Public History

Collections Project Proposal

7th Ohio Regiment Scouts on Upton’s Hill, Virginia June 17, 1861. Artist – Alfred Waud

Mapping the Civil War in Arlington: Upton’s Hill, is an Online Media Collection Project (OMCP) that will provide local historians, researchers, and students, access to primary sources from the Civil War. These primary sources will include photographs, drawings, maps, letters, public records, as well as historic newspaper articles related to Arlington.  In addition, there will be photographs of Civil War artifacts, and links to other media collections. 

The OMCP will centralize access to disparate archives and collections of Arlington related Civil War records, using a popular digital collection management platform called “Omeka.” The availability and accessibility of these Civil War era primary sources will promote a larger and more collaborative interpretation of Arlington’s role during the conflict.  The project will also encourage new research and discoveries that will highlight the social, political, and cultural history of the people living in Arlington.  “Mapping” will also document the stories of Confederate and Union regiments, as well as those of individual soldiers that came from all over the country to fight and die in Arlington.

The Online Media Collection Project will be developed in several phases.  These include:

  • Prototype development phase, using the Omeka application and only targeting the local history of Arlington’s “Upton’s Hill.”
  • Buildout Phase, recruiting local historian support and volunteers to help with inputting and building out the site.
  • Evaluation phase, conducting site usability studies and capturing feedback
  • Going public with the OMCP

Historical Context:

“Mapping” is a prototype project that demonstrates the value of centralizing access to online collections for the purpose of promoting public history. During the first six months of the Civil War Arlington was at the epicenter between two large armies. While the first Battle of Bull Run/Manassas did not occur until July 21, 1861, the months preceding and following the battle were witness to almost daily contact between northern and southern troops. These small military engagements often took place along the Arlington and Falls Church border.  No where was this more evident than Upton’s Hill. The hill’s summit, rising 410 feet about sea level, and overlooks, Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church, and Washington, D.C. Its strategic location made it an important military objective.  During the war dozens of regiments from both sides camped there, and eventually the Union Army built a fort there.

160 years later, Arlington County residents know very little about the Civil War, and even less about Upton’s hill’s local history. Overshadowed by the major battles that were to take place in 1862 and beyond, the military conflict in Arlington is a forgotten period of US history that is worthy of retrospect. The major combatants of both sides, including William T. Sherman, George B. McClellan, James Longstreet, and Jeb Stuart all lived and fought in and around Arlington in 1861. For a brief period of time the Confederates seriously considered invading Arlington. While Arlington’s Historical Society has published a few articles about Civil War, the scope and scale of what occurred on Upton’s Hill during the war remains unknown. However, this is dramatically changing due to the fact that the Civil War was well documented and photographed. As a result, there is a wide availability of digital collections that provide access to primary source material. These collections, including letters, diaries, drawings, regimental histories, and photographs, include many records associated with Upton’s Hill.  These collections are helping local historians “rediscover” Arlington’s Civil War history.  Not surprisingly, the introduction of these “new” primary resources, is somewhat disruptive, and challenging the status quo of decades old scholarship.

The initial focus of the prototype project will be on the Union regimental camps located on Upton’s Hill. Some of the project’s historical questions will include:

  • What do the collection’s primary sources reveal about how these soldiers lived, and what was their war experiences?
  •  What was the impact of the war on local residents?  How did they react?
  • What new local historical interpretations can be discovered?

An expanded project would include more geospatial details of fort locations, local military engagements, and other topographical features, like bridges, hills, and roads. Finally, the project also has the potential to personalize the war by permitting researchers and students to identify individual units and soldiers and track their real-life stories.

Digital Technologies

The Online Media Collection Project will leverage the Omeka application as its web publishing platform for sharing the project’s digital collections and exhibits.  One of the goals of this project is to demonstrate the viability and sustainability of developing an online collection.  Omeka provides the flexibility to start small, with the focus only on Upton’s Hill.  But the platform can scale later on to include a wider and more in-depth collection of Arlington’s local Civil War history. An initial challenge will be developing an information hierarchy that reflects the available primary source material, and how to present it in a user-friendly way.  The built-in themes and interfaces provided by Omeka will provide some assistance in establishing this framework.

The OMCP should promote historic research collaboration by providing the means for the site’s users to publish primary source recommendations, questions, and comments.  This will help in the discovery phase.  The project will encourage engagement and scholarly discussion regarding collection items, their authenticity, and applicability.  Omeka has some additional plug-ins that may need to be added later on in order to provide this capability. 


