Digital Applications in a Local History Museum

In February, I visited the Museum of the San Ramon Valley in Danville, California.  I returned again last week to talk to Beverly Lane about possible digital history projects for students and learned more about the digital application that the museum used for the temporary exhibit: “Stir Crazy Quilts: Quilting During the Pandemic,” which runs through the end of May.

Credit: Arden Dougan and Museum Of San Ramon Valley

The exhibit features the work of quilters during the covid shutdown.  Working remotely, quilters created traditional quilts with scraps that they had on hand at home, joined with friends over zoom, quilted blocks for collective crafts, and created squares that indicated their activities during the shutdown (books, zoom sessions, voting, injustice, and wine), and a few expressed the political themes of the moment such as Arden Dougan’s Quinevere.

The quilt exhibit has a fabulous digital humanities feature.  Using Engage by Cell*, a smartphone application that links audio to a QR code, museum visitors can listen to some of the quilters talk about the inspiration behind their work, the kinds of materials they used, and the conditions through which they worked during the covid pandemic. As someone who does not quilt but who understands the significance of quilting as both art and politics, this interactive feature made the quilts immediately legible. (In the 1970s, for example, feminists contemplated quilting and other forms of needlework as artistically significant aspects of women’s culture.[1])

The stories are short, less than two minutes in length. This takes into account short audience attention spans, which some estimate to be as low as five seconds![2] () More importantly, the app makes use of storytelling “to emphasize aurality as a key element in digital (and especially mobile) interpretive projects,” as Mark Tebeau recommends as a best practice in mobile digital humanities projects.[3] The artists’ expressed their worries and surprising joys as they quilted through the pandemic shutdown.

My only criticism of the feature is that I cannot hear the voices of the artists now that I am away from the museum.  I would like to revisit the stories. So too might researchers interested in quilting, covid, and the politics of 2020.  A related question is where these born digital items will end up being stored.  Do local museums have a way to retain these stories? Is there a way to archive them to make them available to future historians?

*Engage by Cell offers a suite of applications that local museums (and businesses) can use without painstaking development. It is not open source, but it does put the power of digital storytelling in the hands of historians and curators who may not know how to code but are keen to engage their audiences in new ways.                                     

[1] Elaine Hedges, “Quilts and Women’s Culture,” The Radical Teacher (March 1977): 7-10.

[2] Brad Baer, Emily Fry, and Daniel Davis, “Beyond the Screen: Creating interactives that are location, time, preference, and skill responsive,” MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014, February 1, 2014.

[3] Mark Tebeau, “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” Oral History Review 40.1 (2013): 25-35.

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