Seeing is believing

Not exactly the most original title, but remarkably apropos to what I’ve been reading.

Images are powerful mediums. As the tired axiom goes, they are worth a thousand words. This maybe be an overused sentiment, but it is quite true.  Images define events. They shape our thinking about the past by controlling what we see- and what we don’t.

Take Victorian England (or American, or Canada, etc, etc). In every one of those old family photographs, we see grim, stiff men and prim, proper ladies imprisoned in corsetry  and impractical hats. We certainly get the impression that this was an unhappy time, bounded by complex and overbearing rules of etiquette, controlled by a Dowager Empress with absolutely no sense of humour.

Like most things we believe, of course, it just isn’t that simple. Queen Victoria was not a staid sepia-toned  old toad, and people were, in fact, quite capable of enjoying themselves. Maybe not the aristocracy, but somewhere, someone was having fun.

The reason that we don’t see photographs of these folks is the same reason that we don’t see a lot of action scenes from that period.  Exposure times. Glass plate cameras, like those that portrait artists would have been using, relied on chemicals whose sensitivity to light was not as strong as modern film. The result is that a single photograph required an exposure could take several minutes, or even longer. You ever try to hold a smile for that long?

The end result is a mistaken impression of the era, or at least a superficial and shallow one. The Victorian were excessively prone to stiff suits and heavy moralizing, but that isn’t all that they were. Indeed, most folks were nothing like that.

In a Series of articles for the New York Times  Errol Morris discusses the possibility that Roger Fenton, photographer of the Crimean War, falsified some of his images (the lower one) by adding cannonballs to the road, in an attempt to make things appear more dangerous, some claim, to himself and his crew.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.


Mr. Morris writes much better than I can, so I will not rehash his article. However, I will ask this question:  Is an image supposed to be a recording, totally and completely identical to the moment during which it was taken, or is it meant to be a recording of the feel of the moment?

In the above image, Fenton had not touched any of the cannonballs, which had rolled into the ditch on either side of the track. Certainly it does give us some indication of what was happening here. The valley of the shadow of the death represented a weak point in the Russian defences, especially since it was a blind spot for them. As a result, the Russian artillery regularly shelled the valley in order to keep any force sneaking up it from feeling too safe.

The photograph does not really illustrate that point. The cannonballs have had time to bounce and roll off the road, suggesting that there’s been a bit of lull. It could be ten minutes, ten days, ten weeks, ten years since that last bombardment, and given the quality of 1850s photography, how would we know?

The lower photograph, not matter how “doctored’, is still more alive. Fenton did not bring these Cannonballs from elsewhere. They are actual Russian munitions, aimed and fired at the location he captured. Fenton was simply attempting to make the location evocative of what war looked like. Given the limitations of his equipment, he could not capture an image of an active artillery battery. He could, however, give us some idea of what the valley would look like half way through a bombardment.

The Crimean War is best remembered for the heroic bungling that was the charge of the Light Brigade, wherein a squad of cavalry faced down the Russian artillery. They lost. Badly.

We can better image those British horsemen charging into certain death when we can understand the sheer power those Russian cannons possessed. A power Fenton captures better in his second photograph.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

As a side note, one does not need Photoshop to fake a photograph. Perhaps one of the greatest fakes of all time was the Cottingley Fairies, a famous hoax perpetrated by two British girls who managed to, among other things, fool Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes himself.

How did they manage this great feat? With Cardboard and Pins.

Elementary, my Dear Watson?


Scott W. E. Dickinson

The truth is out there, but the lies are in your head


Is Digital always Enough?

There’s a lot of talk, amongst historians, of digital history. I’ll certainly be writing quite a bit on the subject.  Mostly the discussion seems to be centred on how to teach history in an electronic medium. I, however, am struck by a different question. Is making something digital always necessary? Is Digital always better?

This is very much an opinion piece.

Something can be said for digital preservation. Aging and damaged documents, scanned and saved into a computer’s hard drive can be copied, disseminated and altered at will, without any harm coming to the original. Ancient, faded documents can be restored through the electronic manipulation of ink traces too faint for human eyes. There is, however, a cost. Those electronic ‘saves’ are, in reality, far more fragile than the paper they were copied from. medieval manuscripts, placed in online galleries can be seen, studied and admired by millions, but a power surge at a server farm will destroy that electronic copy completely. Meanwhile, the original, written on parchment and stored in a monastery, will survive forever. The Book of Kells, as an example, is more that twelve hundred years old, and has survived (among other things) Vikings, Revolutions and Reformations. Despite all that, its beauty remains with us.

