My return to the reservation…

In a shocking turn of events, I not only plan to stay on topic… but also submit my commentary early!!! The weekly readings tend to invoke some inner turmoil that I need to express.. Luckily for all of you, this week’s assignment was rather tame and to the point. No emotions here. Strictly business.

Nancy Proctor has been involved on the professional end, with what we are experimenting with in this course. Museums are great for us ‘niche’-types who genuinely find them interesting and could be lost for days in a single exhibit. However, we are but a fraction of the general population, especially when it comes to a tourist-driven market. In order to make the average citizen excited about seeing a bunch of “old stuff” (as Bran Ferren called it), it’s the museum staff’s job to tempt them to not only walk through the doors, but also spend money to experience the museum.

When I was in Boston, my tiny art school provided us with free admission to the surrounding museums, largely the Museum of Fine Arts. I would go there at least twice a week, and spend at minimum, three hours usually focusing on a specific exhibit, painter, movement, or what-have-you. I rarely spent any money there besides an occasional bottle of water, and I’m sure my school’s contribution to gain us access to the MFA was much lower than if myself and my thousands of classmates were to be charged at every admission. We weren’t the focus of these measures that Nancy Proctor spoke of. Us art students may have experimented once and a while, but our purpose was to approach the piece in the mindset of our discipline, not be told how to do it. Same with Historians… we tend to want to immerse ourselves in the artifacts and construct scenarios and explanations.

My mobile app is to contribute to the general public history regarding the cultural movements in the city. There is no specific museum or organization that would be interested in funding the research or development for the application, however the individuals whose history and heritage is to be celebrated in this experiment would see it as invaluable. The liability in this is obviously the cost, which could be partially (or hopefully) recouped through the revenue created in subscriptions, advertisements, or purchases. The minimal (if any) profit would not allow this to be my hypothetical concentration, or make it feasible for anyone to hire me for this purpose. Add in the maintenance costs that Nancy spoke of, and you dive back ‘into the red’. This is where the benefit comes in…

An application such as the one I am developing is a wonderful marketing tool on so many levels. At the forefront, it celebrates the city. Beneath that you dive into a specific culture, movement, era, etc. that either celebrates your own, or makes you realize the significance of certain peoples and their part in the development of the city. The tourism opportunities for a purposefully marketed application could result in a large increase in revenue for specific museums or organizations that assist in promotion, as well as general revenue across the city.

This type of experimentation with mobile devices in a public history context does wonders for inspiring creativity in promoting a field that we are all passionate about. When I worked as an Interpreter, I saw it as my job to make even the most uninterested individual become fascinated with the site by the end of my tour. I have taken the exact approach with the development of my application. Hypothetically, if a person was to visit Boise and did a search for tourist applications, that the application they downloaded would not only serve as a personal guide for them to learn and interact with a strange city, but also hold onto as a keepsake of their trip and in turn, use it as a way to tell his or her friends about their visit. The circle of life goes around…

In the world of academia, it specifically helps with exploring other outlets for museum promotion. As students, we are focused on honing our craft and abilities so that they are useful in the ‘real world’. An increasingly important task for the public historian is to make the general public interested. The future of museums and the discipline as a whole is completely in the hands of the tourist. Their money is what drives exhibitions, restorations, and every preservation and promotional effort. Nancy raises the point of needing to ‘meet the guest where they are’. The cellphone that they are never without could be the way we can entice them into a building that they may not have considered going into before.

It is all well and good to interpret a site for a guest, however the goal for every public historian should be (as Nancy quoted Max Anderson) to bring “interpretation to conversation” – entertain and educate them in such a way that they not only engage the staff of the museum or physical surroundings, but also engage their friends, family, or strangers in a discourse. Word of mouth is the most powerful tool for a museum, and it is the task of the Historian of the present and future to implement the ways in which the average person can discover and immerse themselves in history.

Mobile-ness

I liked Nancy Proctor’s characterization of museums like the Smithsonian as “social networks.” I think that this was originally an important function of museums which unfortunately has been lost as exhibits have stopped encouraging museum-goers to tour in “herds” and instead have adjusted to focus on individual engagement. That is one aspect of the current museum culture (and indeed modern culture overall) that I don’t think mobile devices are going to solve; they seem to continue to promote individual isolation rather than interaction, although perhaps apps like Foursquare, etc. will change that.

Proctor’s advice that “profit should not be the imperative” in adapting mobile technology for museums was right-on. Since it has been shown that most apps do not generate even enough to cover developing costs, using mobile apps in museums (which already do not generate sufficient income) must be done purely out of good will towards the endeavors of education and visitor experience. Hopefully, as Proctor notes, the end of this will eventually be worth the means as visitors leave the museum “happier” and more willing to contribute financially to the institution.

