Monday, August 17, 2009

Thoughts on outdoor Cell Phone Audio Tours

We're currently exploring a Fall semester project partnering with the Museum of African American History's campus on the island of Nantucket. This will be based in my graduate seminar, "Making Culture: Theory and Practice" (CP 201), in which we continue to explore new uses of social media technologies in the building of community, at local and regional levels.

The museum already puts on a wonderful historic walking tour along its Black Heritage Trail, which includes its two remarkable properties, the African Meeting House and the Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House. Our current plan is to help the Museum develop a digital audio walking tour, along the lines of the podcasted community history project we did several years ago in West Medford, Massachusetts, with the West Medford Afro-American Remembrance Committee. We'll also build on some of the approaches we explored in our on line oral history project in the Mississippi Delta, "Wade in the Water," several years ago, in which we tied oral history segments to a schematized map of several communities.

This time around we are hoping to make use of new telephone based technologies, perhaps working with a third party vendor, to make the tour accessible through cell phone to walkers. As with the West Medford project, we'd Like to avoid monologues or singular narration, but rather record multiple voices from the community, especially elders sharing their memories and stories that have passed down through the generations. We're also hoping to edit in local music and environmental sounds of the land and sea, and perhaps promote some forms of inter-generational dialogues through the audio tracks.

We'll spend a good deal of time listening to existing cell phone-accessible audio tours (for museum, zoos, and outdoor heritage sites) and discussing effective strategies. [A good resource is the comprehensive list of cell phone tours hosted by "Guide by Cell", one of leading providers in the field.]

In the class, we'll be reading Thoreau's classic essay on walking, as well as Rebecca Solnit's book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. One of the issues we'll be grappling with is how to promote the kinds of meditative "ruminating" called for by Thoreau in the context of cell phone-mediated audio tour. Most of the time, I realize, our ever-growing addiction to cell phones and mobile communication devices is probably eroding our contemplative and observant faculties; we engage in a great deal of largely extraneous chatter as a way of not really being any place at on time, but rather suspended between fluidly shifting virtual locations, so as to never face the weight of being truly alone with our thoughts. But might there be a way to re-capture, through these same technologies, the conversational or dialogic qualities of a great walk with a friend, or to inspire the walker, after hearing a good story or a well-edited melange of audio, to walk on a bit and think new thoughts to himself or herself? Can we encourage, even inspire, listeners not just to consume information passively but to observe their surroundings, to switch off external digital stimuli, and develop new connections themselves between what they've learned and what they are observing? [It seems to me that the most skillfully designed art museum cell phone tours do this, posing intriguing questions about a work of art in ways that encourage the visitor to linger and really look at the piece, or discover something new for himself or herself.]

A related challenge we'll grapple with in engineering the audio tour, beyond transmitting vital factual information about African-American history on the island, will be how to convey or evoke, more subtly perhaps, the rich texture of community historical experience across the decades and century. This would include experiences of slavery and emancipation, 19th century struggle of school desegregation, 19th whaling trips, and the nature of women's work on the island. Will we be able to integrate sounds of labor, protest, music-makingn and of the sea itself effectively into the presentations, in ways that enhance, rather than detract from, the stories and voices of community members? As always, we'll need to think about whether or not there is a recognizable recurrent narrator to the tour, or if there are many voices moving in and out of the tour without a specific identifiable 'guide.' Presumably, we'll have a 'core' set of factual segments, with options to listen to the more evocative or aesthetically rich segments to deepen or extend the audio experience.

We'll be conscious of the need to keep running our draft audio segments past our partners, at the Museum and in the wider community, and to modify the audio tour accordingly. We'll also need to think carefully about forms of evaluation and assessment, to get a sense of how well the tour is reaching our 'target audiences,' once it is on line and accessible by cell phone.

Community History Intern Project: Summer 2009

This summer Ellen and I spent about four weeks working with a group of low-income minority teenagers in a community history project in Covington, Georgia. This stimulus-funded project was a collaborative partnership between the Washington Street Community Center and the African-American Historical Association of Newton County, on whose board of directors I serve.

The first week, my involvement with the project was at a distance, and the six young people were directly supervised by local activists Forrest Sawyer, Jr. and Flemmie Pitts, who are civil rights activists with long standing interesting in community history and youth empowerment in Newton County. The teens concentrated on building up the Association's wiki, researching local African-American church histories and sport histories as well as their own family histories. Carlus for instance explored the fascinating history of the Goss Family, researching its roots in nearby Walton County. In this work, the teens received a great deal of help from staff and volunteers at the Newton County Public Library in Covington, and began to learn how to use the wonderful resources in the library's Georgia History room.

