Julia’s Kitchen

The Smithsonian’s online exhibit on Julia Child’s Kitchen is a simple, efficient, and attractive tour of the famed chef’s life and work. The site consists of twelve pages, which contain a mixture of short paragraphs discussing different aspects of Julia’s life, photographs of Julia, and photo/text boxes for specific objects in the Smithsonian collection. The presentation, while straightforward and unadorned, manages to effectively link the story of Julia Child with the history and culture of American kitchens, cooking, and television. The narrative structure of the text features many “hooks” designed to engage readers who otherwise might not have any interest in kitchen appliances or the culture of American cooking in the ’50s and ’60s. For example, the very first section begins not with Julia, but with William Levitt and the culture of progress; once the reader understands this, they have better context for seeing how Julia’s unapologetic, rustic kitchen contrasted with the sleek, modernist ideal of the period. Readers are shown how Julia employed a mixture of old and new technologies, only adopting the new if the results were “just as good.” This not only gives the reader a glimpse into mid-century kitchens, but also hints at the idea that cooking, as a discipline, is forever caught between art and science. It is no accident that Julia’s famous first cookbook was titled “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The site contrasts popular labor-saving texts like Peg Bracken’s “I Hate to Cook Book” with Julia’s approach, which was for “ambitious and adventurous cooks” and emphasized “willingness to put in the time and work.”

When Julia became a television star, her work focused on the idea that cooking was “not a chore, but an immense creative outlet.” To emphasize this, the site displays objects from her show which highlight her sense of humor – signs in French with subtle joke dishes, a ridiculously large prop knife, and even a blowtorch. The site also discusses how her casual manner of speaking, unedited slip-ups, and habit of drinking wine with dinner subverted the cultural norms of efficiency and perfection shown in advertising for kitchen technology. The last three pages discuss Julia’s cultural impact as a one of the first television chefs, listing a dozen other famous TV chefs that presented from 1946-2000. These sections are easily the exhibit’s weakest point, as they provide no context, no descriptions, and nothing at all to link the many TV personalities with Julia or her cooking style. The site’s failure to contextualize or explain their choices is inexplicable – why does Emeril get an entire page to himself, but Alton Brown, Bobby Flay, Jamie Oliver, and Jacques Pepin all get relegated to sub-mentions? This portion of the site feels very dated; Emeril’s legacy as a chef has completely disappeared in recent decades (outside of jokes), while Pepin, Flay, Oliver and Brown all continue to have a cultural impact to this day.

Digital Mapping and Spatial Analysis

For this week, I took a look at the University of Richmond’s “American Panorama,” an online collection of interactive digital maps related to U.S. history. As someone who has only recently learned about the use of geographic/spatial analysis via the emerging “history of capitalism” field, I’m used to seeing maps through one or more layers of interpretation, as a footnote or summary rather than a stand-alone data set. This isn’t necessarily a complaint about the field; the kind of information that can be conveyed through a complex digital map is impossible to transcribe on a static page, so the authors have to summarize and interpret it for the reader. Digital mapping projects like the American Panorama allow users to interact directly with large data sets and rapidly shift between different subjects, geographic areas, time frames, and forms of visualization, thereby giving users the ability to see and interpret for themselves. This is beneficial both for scholars, who may discover new and useful connections for their own research, and for engaging the general public.

American Panorama presently contains eight interactive maps, with additional ones planned. The “Electing the House of Representatives” map is a simple, cohesive tool to track electoral changes over time, and allows users to switch between several modes of viewing, including a useful button to switch between seeing straight winners and “strength of victory.” For the foreign affairs side of U.S. political history there is “The Executive Abroad,” which maps the foreign trips of every U.S. president and secretary of state. While the map is interesting, I did notice that its focus on frequency may be misleading; for example, Kissinger’s 1973 refueling stop in Tunisia was given the same weight as the Yalta conference. Heat maps tend to be more effective when used with larger data sets, like those seen in “The Forced Migration of Enslaved People” and “Renewing Inequality: Family Displacements through Urban Renewal.”

Unfortunately, I noted several instances where the limited parameters of a mapping project meant that information was presented without vital context. The “Overland Trails” map, for instance, presents white settler-colonial conquest of the American West through (predominantly male) settler diaries, only mentioning Native Americans once – citing an 1854 massacre of U.S. soldiers as an example of “increasingly contentious relations between Indian tribes and white Americans.” The “Foreign-Born Population” map has similar flaws. The map appears to attribute the rise and fall  in immigration from Mexico during the 1950s and 60s to a “modest liberalization of immigration policy” allowing “foreign stock” to bring children and set up families, ignoring the exploitative Bracero program and the violent terror of Operation Wetback. While one might reasonably expect a trained American historian to know this vital context, the same cannot be said for the general public.

