Sunday, September 21, 2014

Working Together to Preserve and Interpret the Past in a Sustainable, Virtual Environment
The Lynx, a Baltimore Privateer captured by the British: a reconstruction that visited Baltimore with the rest of the Tall Ships

Recently, I was asked to speak on the future of historical research and writing, especially as it related to helping teachers access and make use of the rich resources that are currently being placed on line in the virtual world.  My words were in the form of a challenge to all cultural institutions with regard to their placing digital versions of their holdings on line.  A reporter present headlined his blog with

alchemy edtech baltimore innovation week
Alchemy Learning cofounders Henry Blue (left) and Win Smith address attendees at their Baltimore Innovation Week event. (Photo by Christopher Wink)

The sponsor of the session was Alchemy Learning which is a new and innovative start up company devoted to linking teachers to the resources of cultural institutions through meaningful and easy to use lesson plans.  It was my task to remind all present that for that to become a dynamic and viable reality, attention also needs to be paid to the means of access through a permanent and sustainable electronic archives as well as the need for a related digital sandbox in which teachers and researchers of any interest can assemble and write their narrratives.  

Such an undertaking needs the cooperation of, and funding from  universities, public and private, government agencies such as city government, and the cultural institutions themselves.  In all what I called for is our working together to preserve and intrepret the past in a sustainable, virtual environment.  Baltimore should take the lead, not unlike the massive cooperative effort it undertook to defend itself in  the late summer and fall of 1814.

On the eve of the War of 1812 when Maryland merchants and investors sent out Baltimore’s merchant fleet to harass British shipping and further Baltimore’s commerce in the time of war, Baltimore had no plan for its growth and development.  Baltimore build ships like the Chasseur (known as the Pride of Baltimore) and the Lynx (pictured above), did their best to disrupt British trade and their history is well known thanks to scholars like Jerome R. Garitee who lives quietely north of the city.

Today, while there are a number of wonderful programs promoting the history of Baltimore City ranging from the Community Lecture Series of Mike Franch, the Environmental lecture series fostered by Joe Stewart, and the highly successful academic conferences shepherded by Garrett Power, and while the city abounds in cultural and historical places to visit and learn, there is no plan and no place for coordinating and accessing the sources, primary and secondary, of the city’s history.  There is no communal virtual sandbox in which scholar, teacher, and interested citizen alike can explore the city’s history and reflect upon it.  

Prior to, and during  the War of 1812, Visitors and Emigre’s to Baltimore had attempted to map the city while Merchants and Investors tried to find pathways to enrich themselves through the international import and export trade.  A. P. Folie (1797)  and Charles Phillip Varle (1790s-1830s)  fled the revolution and slave revolts in what would become Haiti.  In Baltimore, as French trained engineers and surveyors, they mapped the city and the surrounding countryside.  Both produced maps that would form the basis of what the Americans and the British knew of the ground on which the British would unsuccessfully attack the city in September of 1814, and Varle’s map would be used as the map of the city for visitors and residents attached to city directories until the 1820s.  Varle would even call himself a ‘civil engineer’ and offer unheeded advice to the city fathers about public health , particularly about the need to have modern privies to combat disease,  and at the end of his stay in Baltimore in the 1830s would produce a tourist guide to the city to rival that of his competitor Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

But the City had no plan for the future development of a community composed of three smaller communities united by the legislature of Maryland into one: Old Town, New Town, and Fells Point until they hired, let go, and re-hired another surveyor beginning in 1811, Thomas Poppleton.

Poppleton carried the science of surveying to new heights in Baltimore, using triangulation to establish and lay down the town’s boundary stones, streets, and lots, doing his best to accommodate those that had already been delineated on the maps and plats of Folie, Varle and less skillful surveyors like Jehu Bouldin.

In the decades after the city charter was implemented (1797 to the 1840s) Baltimore’s mainspring was commerce, both the import and the export of goods.  The population nearly doubled every two decades and by the 1840s Baltimore was the third largest city in America with a population of 102,513 confined to about 16 square miles.

Poppleton was hired on the basis of this triangulation proposal in 1812 on the eve of the War of 1812.  When his work was suspended by the efforts of the City to defend itself against the British and to survive commercially, Poppleton, a British citizen at the time, went to New York to map Manhattan as New York’s City Surveyor. He was lured back after the war, producing his grand map of the city in the form of a beautiful wall map illustrated on its perimeter by drawings of prominent buildings that was finally published in 1822.  That map governed the course of the development of the city, its streets, and its lots, not to mention street names, until the next annexation of land in 1888.

