The Joys of Research in Heaven’s Vault

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Heaven’s Vault is a recent PC game by Inkle (the studio behind 80 Days, an excellent interactive fiction adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days). In particular, it is a game deeply concerned with the past. But… not our past. The game places you in the role of Aliya Elasra, an archaeologist living in a very foreign world – or, more accurately, worlds. Her Nebula is a beautiful space populated with distant moons and the flowing waterways that connect them. She is accompanied by a ancient robot, and travels in a skyship that’s a thousand years old. But for a game with such a intriguing but fictional universe, it still manages to depict the process of historical thinking better than anything else I’ve ever played.

See, Heaven’s Vault is a game about knowledge and understanding. To proceed, it’s not a matter of overcoming enemies or physical obstacles, but piecing together information. The core puzzles in the game revolve around language: you explore environments to find ancient inscriptions, building a working dictionary to translate them as you go. This allows you to understand your finds and draw larger conclusions about what has happened in the past. And – as often in history – each question you answer only raises further questions in turn.

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One major mechanism that allows all this to happen is the game’s timeline. As you discover things about the past, you automatically place markers that contextualize when they happened and how they relate to other events. But Heaven’s Vault has a particularly rich implementation of that simple concept. The notations and dates are tentative and theoretical – perhaps your first assumption is a particular site dates back thousands of years due to the stones used in a prominent statue. But then you come across an artifact whose design is much more modern, placing it as only a few hundred years old.

How can both make sense in the same context? Well, the discoveries are also realistically messy: maybe the reason you misdated the site is because it was actively used and developed over hundreds of years by different people itself. Historical eras are not hermetically sealed. Instead, the game naturally leads you to see the interactions of a fluid past, where one civilization may have built an object for one reason, only for a much later civilization to reclaim it to imbue with different meanings and context.

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But perhaps the best part of all is the way that this timeline extends all the way to the present. On the same screen, you can begin with the fall of an empire two thousand years previous, then scroll forward to a formative event in your childhood, and finally all the way to that time you almost fell off a bridge five minutes ago. In this way the game subtly shows that everything is history, and that the player themselves are not a disconnected neutral observer. The mere process of doing your research and making discoveries is a historical action in and of itself.

I have to admit, I am not an archaeologist, and my areas of study are extremely modern, not ancient. I’m also only partway through the game… there is a whole mysterious plot going on in the game’s present day, and I’m not exactly sure where it’s leading. But there’s something extremely compelling in the core way that Heaven’s Vault understands history, and empowers the player to see research itself as a fulfilling pursuit.

I’ve always seen the process of ‘doing history’ as interesting and fun. For anyone who has trouble understanding that, I think I now know exactly where to point them.

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#AskAnArchivist and #AskACurator Highlights

October is American Archives Month. #AskAnArchivist Day marked the start of the month by having archivists and archival institutions respond to Twitter questions that utilized the aforementioned hashtag. Questions could be directed to specific institutions or individuals by directly tweeting that museum, archive, or person in combination with the hashtag. #AskAnArchivist worked in exactly the same way as #AskACurator Day that took place on September 16, 2015. The importance and success of these social media events can be found in the statistics:

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In the digital age museums and archives have turned to the internet to find ways to reach larger audiences. Institution information such as hours of operation, events, and collections can be found online. Social media plays an important role in reaching audiences that may not otherwise seek out museums, historical sites, or archives. Events like #AskACurator and #AskAnArchivist encourage a social media collaboration of institutions worldwide to promote their respective professions. The more people taking part in the event and using a defined hashtag ultimately will help to move the hashtag up in the queue of trending Twitter topics. Trending hashtags reach even larger audiences because they are promoted within Twitter’s trending topics and are seen by people who may not have any idea that such a day existed.

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Mining the Public?

Mining the Public

I have an academic crush and his name is Fred Wilson.

Everyone in the public history world knows Fred Wilson and if you don’t yet you will. Fred Wilson is a conceptual artist who is known for his challenge to traditional presentations of art and artifacts. In the public history world he is most notably known for his exhibit for Maryland Historical Society titled “Mining the Museum” in which artifacts like a gorgeous European silver tea set was juxtaposed to slave shackles. The kind of thing he does unsettles and is amazing! He dug deep (“mined”) the museum’s collection to say something new and valuable. I am most inspired by him and that is where I get my blog title “Mining the Public”. For me, mining the public is my public history philosophy which essentially is the belief that the general “public” has incredible complexity and wealth of historical knowledge…

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Poo-tee-weet? #sitesofconscience

Originally posted on my blog, pH: public History basics on acid

Although sites like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of EuropeAuschwitzToul Sleng Genocide Museum, and Choeung Ek (Killing Fields) may be quiet, visitors are tweeting away. In the process of exploring the world of Twitter for my class assignment this week, I recalled an article documenting photos taken at concentration camps and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, posted on Twitter or Instagram, and accompanied by often downright offensive hashtags. Even the milder photos (by milder I mean that no one was smiling, jumping inappropriately on the memorial, or doing a thumbs up) took on an offensive and often ignorant tone when accompanied with hashtags like #chillin in #dachau, #beautiful, #Nice #Life, #Yolocaust, #Fantastic #Perfect #country, #hungry #and #cold, and #missing #this. How do hashtags change the meaning and tone of photos, especially those taken at sites of conscience?