American Panorama highlights the benefits and drawbacks of digital mapping. Every one of the maps on the site has great potential as a research tool, even outside the discipline of history. However, several of them have flaws that limit their potential use for education and history outreach. The settler-only trail map and the foreign-born population map both have the potential to reinforce the same problematic view of U.S. history, but for completely different reasons; one excludes non-white and (for the most part) non-male subjects, while the other erases important distinctions by reducing all immigrants to undifferentiated data points. It is certainly possible that digital mapping will soon become better at conveying context and causality, but until then they will remain the territory of the historian.

 

Digital Tools and History Research

Digital technology’s ability to acquire, sort, and search through large amounts of data has the potential to augment many aspects of historical research. In the first place, it makes it possible to access publicly available information, like census data and national archives without having to travel or acquire a physical copy of the material in question. While digitized copies are not always available, many collections and archives have digital finding aids, allowing historians to quickly locate relevant information without the assistance of a librarian or archivist. This freedom does, however, come with some potential downsides. When access and browsing is trivially easy, researchers have less of an incentive to scrutinize objects and texts closely; why spend time carefully weighing the wording of diplomatic letters when you can conduct a quick keyword search and move on? By eliminating the bias of the archivist, digital technology also amplifies the flaws and biases of the researcher. If historians do not update their practices to cope with these tools, the discipline as a whole may become increasingly atomized and compartmentalized.

On the other hand, the ability to acquire such huge amounts of data also creates the potential to conduct research on an enormous scale. One example is the emerging “history of capitalism” field, where historians like Sven Beckert (Empire of Cotton) have been able to combine large data sets from other fields and specialties and create a compelling synthesis of the global and the local. The field’s collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach is itself a product of the internet age; without digital communications and online access to journals, many of these scholars would never have been exposed to the others’ work. Thanks to the internet’s ability to overcome geographic, political, and linguistic barriers, we can now see the potential for a truly global history community.

While my own research up to this point has been conducted mostly in the analog world, there’s no denying that technology has influenced what scholarship I am exposed to and how I process it. In my mind, the best technologies are the ones I forget I’m using, like the quick Google search to remind me of a forgotten date, or the Amazon free-fall that helps me land on a book full of relevant citations. However, the only reason those things feel automatic and natural is because Google and Amazon have spent tens of billions of dollars gathering data and developing sophisticated algorithms to guide and profit off of people’s browsing habits. As privacy and consumer protection laws continue to erode, more and more of what I see will be governed by algorithms I never notice; as more and more of the public sphere becomes privatized and commoditized, the pool of information I can draw from will get narrower; as surveillance programs become more invasive, I will feel less safe researching or writing on politically sensitive topics. In short, I’m not optimistic about the future of digital scholarship, even if I do enjoy some of its conveniences in the present.

 

Copyright and Creative Property in the Digital Age

Prior to the emergence of digital distribution, historians and archivists rarely encountered difficulty with copyright law. Most materials used in academic teaching and publishing were either explicitly in the public domain, or fell into the vast legal grey area of “fair use.” Even if a historian did accidentally profit from copyrighted material, there was a good chance that the holder of the copyright might not notice, or otherwise might not bother enforcing a claim.  Thus, copyright law allowed intellectual property owners to profit from their works for a fixed period of time, but also set aside both explicit and implicit spaces for creative and educational use.

However, the nature of digital media subverted the entire structure that copyright law was built on. It is quite difficult and time-consuming, for instance, to manually scan, print, and distribute new copies of a textbook using consumer flatbed scanner and printer. However, a PDF copy of that textbook can be copied endlessly at no cost, and distributed anywhere in the world almost instantaneously. Bootleg versions of copyrighted material have always existed, but never in such a way as to undermine the entire profit-making apparatus of copyright; a handful of unlicensed Mickey Mouse t-shirts being sold at a mall in Taiwan may not cut into Disney’s bottom line, but the ability to watch “Frozen” for free certainly does. To combat this, copyright owners have argued that every unauthorized use or transfer of a digital object counts as an illegal “copy.” This sparked an arms race between content distributors and pirates, with the former placing increasing technical and legal restrictions on copyrighted material. In the process, however, the space for creative or educational use has shrunk considerably.

