“Yes, it’s finally over!” Imagine that line said in heavily German-accented English. It was a line in my first movie, coincidentally made and set in Rostock. It wasn’t supposed to be the movie’s catchphrase, but it pops into my mind whenever I finish something that took a long time or a lot of effort. This project and course were time-consuming and challenging. Unfortunately, early on in the semester, I experienced personal setbacks that made completing tasks difficult. However, I gained knowledge and new skills. Overall, I feel happy that I took this course.
Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to meet or take courses with Dr. Claudia Mesch as an undergraduate at Arizona State University. In addition, no professors in GMU’s art history department specialize in Cold War art. However, this course allowed me to research public art in the GDR, a topic that I otherwise would not have gotten the opportunity to study at Mason. (The original project topic I had in mind was the art collections of dictators, but I was scared off by the public engagement requirement and decided that would be a better subject for a research paper.)
Building the prototype consisted of trial and error, with an emphasis on error. I took this course as a one-off after giving up my place in a required course because history majors needed to take it to graduate. I was one year away from graduation, so I obliged. Unfortunately, due to scheduling, I couldn’t take HIST 680, the replacement option, so Dr. Platt suggested this course. I thought it aligned with my work as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Special Collections Research Center and received permission to enroll.
Unfortunately, I had fewer transferrable skills than I thought. It probably would have been beneficial to have taken an introductory digital history class because I lacked experience with digital public history technologies. I experienced a steep learning curve using Omeka. I felt frustrated by its limitations and installed at least ten plugins to acquire additional functions. Unfortunately, the video importer plugins crashed my site. I overthought the bilingual functionality. As a result, I also overthought the navigation. Bilingual navigation functionality was also limited since Locale Switcher cannot translate custom navigation.
Because I am taking this course independently of the certificate program, seeing and hearing about my classmates’ work was invaluable. As someone studying to be a curator of 21st-century contemporary art, I had no idea how to use exhibit builder. I learned how to use it more effectively than I had been by seeing my classmates’ projects. In addition, I realized that perhaps I had been holding myself to an unrealistic standard by keeping Dr. Greet’s Transatlantic Encounters site as my model. We are students working without the aid of professional developers or grant money.
I was nervous about the peer review process, but it was helpful. My review partner, Ursula, gave valuable suggestions on how to make the navigation effective for average users. She also told me I had put so much information into my item descriptions that they supplied sufficient historical interpretation. So even if users don’t read anything else, they will be well informed. That helped me relax about the exhibit pages, which I had been obsessing over.
Since I used to live in former East Germany, I was enthusiastic about my subject. However, I also overthought what to include by trying to make my items a representative sample of public art in the former GDR. My ideas were overly ambitious and required more research than was feasible this semester. Nevertheless, it was hard to let this project go and consider it finished enough to submit. Even now that I have submitted my project, I am still thinking about what I could add to the site. I do not have a job or internship this summer, so I will continue to update it.
I have some experience creating digital public history websites. Check out The Mason Experience: Past and Present, launching later this month! I wrote those articles with students and alumni in mind instead of professors and professional historians. Although I am not a professional archivist, my experiences working for and creating content for Mason Libraries shaped my initial approach. However, I did not realize this until I received feedback on my metadata in Omeka. In addition, I was surprised at how attention spans have changed since I worked as a web designer 20 years ago. Therefore, I needed to keep my target audiences, their variety of options, and their limited attention spans in mind.
I found the advice and feedback I received from Dr. Mills Kelly encouraging and helpful. He did an excellent job letting me know what could be better without making me feel criticized. It’s a rare gift when a professor gives feedback that makes the student think, “They’re right. It would be better if it did it differently,” and feel empowered to create the best final product they possibly can. I am a first-generation, nontraditional, disabled Chicana student. I would not have been able to succeed this semester without Dr. Kelly’s exceptional support and encouragement.
Finally, I enjoyed learning about digital public history and seeing the various projects that universities, museums, nonprofit organizations and regular people have created. It is a broad field that offers something for everyone. However, that can also make it difficult to stand out. Although I am not participating in the certificate program and my digital public history project for the Special Collections Research Center concludes in 2 weeks, I am interested in participating in future digital public history projects.