Public History

Maseno University in Kisumu
A planning meeting for the Curating Kisumu NEH project at Maseno University, January 2015 (Photo by Meshack Owino)

My public history and digital humanities practice began modestly more than 25 years ago when I worked as part-time tour guide at a historic house museum in Richmond, Virginia, while I was an M.A. student at the University of Richmond. My year at Agecroft Hall, a reconstructed Tudor manor, coincided with a major interpretive shift in the museum from emphasizing material culture to a broader focus on the social history of Tudor and Stuart England. During my Ph.D. work at Tulane University, I became involved as a research assistant for an NEH-funded planning group that ultimately established a regional humanities center at Tulane.

I was hired by Cleveland State University in 2003 on a 20th-century U.S./public history line, and my initial responsibilities in the latter included teaching Introduction to Public History and relaunching the history department’s internship program. Two years later, I collaborated with Mark Tebeau on a transit-oriented public history project that resulted in touchscreen kiosks in transit stations on Euclid Avenue that interpreted the street’s history through text, images, audio, and video.

project-voices

This project led to the development of a major oral history project now popularly known as Cleveland Voices. Formally titled the Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection, Voices is a dynamic project that continues to work with faculty, students, and regional partners to conduct and share oral histories. To date, the collection has amassed approximately 1,200 streamable interviews in more than two-dozen series.

project-clevelandhistorical

With Tebeau, I was active for several years in a series of U.S. Department of Education grant-funded Teaching American History workshop programs, notably The Sounds of American History. This work led us in 2008 to co-found the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities (CPHDH), for which I have served as director since 2013. We also created Cleveland Historical, a mobile app designed to expand the curation of places across the Cleveland metropolitan area. Like Voices, the app has been a tool for teaching and public engagement and a component of dozens of community partnerships from Detroit Shoreway to Shaker Heights. Cleveland Historical has grown to more than 750 location-based stories.

project-curatescape

The project also became the pilot for Curatescape, a mobile publishing framework that generalized the app’s codebase for wider use. Developed in the Center with support from NEH, the Ohio Board of Regents, and CSU, Curatescape now supports more than five-dozen digital projects worldwide, ranging from small historical societies to major universities.

With another colleague, Meshack Owino, I directed the Curating Kisumu / Curating East Africa project, a partnership between CSU and Maseno University in Kisumu, Kenya, that began with an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant in 2014-15 and continued with additional investment by CSU in 2015-16 and an NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant in 2017-18. A central component of Curating East Africa was to build Curatescape for WordPress, a single plugin and theme that promised to revolutionize digital storytelling in the developing world by lowering barriers that divide ambition from adoption of digital humanities practice, beginning in East Africa. In addition, MaCleKi, the pilot for the Curatescape for WordPress platform, features 54 location-based stories about Kisumu that were collaboratively written by students from Maseno University and Cleveland State University. (For more on the results of the project’s, see our NEH white papers for Curating Kisumu and Curating East Africa.)

Most recently, Erin Bell and I have been working on a new NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant project titled “PlacePress: A WordPress Plugin for Publishing Location-based Stories and Tours.” The PlacePress plugin offers a free, intuitive, flexible, and sustainable means for humanities and social science scholars, students, organizations, and communities to create and share map-based tours on any WordPress-based website. The University of Oregon Libraries coordinated remote user testing of the plugin, which is now available in the WordPress Plugin Directory. The grant phase of the project in 2020-22 involves four use cases:

  • Hines Heritage Trail, a tour of the Detroit area’s Hines Park that presents “the region’s natural history and the diverse people who made it their home,” curated by Wayne County Parks in collaboration with the Wayne State University Department of History, Michigan History Center, and Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
  • “Freedom Fighters” of the North Hill District, a tour of New Castle, PA’s North Hill Historic District that “tells the story of New Castle citizens who helped defend American freedoms, and to expand access to freedom and equality for all,” curated by the Lawrence County Historical Society in collaboration with the Slippery Rock University Stone Center for Public Humanities.
  • Cleveland Walks, an audio tour site that “encourages users to walk, roll, or bike through historic neighborhoods and districts and listen to brief, engaging historical narratives of key points of interest along the way,” curated by CPHDH at Cleveland State University.
  • Green Book Cleveland, a new CPHDH project that combines Victor H. Green’s famous travel guides, published between 1936 and 1966, with new research that expands our understanding of Black entertainment, leisure, and recreation in Northeast Ohio.

Green Book Cleveland emerged in August 2021 from my longtime scholarly interests in urban history, African American suburbanization and more recent exploration of environmental history. Some of the stories told in GBC will also be presented on Cleveland Historical, but GBC enables stories of Black recreation and leisure to be examined in a way that highlights a more focused set of themes and also provides a way to present places that lack sufficient documentation to fill the content “containers” necessary to Cleveland Historical items. In contrast to Cleveland Historical, where new content is published only upon completion of research, Green Book Cleveland begins with story “stubs” that are publicly available to encourage community input. Collaborative discussions are underway with various organizations in the region. (For more on the project, see coverage in The Plain Dealer, Cleveland Scene, and Ideastream’s The Sound of Ideas.)

In addition to my work as the director of CPHDH, I have served as a grant reviewer for three NEH grant programs and have provided consulting for numerous public history projects and museum exhibitions, including for Stokes: Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future. I also have have been active in the area of historic preservation. I wrote two successful National Register of Historic Places for neighborhood historic districts in Cleveland Heights, and I have served since 2010 on the Cleveland Heights Landmark Commission.