The Poppleton map also illuminated and contributed to the conflict between wharf owners who sought to enlarge their presence in the port and the grading of the streets that Poppleton proposed be the consequence of his grand layout of the city. By 1817 the run off from the new streets into the harbor was clogging up the wharfs of ship builders and merchants such as Craig and Barron of Fells Point, who took their complaints as far as the U. S. Supreme Court and lost in the face of the argument that cities could do almost as they pleased to accommodate urban expansion as long as it was an exercise of publicly approved policy, such as following the dictates of streets mapped out at city expense.  Wharf owners would have to pay to get rid of the silt deposits (runoff from streets) themselves without hope of just compensation for the loss of their business or the cost of removing it.

The physical growth of the city posed the obvious questions of public health.  Where would uncontaminated drinking water come from?  How would human waste and garbage be disposed of?  To what degree would the city be concerned with public safety, public health, and lighting of the streets.  As a seafaring community, Baltimore acquired the reputation as early as 1807 as ‘mob town’ in which periodically uncontrollable masses of people would riot, destroying life and property with a ferocity that gained a national reputation and deeply affected national politics.  When Alexander Contee Hanson’s printing press was demolished in the summer of 1812, and he and his friends were beaten up so badly by the mob (a distinguished veteran of the Revolution was killed), those that rallied to his cause formed the major opposition to President Madison’s war and ultimately elected Hanson as a U. S. Senator from Maryland.

Generally the story of the City is told through the eyes of the elite and the heroes of the moment, with small regard to those who actually participated in its life through space and time.  With the maps of the time, placing them on the earth of today, and the narratives and stories of the lesser known participants in its history, we perhaps can better understand that enormous burst of community energy that came together to defend the city in September of 1814.  It was unlike anything before in American history, and rarely duplicated since. While General Jackson had to declare martial law in New Orleans to keep the populace from welcoming the British with open arms, and the citizens of Washington and Alexandria were helpless in the advance of the invaders, even having to supply them the necessities of war time to prevent further destruction of homes, businesses and public buildings, Baltimoreans turned collective under the leadership of a committee of Vigilance and Safety and their chosen military commander, Merchant/General Samuel Smith.  It was and remains a remarkable story of wholehearted and complete  community involvement and action with fortifications built and manned, encircling the city, within 4 weeks of the burning of the U. S. Capitol and the White House.  

During that time there was little or no opposition (British deserters were given $5-10 and passage out of town.  A few dissenters were investigated, but only one person was brought to trial for treason, and he for saving Upper Marlboro from being torched).  Even Alexander Contee Hanson, who secretly invested in the only opposition newspaper published in Baltimore during 1814 (the Telegraph) stayed out of town and found being feted in upstate New York far more to this liking.

That the city defended itself so successfully in the late summer and early fall of 1814 is particularly remarkable in light of the difficulties facing its life blood, its commerce, in the years of the embargo and the war.  When it came time to build the defenses against the British Navy and Army, the funding had to come from local loans and contributions (even though the Madison administration promised reimbursement).  Those that had profited from privateering, ‘illegal’ and clandestine trade, and the banks in which they deposited their earnings, coughed up hundreds of thousands of dollars in short order to pay the daily laborers on the fortifications and to arm them with cannons and militia (the paid citizen army).  Some merchants even had to sacrifice their shipping for the defense of the harbor when a number were commandeered by the City to be sunk at its mouth to keep the British Navy out.

Today, among the cultural and research institutions holding the documents, the artifacts,  and the stories of Baltimore’s past, there needs to be a renewed coming together of those resources in a sustainable virtual world in which the resources are shared, well explained, and inexpensive to access.

The future of informing  the world about Baltimore and its history lies in how well it is told on the web in a sustainable and dynamic environment where students of any age and interest can easily find what has been written, learn and access what sources  there are to write and explore more of Baltimore’s past, both in terms of actual site visits to exhibits and surviving historic places and virtually through easy access to on line documentation.  It is an all inclusive proposition, from Ruth to Poe to Mencken to a rainbow of immigrants and the absorbing exhibits of the Maryland Historical Society, the Walters, the BMA, and the B&O museum, to mention but a few.

To meet that future of virtual access tied to actual visits, institutions need to look beyond their walls and provide inexpensive access to the treasures they hold in a searchable context that guides the interested not only to what they have on and off line, but to resources elsewhere related to the topic or person of interest.  To meet that future teachers at all levels of education must be able to easily find teachable resources on line through virtual workbooks or binders  as those proposed by the Alchemy project, and a dynamically developed subject portal maintained in one stop on the ‘cloud’ of the internet, but shared and contributed to by all cultural and research institutions having any artifacts and records relating to Baltimore city’s rich past.