Even modern, printed books will last for decades, though their cheap paper and glue bindings will betray them eventually (I happen to own a number of new books made with sewn bindings and acid-free paper. They come with guarantees for very long periods of time, although of course they were not cheap!). Most electronic files will not last that long, if only due to technological change. The digitization of files has gone one for quite some time. What happens when one wants to look at something digitized in the 1980s? You better have a computer with a floppy drive, and some emulators prepared to run long forgotten word processors. Electronic files degrade, and do so with surprising speed. Interestingly, the older a storage medium is, the longer it stores information usefully.

The impermanence of digital data is bad enough. What’s worse is a little more ephemeral in nature.

We go to museums to see things. For many, that’s what history is- the remains of the past (the dedicated history may attempt to explain that everything is indeed the remains of the past- but you get alot of funny looks trying to explain how Western culture came about). I believe that digital repositories lose something in the transference. Now, it’s true that digital exhibits and galleries have many good points- no crowds, no waiting, no hours of operation, and often I can stare at the artefact from many angles and in better lighting conditions than can usually hope for. All of these are good things, and I am glad for them. The Internet has made me aware of many things that I would never have none otherwise, and I think myself the better for it. Still, visiting an actual museum- making a pilgrimage to the Smithsonian or the British Museum are far grander experiences than simply touring their collections on line.

Digital facsimiles will never- and should never- replace the real artefact. Digital galleries and exhibits exist to draw people in, to excite them and inspire them to see the real exhibits. Art is better in person and so is history.

Switching to Acid-Free paper,

Scott W. E. Dickinson

The Future of History

Or, rather, the future of public history. What is public history, you ask? Public History is the decades-old-yet-somehow-still-considered-new-discipline of history. It is, as the name suggests, applied history, as in, ‘study of history applied to the real world, and how it relates to real people- i.e., the contemporary public”. It is a sad, though often unacknowledged fact that the history which academics study and the history that the public knows are quite different things. Public Historians work to bridge- and close!- that gap.

You will find Public Historians anywhere you encounter history. Museums obviously come to mind, along with governmental archives, historical sites and historical societies. Less obvious places include corporate archives,  television stations, movie studios, classrooms and everywhere online. Remember, the Public is just as important as the History!

The focus of this blog ( and indeed, this inaugural post) is on how the Digital Age- what we’re living in now- has changed the practice of Public History and why these adaptations had to happen.

The greatest change has been wrought by none other than the medium by which we communicate: The Internet. Although it is certainly true that much of what we see on the Internet is perhaps less trustworthy than we would hope, there are nevertheless thousands of reliable and useful databases, sites and collections- both free and pay-to-access- available.  Researching is no longer confined to the academic, who can access libraries and archives with more ease than the average person. Of course, there are valuable resources that are not online, but there is enough to satisfy the interested amateur. No  longer does history need to be an expensive hobby. Now, the academic and the amateur have something to talk about- if their interests collide. Amateur historians seem to be either genealogists or collectors, concerned with their great-grandmothers and their stash of eighteenth century buttons. Academic historians usually are not. Nevertheless, no matter what sort of history they are researching, the public are at least interested, which is really the point.

History is far more than the written word, of course. Many find that the material remains of the past- the artefacts and objects one finds in a museum, for example- are the most inspiring. One may read an account of Eighteenth Century Clothing and perhaps imagine what it was like, but to view a display is to visualize the past. With collections from galleries, archives and museums, it seems actually visiting a museum is unnecessary. Although certainly it is possible, artefacts do see to lose something when you view them through a screen. Visiting every museum that you wish is often not practical or possible, but perhaps it is still preferable.

Naturally, Public Historians are concerned with more than museum visits and family history, but they still indicate what we are about. That public connection- the interested every man, the enthusiastic adolescent, the grandmother-cum-researcher- is what we are interested in. The Internet is the ultimate disseminator of knowledge, for through it we can learn anything. Suddenly, we, as the connectors between the masses and masters sound unnecessary.

It’s unlikely that Public History will be gone any time soon.  As indicated, the history that people wish to know, and the history that they should know suffered a serious disconnect.  We serve to spark interest, to make information available, to make academic findings accessible. It seems that the best way to do this will involve that which many are already involved in- The Internet.

Until next,

Scott W. E. Dickinson,

Digital Bridge Builder