to discover in Museum Administration: An Introduction that goal-setting is important enough to be touched on in multiple chapters, but as I have been doing research for a summer internship, I have certainly come across mission statements that set rather unrealistic goals.

Goal-setting is the intentional act of considering your aspirations and laying out a plan and timeline for achieving those aspirations. Some people might think that the saying is cliché, but I’ve always been a “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars” sort of guy, so I think that if you follow SMART guidelines, you’re setting yourself up for a success. SMART, by the way, is what all goals should be: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-wise. Here are my goals for the rest of my Public History year:

1) Brevity in blog posts. Keep each post to one page in a word processor. Why? To practice being concise; to avoid boring the reader; to save time for other assignments!

2) Keep it positive. For every criticism, give a suggested solution. Why? To aim for humour; to remember that this is an awesome program and a fascinating field to be in!

3) Be consistent. Put up at least one post a week; keep same lines of argument running throughout posts to send overall message about Public History; work on at least one Python tutorial per month. Why? To maintain a steady flow of ideas for my millions of readers in the blogosphere; to develop useful, transferable skills that will make me an asset in a number of fields but particularly in Public History.

4) Play. Come up with an activity for at least one class each week, particularly Public History, that is good as a focusing activity; post a description of the activity on blog. Why? To encourage fun; to have fun; to practice what I preach.

5) Find an internship that gives me breadth of experience by offering a balance of office administration, education, interpretation, and interaction with visitors and the institution’s collection. Why? To develop as many skills as possible for use in the Public History field.

Shared Expectations and Goal-Setting (1)

I remember that when I was younger, my dad seemed to give a lot of presentations on the idea of “Shared Expectations.” At the time, I thought that Dear Old Dad was just throwing around some geeky business term; but after working in groups at school, work, and volunteer situations, I have realized that shared expectations help people with a variety of perspectives share and buy into a common set of objectives. For Dad, managers, employees, and customers needed to agree what the outcome of a particular project would be; likewise, we read this week about how a curator contracting out the installation of an exhibit should continually work to ensure that both museum employees and contracted workers are on the same page.

Since there is a possibility that public historians will be the curator’s position at some point in their career, it might be useful for students in this field to seek out experiences in creating shared expectations. In the Public History program, we have been working under a number of shared expectations; these are the ones that come to mind, but perhaps they need to be fleshed out more:

1) We will develop a quality museum exhibit and accompanying virtual exhibit, and in the process of doing so, learn about the steps necessary to creating an innovative and successful exhibit

2) We will learn about the history, theory, and practice of Public History through readings, discussion, and research in Public History, Archives, Digital History, and Museology

3) We will work in a collaborative environment

4) We will be free to focus our research and blogging on topics that interest us, within the limits laid out by the program and courses

5) We will come away with a good sense of many of the challenges and benefits of working the Public History field


There is a moment in the movie Hook when a square, serious, grown-up Peter Pan finds himself on a basketball court between two Lost Boys. “Play!” smirks one of the boys as he bounces a ball off Peter’s face. As Peter turns around to recover from this assault, he comes face-to-face with the second boy. “Play!” he exclaims as he heaves a ball into Peter’s gut!

Hey public historians!

In my experience, a warm-up game is a tried-and-true way to get a group of people – be they five-year olds, thirty-five year olds, or a mixed group somewhere in between – focused on a particular topic. Play is used across professions too; I’ve seen or heard about games being used to help groups both large and small get focused at conferences, weekly check-ins, workshops, and executive retreats.

Historians, particularly those interacting with publics on a regular basis, might want to remind themselves that they should be striving to relate History to their audience in a compelling way. Developing and playing History games on a regular basis would not only act as a reminder to make History compelling but might also make innovative programming come more easily (practice makes perfect). Meetings are a great place to try out new game ideas. People do their best work when they are motivated and focused, and intentionally-crafted games can help participants recall concepts from previous meetings, get individuals thinking about the day’s topic, and add a little good old-fashioned fun to complement the enjoyment derived from more serious academic discussion.

Some games will be a bust, but those that have promise might be adapted for a larger audience. When we were planning the Invention to Innovation exhibit and website in our Public History classes, we discussed the importance of catching our audience’s attention. We decided to use questions to get visitors thinking; however, activities that touch on the exhibit’s subject might be another way to raise an audience’s excitement about an exhibit.

You know the way you feel after playing a good game of road hockey on a chilly January afternoon? Imagine feeling that way after leaving a museum! Play!