Both Alchemy and Baltimore Heritage are staging conferences on how best to encourage the keepers and interpreters of Baltimore’s memory to share what they know and what they have, but no one is taking the lead in providing an integrated place of knowledge of what exists, where it exists, and how to move what there is in to an increasingly accessible virtual world in which teachers can not only mine what is there but make real contributions to the value of what they find.  Nor is anyone taking the lead in providing a permanent place for linking and accessing the virtual knowledge of the City’s history as expressed on web sites, web exhibits, and on-line sources, as well as providing the stimulus for improving what is available virtually for the study of Baltimore’s past.

A number of institutions have made a stab at it with regard to their own holdings and collections, and in pointing to resources elsewhere.  Admirable examples are the web sites of the Baltimore City Archives at, the Maryland Historical Society, and Baltimore Heritage, but these are largely volunteer or single staff operations that are only able to address a miniscule portion of the wealth of resources available to explore the City’s past.

Where should such a dynamic and extensive portal to the City’s past be based? Who, will, like with the Chasseur and the Lynx, captain and crew the ship.  Most of all, how will it be paid for?

My suggestion is that it should be a high priority of the City government to fund such an endeavor with additional support from private and non-profit sources.  The hosts should be a collaborative among the major universities in town (JHU, U of Md, University of Baltimore) and the cultural institutions of all flavors from historic houses to major depositories such as the Maryland Historical Society, the Baltimore City Archives, the Pratt Library. . It needs to be permanent and perpetual and not disappear as does all the work currently placed on the users of Blackboard, the most commonly used virtual platform of colleges and universities.

At the present time the city has sunk millions of dollars into its Cityview mapping service, but there are no ‘layers’ currently available and easily searchable on it that map the local research institutions holding the documentary treasures of the city’s history, let alone all the historic places that teachers and tourists might like to know about an visit.  For example cityview does not even recognize that there is a city archives holding the largest single collection of records relating to the public history of the city.

The logical place to manage such an integrated effort at access and explanation of resources would be the Pratt Library or the Maryland Historical Society with substantive monetary contributions from all cultural and resource institutions in and around the city (note that the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the University of Maryland College Park, have remarkable collections and collecting programs relating to the history of the city, as Johns Hopkins with its special collections devoted to Roland Park), but with funding,  it could also be managed by  the Baltimore City Archives which is currently supported by the limited  IT resources of the Maryland State Archives.

The model I am suggesting is making best use of a ‘cloud’ in which the hardware would be a shared environment at the Universities in the City and on the City’s computers, with the overall management/captaincy of the portal vested in an institution such as the Pratt, the Baltimore City Archives, or the Maryland Historical Society.

In building such an integrated guide to virtual sources, places to visit and learn, and resources not yet online, there needs to be an inexpensive component, a permanent depository of the research and writing of those who write about the City’s history, a perpetually maintained sandbox of the good work of those thousands of individuals who have stories to tell and write about Baltimore’s past.   It could be modeled on George Mason’s Zotero program, but it must be easy to use and not costly to join and whether individuals or institutions.

As I work with my students at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland Law School, I find, as most teachers and researchers do, that the stories to be told about Baltimore require knowing paths to resources complimenting those that are in the City, some as far away as Sweden and Tokyo and as near as the National Archives.  How to explain what those resources are and what value they have to the history of the community, whether it be the world of 1812, or the ongoing story of revived lost neighborhoods of Baltimore, combined with holding on to that knowledge for the use of future generations in a permanent sustainable virtual environment is what I believe is the most important task before as keepers of the city’s history and the sources of that history.

Just recently the President of the United States visited Ft. McHenry and was introduced by Maryland Historical Society President Burt Kummerow and Vince Vaise of Fort McHenry, to the original manuscript (one of a number of originals) of the Star Spangled Banner written by Francis Scott Key.  Entitled “Facing Perilous Fights, Obama Turns to History and Donors,” the article covered a lot of ground, but pictured was the solitary exhibit case with the original floating in space between two pieces of what I assume are ultra-violet inhibiting glass to protect it from damaging light.  Is there more to be learned from the document than what we celebrate already and try to sing in part at sports events.  What about the third verse?  What can we learn from it and teach from it?  Where are the studies and sources that illuminate it, as opposed to the first verse that most of us have learned by heart?  Where can a teacher create or find such a lesson plan and share it permanently with her students and anyone else?

Alchemy Learning offers a solution for individual teachers, a substantive gateway to teaching from the rich sources for the history of the City and the Nation available right here in Baltimore, but supplemented by resources scattered around the world..  I suggest it is time for the City, the Pratt, and the Universities within the geographical confines of the city  to join  all cultural/historical entities in the city  in an educational outreach effort to create a permanent portal and depository of the virtual history of the city and its surviving places of historical interest.  In doing so, more people will want to visit what has survived, leaving the contents of their wallets at the gift shops, and reversing the trend of declining admission to most historic places and museums, while increasing our understanding of the past and its relevance to the communities of the present.