What does this mean for historians? In the first place, it means that many useful ambiguities have disappeared. Vertically integrated media monopolies can place restrictions on use without asking a court whether that use is “fair” or not. Increasingly, this means that digital content is read-only, stream-only, or only available through proprietary devices or services. If a professor wants to show a Netflix/Amazon original film to their students, they will have to keep paying rental or subscription fees rather than keeping a DVD copy on hand. Some companies make a point to offer free or reduced-price services for academic use, but they are by no means required to. While these practices may be bad for individual educators, this kind of centralization is far worse for the historical record as a whole. Suppose Netflix’s board of directors run the company into the ground, and their physical and intellectual assets are sold off piecemeal. What happens if their data centers and their intellectual property go separate ways? Sure, someone might buy the rights to Stranger Things and make sure that the master copy doesn’t get wiped, but what about the rest? What if that media is DRM-locked to only play on a certain streaming device, and that device only works when connected to Netflix’s now-defunct servers? Assuming the data is not completely lost, future archivists may still be forced to learn how to crack encryptions and construct complex emulators.

Many gaps in the historical record have been filled by objects from individual collections; this is especially important with regard to mass-produced consumer goods and media, where “master copies” are not always preserved. This also prevents companies from editing or otherwise altering the historical record. George Lucas famously “improved” the master prints for the original Star Wars trilogy later in life, but unaltered 35mm copies still existed in archives and private collections. Knowing whether Han shot first may seem trivial, but the power to remotely manipulate recorded media is not. It’s certainly possible to imagine a future in which such power is used to distort or censor the past for political purposes.

 

Digital Preservation

Roy Rosenzweig’s essay, Scarcity or Abundance, presents digital data as both “fragile” and “promiscuous” – capable of being copied and transmitted endlessly, and yet also likely to be lost, ignored, or deleted.  Ownership and copyright are significant barriers to any source aggregating digital data. What’s more, even preserved objects may be lost to degradation in storage media or software and hardware obsolescence. Online archives offer the promise of truly democratic access, but the intermittent mixture of public- and private-sector funding has not been able to achieve anything near a comprehensive database. On the one hand, historians are presented with an abundance of potentially useful data, and on the other, a scarcity of available funding for storage and preservation. Rosenzweig argues that historians must take a much more active role in decision-making over what gets stored; future historians will have enough challenges without large gaps in the historical record.

Historians, broadly speaking, have had a tepid reaction to the shift towards large digital databases. While the prospect of having more potential sources is exciting, many historians worry about valuable information being drowned out in a sea of noise. Still others worry that direct digital access to historical archives will undermine the interpretive role of the historian, enabling people to draw their own conclusions – however informed or uninformed they may be – by looking at objects directly. This controversy touches on a major debate about the relationship between historians and the broader public.

New advances in technology have allowed digital preservation to move beyond pure data storage and retrieval. 3-D scanning allows curators to digitize entire artifacts. This technology has also been used to digitally reconstruct objects from shattered pieces, which is particularly useful if such pieces are too physically delicate to risk manipulating by hand. Harvard’s Semitic museum even used this technology to 3-D print a complete replica of a shattered 3,000-year-old Mesopotamian ceramic sculpture. Though the digitally reconstructed lion sculpture is not the “real” artifact, it offers visitors a real representation of what the completed object looked like.  Other visitors might also employ their own 3-D scanning technology to print their own version at home, or even digitally mesh artifacts with each other. Though mobile-based scanning technology is still maturing, it has great future potential for visitor engagement at museums and public history sites.

 

 

Born Digital

Natively digital content presents a number of  opportunities and challenges for historians and archivists, and pushes the boundaries of established preservation methods. To begin with, digital archives can have enormous capacity with very little cost or physical footprint, removing what was traditionally one of the major limitations for archivists. Content can be acquired, copied, and transferred almost instantaneously. The open nature of the internet also means that projects can solicit contributions from the general public, though such projects run the risk of being flooded with low-quality or inauthentic submissions (or indeed being ignored entirely). The sheer volume of digital content in existence means that digital historians will need to become very adept at selecting, acquiring, cataloging, and searching through such media; to do otherwise is to risk losing important information to overwhelming background noise. I explored a few online public archives to get a better sense of what such projects look like.

