Thursday, May 29, 2008

Alma College

That's it. I'm moving to Kingston.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Exploring Old London

In my last post I was talking about a really interesting feature of the new City of London's website where you can search for heritage properties on an interactive city map. Now I've been thinking about neat ways to take advantage of this and luckily my digital history class has provided the answer.

This week one of the topics we're covering is the potential for Global Positioning Systems to be used in a historical manner (though I'm sure most of you are familiar with GPS technology there is an excellent guide for beginners which can be found here). Basically, a GPS receiver calculates the user's position using signals from four or more GPS satellites. So far the only experience I've had with a GPS is getting directions while driving but since they can be used to give information about local restaurants, gas stations etc, I can't see why they couldn't also be used for local history.

Picture it, you're walking around London and anytime you come to a historical building your GPS, in conjunction with the City of London website, tells you the important historical information about the property. Add to this my previous wish for an Address Archive website and I think you've really got a fascinating tool. Not only would you learn about heritage properties which are still standing, but you could see pictures and read antidotes about buildings which were at one time in your location. I've created an example of what the entry you could see on your GPS screen would look like:

I'm not 100% sure that such a tool would be possible though I don't see why it wouldn't be. I really do think that a tool like this would help to bring the work the City of London has done for their website to a new level.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Heritage Mashup

Ok, so a few weeks ago in Digital History we learned about mashups. Basically, these are web applications which combine data from more than one source into a single tool. There were a number of readings which discussed the potential uses for such applications in the humanities and I thought I had come up with one which would be really interesting. I was halfway through writing a blog on the topic when I realised it already existed.

London Ontario's website states that "London has one of the most diverse and extensive inventories of heritage structures in Ontario." Now as a historian, such a statement - which initially seemed to have no supporting evidence - tends to make my skin crawl. I decided I would propose a mashup to rectify this situation. Since most cities have a list of their heritage properties, I thought it could be combined with local digitized maps, or even google maps on a larger scale, in order to illustrate various geographical trends surrounding heritage properties. Unfortunately (for my purposes, not for the general public), this mashup already exists!

If you go to the city map section on the new and improved City of London's website, you can make one of your filters designated heritage properties. From there you can see the building's priority ranking, year built (if known), the predominant architectural style of building, and the by-law number showing the building's designation under the Ontario Heritage Act. This whole undertaking is called the Heritage Sites Inventory. Since I've now found out that this exists I think I need to decide what to do with it...stay tuned.

Image From:
City of London Website. "Interactive CityMap."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sketchin’Up Awareness

In digital history last term we were introduced to a program called Google SketchUp. Basically software which allows you to create and modify 3D models, the program's motto "SketchUp is 3D for everyone" certainly proves true. Not only is it a completely free program to download (in its basic form), but the tools are relatively intuitive. Within a few minutes of hesitant exploration, I was able to create some pretty cool models. Though I've already found a number of appropraite uses for the program, it is in a project for Public History that I believe I've reached my SketchUp potential.

The major project for the Public History class this year is the creation of teaching modules using SMART Board technology. These modules will be used in the interpretive centre at Eldon House and our class has been divided into three categories; Eldon House - an introduction, World Travels of the Harris Family, and Rebels and Redcoats. Without getting into all the details associated with the project - mostly because it's not even close to being completed - a portion of the introduction module will include an examination of the various architectural changes at the home over the nineteenth century. Needless to say, I have found another excellent opportunity to put my SketchUp skills to use, I have built Eldon House.

From a model of the property's first home, a log cabin (the foundation of which remains under the present library), right up to the Eldon House's present appearance, SketchUp has allowed me to combine two of my favourite things; history and architecture. Since the teaching modules we're creating will be used primarily with students from grades one to eight, perhaps these models can cause a moment's consideration of the physical home itself in a new generation. Though I still believe (as I argued in my last post) that computer models will always be a poor replacement for authentic historic homes, maybe they can help to reach a new audience. Just as genres of history which I previously ignored managed to hold my attention at the War Museum due to their innovative display methods, I hope that by utilizing interactive SMART Board technology in conjunction with a program like Google's SketchUp an appreciation and awareness can be created for London's architectural heritage.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Obsolete Architecture

One of my Christmas gifts this year was the book ‘How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built’ by Stewart Brand. Based on the belief that buildings need to be examined not only in terms of space but also time, Brand suggests that buildings have the ability to adapt to changing circumstances when appropriately reshaped by their occupants. Though I’ve only started reading what promises to be a very fascinating book, a paragraph in the opening chapter caught my attention.

Brand states that: “Almost no buildings adapt well. They’re designed not to adapt; also budgeted and financed not to, constructed not to, administered not to, maintained not to, regulated and taxed not to, even remodeled not to...”

The idea of un-adaptable houses reminded me of the much discussed phenomenon of technological obsolescence (A blog entry by Patrick Mueller further discusses how Brand's work, although not dealing directly with software or hardware, holds many interesting lessons for those interested in technological design). Much in the same way that 12 inch floppy disks and the original Nintendo entertainment system (NES) have become outdated, so too have dumbwaiters, servants' quarters, and carriage houses. It is perhaps in terms of technology that I can finally explain to a certain classmate how I feel about historic buildings.

