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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations: Transforming Charleston’s Public History Landscape through a Digital Exhibition Project

Looking back now at the title of our presentation, I’m realizing that our claim that a digital exhibition can change Charleston’s public history landscape seems pretty bold. In many ways though, I think we are at least onto something-- I do believe the relationship between inclusive public history work and digital humanities research and resources could be greatly expanded, and even transformative, for Charleston and the Lowcountry region. To provide some context, for over a century, since tourism first became a lucrative industry in the Charleston area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, historic sites, tour guides, and museums have overwhelmingly focused on antebellum and colonial white elite experiences and material culture. Their interpretation choices served to marginalize or romanticize historic social struggles over race, labor, and citizenship that formed during and after slavery in this region, and continued into twentieth century civil rights activism. Today, “Historic Charleston” is a multi-billion dollar tourism destination that receives over four million visitors annually. But with some notable exceptions, most historic tourism producers still do not frame African American history during and after slavery as central to understanding Lowcountry history. Instead, guides give these subjects passing acknowledgement, or historic sites present them as separate, optional additions to their standard white elite tour narratives.

Acknowledging and effectively interpreting Charleston’s full history to the public is long overdue, but cultural institutions, historic sites, and tour guides face major challenges for accomplishing this task. For example, the physical presence of historic mansions of elite whites often dominate current Lowcountry historic landscapes and guide narratives, while complex social histories of African American labor and struggle within these spaces or on surrounding former rice fields can be more difficult for visitors to conceptualize. In addition, efforts to build new physical exhibitions and museum structures to address these underrepresented histories often become constrained by limited budgets in the current economy. In this context, mobile applications and online exhibitions can engage multimedia archival materials and scholarly research to help users effectively visualize and connect with more diverse social histories, within a fuller range of the Lowcountry’s historic structures and landscapes. They can also accomplish this at minimal costs and impacts on the current physical environments and communities living within these spaces. Through African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations, the Lowcountry Digital Library will specifically introduce a cohesive online narrative platform for presenting digital projects connected to the history of colonial and antebellum slavery in this region (such as online tours of specific spaces where enslaved people lived and work in the Lowcountry, or images of artifacts they used). Our goal is for this online exhibition to promote greater understanding and appreciation for this region’s complex, multicultural histories to a range of user audiences, including visitors, locals, scholars and educators, as well as tour guides. 

Mary Battle, PhD Candidate
Emory University
Assistant Digital Curator
Lowcountry Digital Library
College of Charleston

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