Thursday, 1 November 2012

Historical Men of Movember: Frank Oliver

While the concept of growing moustaches in November (or Movember) to raise awareness for prostate cancer is a recent phenomenon, moustaches themselves have a long history.  Throughout November, I will be featuring a variety of historically awesome moustaches. If you would like to donate to the Movember cause, please consider donating to Adrian Petry who is participating in honour of his great-grandfather who passed away from prostate cancer.

In honour of my new position as junior researcher at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, I thought it would be fitting to present Frank Oliver as the first candidate for this year's historical moustache tour. Between 1905 and 1911, Mr. Oliver was the Minister of the Interior, which at that time made him responsible for the regulation of immigration. He accomplished many significant things during his time as a politician, including the growth of a magnificent moustache.

Frank Oliver

 Although the hair grows gray...

File:Frank Oliver2.jpg

...the moustache stays the same

Frank Oliver started his career as journalist, training in Toronto and Winnipeg before settling in Edmonton in 1880.   Once there, Oliver founded the Edmonton Bulletin, which became the first newspaper in what would later become Alberta. Apparently running the newspaper didn't keep Oliver busy enough so he decided to try his hand at politics, first as a member of the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories and then as a Liberal Member of Parliament.  In 1905, Oliver became the Minister of the Interior under Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, overseeing significant changes to Canada's immigration policy.

Shortly after assuming his new position, Oliver laid out plans to make immigration policy more restrictive.  Unlike his predecessor Clifford Sifton (who had a respectable moustache himself), Oliver did not favour the unregulated flow of immigrants into the country for the sake of filling the prairies with farmers. This open-door policy led to the immigration of many Eastern Europeans and there was public concern they would not assimilate to Canada's Anglo-Saxon norms.  Oliver was a staunch supporter of the British and made it known that the most desirable immigrants were of British and American origin. The Immigration Acts of 1906 and 1910 drafted under Oliver reflected this hierarchical preference for certain immigrants as they greatly expanded the prohibited classes of immigrants.

As biased as I am toward immigration history, Oliver did not devote all his time as minister to crafting immigration policy.  Or to growing his moustache.  When hot springs were discovered in a little place called Banff, Alberta, Oliver led the effort to have the area set aside for the people of Canada, leading to the creation of Canada's first national park.  He also played an important part in influencing the powers that be to make Edmonton the capital of the new province of Alberta rather than Calgary.   Perhaps it is our friend with the fine follicles that is responsible for initiating the friendly feud between these two fair Alberta cities.

Check back soon for more delightfully moustached men. 

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Ready, Set...Intern!

I have officially survived my first week as an intern.  It has been a whirlwind week - moving to Halifax, starting a new job, and meeting a lot of new faces.

I am arriving at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (CMIP) during a time of transition. The most noticeable change is to the building itself, with the installation of a new HVAC system.  While this hasn't kept the museum from welcoming visitors, it means that behind the scenes everything is a bit cozier than usual.  Some staff members have had parts of their offices turned in alternative storage space. Apparently it is quite a miracle they even found me a desk to work at.  I quite like my spot, sharing space with some friendly faces in IT, Communications, and Public Programming.

The most significant transition at CMIP comes with its recent (2011) designation as Canada's sixth national museum. With the designation, the CMIP has been able to expand its mandate to explore Canadian immigration across the country and throughout different periods of history. Previously, it had primarily been focused on telling stories specifically related to Pier 21's immediate history as an immigration port from 1928-1971. I had the opportunity to attend CMIP's First Annual Public Meeting yesterday and they outlined the various ways in which they are endeavouring to fulfil this new mandate.  For example, the upcoming temporary exhibit will explore the cultural landscapes of different ethnic communities across the country, using oral histories collected in the past months to highlight the ways immigrants affect their social spaces.

My own research at CMIP is also a part of the shifting focus.  Currently, I am conducting research into Black Refugees that fled the United States during the War of 1812 and eventually settled in Nova Scotia.  Researching this important part of Nova Scotia history allows the museum to expand beyond the stories of 20th century European immigration.

I have been delving into the sources for about a week now, and there is a wealth of information available.  At this point, my days are spent sifting through digitized primary sources.  The Nova Scotia Archives has digitized the entire series of documents relating to the Black Refugees.  At first I was quite thankful for their technological foresight, but after a while, it gets a bit tedious zooming in and out of the same document trying to determine if Mr. Nineteenth Century Poor Handwriting wrote "bubbly" "chubby" or "scrubby".  Believe me, all options seem equally likely. I really shouldn't complain too much though - the quality of the digitization is AMAZING!  You can tell you are a nerdy historian when high resolution digitization is the highlight of your day.