On one of my first days in Siem Reap, Cambodia last year, I visited Wat Thmei, where a stupa holds the bones of some of the victims of the Khmer Rouge. My tuk-tuk driver waited patiently and watched me from the shade as I looked at the stupa and I took a few pictures. As I was getting ready to leave, he pointed to my camera and told me that he would take my photo in front of the stupa. I felt uncomfortable with the idea of taking a touristy shot in front of the bones of those killed under Pol Pot’s oppressive regime, so I politely refused. He insisted and said that it would be no problem and it would be a beautiful picture. Not yet accustomed to resisting persistent tuk-tuk drivers, I agreed. He said, “smile!” and counted to three.

The resulting uncomfortable picture
The resulting uncomfortable picture

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History in 140 Characters: Historical Accuracy in the Twittersphere

Note: This post originally appeared in my blog, Navigating New Media, which follows my journey through the Digital New Media public history course here at Loyola University Chicago. I encourage you to follow my future posts, as well as those of my classmates. Check out the blogroll on the class website!

I started using Twitter last summer during my internship with the Nantucket Historical Association as a way to post updates of my glamorous (and sometimes not-so-glamorous) #internlife. I shared photos of the painting workshops I ran for the NHA (and the wonderful ladies that came every week), the special events that we hosted at the Whaling Museum, and other historic sites that I visited on the island during my runs, bike rides, and beach days. It began primarily as a way for my friends and family to see what I did everyday and for me to share my exciting experiences, like taking our ArtifACK Cart out on to the museum floor.

Eventually though, I realized Twitter was something even greater than a simple microblogging platform. Twitter was more than a medium for sharing articles and other interesting finds on the internet. Twitter was a way to informally, but directly connect with historians and museum experts that I had always wanted to engage with. It made me feel like an important and contributing part of the #publichistory profession. And, because of this, I quickly realized that Twitter was the most incredible thing I had ever used. Again, bold statement (What is it with me and making bold, sweeping statements today? #problematic #letsthinkaboutthis #butreally). But it allowed me to share my thoughts in a concise and immediate manner with a network of public history and museum professionals. And they could respond, they could challenge me, they could reinforce what I was thinking, they could offer different perspectives. The ability to interact and network so concisely and so quickly with others in the field have made me feel more connected and included in the field, even if I’m still just a student at the very beginning of my professional career. I think, also, that this level of interaction has helped create a more inclusive and unified field, as it becomes easier to share new research, interesting finds in the archives, or important news from professional conferences like the National Council on Public History or the Society of American Archivists.

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Digital Exhibits: A Roundtable

As museums and historical institutions have increased their web presence, so too have we seen the rise of the digital exhibit. For public history graduate students, it’s almost impossible to escape a program without designing one of your own. Below, several past and current students of the Public History Program at Loyola University Chicago unpack the good and the bad of digital exhibits while adding some constructive suggestions along the way.

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It is obvious that entering a digital exhibit is different from crossing the threshold of a physical exhibit space. What makes this difference important to us as public historians is how people react to what is being presented. In contrast to entering a designed physical space, the “threshold” one crosses when entering a digital exhibit on a computer screen has the same sensory experience as buying books or looking up pictures of cats. It is just another “click” in a long line of “clicks.”

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A Dark Double Bind: Criminal Women in the Eyes of Reformers

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As part of a summer research project sponsored by the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University and the Carolyn Farrell, BVM, Professorship in Women and Leadership, I created an online exhibit exploring how the women of the Chicago Woman’s Club (CWC) shaped ideas about crime and proper womanhood around the turn of the twentieth century.  My research yielded troubling questions about the ways in which we historically—and contemporarily—talk about violent femininity.

I encourage you to explore the exhibit for some delightfully colorful language that makes the early Progressive Era an entertaining period of study.  In the meantime, here’s the main gist: the white affluent women of the Chicago Woman’s Club considered it within their distinct purview as wives and mothers to protect and reform delinquent children and criminal women in order to make Chicago a better, safer city.  Members of the CWC saw criminal women and delinquent children as both causes and victims of urban crime, a perspective which positioned the clubwomen as saviors of the women, children, and the city.

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Is That a Podcast in Your Pocket?

This post is 1. a long time coming, 2. was inspired by Annie Cullen’s Public History Mix Tape and 3. was secondarily inspired by my own desire to create the “Public History Graduate Student’s Collection of Books on Tape”. Podcasts have become one the most utilized tools for conveying information, their topics are countless and availability, for most, is open. And in our society of continual multitasking (driving and listening to music are multitasking) podcasts are a powerful tool in reaching the public’s ear. They can be used by professionals to engage the public, and in return podcasts are a forum the public can use to debate interpretations by leaving comments or creating their own.

As an avid multitasker, these are a few of my personal favorite History Podcasts.

1. Stuff You Missed in History Class: As the first podcast I ever listened to, this one holds a special place in my heart, also it is done so well. Dialogues are more interesting to listen to then monologues and this podcast always has two hosts. The topics are wide ranging and, most importantly, the hosts share the sources of their interpretation.

2. Memory Palace: This podcast is focused on social and cultural history, taking short historical episodes and highlighting their emotional impact. It will occasionally pull at your heart strings. If you are not a fan of StoryCorps, you probably won’t appreciate this one as well.

3. Backstory: As other podcasts do, the hosts of Backstory take current events or topics and trace their developments. However, having three historians, as their tagline says “18th century guy, 19th century guy and 20th century guy”, adds depth and perspective that many other podcast do not.

4. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: As the title states, this is “Hardcore History”. Although Carlin can be over dramatic and less analytical then others, he provides an interests interpretation that engages the listener and, hopefully, provokes them to think a little more about historical events.

There are many, many more, so please share your favorites and opinions on these.