  • The Flickr Commons is a site that aggregates photos submitted by public photo archives, primarily from universities, museums, and libraries. Users can do a general search of image tags, or browse each contributor’s feed and albums. The general quality of metadata is relatively high, although it is much easier to browse by looking through the pre-sorted university albums. It is also easy to accidentally navigate back to the main page of Flickr – I was momentarily confused as to why universities had decided to catalog so many heavily touched-up photos of trains and bridges.
  • The 9/11 Digital Archive is a collection of user-submitted content related to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including photos, text, audio, video, and other media. Though it contains some direct recordings of the attacks themselves, its main purpose is to be an archive of public memory and emotion; as such, much of the content is personal and expressive. Unfortunately, the metadata is extremely poor, which makes navigating the entire 150,000-item collection next to impossible. In addition, the contributors retain the copyright on all of their submissions, and the site makes clear that it will not provide anyone with a means to contact those contributors.
  • The April 16 Archive is a collection of user-submitted content related to the 2007 Virginia Tech Shooting. Its metadata tags are more extensive than those of the 9/11 Digital Archive, but there is almost no curation whatsoever, and the “collections” folder is completely empty. It is also plagued with technical issues, including missing thumbnails and entire pages of corrupted text. Though it contains many moving stories and images, this lack of organization means that visitors will have difficulty browsing and exploring.
  • The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank is a collection of user-submitted content related Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Despite its age, it is particularly well-organized; tags are consistent and browsing is fairly easy.

Digital Libraries & Archives

Digital libraries and archives have a number of advantages over their analog counterparts: theoretically, any person with the proper permissions can access any content, anywhere, at any time, instantaneously, and without having to compete for limited numbers of physical copies. Digital storage and distribution is also considerably cheaper than building networks of physical buildings (not to mention staffing and maintaining them). Digitized texts also allow more flexible indexing, as algorithms can scan and extract useful metadata that would be too time-consuming for a person to manually generate for each book. However, digital libraries and digital archives both have major drawbacks, two of which are discussed below.

First, while digitization makes it possible to automate metadata extraction, there is no guarantee that the compiled data will be of any use. For instance, I noticed that Google Books’ “common terms and phrases” section from Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged included a large number of generic words like “became,” “lived,” and “women.” Another page, this one for Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance, included the mysterious word “tion.” When I clicked on the word to see it in context, I saw that the algorithm couldn’t parse words when they were split up over line breaks, so it just treated each half as a distinct word – in this case, apparently, it picked up several split words ending in “tion” and decided to put them next to “John Maynard Keynes” and “Hjalmar Schacht” in the tag cloud. It had even more difficulty creating the contents section for The London Hanged; it contained random capitalization, dates displayed as strings of numbers like “1750076” and “1780 333,” and truncated chapter titles like “The sociology of,” “The London,” and my personal favorite, “CHAPTER TPN.” (one can assume that, although separated from “CHAPTER NINE If You Plead for Your Life Plead” by another section called “Tire Crisis of Thanatocmcmy in the Era,” this was, in fact, chapter ten) These errors complicate both the process of cataloguing and of searching through digital archives.

Second, while digital distribution would seem inherently open and democratic, this is complicated by disagreement over copyright law and access rights. While organizations like Project Gutenberg and the Open Content Alliance offer free, full-length texts from the public domain, Google Books also offers “previews” and snippets” of copyrighted material, often without the copyright owner’s permission. Furthermore, while regular libraries lend out copies of copyrighted books, Google only sells them; in effect, it is an attempt to monopolize the production, organization, and distribution of digitized texts, disguised as a good-faith effort to create an open platform.

Timelines as Investigative Tools

General Outline of CFR Policy and Practice to the End of the Second World War

In keeping with the theme of my last post, I decided to pull some data out of Imperial Brain Trust and put it on a timeline. I usually have a high tolerance for technical history books, but the book is so dense that the authors had to put much of the information in tables; otherwise, the bulk of the book would just be paragraph after paragraph of listing the same names over and over in different contexts. Even though I only used about 10% of the book, I had difficulty building a timeline without resorting to mind-numbing repetition of “who-what-when-where.” Unfortunately, the “why” argument in this book is a function of who did what, when, and where; the totality of the data is an extremely compelling argument in and of itself, but trying to keep track of so many parallel threads is admittedly daunting. To the authors’ credit (yes, there are two of them), the book features several useful appendices of key figures, but only with regard to those individuals’ membership in a few key organizations listed in the book. But Imperial Brain Trust was published in 1977, when the best means of data visualization available to the authors was a big cork-board and a lot of note cards and red string. Because of that, the book is terminally difficult to navigate – we can’t follow every one of the strings, because we can’t see the authors’ note cards. If they included all of the relevant connections about Norman H. Davis or John J. McCloy every time their names were mentioned, the book would be thirty thousand pages long.