Just as computer emulators fail to capture the full experience of an original Nintendo game, so too does a digital model of a historic home. Even the best emulators never require one to blow on a game cartridge, a behaviour familiar to all those who grew up with the original NES. In a similar vein, there is something in the home itself; the smell, the texture of the building materials, the lighting, and perhaps something even more intangible, that can never be fully replicated. Though it would be extremely reassuring to be able protect my favourite homes on a memory stick, it just wouldn't be the same...that and the memory stick would need to be upgraded constantly to remain viable.

Images From:
1 - Patrick Mueller's blog. "How Buildings Learn."
2 - Ontario Architecture. "Second Empire."
3 - Businessweek. "Nintendo Entertainment System."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Controversy at the War Museum

I know what you all think this is going to be about - but it's not. Last week, I finally got the chance to go to Ottawa's War Museum with my boyfriend. There certainly was a controversy brewing, but it had little to do with strategic bombing campaigns. This disagreement simply centered around the limited amount of time we were able to spend in the Museum and the very different interests held by my companion and I.

There were a number of exhibits at the Museum that I could have spent hours looking at. War Brides: Portraits of an Era - showcasing paintings, photos, and the stories of a number of the 44,000 women who came to Canada at the end of the Second World War as brides - was a beautifully moving exhibit. Stitches in Time - which consisted of 15 quilted artworks interpreting the Second World War experiences of women workers - was not only fascinating due to its medium but was also done by Johnnene Maddison, a London, Ontario artist. My personal favourite, the rebuilt 1950s pre-fab kitchen complete with linoleum flooring, was the closest I'll ever get to my dream doll-house. My boyfriend's tastes were certainly concentrated in different areas. The guns/swords, machinery, and medals - centering around an obsession with finding all the Victoria Crosses in the Museum - were much more to his taste. Besides Hitler's car, it seemed that we didn't share any interests. However, there was one area where we came together.

One of the War Museum's greatest strengths is the interactive elements present in a number of its exhibits. Despite the varying content of the material, the inclusion of buttons, switches, telephones, and touch-screens, are all almost impossible to resist for any visitor. From the chin-up bar (where the voice of a very angry french drill Sargent nearly gave me a heart attack) to the Cold War command centre (where it was up to me to predict the outcome of a nuclear war) various interactive elements forced both my companion and I to explore realms of history that we would otherwise have avoided. The potential for interactive technology to draw visitors to unfamiliar or previously ignored historical genres should be of significant interest to practitioners of Public History. Now if they'd just take down that "please don't climb" sign on Hitler's car...

Images From:
1 - War Museum. "Canadian War Museum."
2 - War Museum. "War Brides: Portraits of an Era."
3 - War Museum. "Gallery 4 A Violent Peace."

Monday, November 12, 2007

Locust Mount: Part II

I woke up this morning pretty grumpy. I hadn't slept well and I was thinking of all the things I needed to cover with the students in my tutorial today. Little did I know, my day was about to get significantly worse. Stumbling up the stairs on my way to the shower, I was quickly intercepted by my mother. "Gracie" she said, "There's been another fire at Locust Mount. I wanted to tell you before someone at school did."

I'm sure people out there are laughing (and I didn't even mention my mother's offer to fashion me a black-armband). How can a house mean so much? But it really does to me! Let us ignore my obsession with this particular house for a moment - though I should mention that I love this house so much that in high-school I fashioned a scrapbook in its honor; Locust Mount came to represent something bigger.

After years of watching the house slowly deteriorate, this past summer I had finally decided that I should make my peace with the fact the house was going to disappear and say goodbye. After acquiring my commemorative brick (which was no simple feat in a house that had been stuccoed), I informed all those close to me that I no longer wished to drive by the house and would appreciate it not being mentioned. It was then that a miracle happened.

The company who owns the house, Drewlo Holdings, agreed to restore Locust Mount due to city incentives. "(city's incentives) benefit the community by saving heritage structures without imposing the total financial burden on the individual property owner," a company press release stated. Now I was guarded in my previous post about Locust Mount, I wasn't ready to openly admit the house was safe at last but inside, I was thrilled. I finally thought that London had turned a corner. No longer would all of my beloved houses be torn-down, things were starting to change. The widely shared desire to restore Locust Mount made me feel like I had a real future in this city, not simply heartbreak after heartbreak. And now it feels like that's all gone.

The fire this weekend did a huge amount of damage. Started by an open-flame of some kind - most likely caused by one of the homeless individuals who have recently been calling the mansion home - the already damaged house may now be considered beyond repair. A house that was already on the brink has now been pushed passed it. My feelings about the whole situation are perhaps best summed up by what was described as a "heartbroken" Counsellor, Judy Bryant, "[Locust Mount] was a very important piece of the soul of this city."

Locust Mount may still be saved. Drewlo Holdings has yet to release a statement concerning their intentions with the property. It doesn't really seem to matter anymore. Perhaps in the end this case will simply make me feel more dedicated to the cause of Public History; but today, I think I would prefer to just wear a black armband and stare at my brick.

Images From:
1 - Heritage London Foundation. "Buildings on the Brink."
2 - O'Brian, Jennifer. "'Open flame' Sparked Fire." November 12, 2007. (accessed November 12, 2007).