April 12th, 2021 is the 160th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.  As a result, there is going to be a renewed interest in the Civil War and local history in Arlington. The project will be designed for several key personas.  These include local historians, teachers, students, and history buffs.  The primary audience will be on local historians.  The secondary audience will be for teachers.  In regard to local historians, the site is intended to become an important source of validating historical authenticity and presenting new discoveries.  It will provide a venue for sharing knowledge and collection sources.  For teachers, the site will include lesson plans and activities targeted for Arlington students.  These activities will promote local history and discovery of important Civil War sites, including Upton’s Hill.

Finally, the project will attract a lot of attention from Civil War history buffs.  Stories about Arlington and the war will be new to many in this audience.  However, since during the Civil War regiments from over 15 states camped in the county, there may be a greater national interest. One benefit of seeking a wider audience is the potential for new and undiscovered primary sources.  These history buffs could be the “wisdom of the crowd” and their engagement could fill in some missing historical references and add to new interpretations.

Public History

Personas Revised

As part of my collections project I had to develop two personas. These personas are intended to keep me focused on who the project is intended for and how will they determine if it is successful or not. Using personas are very helpful and their application goes beyond just digital projects. As a disclaimer these personas are not intended to represent any one in real life, but they are certainly inspired by people I know. As they use to say in the TV show “Dragnet” the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Persona #1

Name: Jim Thurber
Demographic: 55-75, White male, retired
Descriptive Title: Member of the local historical society
End Goals: Jim is aware of social media and online collections and recognizes that his local historical society has not kept up with these technologies. He also would like to widen the society’s demographics, and bring more younger people into the organization. Jim also knows that his society is rooted in a dated approach to local history. This has impacted its interpretation of Civil War history. In the past the society has advocated support for the creation of an onsite museum, located at small elementary school. However, the impact of COVID now demonstrates the greater need to make local history accessible online, so the wider community can participate in its curation and interpretation.
Quote: “History needs to be a shared experience and everyone should be able to participate in its interpretation.”
A Day in a Life Narrative: Jim is very active with the local history society. As a member of the its board for many years, he is concerned that the society is losing its relevance as a recognized advocate for historical curation and preservation. He has a strong track record in promoting local history and is well known among civic associations and local government. Since he is retired he can spend a lot of time researching and promoting preservation projects. He has a strong interest in local Civil War history.

Persona #2

Name: Yolanda Smith
Demographic: 30 -45, African American, female
Descriptive Title: 4th grade elementary school teacher
Quote: “I want to make history more exciting for my students.”
A Day in a Life Narrative: As a 4th grade teacher in Virginia the Civil War is an important part of the state’s history curriculum. It is difficult to make something that happened over 160 years ago relevant to a 10 year old. Being able to offer class assignments based on local history would be of great value.
End Goals: Ms. Smith wants to be able to direct her students to online resources that support interesting and innovative activities. She wants to teach my students the difference between primary and secondary sources, and how to develop their own skills for historical interpretation. Many historical documents, like letters and diaries, are still in cursive. She needs help in decoding them. Some of the concepts of the Civil War are difficult to teach in today’s politically charged environment. Ms. Smith is looking for county supported programs that provide new and local interpretations of black history and freeing the enslaved. She would love to have her students participate in the local historic research and curation process.

Public History

Audience, Dialogue, and Co-Creation Part 2

In the past, historians would spend a significant amount of time researching and uncovering new facts and sources of information. This academic approach required a laborious process to document their findings. Then they needed to find an appropriate venue to present or publish their interpretations in order to reach an audience. Today, social media has completely changed this paradigm. According to the Pew Research Center’s report entitled Three Technology Revolutions, “The new reality is that as people create social networks in technology spaces, those networks are often bigger and more diverse than in the past.” As a result historians are able to engage with new and more diverse audiences. At the same time these audience are able to dialogue and provide immediate feedback.

In his article, Creating a Dialogic Museum, John Kuo Weitchen asks “what roles should historians, and other professional specialists, play in this dialogue?” He observes that many historical organizations believe that they have a greater authority to “produce interpretations of the history and culture of a community than members of the community itself.” In essence authorship becomes more important than knowledge transfer. But Weitchen believes that this authority should be a shared and collaborative process. A process that social media is helping to facilitate.

Social media is allowing audiences to become a critical part of the historical curation and interpretation process. This is most evident in public history projects. For example, in Building Histories of the National Mall, a project created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, developers carefully integrated their content strategy with its social media strategy. Great care was given to limit the social media platforms utilized, but also to standardize the presentation of content as much as possible.

