Sunday, September 27, 2009


I recently heard about a new gadget Microsoft is working on called SenseCam. The basic premise is that it is a small camera that hangs around your neck, which automatically takes photos of people you encounter, or can be set to take photos at specific intervals of time, such as one every 60 seconds. Life Logging, as it is called, is one of many examples of how digital technology is being used to help us remember. More information about the SenseCam and Life Logging can be found here.

Now when I first head about this technology, I was unimpressed. With such an enormous amount of digital information being created every year, how are we going to deal with large amounts of people documenting their entire lives? Just to put this "enormous amount" of information into perspective, in 2002 five exabytes of digital information was produced. To put this into context, this amount of storage space is enough to store all the information in the library of congress, which contains 17 million books, 37,000 times over. If you're interested in these numbers check out Lyman and Varian's "How Much Information".

My opinion of Microsoft's SenseCam was change today, while I was walking through an old neighbourhood looking at the home (one of my favorite pastimes). It struck me how much more I could get out of my hobby of exploring residential architecture if I could easily record everything I saw. It would enable me not only to permanently archive my travels, but I could easily compare and contrast different neighbourhoods within a city, a region, a province, the country, or internationally. This technology would make decisions about heritage conservation and planning easier because you could take conservation boards on virtual tours of the area so they get a better sense of what they are dealing with. You could even perhaps tag buildings as you look at them based on architectural details, materials, style, design, significance and integrity, to name but a few. What's more, the cameras can record GPS information about where the photos were taken, making it easy to trace where the buildings are located.

Although SenseCam is only a research project at the moment, I can't wait for them to become commercially available so I can get one.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


I just attended a special screening of Katyn, a Polish film documenting the events surrounding the mass execution of 12,000 Polish officers by the Soviet army in 1940. Although a dramatization of events, the filmmakers in several places used authentic footage of events. The film brought up many issues, such as authenticity of sources and the difficulties in remembering in the face of government-sponsored misinformation campaigns. Katyn was shown at UWO as a special presentation commemorating the start of the Second World War, and in honour of the large Polish population that has resided in London, many of whom attended the screening. Once the film had ended, nobody in the theatre said a word, although a few cried quietly. Half of the audience sat until the credits finished, only then leaving the theatre, still in silence. The screening of this film was made possible in part by the Polish Consulate in Toronto, the Polish Congress in Canada and the Polish Community in London, and represents a conscious effort on the part of the Polish people to remember a painful past.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Why Teach History

I recently read a “The Purpose of Teaching Canadian History”, written by Peter Seixas, the Canada Research Chair in Education at the University of British Columbia. (
Seixas’ articulation of why we should teach history was very enlightening. Being a student of history, I of course have long-know its study is important, but it was more of an innate sense of value rather than an easily digestible list, such as Seixas has provided.

He outlines a number of benefits to teaching history (and thus developing an historical consciousness), including that:
  • history helps to shed light on present realities;
  • history helps shape our sense of identity;
  • judging past actions can explain indebtedness of some groups to others based on past injustices;
  • history can serve as a benchmark for determining if our present realities are getting better or worse;
  • and an historical consciousness can help us to think critically about what stories about the past we should believe, and what stories about the past we should tell.

I would urge history-lovers to keep this list handy (as I plan to do), for the next time someone scoffs at the study of our past as an irrelevant.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Social Media Revolution

The following is a video created by Eric Qualman. His blog, Socialnomics - Social Media Blog, along with more information about the video can be found at

The rapid, wide-spread dissemination of social media technology as described in the above video is precisely why historians, educators, museums workers and archivists must embrace technological advances and work towards new ways of engaging with the public. If the discipline of history cannot stay abreast of technology it may prove difficult to maintain relevance to mainstream society. At present there are many people actively working on history in the digital realm, evidenced by the numerous history-related blogs being written. An excellent list of some of these blogs can be found at Cliopatria’s extensive History Blog Roll ( History blogs are an excellent example of how the study of history can use digital technology to reach vast numbers of people. The adoption of this type of technology will no doubt have effects on both the practice and perception of history, and though many are reluctant to embrace the Social Media Revolution we must accept these changing realities or possibly be left behind.

"Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.” J. G. Ballard

Monday, September 14, 2009

Public history is everywhere (even in cows)

So I realize that I've only been to a single class and done but a handful of readings on museums, but it seems that I am already developing a greater awareness of public history because I now see it everywhere. I picked up a copy of the London Free Press today and looked through it as I waited to get my student card. Wouldn't you know it, the paper had six (6!) articles in it relating to public history. Page A2 had a brief article on London's newly opened Jet Aircraft Museum ("Jet museum soars to new heights"). Another was a photo and just a could of sentences on the Moulin a Parole, the event held in Quebec City to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the battle of the Plains of Abraham (page C1). Another article on the same page was a photo and caption in which a mother and son look at names inscribed on a cenotaph of Mounties who died in the line of duty, one of whom passed in 1882 at Fort Walsh. In the World section on page C3 were two articles, the first of which was "Search on for 'lost' moon rocks" about the recent discovery at the Netherlands' national museum that what they had thought was (and displayed publicly as) the moon rock given to them by the United States was in reality a piece of petrified wood. The other article in the World section was "Ex-convicts in Italian city get second chance as tour guides", which introduces the idea currently being used in Naples whereby ex-convicts are given jobs as local ambassadors, helping tourists navigate their way safely between the city's many historically and artistically significant sites.
The final article I saw relating to public history is "Calf birth is 'cool'". Bear with me! This article is about this past weekend's Western Fair, at which over 100 people witnessed the birth of a calf. Now a few days ago I would have just said neat, but it has nothing to do with public history. However, today I was reading Museums in Motion by Edward Alexander, in which he describes zoos and botanical gardens as museums in which the objects are living things. Furthermore, Elain Heumann Gurian, in her article "What is the Object of this Exercise?", states that a museum object could also be an experience. Following the logic of these two scholars, I would argue that the birth of a calf at the an agricultural exhibition falls under public history. Who knew.

Hello good people of the internet!

Where to begin. How about this: I've never blogged before, and seeing the letters pop up on this little white screen kind of makes me feel like Dougie Howser, where he reflect on what he's learned at the end of each episode. However, as you have likely figured out (my observant reader), I am not Dougie Howser, nor Neil Patrick Harris, but Tim O'Grady, currently a student in the Public History MA program offered at the University of Western Ontario.

I have always loved history and museums, and some of my best memories growing up revolve around trips to Calgary's Glenbow Museum and the city's large living history museum Heritage Park.

I have been working and volunteering in museums and archives for the past several years, including stints at the Lougheed House, a national historic site in Calgary, where I acted as a costumed interpreter and spent a summer in the archives; the Lock 3 Museum in St. Catharine's where I assisted in the collections department cataloguing textiles; and for the past three years at Heritage Collaborative Inc., an Edmonton-based consulting firm specializing in heritage planning.

I am really excited to begin my studies in public history at Western. It is going to be a big change from Edmonton, where I left my beautiful wife and terribly-behaved (but really cute) dog Mika, but I am ready for the challenge.