Monday, October 26, 2009

A Quick Introduction to Intangible Cultural Heritage in Alberta

Everywhere I turn these days people are asking me: “What in the world is intangible cultural heritage?” Well, maybe they aren’t, but they should be. This post is meant to help the uninitiated understand what is meant by intangible cultural heritage (ICH) and how to identify it in their community.

So, what exactly is ICH? The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (better known as UNESCO) is a good place to start, as they have been actively involved in the conservation of ICH for a number of years. In 2003 the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage was adopted at the UNESCO General Conference in Paris. The Convention defines ICH in the following way:

“The “intangible cultural heritage” means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.” (Article 2.1)

In March of 2009 I attended a workshop on ICH presented by the City of Edmonton and conducted by Dale Jarvis, intangible cultural heritage development officer for the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Over the course of the workshop, Dale explained to participants that ICH is manifest in many ways, but can be broken down into the following five categories:

  • Oral Traditions and Expressions
  • Performing Arts
  • Social Practices, Rituals and Festive Events
  • Beliefs
  • Skills and Knowledge

    The examples I am going to use came out of this workshop, and represent types of ICH found in a range of cultural and religious communities throughout Alberta. As you read you will no doubt notice some examples that fit your community as well.

    Oral traditions and expressions encompass a number of different things, most notably languages. UNESCO has developed a list of the world’s endangered languages, four of which are located in Alberta. Other oral traditions and expressions identified by workshop participants included place names, particularly those which were informal or colloquial; immigration stories; camp songs; hymns; joke; playground games; and saying and rhymes such as those contained in the 1913 Western Canadian Dictionary and Phrase Book.

    Performing arts identified as ICH in Alberta included the Shumka Dancers, a representation of Edmonton’s large Ukrainian population, as well as the emerging ICH of Aboriginal hip hop. Non-traditional instruments such as the spoons or whistling were also mentioned by several participants.

    Social practices, rituals, and festive events included community fairs, exhibitions, rodeos, farmers markets, tea dances, perogy suppers, sports days, camp revival meetings, corn mazes and the Chautauqua.

    Beliefs were a very interesting subset of ICH, and included such things as the use of horseshoes for luck, sayings about the weather, children not stepping on cracks, and Ukrainian practices of never shaking hands over the threshold of a home, leaving an axe in the doorway of the barn on New Year’s Eve to keep out evil spirits, and not whistling at the dinner table (young ladies who whistle at the table are said to marry bald men).

    Skills and knowledge identified as ICH in Alberta include the construction of thatch roofs (a traditional Ukrainian building technique), local gardening techniques and knowledge of native vegetation, knitting, cooking traditional recipes, midwifery, and home economy skills such as making homemade cleaning products.

    What are some examples of ICH present in your community, and how is it being preserved? It can be as simple as pulling out one of your grandmother’s recipes, or as complicated as mastering Ukrainian dance. Whatever it is, I will echo Dale Jarvis’ closing remarks at the workshop, and urge you to go out and get involved with ICH in your community; to make a conscious effort to preserve the intangible cultural heritage that is relevant to you.

    If you are interested some of the things Canadians are doing to preserve their intangible cultural heritage, feel free to browse the links below.

  • ICH Inventory, NFLD
  • ICH Inventory, Quebec
  • Preserving the Music of Cape Breton Island
  • Pepamuteiati Nitassinat (Innu place names and stories in Labrador and eastern Quebec)


  • Sunday, October 18, 2009

    The Leather Archives and Museum

    Anybody following me on Twitter likely knows that while searching for information on oral history tonight I came across the website of the Leather Archives and Museum. Needless to say, I had to blog about it (but don’t worry, it will be short). I found the Leather Archives and Museum interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, although small, it is active in scholarship. The library and archives collection contains 5,000 books; 12,000 magazines; over 100 journals; and more than 5,000 DVD’s, videos and audio tapes. The library and archives also provides research assistance by volunteers and in 2010 a visiting scholar stipend of up to $1,500 with a $500 travel allowance was offered to a researcher interested in using the collection. Finally, since 2003 the Leather Archives and Museum has published a quarterly journal which contains thoughtful articles, and while perhaps not traditionally academic, they are by no means amateur either. For example, there was a brief article in Vol.1 2003 relating to Google archiving all Usenet discussion forums, which were a significant online meeting place for “kinky folks”, and the implications this has for historical researchers.