The advantages to using mobile devices in museums and other public history projects are numerous. Perhaps most importantly, they allow visitors to control their own museum experience; they can tour at their own pace, choosing to learn more about what truly interests them rather than becoming bored with what does not. In this manner, mobile devices are an optimal format for other public history projects, and particularly useful for projects like my own, which is a walking tour. Walking tour participants can obtain all of the information they could possibly want using a mobile device rather than paper brochures or interpretive signs, because the mobile format can provide easy access to further information and research–an advantage that these other two formats lack. However, I am pessimistic about the value of using mobile devices in other venues such as college classes. While visitors to museums, etc. are generally voluntary visitors, students sitting in class do not always want to be there, so mobile devices more often than not provide an easy distraction rather than an educational aid. I do not think that mobile “learning” overall has the potential to provide a better educational experience than a talented teacher or professor…but perhaps that is just the Luddite in me speaking.

Hoping for Preservation-Reading Reflection

After reading the text, it was frustrating to read so many negative situations in which people are being mistreated and taken advantage of by big businesses and government bureaucracy.  In cases where the environment is being damaged and polluted, our citizens’ safety is being ignored.  In the case of PG&E and their hazardous dumping, it not only polluted the environment, it made people gravely ill and killed many others.  Once again when it comes to government agencies, when there is an issue, there are numerous loop holes, and confusing paperwork that typical people are unprepared to deal with.  Hiring lawyers is often impossible(too expensive) for many people to try to combat an environmental issue that they need to address.  Even King spoke about his frustration to help people in need, but that he needs to get paid too.

I thought the Rosas family was rather amazing, since they came up with two solutions that would limit or stop the blasting of canyon walls, and there would be no need to use bridges and embankments. They suggested running the second track along the same lines as the original track to reduce environmental impact. They also hired a civil engineer, Dr. Kamran Nemati who suggested putting the train lines underground and using a tunnel.  This would make the route safer because it would be a straighter route. Also, by using a tunnel the train wouldn’t have to deal with issues like rockslides, or animals wandering on the tracks.  However, how were the Rosas rewarded for their efforts, not at all.  The BNSF’s engineer Robert Boileau, said the tunnels were too expensive and impractical.  Basically they told the Rosas IDK…

There sure were a lot of acronyms in that book.  Since several of you posted some acronyms from previous jobs, here are some educational ones.  ELL English Language Learner, ED Emotionally Disturbed, EDSPED Special Education, SLC Small Learning Communities, IEP Individualized Education Plan.

To avoid being a dead horse…

I’m doing my best to not reiterate every post that has come before me in this week’s reading… Hopefully I’ll succeed.

I actually experienced the issues that Stephanie raised for her eventual post-collegiate endeavors. There I was, fresh with a B.A. in History… my only job offer was within the same agency I had been employed for the past two years. While my friends who dropped out of high school were earning $25/hour in Boston working in some facet of the Union world, I was pulling in a whopping $8/hour as the sole History graduate of that semester who actually worked in the field. The latter was much more gratifying than the prior.

I loved working for the Historical Society. My coworkers and the guests that walked through our doors were (for the most part) amazing. I did not enjoy the bureaucracy that came with working for a State agency. Every June/July during my time at the ISHS, I was waiting patiently for the next fiscal year’s budget to emerge in hopes that my meager wage would be included – hopefully in its entirety.

Another thing that left with with a bad taste towards being a State employee, were the endless loopholes and/or restrictions that limited our abilities as Historians. I all too frequently took liberty on certain projects that have otherwise gone ignored. The old adage, ‘it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission’ rang all too true. I couldn’t stand aside and watch a valuable site, building, or artifact decay due to ‘planning/budget issues’. The exact bureaucracy that most Americans feel is protecting our past, is actually what is preventing it in the first place.

Case in point: The next time you’re in the area of the Old Idaho State Penitentiary, go around to the East side of the property just outside of the wall. Here you’ll find a horse-drawn carriage with wheels buried in the ground and dilapidated wood decaying from the inside-out. The signage is as absent from the artifact as its protection from the elements.