The popularity of social media and online technologies are also having an impact on traditional gate keepers like historical societies and local historians. According to Ronald Grele in his well known paper, Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of a Public Historian?, the local history movement in the 1960s, including professional and amateurs, created one of the largest public audiences in the United States of its time. However, local historians and historical societies are struggling to keep up with the next wave of independent and non-affiliated public historians. Grele writes that “every man can become his own historian; that relatively ordinary people can seek and find knowledge of the world.” Grele goes on to say that the task of the public historian should be to “help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting event.”

So what should be the relationship between public historians and their audiences? Maybe Sam Wineburg, in his article, Thinking Like a Historian, has it right. He says that historians “see themselves as detectives searching for evidence among primary sources to a mystery that can never be completely solved.” But as detectives historians have developed an approach to “historical thinking” by establishing criteria to evaluating primary sources. Do historians have a responsibility to share this approach with their audiences? Wineburg believes so and he provides the following list to help:

  • Sourcing
  • Contextualization
  • Close reading
  • Using background knowledge
  • Reading the silences
  • Corroborating

So why should public historians encourage their audiences to “think like historians?” In the social media world arguing is more often the goal, rather than a means to an end. As a result, historical facts get lost in the dialogue. Online everyone can have an opinion or their own interpretation of history. Wineburg believes that while everyone is entitled to an opinion, “not every opinion deserves to be believed.” To be persuasive, an opinion needs to backed up by evidence. Curating and interpreting this evidence will continue to be an important part of the relationship between audiences and public historians.

Grele, Ronald. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 40-48.

Pew Research Center. “Three Technology Revolutions

Tchen, John Kuo Wei. “Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment” Smithsonian Press Abstract (March 1990)

Wineburg, Sam. “Thinking Like a HistorianTeaching with Primary Sources Quarterly Library of Congress (Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 2010)

Public History

Audience, Dialogue, and Co-Creation

Fortifications and Observatory at Upton’s Hill – Arlington, Virginia 1861

At a public forum regarding the Civil War in Arlington, a local historian claimed that nothing of “importance” happened at a particular location. A location that is being considered for a major preservation project. It was a simple statement. Since this person is considered an expert on local history his “interpretation” carries some weight with the Arlington community. However, it was obvious that his observation was not based on fact, but rather a lack of awareness or acceptance of a growing body of new evidence. A body of evidence that includes publicly accessible primary source documentation that actually refutes his claim.

This episode made me think about public history and the role of local historians. It especially made me go back and review Ronald Grele’s article, “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of a Public Historian? (1981). Now over 40 years old, Grele’s work still provides one of the best descriptions of “public history.” He lays out a strong frame work for understanding the evolution of historians, from their academic origins, to local historians, and public historians. What he was not able to foresee, was the next evolution, where audiences can now participate in the interpretation process. Something that I would define as “social history” or social media history.

Social media offers a new way for historians to engage with their audiences, whether it be primary or secondary. Public history is no longer limited by small, in person venues, like a class room or library. Instead public historians can reach thousands in an instant. Nor do authors have to wait years to publish their work. The internet and social media is dramatically changing our concept of public history.

For my project “Mapping the Civil War in Arlington” I conducted research on my intended primary and secondary audiences. My first interview was with Tom Dickinson, a member of the board for the Arlington Historical Society (AHS). Since the mid 1950s the AHS has been a significant force in shaping, and defining Arlington history. It has been publishing an annual magazine that provides a venue for local historians to present their research and findings. Members of the AHS would be a primary audience. They would be interested in learning more about Civil War history and how it is related to Arlington. The project would also benefit from AHS members and other local historians contributing and confirming historical accounts and sources.

Mapping the Civil War may be considered disruptive to some primary audiences, since it challenges long held beliefs within the AHS that nothing of military significance happened in Arlington county. While AHS has published several articles about small skirmishes, and the impact of northern troops occupying the county, there never was a wider interpretation of the role Arlington played in the Union victory. Arlington’s Civil War history has long been overshadowed by Southern General Robert E. Lee and the “Lost Cause” narrative that portrays him and other Confederate leaders as noble but conflict figures. In fact for decades, the county’s logo is a representation of Arlington House, Lee’s former home. Last year the county government announced that it was going to change the logo, as well as continue to review school and street names that honor Confederate leaders.

