Let's get digital
Evana Ho explores a new collaboration between Digital Humanities at ANU and the National Museum of Australia, in which students have made creative digital projects out of the Museum's Defining Moments in Australian history.
There are moments that you don't realise at the time will end up becoming some of the most significant of your life. That person you joked with at a party, who you wind up spending the next decade of your life with. Words you said, or didn't say. Leaving one minute late. Arriving early.
There are events that you know as they're unfolding will be seared into your memory – and society's collective memory – forever. And then there are those events that people older than you tell you they remember where they were when they happened. While you don't have conscious experience of it yourself, the effects of those events rippled into your present and onwards into the future.
ANU Master in Digital Humanities and Public Culture student Simone Penkethman has two memories; hazy little vignettes from when she was a small child. One was a history-making event that she observed secondhand as it was happening. The other was almost a year after the fact.
It's 1974. She's standing in an art gallery in front of a huge painting. Her father tells her it cost a lot and is a big deal. “It's all drips and splatters, not brush strokes,” she recalls. “I'm fascinated. There are so many places to look.”
Her second memory is of her father, who's in front of the TV. It's 1975. He looks at her and he's wearing an expression she's only seen once before, after a death in the family. It's of shock, disbelief, devastation. The Governor General has just dismissed Gough Whitlam.
These two memories are inextricably linked for Simone, as they are in Australian history. She speaks of them in Blue Poles the Podcast, which she created for a course she undertook in Digital Humanities.
The mandate was to create a digital project based on one of the National Museum of Australia's Defining Moments in Australian History. Simone's Defining Moment was, of course, 'National Gallery of Australia buys Blue Poles for $1.3 million', in 1973.
David Arnold, Program Manager of the Defining Moments Digital Classroom, offered some background to Defining Moments. He explains that the suggestion was for the museum to consider a program of key events in Australian history that could become discussion points for members of the public and others.
“It was a vehicle to discuss and debate Australian history,” he says.
The initial 100 Defining Moments was compiled by a group of Australian historians, including CASS Dean Professor Rae Frances. It's grown to 400, thanks to hundreds of submissions put forward by members of the public, and gained a presence on the museum website in 2013. Through the support of the Gandel Philanthropy, around mid-2020 we'll see the launch of Defining Moments Digital Classrooms: an online resource for primary and secondary students.
“We'd been talking to the museum about ways to collaborate around digital projects,” says Dr Katrina Grant, lecturer in Digital Humanities. She teaches a third year course for undergraduates and Masters students that involves learning digital methods – from coding to 3D modeling, web building – and applying those methods to the creation of a project. It was the perfect vessel for working with the museum.
“Because Australia is so vast, the idea that most Australian students would get to visit the museum is impossible,” she continues. “Digital platforms offer the museum a great way – and objects and knowledge of the museum – to reach people and students around Australia.”
David describes how he, Katrina, and another Digital Humanities lecturer Dr Terhi Nurmikko-Fuller pitched the idea to Katrina's class last year to do their project on the theme of Defining Moments.
“We all got bowled over that the whole class wanted to do it,” says David. “We were thinking there would be just a handful, but it turned out it grabbed everyone's imagination.”
“We agreed that some of the projects, although they'd primarily be for assessment, could also become part of the Defining Moments Digital Classrooms website.”
One of the principles of the website, he adds, is to host student work rather just present content to students.
Simone's podcast is one of five projects, out of a total of 17 produced by the class, that was chosen for inclusion.
“It's really exciting and such an honour,” she says. “I'm really thrilled that Blue Poles the Podcast has a future, and I'm really grateful to the NMA and ANU Digital Humanities for the opportunity to make it.”
In taking this project on, Simone taught herself how to produce a podcast. As a writer, musician and digital communications professional, she came to this with an ear for sound – which is evident in the final product.
“It's a sonically rich podcast,” she says. “I was listening to lots of 'This American Life', 'Radiolab', and especially 'S Town'. 'S Town' really opened my ears to the rich storytelling possibilities of the podcast.”
Her podcast weaves together narratives from different times and perspectives.
“Over an arc of three short episodes, the presence of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, one of the biggest personalities in Australian history, is dwarfed by 'Blue Poles'; the monumental, abstract impressionist work that so many Australians know to be ours.”
“We didn't say, 'We want you to focus on making a website or map',” Dr Grant says. “We would tell them if they'd picked something that would be really hard and how much time they'd need to spend upskilling for it. And the museum would tell them how useful it seemed. But ultimately, it was up to them to take charge of their project.”
The memory and quiz game Thomas Larkin created draws on the 1949 Defining Moment 'Chifley government begins Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme'. Like Simone, his project reflects his interests and involved having to upskill.
Thomas graduated from ANU in December last year with a double degree in Engineering and Arts, majoring in Digital Humanities. He decided to create a game because he wanted to challenge himself with a web development/computer drawing/design project that initially seemed out of reach. Additionally, he had two reasons for choosing the Snowy Hydro Defining Moment.
The first was that he found the scheme fascinating from a technical perspective.
“At the same time, it was the largest engineering project completed in Australia and the sheer mobilisation of resources that needed to be undertaken in order to complete the work was incredible,” he says. “I thought it was pertinent for users to rediscover this event in Australia's history with the current discussions around Snowy 2.0 taking place.”
His second reason had to do with the scheme's social/societal implications.
“It brought a huge wave of migrants to the country, each bringing with them important skill sets and their own unique culture,” he says. “I think it is an important historical event to reflect on in terms of its positive and long lasting impact.”
His research included sifting through Personal History Records at the National Archives of Australia to identify people with interesting stories about their time working on the scheme. He then created 18 cards, with each depicting one of those people. When players successfully make a match, they're presented with information about that person. Ten matches later, they're directed to a quiz testing their knowledge of what they've just read.
“As far as a classroom learning resource goes, I tried to combine elements of gamification with reading/comprehension activities, in an effort to best engage the users,” Thomas says. “There are plenty of websites with information on the Snowy Hydro, but not so many memory game/quiz resources!”
Both David Arnold and Dr Grant were deeply impressed by the quality of the project produced by the class.
“We were pretty blown away by the efforts of the students and the way they undertook their projects so seriously and did their level best to make resources interesting for kids,” says David.
Dr Grant adds: “I was pleased by how the students took this on as a professional project. A lot of them made projects that I couldn't have imagined myself.”
The five ANU Digital Humanities projects are the first student-made contributions to the Defining Moments Digital Classroom – and by all accounts, the collaboration between the museum and ANU has been tremendous.
“It's a great example of partnerships – where partnerships are productive and serve the interests of all parties involved,” says David. “They can take a life of their own on, and this one did. I think it became more interesting and productive than any of us thought it would at the start.”
Thomas' experience participating in the collaboration echoed these sentiments – and he had further words of praise for his teachers.
“To have developed something that is seen as valuable for the NMA is a testament to the quality of teacher/mentorship provided by Katrina and Terhi in the Digital Humanities department at ANU,” Thomas says.
“It has been an excellent experience for me to be working alongside the museum in the months after coursework completed and working as a bit of a freelance web developer/designer. I think it is fantastic for students like me to be engaging with national institutions because the outcomes of a project such as this are mutually beneficial.”