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Digital Public Humanities Panel

By Sarah Connell

On March 21, the NULab and Humanities Center co-sponsored a panel, “Digital Public Humanities”, featuring presentations by four scholars who work in the digital public humanities: Alex Gil (Columbia University), Roopika Risam (Salem State University), Caroline Klibanoff (MIT Museum), and Jim McGrath (Brown University). Throughout their presentations, these scholars explored the public impact of digital projects, asking what digital public humanities methods are and can be used for, who benefits from this work, and where to locate the experiential and political in digital public humanities. At the center of this panel was an interrogation of digital humanities methods for more public-facing work and reflection on the ethical, social, cultural, and political implications of digital work.

“Mobilized Humanities: The Case of Torn Apart / Separados” by Alex Gil and Roopika Risam

In their presentation about the Torn Apart / Separados Project, Roopika Risam and Alex Gil outline the motivation, timeline, and development of this project as a digital intervention and response to the U.S. “zero-tolerance policy” for asylum seekers in 2018 and the humanitarian crisis that followed. This project unfolded in two stages with two very different approaches and timelines. Volume 1 was the product of an intense week-long research project conducted by veteran scholars and researchers to investigate what kind of data there was about immigrant detention and the U.S. policy for dealing with unaccompanied minors. Over three days, the team gathered information and conducted research, using the remaining three days to discuss, code, and finalize visualizations of this data (for further details on this process, see their essay “Textures”). The resulting visualizations map the location of private juvenile detention facilities and ICE facilities (“Clinks”), the 100-mile border zone where ICE turns back asylum seekers (“The Trap”), and, on a mercurially, moving map, the 113 redacted children’s shelters (“ORR”). In discussing these visualizations, Risam and Gil highlighted the ethical decisions that went into this project, considering they were mapping information that, if specific locations were given, could invite state violence through ensuing protest. This raised a larger question: how do you handle projects with such ethical issues and vulnerable populations?

This was a resounding question throughout the rest of their presentation in which Risam and Gil discussed the response to Volume 1, the media ecology of how the story circulated, their engagement with the public, and the process of creating  Volume 2. After getting a variety of responses from academia and beyond, they continued this conversation at the DH conference in Mexico City just weeks after the first project ended. In a Design Sprint supported by HASTAC, they gathered together a large group of people to implement rapid prototypes of more visualizations, choosing this time to focus on money and ICE funding. The resulting data visualizations map ICE funding by district (“District”), the increase of spending on ICE since 2014 (“Rain”), and how ICE funding gets spent (transportation, goods, and services, etc.) (“Freezer”). In exploring each of these visualizations, Risam and Gil made connections between their processes and experiences with this project and digital humanities methods. For them, this project demonstrated the type of activist and deeply humanistic work that can happen through collaboration, asking: why don’t we have structures that allow for this kind of work and, when it is done, how can we evaluate it? In the end, Risam and Gil called for more opportunities within digital humanities for this important, activist-driven public-facing work.

“Monuments, Media & Museums: Making Digital Spaces for Practice” by Caroline Klibanoff (MIT Museum)

Caroline Klibanoff presented on her work as the Exhibitions Project Manager overseeing, in part, the opening of the MIT Museum in Kendall Square in 2020 and developing her digital project, “The Atlas of Southern Memory.” Throughout her presentation, Klibanoff reflected on two main themes: first, the importance of experience in public humanities from commemoration to participation, and second, the connections between digital and physical spaces. As a cultural heritage practitioner, Klibanoff discussed the importance and complexity of creating exhibits that foreground the experience of public users, asking: how do you share a complex topic to a general audience? Or, how do you make history interesting to people? In answering these questions, Klibanoff underscored the significance of experience—whether a pedagogical or practical tool—for drawing people to a topic, stating that the members of the public are “the original practitioners of public history.”

Beyond applying these concepts to the development of MIT’s next museum, Klibanoff explored these themes in her own digital project, “The Atlas of Southern Memory”—a project she began for Northeastern’s Digital Humanities Graduate Certificate program. Using 2014 Census data, Klibanoff created an interactive map marking streets named after U.S. presidents, Confederate soldiers, and Civil Rights leaders. After publishing an article on Medium about this project, Klibanoff was contacted by two people interested in learning who their local middle school was named after. In pursuing this investigation, they discovered a rich local history of land ownership, politics, and power struggles, all symbolized in the contestation over the school’s name. This work, as Klibanoff notes, is what public historians dream of because it centers the public as practitioners in their own ongoing history. In closing, Klibanoff called for a deeper consideration of commemoration that builds transparency, makes the process (whether physical or digital) visible, and enables people to write their own stories.

“Breaking Bandersnatch: Networked Publics, Interactive Storytelling, and Augmented Realities” by Jim McGraff (Brown University)

In his presentation on his work as a Postdoctoral Fellow for Digital Public Humanities at Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, Jim McGrath discussed digital public humanities pedagogy and his experience teaching undergraduate and graduate courses. Focusing on his current graduate course on “Digital Storytelling,” McGrath outlined the context of the course through networked publics, interactive and iterative storytelling, and augmented realities, noting that his students are from a wide range of disciplines and produce work that they and the institution can use. By exploring a variety of both public-facing projects and popular media, they think about the relationship between time, engagement, communities, and audience. One question that emerged was balancing conceptual ideas: how do we design digital humanities for a wide variety of audiences while understanding the specificity of these audiences? Or, when do our ideas of openness and accessibility limit, restrict, or redact?

For the second part of his presentation, McGrath explored one form of digital storytelling that he recently has used in his classroom: the 2018 interactive film “Bandersnatch” from Netflix’s popular Black Mirror series. This storyline moves forward by a series of choices the audience or viewer has to make, altering the sense of time in this digital interface. As a text, McGrath compared the interactive narrative with other forms of “choose-your-own-adventure” experiences, such as games on Twine, a digital, interactive storytelling platform. As the class collectively watched the show, they discussed how this text reveals the process and materiality of its medium, asking questions about how this could be used in project development and user experience for augmented realities. McGrath concluded with a call for looking beyond academia to digital storytellers in digital public humanities and digital advocacy, drawing attention to who feels absent and removed from these efforts and study.

The panel ended with an informative and engaging Q & A session, where the four scholars offered a number of important resources and additional projects to further conversations about mobilizing the humanities for activist work and the importance of media attention. First, Gil mentioned the Rapid Response Research (from Nimble Tents Toolkits) for direct scholarly interventions to crises. For those who are doing this kind of work, Risam and Gil suggested looking at the Centers for Solutions to Online Violence (from FemTechNet) for information for scholars and activist to best protect themselves on and offline. Finally, Risam and Gil suggested the Torn Apart / Separados Bibliography for more information about all the media coverage the project generated, bringing attention to the symbiotic relationship between digital projects and press that brings attention, energy, and even funding to scholarly, activist work.

Featured image credit: Torn Apart / Separados, Volume 1. See the full interactive map here.

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