Look how close you can zoom in!

The ultimate goal of this research is to create a twenty-five page academic paper, as well as a five-page paper to be available to the public. The research has revealed a lot of possible directions in terms of an analytical approach, and I am quite excited that I have been given the opportunity to explore such an interesting topic. More to come on this later. 

While researching can be a lonely endeavour at times, just being at the museum has opened up opportunities to meet people in a variety of different positions at the museum.  Just today I was fortunate enough to meet with the chief curator and hear some practical advice about working in the field of public history (while enjoying a delicious Banana Cream steamed milk I might add!) All in all, I feel quite privileged to be a part of the CMIP, even if it is only for a short while.  After all, how many places provide you with a view of the ocean as you eat lunch?

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Dreams really do come true!

How many lifelong dreams can you fulfill in a week? Quite a few it turns out.

Some people dream of scaling Mount Everest, or seeing the Colosseum in  Rome, or diving the Great Barrier Reef. My goals are not quite as lofty.  For an incredibly long time, my biggest desire has been to visit Ottawa.  Seriously.  If you were to ask me if there was one place in the world I wanted to visit, I would have answered Ottawa. In a heartbeat. 

Well, ladies and gentleman, my dream finally came true. This past week, I laid my eyes on Parliament Hill for the first time and I was the happiest tourist in Canada. 

I am quite a bit happier than I look. I blame the sun.

Looking at Parliament is quite lovely, but we did eventually make our way inside, doing the tour and dropping in on our nation's leaders in Question Period.  A lot of hooting and hollering goes on in QP, making it quite entertaining, but not entirely constructive.  It is my new aspiration to be a back bencher MP that gets to shout from the corner and heckle the other parties.

As a good public historian, I also attempted to visit every museum in sight. The museums in Ottawa are huge.  Word of warning - when visiting museums in Ottawa, proper footwear is a must.  Otherwise, you will experience what I am going to call early onset museum fatigue, where your body will tire of the experience much earlier than your brain.  Regardless of my aching feet, my first encounters with the Canadian War Museum, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and the Canadian Museum of Nature were tremendously rewarding.  I even met some friendly veterans at the War Museum that took quite an interest in the public history field - and then they proceeded to make me pose for a picture wearing a helmet from the Boer War.

 I think I could pass....

That in a nutshell was my Ottawa experience, but the magic of being a tourist didn't end there.
After leaving Ottawa, my husband Jordan and I continued on to Montreal.  Having been to Montreal before, I pretended to be a tour guide, showing Jordan the Notre Dame Basilique, Old Montreal, and St. Joseph's Oratory.  But we also had the opportunity to do two things on my quasi-bucket list - it can't be considered a real bucket list because I haven't written anything down and I usually forget what is on the list until I do it.  Except for Ottawa.

So after Ottawa, the next thing to cross off my list was going to a Cirque du Soleil show.  We bought the tickets quite impulsively at the suggestion of a friend and we are so glad we did.  It was incredible.  The show was called Amaluna, featuring a predominantly female cast. My favourite part was probably the duo of unicyclers - they spun and twirled like nothing I've ever seen.  I can't even ride my bike with no hands.

After going to the show, we went out for dinner at a fabulous restaurant called Garde Manger.  Now this isn't just any restaurant. It is owned by Food Network host Chuck Hughes.  Since we've been married, Jordan and I have had an unhealthy obsession with the Food Network.  We have always wanted to taste the food of one of the famous chefs featured on the channel, and it was quite exciting to sink our teeth into expertly prepared food.  Lobster poutine anyone?

After our Montreal adventure ended, we trekked onward to Quebec City.  I had also been here before, but I never get tired of walking around Old Quebec and seeing the Plains of Abraham.  Which brings me to my next dream/goal/wish/delirious inclination, or whatever you want to call it.  This is sappy, so I'll be quick.  We went I went to Quebec the first time in the winter of 2005, I hoped that one day I could return to see it in the spring.....with Jordan.  I did and it was lovely.  End of sappiness.

