Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Story in Stories Past

I’m currently picking my way through Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?: The Net's Impact on Our Minds and Future there are many ideas in this book (a future blog will be a review) but it made me think about how much has changed in last fifteen years, and how Stories Past developed.

We started from an episodic story Stoney Grove which debuted in March 1998. It ran through three seasons, and is the story of an Englishman and an American women who meet, win the lottery, buy a ‘great’ house in England and finally fall in love. We did three seasons and concluded with a live interactive wedding. The site used multiple narrative techniques – emails, diaries, newspapers, direct chat and letters (it was the old days!). It also used dynamic html to present the story.

From this site we created an education module. Students were asked to explore a version of the house and try and discover the who, what and where – who lived there, when they lived there, what was happening to the family, and what was happening in the world at that time. We were completely na├»ve when it came with working with schools and, though we did have some great feedback from a number of students who used it, we never were able to go “commercial.”

So we took the ideas and techniques we’d developed went to museums and archaeology programs and said, let us do this for you using your content. Since then keeping up with the technology changes is a constant challenge but the range of what we can do now is extraordinary. If you can describe what you want, we can find a way of doing it. But our approach is informed by some of the ideas we had when creating Stoney Grove: learning works best when it’s contextual, some (though not all) students learn more from an active/interactive learning style, and that a good module is exploratory and non-linear.

If you’ve got a few hours Stoney Grove is still online!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Using Primary Sources

I’m working on an education module which uses eighteenth century land patents. The module will be part of a new web site “Engaging the Piedmont: Transitions in Virginia Slavery 1730-1790” (more soon!) Archaeologists, as well as historians, use primary documents such as probate inventories and patents to gain a greater understanding of the sites on which they work.

Not only are many of these documents not available on the web, they are written in eighteenth century script. Fortunately technology can at least help students start to work with primary sources. The module below is part of a larger piece we did for the Virginia Department of Historic Resource “What Do Archaeologists Do?”

I’ve had a few people ask if they can just buy the translate box but, unfortunately, there’s a little smoke and mirrors there! It based on an idea I saw years ago “Martha Ballard’s Diary” a great site exploring primary sources. Interactive content can help students get started in looking at difficult material, but it can’t replace research quite yet.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Should You Object? Mount Vernon Midden Archaeology

New projects are always fun! Over the next few months I’ll be working with the archaeologists at Mount Vernon. We will be creating a web site based around the South Grove Midden, which is currently undergoing re-analysis. At its core will be objects: The 400 - more interesting that the 300 any day! These selected objects provide insights into the site, time period and life at Mount Vernon.

The archaeologists at Mount Vernon have prepared a comprehensive information framework for the objects. The stratigraphy of the site (detailed in supporting field and methods documentation) supplies the temporal context, and there will be a range of documentary material (including timeline, inventories and merchants accounts), along with other pages, to provide a thematic and historical context.

The fun part of the project (for me) is creating a design that helps not only in finding the objects, but in the relationships between them. Within this discrete time period it should be possible to support general queries with a structure that shows related objects, and suggests other interesting pathways through the collection and associated material.

The site is just part of the outreach. The Midden already has an active Facebook presence (Facebook: Mount Vernon’s Mystery Midden) that includes both specific and broadly contextual posts. There have been public events, conference papers and an upcoming dissertation focusing on the site.

I don’t think the web gets talked about enough when discussing public archaeology and this site will be a great example of how archaeological data can be relevant to an educated public and serve multiple audiences. Though the selection of 400 objects presents an initial level of analysis, archaeologists interested in looking at the complete data set will be able to find it at DAACS. For the rest the layered content will make material culture accessible through a contextual presentation.

Please check out this site as it develops.