The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden

The exhibition “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” permanently resides at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. It also has a digital exhibition located on their website.

Physical Site: “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden”

The physical presence of the exhibition is enormous. The exhibit occupies one third of the third floor of the museum. A portion of the exhibition covers the First Ladies and their dresses. The rest of the exhibition examines the role of the president, during and after the presidency. The argument the exhibit conveys is that the presidency is more encompassing and subject to the desires of the people than the public originally realized. The physical design demonstrates the grandeur of the office, while also conveying the many roles the president fulfills. The seven rooms of the exhibit are all laid out to convey different aspects of the presidency for the public. The exhibit was well laid out and simple to navigate. The lay out did not force a single flow of traffic, but, instead, allowed the user to move from room to room easily, along your own choosing.

IMG_9366The exhibit started with the president as the myth and figurehead, and then moved into the checks on the president’s power. Within the first section, demonstrating the grandeur of the office, the colors were blue and yellow, much like the Oval Office. Then, you move into the second section, which demonstrated the figurehead portion of the presidency, which was very red, white, and blue, and strongly demonstrated the power of the office through the different categories and artifacts used (“Commander in Chief,” “Party Leader,” “Chief Executive,” “Manager of the Economy,” “National Leader,” “Chief Diplomat,” and “Ceremonial Head of State”). Once you moved through the president as the figurehead and myth, the president became a man again, demonstrating his life in the White House with his family. After that, you move through the president as a mortal, and handling death in the White House. Within that section, the lighting became very dark, and the mood was conveyed that the nation felt such mourning after the losses of their beloved presidents. Once you’ve moved through the mourning phase, you can see the presidency in a Hollywood view, and then see the president after the White House. These sections are come back to the yellow and blue colors.

The audience this exhibit caters to includes the young and old, and everyone in between. The Smithsonian Institution created their exhibit with the broadest spectrum of visitor possible, making it simple for children and foreigners alike to understand. The actual visitors seen on a Sunday afternoon in January included young children, parents, grandparents, some out-of-town visitors who spoke German and Russian, as well as the average American tourist.

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The primary items used to communicate the idea of the gloriously burdensome presidency include personal artifacts of the former presidents (clothing, instruments, toys, etc.), campaign propaganda, political cartoons, and souvenirs related to the presidents. The presidential artifacts were key to creating the idea of the presidents as men, and not just the myths of the presidency. The placards around the artifacts explained the artifacts and what they meant to the presidents, but also contextualized the history of the periods for anybody unfamiliar with it. For example, people younger than 20 years old or people visiting from out of the country might not know that former President Bill Clinton loved to play the saxophone, but that was described for visitors next to one of his saxophones. The exhibits also used pictures, videos, and interactive sections to draw the visitors into the history.

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The interactive elements of the physical exhibit include videos and some interactive screens. In the section of the president’s power, there was an interactive podium that allowed the user to “be the president” and recite a presidential speech, as well as allowed them to get their picture taken. There was also an interactive touchscreen with questions about the office of the presidency, which could all be answered within that room. There were several video screens throughout the exhibit, with one per room. The videos furthered the information explained in the exhibit room. In the room on the president’s private life in the White House, the video described the lives of the children and families of the presidents during their time in the White House. Many of the videos were produced and/or sponsored by The History Channel, which demonstrated a partnership between the museum and network to convey the presidential history. In the Hollywood section of the exhibit, the video went through the Hollywood versions of the president as compared with the popular images of the presidency since the invention of film. The final section on the life after the presidency was very limited on artifacts, but did have a video section describing the life after the presidency for recent presidents.