While my short vacation has come to end, I am about to embark on another adventure in Halifax that is itself a fulfillment of a much deeper aspiration.  Tomorrow, I officially start my internship at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. Although, I am only an intern, I am finally realizing my goal of working in a museum. Whenever people asked me what I wanted to do with a history degree, I adamantly responded that I wanted to work in a museum, without ever really knowing if my ambitions would turn into reality. Now I know dreams really do come true, whether by impulse, circumstance, providence, or a lot of hard work.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Immigrant's Suitcase: The Finished Project

This post has been cross posted to Adriana Ayers' blog  History and such.

The following is a collaborative blog post that Adriana and I have written to discuss our trials and tribulations of designing and implementing an interactive suitcase and immigration exhibit.

Adriana: Beginning back in January, Lindsay came up with a fantastic idea to create an interactive exhibit situated around an immigrant's suitcase, which we chatted about here, here, here, and here.

Google Sketch Up Visualization

Lindsay: Immigrant history has always interested me and it was important to both of us to use real immigrant stories in creating this exhibit.  Just like more traditional historical projects, our first step was to explore the archives for some material on immigration - specifically immigration to Alberta between the years 1890-1914.  Living in Ontario is a distinct disadvantage when studying Alberta history, but thanks to the online archives of the Glenbow Museum and Peel's Prarie Provinces, we found great pictures and newspaper articles.

Adriana: Of all the things we have learned throughout this project is the ability to scale back our designs and accept all victories, no matter how miniscule. Wide-eyed and full of wonder, our initial plans included an entire room of digital and interactive opportunities. A suitcase that could open by a motion sensor, poster-size touch screen advertisements from the late 19th century, and an immigrant child's toys that could somehow communicate through Bluetooth and RFID technologies.

We quickly determined these illusions of grandeur were unrealistic and stuck to what we do best: crafting.

                              RFID tags concealed inside the passports               
Lindsay: Once we were satisfied with our artistic endeavours, we needed to get back to business and focus on the interactive component of the course.

Our biggest obstacle and the source of all frustration was figuring out how to write the code to make our little project work. Coding made me slam my fists on my computer many times.  I think almost cried once too. As I wrote previously, we were attempting to use the RFID tags to open movie files stored on our computer.  We started with a base code provided by our professor Bill Turkel that set up the RFID tags and scanner.  We hacked this code to successfully make the audio of the movies start up, but the videos were just a blank black screen. Processing is not really suited to play large video files and it wouldn’t work no matter what we tried.  We were at a loss as to where to go next.  But then….a stroke of genius.  Ok, not really, but Adriana suggested we try to make the code open YouTube videos rather than video files from our computer.  Processing is much better at opening URL’s so this seemed like a viable option. 

We started in this new direction with our code, and miraculously, we scanned a tag and a YouTube video popped up!  Shouting and screaming ensued, with high fives all around.  That is, until we realized the video opened in 103 different tabs.  Apparently the code will loop continuously, opening the URL until you to tell it to stop.  We didn’t tell it to stop.  When your browser opens 103 tabs simultaneously, chaos ensues and your computer is no longer functional.  Fixing this problem took a few solid hours of trial and error in manipulating the code, but we finally succeeded in our new goal. An RFID tag is scanned and a video opens.  Sounds so much easier than it is!

 For any curious coders out there – here is our magical Processing sketch.

import processing.serial.*;

Serial myPort;
String tagID = "";

void setup() {
   size(screen.width, screen.height); //sets display to fit screen 
   // set serial port to first on list and initialize it
   String portnum = Serial.list()[0];
   myPort = new Serial(this, portnum, 9600);
   // use third font available
   PFont myFont = createFont(PFont.list()[140], 82); //sets font
void draw() {
   background(0); //sets background as black
   text("The Immigrant's Suitcase", width/2, height/2); //formats the text
     if (tagID.equals("0E008E880A")) { //sets specific RFID tag to open a specific URL
      link("", "_self"); //sets specific URL
      noLoop(); //stops the video after it plays once
      if (tagID.equals("0E008E9525")) { //sets specific RFID tag to open a specific URL
      link("", "_self"); //sets specific URL 
      noLoop(); //stops the video after it plays once
        if (tagID.equals("0E008E8657")) { //ets specific RFID tag to open a specific URL
      link("", "_self"); // sets specfic URL 
      noLoop(); //stops the video after it plays once

