As with all aspects of Art+History, the website was created partly for its own sake (i.e., so the exhibit would have a website) and partly as a laboratory for students in the public humanities program at Brown University to test their ideas. The Art+History website was created using the model and tools described in the Public Humanities Toolbox. The Public Humanities Toolbox presents a framework of free or inexpensive online tools to help small cultural heritage organizations or tightly budgeted public humanities projects to share their work and resources with a wide public audience. I co-developed this resource with my colleague Al Lees. You can read more about the goals, evolution, and model of the Toolbox here, but I wanted to briefly reflect on the development of the website for Art+History, because I think by doing so I can help explain what we mean when we say our project is a “laboratory” and not just an exhibit.
At the same time that the curators were planning the exhibit and were seeking input from fellow students in the public humanities program, I was preparing to present the Public Humanities to an audience at the National Council for Public History’s annual conference. To that point, Al had done much of the technical part of developing the Toolbox. I wanted to test our model–to see if it really was as straightforward and easy to build a website on no budget as we claimed–and I wanted to be more technically proficient for the upcoming conference presentation. It was also clear that Art+History could use more than just a press release to help publicize the exhibit. Further, we all felt that we wanted some sort of documentation of the project so that future public humanities students (or students or cultural heritage organizations elsewhere) could learn from the project. In an ideal world, we could also post teaching materials for prospective field trip participants. To all of these ends, I volunteered to build a website for Art+History using only tools described in the Public Humanities Toolbox.
I learned a lot by creating this website. Some of what I learned was trial and error: how to use WordPress, how to embed images and links, how to make applications like Flickr and Scribd interoperable with our WordPress frame, how to incorporate the New Urban Arts project blog. To some extent, as I learned I was also teaching Rosie and Meg how to add things to the site, so that they were empowered to add or change content. (This idea, that the Public Humanities Toolbox makes it easier for novices or non-experts to add content and share resources, was one of the major premises I was hoping to test!) I wanted to keep things as basic as possible, so we chose one of WordPress’s free layouts (K2-Lite) and worked within it rather than changing any coding to customize font, text, layout, etc. Though they are incredibly beautiful–and we have our colleague Esteban Ucrós to thank for that–the header and graphics for this website are relatively simple files that have been plugged into the existing layout.
So, was it successful? I learned a lot in the laboratory of the Art+History website. I figured out how to build a basic website; I gained clarity about the strengths and weaknesses of the Public Humanities Toolbox model. For these reasons, the exhibit was a personal laboratory for testing a completely separate question than those raised by the curators.
But beyond my personal lab goals: Meg and Rosie felt that the site allowed them to publicize the exhibit and to share behind-the-scenes glimpses into their work as curators. It provided a forum for the artists to share statements on their works. Teachers and students could find information about booking a field trip and curricula to use in the classroom. We had a forum to share reviews of the exhibit as well as the critical reflections of key people involved in the project. The site also exists as a record of the work of many months and many talented and creative people. I think we were able to make all of our work, as well as our final product, more transparent to the public and provide a place for that same public to critique our efforts. This last is fundamental to my philosophy of public humanities, and especially to my rationale for why more organizations should embark on digital projects and how digital projects are especially suited to this purpose. So yes, as a laboratory experiment, I think we were successful. Though some of my initial ideas for the website–teachers guest blogging about bring their students to the exhibit, for instance–never materialized, I am still incredibly pleased with how it turned out.
Interoperability refers to the idea that there are independent parts that can also work seamlessly together and present a unified final product; interoperability is signature characteristic of Web 2.0 initiatives. One of the strengths of the public humanities program as it evolves at Brown is that our projects are interoperable. In other words, there are opportunities for us as students to chart our individual goals and develop personal projects that also contribute to and support others’ work. On the surface it may appear that the website for Art+History was built simply as a website to explain and publicize the exhibit and programs. However, if we probe it further, we uncover that the website has also served another purpose, as an opportunity for me to test and develop a separate project. The Public Humanities Toolbox model of building digital projects is predicated on the idea of interoperability, so I am delighted to find this quality in the public humanities program as a whole.
I welcome your feedback about my reflections here and about the website as a whole.