This summer, PhD candidates Cate LiaBraaten and Sean Jacobson created a video series for the Frances Willard House Museum’s commemoration of the 19th Amendment Centennial. This series, Suffrage Sundays. explores the connections between the temperance movement and the suffrage movement. In this blog post, Cate and Sean discuss working on a public history project collaboratively. To view the Suffrage Sundays video series, please visit the Frances Willard House’s Youtube Channel. For more information on the intersection of temperance and suffrage, please see this blog post Cate wrote. Additionally, check out another project from the Frances Willard House: Truth-Telling project: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells.
Cate: Since I reached out to you about joining me on this project, what made you say yes? That is, what do you look for when taking on a new project, especially a collaborative one?
Sean: Honestly, the public history scene has felt pretty moribund since the pandemic. I had been hoping to get involved in volunteer work at public history venues during the summer, but when so many places closed, I had given up on things for a time. So when you reached out to me about Suffrage Sundays, I was thrilled to be a part of another collaborative project and apply skills I’ve gained both from my public history coursework and my training in video production. When taking on new projects, it’s always important to me that I’m doing something that either expands my historical knowledge or advances skills. Doing collaborative work is also helpful practice for anyone wanting to work in public history!
Cate: When it comes to technical skills, how much experience do you think emerging museum professionals need to have before taking on a project—is there room for learning on the fly?
Sean: I think technical know-how is becoming more important in making history accessible to younger generations. The pandemic has made this all the more relevant. That being said, the technology we have now on smartphones is to the point where you don’t need expensive equipment or a formal training in media studies to create good products. I think it behooves historians to pick up on basic video or editing skills because, not unlike writing books or creating exhibits, video production has largely to do with telling narratives. I think historians can overcome some of their intimidation by thinking about gathering footage, recording audio, and editing as analogous to stages of research. You can absolutely learn skills on the fly, especially if you pay attention to some basic tips and strategies (e.g., NEVER shoot in “portrait” mode on a smartphone, record human voices with an isolated audio track, etc.). There are tons of tutorials on YouTube. The best way to learn skills is actually by doing.
Cate: Sometimes it’s challenging for emerging professionals to do projects outside of a school setting or a highly formalized work setting. What are some ways you think people can make collaborative projects work when there’s no clear leader—no boss directly involved or professor?
Sean: I think what we did was delineate specific roles based on what each person’s strengths are. Since you know more about women’s history and the Progressive Era, I trusted your judgment when it came to what to include in the scripts, the images you wanted to include, and the overall purpose of the videos. Likewise, you trusted my judgment when it came to what B-roll footage to include, how to record your voiceover, and the inclusion of music tracks. It certainly helps that we already had that personal rapport with each other since we’re in the same PhD cohort! It’s definitely trickier when you’re collaborating with people you don’t know, so that’s why it’s important to articulate from the start what particular roles each participant has. When it’s a group of 3 or more, I think it’s always helpful to designate someone as a “project manager” to facilitate both internal and external communication. I also believe having a shared project folder in OneDrive or Google Drive is a must!
Okay, now my turn to ask you questions. What inspired you to undertake this Suffrage Sundays project in the first place? And why did you decide on a video series as a medium?
Cate: At the Willard House we’ve been planning on doing something to commemorate the 19th amendment centennial for a long time. We had a series of events for summer 2020 in the works and were kicking off Women’s History month in March when the COVID-19 pandemic really changed everything. I wanted to do some suffrage related programming that could be accessible to people at home. I considered building an online exhibit or website, but one of the Willard House’s most recent projects, Truth Telling, (led by Loyola PhD Candidate Ella Wagner) is on a digital platform, and I wanted to do something totally different–especially because that project already fits its medium so spectacularly! When trying to decide what to do, I came across a video series from the Smithsonian called “Light Talks” –two-minute videos about birds. I loved the two-minute video series format!
Sean: How did you go about selecting topics and featured items for the episodes? Would your process have been similar or different if you were choosing items to exhibit in a museum display?
Cate: I think it was very similar to creating an exhibit. I came up with a broad theme first: that suffrage work and temperance work were overlapping areas of women’s activism and leadership. Then I thought about what artifacts we had that tell that story. Some things I knew I wanted to use immediately, like the suffrage map. Other things, like the Lucy Stone letter, I found after our archivist, Janet Olson, directed me to suffrage-related materials in the archives.
Sean: What about writing the scripts? How did your previous public history training come into play when trying to write scripts for short videos?
Cate: Writing the scripts was both like and unlike other projects. In a way, I thought about what I would include when writing object labels–a balance of generalized information and information specific to the item. I also thought about giving tours of the house museum–what would I say (or have I said) to visitors about the specific objects if we were seeing them together and in person? I think teaching experience helped too, because there’s never enough time to say everything you want to say!
Sean: What did you learn from this project, and how would you do anything different for a similar project in the future?
Cate: I’ll start with the second question–one thing I might do differently is give more overview information upfront. Most of the audience of this series will likely already know what temperance is and who Frances Willard was. In a similar project I would likely broaden the scope. One thing I learned from this project was the power of networking (for lack of a better way to describe it). When I decided I wanted to do this project, I knew I didn’t have the videography skills needed to create as high-quality videos as I wanted, and fortunately I already knew you! I liked thinking of this project as an opportunity to highlight the strengths of a colleague as well as the story itself. I could have done the videography myself, but it would have turned out worse and taken more time! It was really nice to see what using different people’s skill sets can produce.