I only found out what this carriage was by word of mouth from coworkers who had been in the agency longer than I’ve been in Idaho. It is one of the few, if only, of its kind in the world that belonged to the Morrison-Knudsen Company. This gravel carriage had been a part of a company that was the first of its kind in Boise that reached greater fame through work on the Alaska Pipeline, Hoover Dam, Kennedy Space Center, and other architectural projects worldwide. In a state where local history usually is scarce and not too significant on a global scale, you’d figure that this would be one of the treasures stowed away in a place of pride in any of our museums (the Old Pen has almost an entire building dedicated to horse-drawn vehicles). Instead, this artifact is left to decay. Moving it has been a long lost possibility, as it is in no condition to be moved or rehabilitated at all. The metal braces have rusted, the wood looks like a collection of splinters barely being held together. A piece of history ignored and neglected because the budget and the concerns of the State did not include it.

MythBuster?

When King talked about the common myth that most Americans have about their heritage sites being protected, when that is in fact not the case, I have to say I was one of those Americans. I guess I just assumed that if a place was valuable(though on what scale?) it would just seem obvious it would remain protected. And I admit, I never thought about it much further than that. I guess I thought that unnamed “they” would take care of it. So the book scared me. It reminded me of a quote I heard someone say recently, and upon which there are thousands of variations, that a problem is only as important as the people who see it make it. A building, site, etc. is only as important as the community it resides in deems it. I think what is interesting is: as Americans do we pick too many or too few sites for our heritage? I heard once that to Europeans 100 miles is long, to Americans 100 years is long. I think it is interesting to see not only how the sites are protected, or not, but also how they are chosen- which might be a bit off topic.

My Federal Woes

Thomas King let the heritage laws really have it in his book. The sad thing is that at the end of May I am going to attend Section 106 training in Seattle. Now I’m left with the question: what is the point? How will I be any different than the rest of the people that King rails against? Will I just be a client’s advocate for their projects, even if they will destroy significant historic buildings? I think I will be one of the well meaning ones, but will my actions just perpetuate the uselessness of the laws? Can new trainees introduced to Section 106 begin to change the status quo? I do think that if we can appeal to all conservatives and liberals alike, perhaps this is the time that the laws can be reformed to better protect our environment and our cultural landscapes. An appeal to private property rights and traditional ways of life might work to build support for this reform. And if it proves to save money, there would be more support. I was expecting that King would leave me with more enthusiasm and that change could happen to the laws, but I am about as discouraged as I was from the first chapter. My only comfort is to try and define how I will operate within the system, and to keep in mind what King has written. But isn’t that how we got where we are?

Our Unprotected Heritage

Thomas King’s book was eye-opening, but definitely not surprising. If you had asked me about my knowledge and/or opinion of NEPA and NHPA before reading this book, I would have certainly used the word “inadequate” in my answer, but I would not have been able to give an answer that was nearly as well-thought out.

I did respect King’s opinion that NEPA and HPA do not and should not dictate that all heritage be preserved instead of satisfying present-day needs (15). If he had not have laid that down at the beginning of the book I might have pegged him for a hardcore at-all-costs preservationist. Instead he is advocating for EIA and CRM processes to be taken more seriously, given proper thought and consideration, and to become more than just “getting and giving clearance” for projects (141). This doesn’t seem like it should be a huge problem, but the obstacles standing in the way regarding big business, bureaucracy and the nature of the system itself (EIA and CRM specialists often working for the project proponents themselves) are overwhelming. It was not quite the feel-good book of the year for me, but this subject seems absolutely necessary for people in the public history field to understand.

Government agencies

I don’t have a story that is about historic preservation, but I have one about my one and only actual encounter with a government agency developing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that happened last summer. The Snake River Alliance (SRA), Idaho’s grassroots watchdog group concerned with all things nuclear and/or related to alternative energy sources, was able to get the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to hold a hearing in Boise, as well as Idaho Falls, about the proposed permitting for a French company called Areva to build a uranium enrichment facility in Eastern Idaho. They want to put it out in the desert by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) (which was given that name in 2005, though it used to be the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (INEL) in 1977 and then became the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) in 1997). Anyhow, all these people got up and testified for or against granting the permit. My take was that those who were for the permit were business and civic leaders who were very concerned about the economic impact of such a huge project and what it could mean for jobs in Idaho. Those who spoke against the permit were citizens from many different walks of life, many with strong science backgrounds who gave examples of the environmental impact…impacts on the Snake River aquifer, the safety of animal and plant species in the area, the fact that there were wildfires nearby last summer and the question of the ground being seismically unstable. In the end when the report came back from the NRC this spring, (according to Liz Woodruff, the executive director of the SRA, who waded through it) they recommended granting the permit because there were NO environmental impacts that fell outside certain guidelines to be of enough concern to deny the permit. I admire anyone whose work involves dealing with government agencies. King’s book didn’t have any examples of positive outcomes and I wish he’d given some.