    While scholarship is present at the institution, the material is not presented as a one-way dialogue between expert and novice. Rather, the public is invited to engage with the Leather Archives and Museum by recommending library material to add to the collection.

    The Leather Archives and Museum is active in the local community, and has had an average of 53 meetings or events per year since opening their doors in 1999. This is pretty impressive for a museum that is only open 4 days a week. The museum is also active in the online community, and maintains profiles on LiveJournal, Going, MySpace, YouTube, LibraryThing, Flickr, Facebook and Twitter.

    Another interesting thing about the Leather Archives and Museum is its use of the internet. Because it is a small specialty museum it does not get an abundance of visitors to the site (the yearly average according to the website is only 1,133). However, the website gets over 400 unique hits a day, and over half of the visitors bookmark the site (also according to the website).

    I could go on and on, but I told you this one would be short (I lied). I will end by urging you to check out their website, and especially their newsletters (they’re under Resources). The Leather Archives and Museum is a great example of a number of things:
    1) how the gap between scholarship and public consumption is being bridged;
    2) how “amateurs” can be the “experts”, harkening back to the days before the professionalization of history;
    3) how a dedicated group of people can create a truly unique educational opportunity;
    4) how the power of the digital age can be harnessed to develop your cultural institution as a physical and online community;
    5) and how someone interested in oral history can unexpectedly gain a new appreciation for leather.

    Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum

    This past Friday I was lucky enough to take part in the UWO History Society`s 25th annual field trip, which took me to two sites, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum and Dundurn Castle, both located in Hamilton. Although Dundurn Castle was disappointing, I was really impressed with the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. Located near the Hamilton Airport, what makes this museum special is that many of their aircraft are kept in flying condition and are flown on a regular basis. At the beginning of our tour, long-time museum volunteer Ted Lowrey asked us to contemplate during our visit whether we felt it appropriate for the museum to fly their artifacts, particularly as some are quite rare. In this blog post I want to introduce some of the issues inherent in his question and provide readers with hopefully enough information to make an informed decision for themselves.

    The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum has been criticized for flying their aircraft partly because it puts the artifacts under undue strain and risk. This is a valid concern, as every few years tragedies occur at air shows when vintage planes crash and their pilots are killed. On the other hand, flying aircraft ensures their preservation. Because of the dangers associated with flight the Museum`s planes must be kept in excellent repair through preventative conservation to ensure the pilot`s safety. Therefore, what better way to ensure their proper care than by flying them regularly.

    To help ensure the safety of everyone involved in the flights, some planes have had their original engines replaced with different models. In many cases this increases not only the safety of the aircraft, but its value as well. However, does replacing the original mechanical components of the plane negatively affect its authenticity? Sometimes. It was common practice during the active service of a number of planes to replace their engines to make them more effective. One well-known example of this was the Mustang, which became a well-respected aircraft during WWII when its original engines were systematically replaced with higher performance models. Therefore, if the engines are changed to period appropriate models then I do not believe the integrity has been compromised. However, other practices are more suspect. For example, some vintage plane aficionados have been known to install autopilot systems in their vintage planes, a slight against authenticity not only in the eyes of many museum professionals, but among many vintage plane enthusiasts as well.