When Ellen and I arrived, we introduced the young people to video shooting and editing techniques, and helped them set up and administer a YouTube channel for the African-American Historical Association. We had a great session in Covington's two major African American cemeteries (Westview and the city cemetery) with Ms. Emogene Williams, one of the leading community historians. (The above photograph shows us in the City Cemetery with Ms. Williams, near the grave of Rev. Toney Baker, one of Ms. Williams' ancestors.) Carlus took us to meet her wonderful grandmother, Ms. Bertha Goss, the founder of a noted local beauty salon; the group made their first YouTube video about this visit.

We also worked closely with Deacon Richard Johnson, who had been a prominent activist in the County during the Civil Rights movement. The students shot and edited a brief video of him sharing memories of the movement standing in Covington square, where the local desegregation struggle had culminated in the spring of 1970. In this and the videos that followed, the young people edited in some music, sung by themselves and their friends at the Washington Street Community Center,and recorded themselves doing introductions and wrap up clips. They also did several fascinating video sessions inside the old County jail, videoing former SCLC activist Tyrone Brooks (now a George State Representative) and Deacon Johnson, sharing their memories of incarceration during the Freedom Struggle.

The young men interns, who were fascinated by local sports history, also did an interview with Deacon Sawyer on his season as quarterback with the Wolverines Football Team during the 1967 season. (The young women had a good deal of fun with their friends organizing and recording football cheers for this segment) The group later shot another video at the site of R.L. Cousins high school, where the Wolverines won an outstanding victory. In addtion to the video footage shot in the field, the group conceived of the idea of creating a YouTube TV studio at the Washington Street Community Center, which they termed the "Washington Street Community History Network," inviting community members to be interviewed about various aspects of community history. The young men interviewed such prominent figures as Mr. J.P. Godfrey, Jr. about his experiences in the Armed Forces and his memories of Jim Crow in and out of the service.

The young woman, in turn, concentrated on video documentation of African-American women leaders in the county. These included:

We also did work with slavery-related records in the county's Judicial Center, concentrating on the records in Probate Court and in real estate deeds. Carlus became fascinated with the story of an enslaved group of people owned by Benjamin Overby and sold apart from one another after his death. Jasmine and Michah were especially intrigued by the story of a free woman of color known as Susan Ivey, who in December 1863 petitioned the Inferior Court for the right to be made a slave, designating the white woman she wished to be her mistress and owner. We were, with help from Walton County activist Bobby Howard, able to locate and interview Susan Ivey's living descendants, who were able to fill in some of the gaps in the historical documentary record. Working with the extraordinary local storyteller and performer Andy Irwin, the thre young woman scripted and workshopped a play about Susan Ivey, in which they speculated on the series of events that led her to take this unusual step. They did several wonderful workshop performances of the play in Covington, including a memorable one at Bethlehem Baptist Church (the County's oldest African American house of worship). We hope they'll be able to do a full performance for the community at some point this Fall.

The young women interns decided to name themselves "The I.N.D.E.P.E.N.D.E.N.T 3" and created a wrap up video about their summer experiences on the project.

Along the way, the interns also developed concepts for Historic Markers throughout the County, marking significant sites in local African-American history, including church history and the Freedom Struggle.

We received an enormous amount of help from community members during the summer. We are grateful in particular for support from Ms. Cherly Delk, Special Projects Coordinator for the county, who made it possible for the young people to use excellent video and recording equipment; to Ms. Bea Jackson, the Director of the Washington Street Community Center; which generously hosted the project, Bob Fernard, who instructed the young people in video shooting and editing; Betsy Morehouse (who kindly hosted our visit to historic Burge Plantation); Bobby Howard and Waymand Mundy (Moore's Ford Memorial Committee), who took us around historic sites in Walton County; Rev. Avis Williams, the artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier; and to many, many others.

We're still assessing the strengths and limitations of the program, and thinking about how to make the program better the next time around. There's no question that we need to do a better job of direct, hands on supervision. There were times when many of the interns, most of whom had not held regular jobs before, felt they were at loose ends at times. Sometimes the level of "creative chaos" in the project, especially in the video studio, got a little too intense for productive work (although at times, the informal give and take yielded wonderful results.) In some cases, there simply wasn't time to follow through on many of the interns' excellent ideas, including their desire to present their proposals for inclusive Historic Markers to the County Board of Commissioners. But all in all I remain deeply grateful to the young people who worked so hard, and to the many volunteers who gave some generously of their time during the summer.

I'm eager to bring some of my Cultural Production graduate students, as well as my undergraduate students from Brandeis, back to Covington at some point to continue this collaborative work in public history.