So, did my timeline work to clarify things? No, not really. It provides a vague thread of continuity between events, but it’s far less coherent than book. The exercise did make me curious, however, what might be possible with a more multi-dimensional data visualization tool. The information embodied in this book clearly took thousands of hours of research, and would provide a great jumping-off point for a research project on the socioeconomic makeup of the 20th-century Atlantic ruling class. With four to six historians and a couple data scientists working full-time on the project, you could create a beautiful interactive web of connections, mapping out every relationship – who went to the same prep school, who worked at the same white-shoe law firm, who financed whose South African mining project, etc. – but that kind of project would never get off the ground. Nobody with enough money to fund that kind of research has any interest in doing so, because the conclusions of any such study would paint a target on their own back.

Website Reviews

“The Rockefeller Foundation: A Digital History”

This website, a subdomain of the Rockefeller Archive Center, combines a curated digital archive with narrative essays connecting and elaborating on the various virtual “exhibits.” I was somewhat familiar with the Rockefeller foundation from reading books like David Ekbladh’s “The Great American Mission,” Laurence Shoup’s “Imperial Brain Trust,” and James Weinstein’s “The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State;” needless to say, these were not positive portrayals. I was curious to see how the Foundation chose to represent itself in a public history format, since the field of Public History was created from the whole cloth by a series of Rockefeller Foundation grants and conferences in the mid- to late-1970s. In its earlier, nakedly colonial guise, the Foundation viewed the careful cultivation and shaping of public memory as a core component of its exploitative “modernization” projects in the Philippines and China [1]. High-level foundation officials explicitly stated that China provided a social science “laboratory,” in which experimental tweaks to culture and social structures would help build a model for societal rationalization in the United States and elsewhere [2]. After the Korean War, the Rockefeller Foundation would use the South Korean school system as a similar sort of testing ground for the much larger grants it funneled into American higher education [3]. The political and economic crises in the West during the late 1960s and early 1970s would lend these nominally progressive projects a kind of reactionary urgency. In 1975, David Rockefeller’s Trilateral Commission produced The Crisis of Democracy, which stated that “Democratic demands on government are now too great,” and that Western Europe and the United States must “restore a more equitable relationship between government authority and popular control;” that same year, the Rockefeller-dominated Council on Foreign relations published another report on a crisis in “governability” in the West, urging the formation of a working group to study “various methods of defusing or depoliticizing issues such as inflation or unemployment, and also for depoliticizing inter-governmental relationships.”[4]

To illustrate why I’m being so roundabout in getting to my review of this website, I will use an excerpt from David Harvey’s Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary Theory: “the driving force behind paradigm formation in the social sciences is the desire to manipulate and control human activity and social phenomena in the interest of man. Immediately the question arises as to who is going to control whom, in whose interest is the controlling going to be exercised, and if control is exercised in the interest of all, who is going to take it upon himself or herself to define that public interest?” [5]. Is it a coincidence that the Rockefeller Foundation chose to create and fund the academic field of public history at the very same moment that other Rockefeller-controlled NGOs bemoaned the excessively democratic and politicized nature of the public sphere in the United States? Though certainly possible, it would be anomalous among the many, many examples of the Foundation implementing its societal planning projects through the manipulation of culture and public discourse, of which I have only cited a tiny fraction. It would be foolish to conclude from this that the discipline of public history as a whole is subject to some sort of omnipresent cabalistic control, but it does make one wonder – what was it about public history which appealed to the Rockefeller Foundation at this moment in time? It’s not as though they lacked academic influence; In 1971 the Foundation enjoyed exceedingly tight interlocks with the leadership of the top thirteen U.S. universities, and were the principal source of funding for eighteen major university-affiliated research centers [6]. However, these universities no longer dominated the culture and ideology of American higher education to the degree that they had in the pre-war years, and faced a serious challenge from a new generation of social, political, and quantitative historians. The new techniques seemed to amplify this trend; a single scholar, working alone, could produce a monograph which categorically refuted the claims of even the most respected professor at the most prestigious university. Short of some kind of purge, there was no way of turning the American university system back into the upper-class gentleman’s club it once was.