    Museums are not generally known for their overflowing coffers, and the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum is no different. The vast majority of mechanical work is done by museum volunteers (there are 300 of them), yet still, 75% of the museum’s $5 million annual operating budget goes towards the preservation and restoration of planes, as well as the fuel required to fly them. One of the ways in which the museum raises funds is by selling rides to members on select aircraft , which run from $50 for a 20 minute ride in a Dakota DC3, to $2000 for a 60 minute ride in a WWII Avro Lancaster bomber (one of only two left in the world capable of flight). While the prices might seem steep (or not, depending on how much you like planes), fuel is expensive, and increased flights mean increased strain on the planes, which in turn requires more frequent maintenance, which for something like the Lancaster can cost over $100,000. With these associated costs, is continuing to fly the collection financially sustainable?

    In flying their aircraft, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum raises a number of issues, such as preservation, authenticity, and associated cost, but in doing so they differentiate themselves from other museums with similar collections. They also have the opportunity to use their planes as travelling exhibits, which was done in the summer of 2009 when the Lancaster was flown from Hamilton to Edmonton, stopping in various locations along the way, typically met by large and excited crowds. This gave a large number of people the opportunity to see an important part of Canadian history which they otherwise may never had had a chance to experience. Should the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum fly their planes? I would argue yes, they should, but I put it to you to decide.

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Copyright is giving me a headache

    As a public historian working within a digital framework, copyright is making my life difficult. How can public historians make history accessible when they can’t post things online for fear of being sued? For example, I’m looking at a journal from the 1870s, but the only version to which I have access is a reprint from 1970, which is presumably protected under copyright. Now I say presumably because it says copyright in the book, although I am sceptical because the original work, created in the 1870s, is squarely within the public domain, and there does not seem to be any value added in the re-released copy. Furthermore, some companies have the habit of unjustly claiming copyright on works that are in the public domain. The current copyright system hinders users like historians because it is up to us to figure out what is copyrighted and what is not. While this sounds simple, it is anything but (see Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Owning the Past). First of all, there is no unified idea of copyright – it is a constantly shifting set of rules. In the tradition print medium, right-holders typically will simply charge someone a fee for the ability to use their material in a book or article, however many will not allow the work to be posted online, regardless of the cost. It also differs by country, and since the internet recognizes no political borders, this is an issue. Many copyrighted works are out of print, and tracking down the rights-holders can be tricky, if not impossible. Some historians say that when you do not know if a work is copyrighted, move on and avoid possible trouble. However, that brings us back to my original point: how can public historians use contemporary documents to help explain history when we’re told we don’t have the right to use the document. Copyright needs to be rethought. The free software movement and ideas such as copyleft (see Stallman’s The Free Software Definition) are taking hold. However, the traditional views of copyright are well-entrenched, and bolstered by corporations with deep pockets and a lot to lose. As such, proponents of free software and copyleft have their work cut out for them if they expect to either change the current system, or create a new one.

    I would like to end with two related quotes, the first by Thomas Jefferson (taken from Paul Courant’s “Scholarship and Academic Libraries (and their kin) in the World of Google”), and the second from Banksy, a graffiti artist and author of the ironically copyrighted book Wall and Piece.

    “If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it.”
    Thomas Jefferson (1813)

    “Any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It belongs to you. It’s your to take, re-arrange and re-use. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.”
    Banksy (2006)

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009

    Strategies in a Culture of Digital Abundance

    Roy Rosenzweig is an influential voice in the emerging field of digital history. His article Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era raises the issue of how to preserve the increasing amount of primary and secondary sources accumulating online, and if successful, how will the practice of history adapt to having an almost complete historical record. The scope of information Rosenzweig presents in his article is quite large, and he discusses a number of very important issues. Over the next few paragraphs I will address some of the themes in Rosenzweig’s article by contextualizing the “abundance” of sources, introducing the ways in which individuals and organization are attempting to manage them, and discussing the issues of ownership and authority that must be re-examined by those working in history-related fields if they wish to preserve and make use of today’s digital culture.