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While the physical exhibit was highly effective and created beautifully, I would change certain aspects. As powerful as the grandeur of the first several rooms of the exhibit were, the exhibit really petered out by the time you got to the life after the presidency. The lack of artifacts combined with a simple video made the life after the presidency seem not very important. In a time where Americans are living longer and longer, especially our presidents, it is important to view what they have done and continue to do. In recent days, Jimmy Carter continued volunteering his time building houses and teaching Sunday school while battling cancer. Bill Clinton has been on the campaign trail again for his wife, Hillary as she makes another bid to become the first female president. These are men that aren’t just sitting on a plantation overlooking the Potomac anymore. They are continuing to be contributing members of society long after their presidencies have ended. That’s important to acknowledge. A way to acknowledge it might be including a social media section or a “live” history section, where there is a stream of their social media feeds or even their public appearances in the past month to six months (on late night TV, their speeches, etc.). As technology continues to evolve, so does the “office” of former president.

Digital Site: “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” http://americanhistory.si.edu/presidency/home.html

The digital exhibition carries the same name as the physical one. The argument of the presidency being more encompassing definitely carries through to the website. The design of the site is a little dated, but it is useable and conveys the message.

The primary audience for this work is still broad, much like the physical exhibit. The website is catered to the average user, with minimal knowledge about the presidents as men and not just the figurehead of the United States. The website is well-catered toward students and teachers, allowing for easy movement between topics, a large amount of accurate information, as well as activities, resources, and materials for teachers to use in their classrooms. It allows the artifacts and the history to be shared with a much larger group of people that are simply unable to attend the physical exhibit. Users can easily bounce around through the site without having to follow a single straight thread.

The website gives biographies of each president, encompassed within a larger framework of the history of the major events of the United States. This was not available in the physical exhibit, probably due to the sheer amount of information and space that would’ve required. Images and artifacts that could not be included in the physical exhibit due to space or curator choosing can be viewed on the website, along with interesting facts and information about the presidents and presidency. There are interactive games, further resources, and teacher materials available on the site, which cannot be conveyed in the physical site. These interactive sections are highly enjoyable and teach the user more about the presidents. There is a game where the user can match information about the families of the presidents to the person it was about. Another section allows the user to read letters children have written to the presidents over the years. The user is also able to create your own presidential seal. Users can also play with the different roles of the president. The user is able to take away more of the idea of the president as a man through these interactive activities, as well as get little tidbits of information about the office itself. Interacting with the site’s creators is not found on this site.

The digital experience could be more effective if it was updated to a more modern web design. Otherwise, it moves very well and easily for the users. The site was created by iXL America Online, and MSN, with the help of the Smithsonian Institution and History Channel, along with donors.

Both the physical and digital exhibits demonstrate that the office of the presidency, while grand and burdensome, still houses a man who must embody the tenets of the office while still remaining true to his family and the people. The exhibits truly show the Glorious Burden of the presidency.

This entry was posted in Reviews.

Crowdsourced Digitization

Crowdsourcing allows a project to get more work done with more people working it.  Often, digital humanities projects simply don’t have the funding or the staffing to be able to take on the huge task of digitizing all of the documents in their archives.  Often, the documents and artifacts get imaged and placed in an online database.  Crowdsourcing becomes a valuable resource at this point.

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This entry was posted in Reviews.

Comparing Digital Tools

Voyant, CartoDB, and Palladio are all digital tools to help the public humanists to create visualizations of the data they have collected.  Voyant helps users examine the usage of words throughout text-heavy documents.  CartoDB helps users map data on a geographic map and share the information presented on those points.  Palladio allows users to create network visualizations of data sets, and examine the complex relationships.  All three tools are incredibly helpful for the digital public humanists.  All three are fairly user-friendly, as well.

Each tool reveals something different about a given data set, depending on what the user wants to examine.  Some researchers may want to simply see a geographic map and the data points layered over it, therefore they would use CartoDB.  Other researchers may want to see the regularity of word usage, in order to examine trends in an overall document, therefore they would utilize Voyant.  Even more researchers may want to examine the networks and relationships between the data points given, not necessarily worrying about the geographic locations given maps, therefore they would use Palladio.  It would be possible to combine the different tools to create a hybrid of the data presented, such as a network visualization layered over a geographic map, both to see the locations and relationships given in the data set.  Voyant could help the user note the major topics covered, which then could be used as data sets for Polladio, which would help visualize the relationships between those topics and other data points.  Polladio could be used to visualize networks that could be also visualized on a geographic map.  The different tools can complement each other well, while revealing new points of view to analyze.  These three tools are incredibly valuable for a digital public humanist.