// read bytes from the serial port and put them into tag string
void serialEvent(Serial myPort) { //sets up the RFID scanner
  loop();// keeps the sketch running continuously 
   String inputString = myPort.readString();
   tagID = parseString(inputString);

// read string and look for 10-byte tag ID
// assumes string begins with STX byte (0x02) and ends with ETX byte (0x03)
String parseString(String thisString) {
   String tagString = "";
   char firstChar = thisString.charAt(0);
   char lastChar = thisString.charAt(thisString.length() - 1);
   if ((firstChar == 0x02) && (lastChar == 0x03)) {
     tagString = thisString.substring(1, 11);
   return tagString;   

After Adriana put together a few short videos in iMovie using the archival material and uploaded them to YouTube, our project was ready for display.

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for….seeing this exhibit in action!
Thanks to Sushima Naraine for video taping 

If you are interested in seeing the videos we used in the exhibit, please visit Adriana's YouTube Channel.

Adriana: Perpetual over achievers, we weren’t satisfied to leave our project there. We called upon previous Public History grad and tech-genius, Devon Elliott, to help us create something with the 3D printer. The result was six Matryoshka dolls, made out of PCB plastic, which I sanded to fit together.

Adriana: After spending countless hours sitting in front our computer screens hoping something would happen if we just stared at them long enough, Lindsay and I have created a finished product, and by nothing short of a miracle, we survived. All things considered we agree this has been one of the most challenging but rewarding classes we have ever taken. As a result, I'm taking Inkscape tutorials in my spare time and I can make LED lights flash likea pro. Oh! and the 3D printer we helped build has been touring around the digital humanities conference circuit. All-in-all, I'd say that makes for a pretty satisfying semester.

 To see more pictures of the process of making this exhibit, please visit our Picasa Web Album.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Coding and Crafting

Turning your ideas into a reality is often much more complicated than you envision.  As Adriana and I attempt to take the immigrant's suitcase from a plan to a physical fabrication, we have had moments of progress, but also many instances of staring blankly at our computers, slamming our hands on the keyboard (ok that was just me, not Adriana) and wondering aloud if we will ever figure out how to program.

We may resort to this...

The process of programming our exhibit seems straightforward enough - create a program that opens iMovie when an RFID tag is scanned - and presto! you have our exhibit.  However, we have discovered that this is quite a complicated task for programming newbies.  Learning the language of the different programs involved is difficult.  We have to create a script in Processing that connects to a script in Arduino through Firmata that will successfully start iMovie, where the content of our exhibit will reside.  So it takes these three programs, plus RFID tags, an RFID reader, and a bunch of wires to make this work.

The combination of new programs and different technology is a bit overwhelming. Nevertheless, Adriana and I spent the entire day last Thursday trying to figure out the right script to make our little exhibit run.  We took it one step at a time, focusing on a script that would open a movie using Processing.  Because we need our exhibit to open three different movies, we decided to try a script that could open three different movies, depending on the key that was pressed.  We thought that if we could figure this out, we could then move on to opening the movies using the RFID tags.

Surprisingly, we did have some moderate success.  Using the reference resources on the Processing website, we were able to create a script that could run one movie when a specific key was pressed. At this point, I think we gave each other high fives and threw out a "Hallelujah!"  However, when we added two more movies and two more keys to the script, it became a little more complicated.

Our attempt at a Processing script

When we ran the above script, we could press the specified keys and get the audio of the movies to play, but not the visual.  While we were pretty proud of ourselves for accomplishing this, it is not the result we were hoping for.  But at the very least, it does give us something to work with as we try and figure out our next steps.  We are pretty sure that the problem lies in putting the movie files in the "void draw" part of the script rather than the "void setup" section.  However, when we moved the movie files to the "void setup," all three started playing at once!

Because we are uncertain of how to fix our problems, we have diverted our attention from the programming of the exhibit and focused on its physical fabrication.  I am using "physical fabrication" as a fancy term for crafting.  Basically, Adriana and I spent all day Monday doing paper mache and painting to create an oldish looking suitcase to serve as the vehicle for showing our movies. It may resemble some of the projects you did in Kindergarten, but at least we made progress in one area of our exhibit.

We love paper mache 

Speeding up the drying process 

Channelling da Vinci


 The finished product

It's starting to take shape

If we end up failing spectacularly in programming our exhibit, at the end of the day, we have a pretty ok suitcase to show off.  Anyone hiring crafters?