    Understanding the abundance of sources is essential if historians are to assist in their preservation and future use. Born-digital and digitized versions of analogue materials are being created at an astronomical rate. According to Lyman and Varian's "How Much Information", in 2002 alone five exabytes of digital information was produced – the equivalent of the contents of the Library of Congress, multiplied 37,000 times.

    A number of different groups are working towards the preservation of this overwhelming amount of information, including archivists, librarians, private individuals, governments and corporations, although historians have thus far not been well represented. Preservation attempts have included creating direct print analogues or migration to more easily preserved mediums, however these projects lose the inherent value of the digital medium such as links, hypertextuality and the interactive or experiential aspect. Others have salvaged original equipment to ensure future readability of their documents, but these machines have a limited lifespan. The technical solution of emulation software has also been suggested but currently it is only a theoretical solution. While some believe that a perfect solution of total preservation is possible, it is unlikely that such a solution will be discovered in time to save much of our current digital culture, which is constantly disappearing. Rather, a combination of all of the above must be used to create effective, practical solutions to the preservation of digital culture.

    As a result of the rapid growth of digital resources, the issue of ownership must be rethought. Already the source of debate by archivists and librarians, historians must enter the discussion. Private individuals and companies such as The Internet Archive, Microsoft’s Corbis , and several large publishing companies such as the Thompson Company have taken an entrepreneurial approach to digitizing analogue material and preserving/creating born-digital material. While the results of some these projects are freely accessible (as is the case with the Internet Archive through its Wayback Machine, most of the resources are leased to users for a profit. The corporations that control digital versions of analogue material, even those in the public realm, effectively own them as they control their access and use. In turn this has created what some call the “second digital divide”, disenfranchising scholars without access to universities that can afford the licensing fees, as well as high school students and teachers, the general public, and economically underdeveloped organizations in North America and abroad.[1] Ownership by corporations also affects the will and legal ability of libraries and archives from preserving the material. This is worrying, as libraries and archives have traditionally been responsible for the preservation of the historical record, and the corporations, who see digital content as a means of revenue generation, have no long-term preservation plans for the materials and may cease their operations once it is no longer profitable, with potentially devastating results to the contemporary historical record

    The idea of authority, traditionally seen as the prerogative of academics, must also be rethought as a result of the current digital age. The widespread availability of sources online is creating greater accessibility of scholarly work to the public (even though much of it is hidden in the deep-web), and is making the work of amateurs and enthusiasts much more prevalent, which serves to erode traditional scholarly authority. Another example of the erosion of traditional authority is Wikipedia, which encourages contributions from everyone. Not only does this new forum not defer to academics, but it enables members of the public to directly challenge academic authority.[2] Authority of documents themselves is also becoming a greater issue. While analogue materials have long been subject to forgery, the ease with which a digital document can be faked is far higher, and it will no doubt take some creative thinking to ensure the continued authority of the historical record, as well as building public and scholars’ trust in the new digital medium. The authority to preserve digital material must also be evaluated. As mentioned above, due to restrictions on use by the companies who control access to the material, the traditional keepers of our shared memory (libraries and archives) can no longer preserve material in their traditional manner. Government departments are typically understaffed and underfunded, and cannot be looked to as standard-bearers. Even the private companies such as the Internet Archives, which uses bots to crawl the web taking snapshots of web pages, are limited in their preservation attempts by the aforementioned gated access and copyright restrictions.

    In order to begin actively preserving today’s digital culture cooperation is needed between historians, librarians and archivists; between academics and the private sector; and between academics and non-academics. Many historians have taken the view that preservation is the responsibility of libraries and archives, and have therefore stayed out of the digital preservation dialogue. However, historians will be directly affected by the outcome of current strategizing, and therefore have a responsibility to engage in the debate. Although historians would like to keep everything, whereas librarians and archivists must take a more practical approach based on available resources, the three parties have a common purpose – to ensure the preservation of at least some of our current digital culture. As a united front, historians, librarians and archivists should cooperate with the private sector, which has the potential to be an able collaborative partner through funding, technology, and access to the vast digital collections already assembled. Finally, academics must be ready and willing to cooperate with the non-academic public, because ultimately, the current digital historical record should be preserved not just for academics, but for everyone.

