Anticipating renewed public interest in the U.S. Civil War as it approaches its sesquicentennial, the Center for Public History and Digital Humanities partnered with the Ohio Historical Society to create an online resource that would explore Ohio’s role in that war. The result of this collaborative effort is Ohio Civil War 150.
With Ohio Civil War 150, our primary goal was to create a platform in which scholars, curators, and the public could engage in a dialogue about the Civil War and specifically Ohio’s Civil War experience. To that end, the site allows users (teachers, students, and the general public) to comment on posts and resources created by the project staff, and also to initiate their own discussions in the forums, upload their own wartime family artifacts to the archive, contribute lesson plans and classroom materials, post news about community events, and submit resources and information of all kinds for review and publication on the site. Although scholars remain at the core of helping the Ohio Historical Society to evaluate content, this community-driven approach not only engages our audience on a personal level, but it also brings forward their unique perspectives, resources, and knowledge, to the betterment and use of the field and the community as a whole. Another especially important outcome will be the further promotion of the Ohio Historical Society’s own archival collection, improving its understanding of that collection, and giving researchers and the public a broader sense of regional assets and collections of Civil War artifacts.
By combining the open source publishing platforms Omeka and WordPress, along with MIT’s Simile Timeline tool, we crafted a resource that is interactive, attractive, and flexible while remaining relatively inexpensive to create and maintain. While many organizations have had success in collecting and displaying historical artifacts, they have done so at great expense, using proprietary software with recurring costs and restrictions on modification. By choosing open source tools, we have retained our ability to expand and modify the resource as the public’s needs and preferences evolve over time, and as improved technologies emerge. While our approach is not an uncommon one across the Internet, we believe it represents a new direction for digital programming in the field of Public History.
High cost digitization and collection efforts have an undeniably important role in academia and are a vital aspect of historical education and preservation of the historic record. It should be noted that Ohio Civil War 150 has benefited greatly from such initiatives, namely Ohio Memory, the repository for many of the state’s most important digital artifacts. However, for media projects in Public History to be competitive in the digital marketplace, we must move past only collecting and displaying artifacts and information, and begin to build genuine communities around interpretive scholarship that crosses over from new media presentation into real world interaction. Ohio Civil War 150 is an attempt to begin exploring and enacting these new ideals.
Content Creation and Collection
The initial content on the site was created by student volunteers and interns at the Ohio Historical Society, with supervision and guidance from the curatorial staff, librarians, and scholars at OHS and CSU. Since launch, much of the additional material has been contributed by users in the general public. Interpretive exhibits created by the project team explore the Ohio Civil War experience, incorporating historical images and objects as both illustration and as a lens through which to view historical events and themes. Many of the images in the archive and in the exhibit space have been posted by users. The interactive timeline, consisting of both staff and user contributions, allows the public to browse major events in a familiar chronological order, but those that choose to dig deeper will find additional images, links, and interpretive essays accompanying most timeline events. The wealth of lesson plans and classroom materials, again a mix of staff and user contributions, are downloadable in PDF format, bringing community and scholarly expertise into Ohio’s primary and secondary schools.
Ohio Civil War 150 has significant impact as a model for public historical scholarship on the Civil War and for exhibit development more broadly. First, the project provides a model for engaging scholars, the community, and curators in a public conversation about the Civil War. Not merely a didactic, Ohio Civil War 150 suggests the collaborative process as a core model for digital exhibition, as well as for developing crucial knowledge about state-wide holdings, for acquiring new material, and for building a more robust museum collection. It does this by opening a scholarly dialogue to the community, and building community around that dialogue. The project offers a collaborative model for enlivening those discussions throughout. The official Civil War sesquicentennial commemorations that have begun around the nation will span several years, and will continue to endure after the commemorative period. We believe that leveraging community knowledge and enthusiasm in scholarly creation will ensure not only the continued viability of Public History as a field, but will enrich the scholarly discourse for years to come.
Community programming and project team management for Ohio Civil War 150 is coordinated by Jackie Barton at the Ohio Historical Society, with design, technical training and support by Erin Bell, Project Coordinator and Archivist at the CSU Center for Public History and Digital Humanities. The project is standards based, both in its approach to library metadata and web development. Content and design from the Center for Public History and Digital Humanities is directed by Dr. Mark Tebeau and Dr. Mark Souther. Additional funding comes from the Ohio Humanities Council.