My second interview was with a Civil War history buff and living history reenactor. He just happened to be my brother Tom Vaselopulos. Tom lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and represents a wider and potential secondary audience of history enthusiasts who conduct online research. In my brother’s case, specific his interest is in the history of the 79th New York Volunteers, or better known as the “Highlanders.” His reenactment group portrays this particular unit that was made up of Scottish immigrants from New York City. The 79th New York were part of the first wave of Union troops that arrived in Arlington early in the war. They helped build Fort Corcoran which was located in Rosslyn overlooking the Potomac river.

Mapping the Civil War will attract a lot of interest from secondary audiences since it will provide online access to a wide collection of Union and Confederate regimental histories. Tom and other Civil War buffs would be very interested in learning more about the role of individual regiments and their experiences in Arlington. These histories will also support and provide irrefutable evidence of the wider scope of local military activities in Arlington. For example, elementary students will be able to learn about what happened in their own backyards. One of the project’s goal is to allow audiences to participate and contribute to the collection process. Civil War records are quite extensive. It will require a significant amount of collaboration/co-creation, between audiences and participating local historians, to map this history. People of all ages and backgrounds would be able to participate.

In regard to the impact of the audience research on my project, I would like to quote from Ronald Grele’s article.

“The current growth of public history and the debate over the definition of the historical profession has taken place within the context of an ironic situation. The study of history is in almost total collapse in the academy, while the popularity of history with the public is growing everywhere”.

In order for Mapping the Civil War to succeed, it has to provide the means for a wide range of participation and engagement to ensure that the historical collection and interpretation process is objective. This means that the goals of “Mapping” should not be to narrowly define the historical interpretation at the start of the project. Rather the goal should be to strive for transparency. In order to minimize subjectivity, the project needs to establish well-defined and agreed upon criteria that will determine and rank the historic value of the intended collection records. This ranking process will be dynamic and leverage social media to permit audiences to comment and post their preferences.

As Grele observed, the popularity of history is growing. Advances in social media and online collection technologies are evolving. As a result we are witnessing the emergence of the next generation of “historians.” For communities like Arlington, history may be local, but it is also impacted by broader audiences who are interested and may want to contribute. Mapping the Civil War can benefit from the “wisdom” of this crowd and these new social historians.

Public History

Physical/Digital Site Comparative Review

Fort Ward – Alexandria, Virginia

For a class assignment I had to select a public history site to visit that also has an online presence. I chose the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site in Alexandria, Virginia.

Physical Site:

Fort Ward offers visitors an opportunity to experience a Civil War fortification similar to the dozens that once surrounded Washington D.C. from 1861-1865.  The outside exhibits of the fort, include canons, a replica of the fort’s gateway, and a officer hut.  The site also includes a small historical museum. Fort Ward tells the story of the Union troops that were rushed into Northern Virginia to defend the Capital early in the war. 

Display of Civil War era muskets

According to the museum’s website the permanent collection is diverse, with over 2,000 holdings that include: military equipment related to the infantry, artillery, cavalry and navy; edged and shoulder weapons; flags; musical instruments; medical equipment; uniforms and clothing accessories; cooking and mess equipment; artwork, primarily period prints of both Union and Confederate significance; documents; photographs; and artifacts excavated at Fort Ward.

Display of the forts around Washington

The museum is a time capsule of local history. Curators take full advantage of the small two story building, utilizing traditional glass cases, wall displays, and large textual presentations. The first floor, where all of the displays are contained, is small rectangular one room open space. In the center is a two sided central wall with displays as well as displays on the perimeter walls.  Visitors are able to walk around the center wall and can take their time to stop and see all the displays.  In addition to the displays there is a gift shop and a reference library on the second floor. There are no interactive displays, but there is one monitor and that provides visitors with an informative video of the fort’s history.

The museum is successful in its interpretation of a unique part of Civil War history. As the fifth largest fort in the Union Army’s formidable defense system, Fort Ward was considered to be a model of military design and engineering for the time period. The historic site offers education and interpretive programs, and living history activities throughout the year. Fort Ward also interprets Alexandria, Virginia as an occupied city, the city’s role as a vital Union Army crossroads, life within the Defenses of Washington, and the everyday life of Civil War soldiers and civilians. The site’s open space and museum is a favorite with families, history buffs, and Civil War reenactors.

New brochure reflects a transition in historical interpretation

A new brochure available on Fort Ward’s website reflects a recent transition in the site’s historical interpretation. The history of the fort is now expanding to the post war experience of African Americans. After the Civil War the fort was abandoned and the land surrounding it was sold to many African American families. However, during the preservation efforts to save the fort in the 1950s there was need to relocate this 90 year old community. This new story will have an impact on the historical site’s efforts to provide a broader interpretation.