    [1] Rosenzweig, " The Road to Xanadu: Public and Private Pathways on the History Web," Journal of American History 88, no. 2 (Sep 2001): 548-579.; Rosenzweig, " Should Historical Scholarship Be Free?" AHA Perspectives (Apr 2005).
    [2] Rosenzweig, " Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past," Journal of American History 93, no. 1 (Jun 2006): 117-146.

    Saturday, October 3, 2009

    Struggling to Define Public History

    This past summer I mentioned to my local historical resource review board that I was preparing to head to UWO to pursue my MA in public history. When asked the seemingly inevitable question “What exactly is public history?” I found myself at a loss to explain it. I remember mumbling something inarticulate about archives, museums and heritage sites, but it reinforced in me the notion that I was embarking on an educational experience I couldn’t readily explain.

    I have recently read several articles attempting to define public history and its relationship to academic history and was relieved to discover I was not the only one struggling to establish a succinct and easily explainable definition of public history. Of the numerous definitions and explanations I came across, I would like to share those which, to me, seemed the most intellectually approachable.

    Margaret Conrad, in her article “Public History and its Discontents or History in the Age of Wikipedia” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 18,1 (2007): 1-26 defines public history as “applied heritage” and the “adaptation and application of the historian’s skills and outlook for the benefit of the public and private enterprises.” She also quotes from Debra DeRuyver, main editor for the Public History Resource Center, who lists the following as main elements of public history:
    · “theories, methods, assumptions, and practices guiding identification, presentation, interpretation, and presentation of historical artifacts, texts, structures and landscapes in conjunction with and for the public;
    · the interpretive process between the historian, the public and the object; and
    · the belief that history and historical-cultural memory matter in day-to-day life.”

    Rebecca Conrad in her article “Facepaint History in the Season of Introspection” (The Public Historian 25,4 (2003): 9-24) also mentions public historians’ acceptance, or even their embrace, of shared authority in interpretation. She goes on the explain that public historians do more than simply disseminate the knowledge of academic historians to the public, and that public historians do not work solely in museums, archives and historical sites. She contends that public historians distinguish themselves from academic historians not by where they practice history, but by how they practice it. Citing Donald Schön’s idea of “reflective practice”, Rebecca Conrad states that public history is practiced first through a foundation of historical knowledge and past experience. Using this foundation, public historians identify the problem (whatever it may be) and design an appropriate intervention, creating a scholarly defensible answer to a real world problem.

    Based loosely on my own experiences, an example of this might be the case of a rural fire department (not to disparage rural fire departments) who want to burn down an old schoolhouse to allow them to practice fire-fighting, but the local historical association is up in arms about the potential loss, and a county meeting is held to debate the issue. A public historian is invited to mediate between the two sides, and to develop an answer to what to do with the building. Like an academic historian, the first job of the public historian would be to steep themselves in the history of the area and the particular site. This would also be an opportune time to speak with the community and discover why they value the site – its history and significance from the public’s perspective. From this base knowledge, the public historian could explain what would be lost should the building be destroyed, and, based on their prior experiences with similar projects, what might be gained should the building be saved and rehabilitated.

    After my first, albeit brief, foray into the world of public history, were I asked again by the review board, just what is public history, I would have a vastly different response, and while I know it would not be perfect, it might go something like this:
    “In many ways public history is similar to academic history, in that both disciplines research, write and publish on historical topics. However, public history is different because it includes working with the public with non-traditional resources such as material culture and oral history, to identify, interpret and present their past in a way that is both meaningful to them and academically defensible.”