Palladio Review

Palladio is a digital networking software that enables users to map the connections between different data points.  It allows the users to see multi-dimensional data on a networked visualization.  It allows the user to think humanistically about the data, and not just as statistical data points.  It is fairly user-friendly, allowing for numerous manipulations based on the data given.

This week’s project included using Palladio to map the networks of complex ideas and topics given in the WPA Slave Narratives.  We examined the different topics and their relation to multiple data points: age, interviewers, sex, type of slave.  It allowed the users to see the complex relationships between interviewers and interviewees, as well as the different topics covered by each.  It allowed us to examine the relationships, separate from the locations.  We were able to use the locations as we saw fit, but it presented an entirely new level to analyzing the information that a simple geographic map could not provide.  The network maps showed that the slave experience was very similar, whether they were house or field slaves, or based on where they lived.  It didn’t matter if a person was enslaved in Virginia or Georgia, they had very similar experiences overall.

Palladio helped visualize that information simply for a large data set.  Those connections would have been incredibly difficult to make without going through each interview individually to examine the topics, gender, age, locations, etc.  Palladio was user-friendly for this project, and made it much simpler to examine and analyze the information presented.

This entry was posted in Reviews.

CartoDB Review

CartoDB is a digital mapping software that enables the user to insert data points onto a map.  It can be numerical or categorical data, just so long as it has locational data as well.  The mapping software allows users to easily import a database of information, from an online source, Excel, GoogleDoc, etc., in order to plot those data points onto the map.  The map that a user could receive might be as simple as a point map that simply shows where the data gets plotted on the map, or it could be as detailed as having a time lapse and density cluster shown at the same time.  The type of information shown depends on what exactly the user wants to see.

In our activity, we used data from the WPA’s Slave Narrative Collection.  It included data such as location of interview, interviewee, interviewer, gender, location of birth, location of enslavement, type of slave, etc.  We were able to import the data spreadsheet very quickly and painlessly, which then quickly created a map that had the data points layered over it.  You can choose which data you want represented from that database, and then change how it is represented, based on whether you want a point map, a cluster map, or a categorical map.  All of which are manipulatable depending on the information you are seeking to depict.  The maps are then easy to export and publish for other people to view.  The site is laid out in a straight-forward fashion, and it is mostly user friendly.  It is somewhat confusing on the different types of maps, but it then gets more user-friendly as you continue to use it more.  CartoDB also offers multiple tutorials and FAQ if you are struggling with it.

This map shows the density of interviews in a particular area.

This map shows the density of interviews in a particular area.

Voyant

Voyant enables users to “see through” their text and recognize patterns and provide a system of analysis for digital texts.  It compiles a word cloud and analysis of words in a given text.  It also compiles word trend graphs to note which words are used in what frequency.  It is a helpful tool to easily grasp the common words and themes in a digital text.

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Why Metadata Matters

Metadata is a term that includes the data that which makes up the background information of a work.  It makes information searchable, it makes information categorizable, and it makes information workable in a digital format.

On the topic of databases, I have reviewed What’s On the Menu, published by NYPL Labs.  I am going to continue reviewing its use of metadata.

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What’s On the Menu Review

What’s On the Menu, by NYPL Labs

What’s On the Menu is an online database of historical menus from restaurants.  It is part of the collection of menus in the New York Public Library’s rare book collection.  It includes about 45,000 menus from the 1840s to the present.  NYPL is working to transcribe and digitize all of the menus and geotag them in order to better help researchers.

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