Civil War Mobile App

The City of Alexandria’s main site also offers a mobile application called “Civil War Alexandria”. It lists all of the major historic sites related to the Civil War., including Fort Ward It was introduced for the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2011. This mobile application is dated and should be refreshed to include more detail for the major attractions for each historic site. This would provide visitors the opportunity to conduct more self-directed activities.

Digital Site:

As a result of the COVID-19 virus, the fort’s museum is currently closed to the public, and its staff are now having to turn towards social media to communicate with existing and potential visitors, as well as calling attention to their collections, exhibitions, and events. This has brought more attention to its online presence.

Fort Ward website

Fort Ward is part of a wider City of Alexandria focus on public history.  Because the site is integrated into a higher level website architecture there are some basic problems with navigation and focus. To get to the web pages describing the fort you need to drill down several layers in navigation. 

Also, visitors looking for the museum’s through a search engine will have some confusion when landing on the higher level navigation pages. In addition, the overall site design is constrained by static links, and pages within page links. Despite these usability issues, the site provides a wide array of great historic content and information.

This includes:

The museum’s site was designed prior to COVID-19 and it does not offer any social media engagement. While it is intended for those interested in history, and visiting the museum, the web pages lack a defined focus for either researchers, educators, and local historians.  The site would benefit with more virtual and video components.  For example the museum should expand on its efforts to personalize the history of the people associated with the fort and Alexandria.  As demonstrated in this recent Christmas video.

Since Fort Ward is such a unique historic experience it should have its own website and social media presence.  Online access to content management systems as well as the popularity of social media presents an opportunity for the museum. 

Civil War Rocket Launcher

The current problem facing the museum lies in the effort to make physical collections accessible online and online material accessible at the physical sites. The museum has thousands of items in its collections. But most of these remain hidden and inaccessible to both physical and online visitors. The museum needs to develop a long term strategy to leverage online content management services that will permit many of the items to become more accessible. For example, the physical site should leverage new mobile applications that connect visitors with online content.  And the online content should be integrated with the physical collections. There is no longer a need to invest in expensive onsite interactive displays. Let users take advantage of their own devices.

For example the museum can integrate QR scan codes at onsite displays. Visitors using their mobile devices could scan a code that would link to the website’s description of the object or a video.

Another problem is that Fort Ward does not have its own social media branding. Instead it is part of a broader social media strategy with Alexandria government. Leveraging social media enables museums to engage with the public and let visitors expand their experience. The following goals are usually associated with social media strategies.

  • Sharing News
  • Brand Recognition
  • Historic Education
  • Fundraising
  • Volunteer Recruitment

Small museums like Fort Ward can use social media to make the curation process more transparent. Followers could watch a video of exhibition designers mapping out the early stages of a new exhibition or an interview with educators and curators on particular subjects. Sharing internal museum processes with the public can be an important driver behind online public engagement.


A more defined and focused social media strategy could help staff get to know their audience better. This will require:

  • A review and analysis of Fort Ward’s current online presence.
  • Evaluation of available media content, and determination of what additional content needs to be created and posted.
  • Review usage of analytics and reporting metrics.
  • Review of social media engagement management.

Fort Ward could easily post status updates to Facebook that appear on followers’ news feeds, or create photo albums to show their collections and tag visitors who have attended events. Facebook and other social media provide well-defined analytics that would help Fort Ward gauge their followers’ interests. Analyzing individuals’ public comments, or the number of times a post has been ‘shared’ or ‘liked’ demonstrates a museum’s success at engaging followers via this platform. Finally social media analytics provide demographic breakdowns of visitors who engage online, such as gender and age. This is valuable information for the institution to have because it can tell them who is likely coming to the museum, and more importantly, who is not.

Social Media Content Ideas

Creating and implementing a social media strategy can be difficult. Fort Ward’s staff should experiment with creating “friends of the fort” social media sites on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc. Volunteers and staff could post periodically:

  • Sneak peeks at something the average visitor doesn’t get to see or special events.
  • Interview a donor about why they support the museum and tell visitors how they can become a supporter.
  • Introduce museum staff and their contributions.
  • Feature a product from the gift shop.
  • Write a post specifically for younger audiences.
  • Post photos and videos from events while they are underway.

It is clear from this assignment that museums like Fort Ward can no longer see their physical and online sites as separate entities. The popularity of social media is driving the need to integrate the management of both.