Tuesday, April 25, 2006

My Folders at the McCord

I've just returned from a history education workshop in Vancouver, where I met Marie-Claude Larouche, co-ordinator of the online education program at the Musée McCord in Montreal. The McCord has digitized a large number of sources already, including more than 120,000 images, and has created a number of innovative online displays. One of my favorites is "Urban Life through Two Lenses" which uses some clever Flash programming to allow the user to superpose contemporary and historical photographs in interesting ways. The McCord has also contracted with historians to write a number of short tours of the collection, highlighting major events and aspects of everyday life.

So much is to be expected from a savvy museum in the 21st century. One of the innovative things the McCord has done, however, is to allow users to create their own tours through a My Folders mechanism. Anyone can create an account, select digital images from the McCord's collection, and use them to support a historical narrative. As an example of the potential of this, see "A Vile Style," a narrative created by Christy Yau, a student in Tom Morton's grade 10 history class at David Thompson High School in Vancouver. Using corseting as an example, Yau asks the question "Is fashion worth dying for?" She shows that nineteenth-century history can be relevant to present concerns. Her argument is well-supported by her pictorial sources, and charmingly written, e.g., "As one should know, the human body was never meant to be compressed to the point of deformity for the sake of fashion, or anything else, for that matter."

Tours written by students and members of the public are stored on the McCord's server and made available, with a disclaimer, on the web. This kind of mechanism has a number of important implications for the practice of history. For one thing, it greatly reduces the information costs associated with using a distant archive. It is easier for students at a high school in Vancouver to use the digital resources in Montreal than it would be for them to use the material resources in their own city. The McCord is also building a resource which can be used by scholars of history education and/or public history. How do people construct historical narratives from visual sources? What kinds of inferences do they think are supported or warranted by what kinds of sources? How do their understandings of particular sources differ from the interpretations of professional historians?

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