Looking at the Rockefeller Foundation’s digital history website, it does seem like they found a workaround. It is a public history space – a private archive, funded by private donors, organized and presented by employees of a private foundation. It is only “public” in the sense that anything philanthropic is public; it was ostensibly created for the benefit of the public, but is not in any way accountable to it. The material available on the website is only a fraction of the full archive, which in itself may only be accessed by researchers approved by the center itself. There is no Freedom of Information Act for private archives. True, it does provide visitors direct access to documents without the intervening hand of a historian, but it also allows the Foundation to maintain executive control over which documents get presented and in what context. For instance, the page on the Italian anti-malaria campaigns of the interwar years ( https://rockfound.rockarch.org/malaria-italian-campaigns ) makes it sound as though the Foundation happened to be conducting mosquito control operations in the same place that Mussolini was reclaiming marshland to build model Fascist towns; in actuality, the foundation worked closely with Mussolini’s community planning projects late into the 1930s [7]. Can a public history space truly be “public” if it is controlled by private interests, or is it merely “for” the public?

 

Works Cited:

1. David Ekbladh, The Great American Mission: Modernization & the Construction of an American World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), pp, 23-27, 31-36

2. Ibid, p. 72.

3. Ibid, pp. 127-28, 172

4. Laurence Shoup and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy (New York: Authors Choice Press, 2004), p. 268-269

5. David Harvey, The Ways of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 14.

6. Laurence Shoup and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust, pp. 75-79, tables 2-4 and 2-5.

7. David Ekbladh, The Great American Mission, p. 44.

 

Having wasted half the evening overdoing it on one website, I now plan to completely phone it in on the second one, because it’s late and I’m tired. Here’s the website of Dan Carlin, a pop-history podcaster with an audience several million strong. Several words come to mind when scrolling through his site. These include “goofy,” “eyesore,” and “the kind of things you see on the back of a lifted F350 next to a thin blue line sticker and the tap-out logo.” A blurb at the bottom of the splash page trumpets “His Generation X, non-partisan, ‘neo-prudentist’ outlook” (quotes in the original), which is the sure sign of someone who knows many things about politics, some of which may accidentally not be wrong. There’s not much else of note, except that the “HH Addendum” podcast mysteriously links to a completely different website and distribution platform.

National Museum of African American History & Culture App

 

National Museum of African American History & Culture

App available on iOS & Android app stores

This app contains all the essentials needed for visitors – maps, an event calendar, info pages on the museum shop and “Sweet Home Cafe,” language options for English, Spanish, and French, and even a “larger text” option for users that might struggle to navigate small screens. The app also contains a “sensitive content” page, which warns that several exhibitions have been marked with red borders to indicate that they may not be suitable for sensitive visitors or children, such as an exhibition “that shows how violence was used as a tool of oppression.” On the one hand, this design choice helps to shield young children and people with violence-related trauma from seeing profoundly disturbing images; on the other, it may allow some visitors to bypass large and important sections of the African-American experience out of guilt or squeamishness. This dilemma highlights an important debate in the design of public history spaces: should they be designed around a linear narrative structure, or should they be free-form and let the visitor decide where to go and what to think? It’s not an easy choice to make; one choice might force a sexual assault survivor to walk through an exhibit which touches on the horrifying master-slave sexual violence of the Antebellum South, while the other choice might allow white audiences to avoid an uncomfortable but important examination of the relationship between police brutality and white supremacy in the United States.

The app allows you to explore exhibitions item-by item; users have the option to read about each item’s history or have a narrator read it to them. Each item also has a “reaction” button which allows users to select from options like “Proud,” “Stimulated,” “Inspired,” and  “I want to know more!” However, the designers wisely decided to let the only non-positive response be “other.” As anyone who has seen a YouTube comment section can testify, a public comment section for an African-American history museum would quickly become a lightning rod for racist comments. Some items also have additional user engagement options – for instance, the section for a 1972 Shirley Chisholm political poster has an option to let users design and share their own posters. The “#APeoplesJourney Video Stories” section includes several animated, narrated films highlighting broad themes like intersectionality in civil rights struggles and the geography of African-American Music.

If I have one complaint, it’s the resolution of images – the museum’s website touts that the app allows you to “zoom in on images of featured objects to discover amazing details,” but I encountered several images, including a graffiti-covered wall from Resurrection City, where important text was rendered illegible by low image quality. I suspect that this was done so as not to eat up cellular data, but considering that the zoom function was a major selling point for the app,  it still seems like the app designers could have added some kind of image quality scaling feature (especially since that the app itself exceeds the common 150mb cap on mobile downloads). Otherwise, the app is perfectly functional and well-designed, though not especially creative.