Blogging the Past: Recreating History and Creating Community with Bound for South Australia
Darren Peacock, Sweet Technology with Margaret Anderson and Allison Russell, History SA, Australia
Bound for South Australia 1836 is a digital reenactment of the sea voyages made 175 years ago to establish the British Province of South Australia. Using captains’ logs, passenger diaries, letters, and other original source material, the Bound for South Australia blog retraced—through weekly real-time updates—the journeys made by nine vessels from England to Australia between February and December 1836. Over ten months, website visitors, email subscribers, and social media followers were able to relive and engage with the unfolding story of the first 500 settlers as they made their way to an unknown land across the globe. The Bound for South Australia experiment demonstrates the possibilities of history to engage and connect communities using contemporary web technologies. It explores blogging as a narrative form and shows how the retelling of historical events can create and sustain communities of interest and identity.
Keywords: blog, history, social, narrative, schools, curriculum.
“When we expand the meaning-making conventions that make up human culture,
we expand our ability to understand the world and connect with one another.”
– Janet H. Murray, Inventing the Medium (2012)
Historical anniversaries and commemorations have frequently provided opportunities for museums to offer fresh perspectives and to encourage new reflections on past events. Public remembrances of the birth of a famous figure or the anniversary of a major event are ripe with possibilities for different kinds of interpretation and innovative ways to engage another generation in discovering the meaning and significance of the past. Today, social web technologies enable new kinds of shared remembrance and communities of interest to develop around historical events and artefacts.
This paper is about an interpretive experiment using the tools and techniques of the social web to create new understandings about an historical event and to build a permanent online research resource for historians, teachers, and students.
The event that this website commemorates and reinterprets is the establishment of the Province of South Australia by British settlers in 1836. South Australia was a colonial outpost of the British Empire from its origins through an Act of Parliament in 1834 until it joined in federation with five other colonies to form the new nation of Australia in 1901.
History SA, the government-run public history and museum organisation in the State of South Australia, was seeking ways to raise interest and participation in the commemoration of the State’s 175th anniversary in 2011. For this anniversary, rather than a traditional exhibition or public program, we wanted to explore new ways to think and talk about the significance of an historical event—the founding of a nineteenth-century British colony—using contemporary digital technologies to engage a broad public, including younger, school-based users, but also to build something of enduring value as a digital resource for future historical teaching and scholarship.
We established the following goals for the project:
• To raise awareness of and interest in the anniversary (and history generally);
• To create a permanent digital resource for the early history of the colony;
• To create a learning resource for teachers and students that meets contemporary standards for online curriculum content and learning.
The result was the Bound for South Australia website (http://www.boundforsouthaustralia.net.au), a blog-based digital reenactment of the sea voyages made by the founding settlers who arrived in 1836. The website is a highly customised implementation of the Wordpress blogging platform, integrating a unique set of widgets to support semantic linking of source materials and create an enduring digital resource for scholars and school students alike.
For ten months in 2011, the blog published weekly real-time updates in parallel with the course of the ships’ voyages using extracts from original source material: the journals, diaries, letters, and captains’ logs associated with the nine ships that carried the original 546 settlers to establish the new settlement. Over forty-five weeks, website visitors, email subscribers, and social media followers were able to relive and engage with the unfolding story of those first immigrants as they made this remarkable journey to an unfamiliar land on the other side of the world. The blog platform and associated social web technologies enabled active user participation and promoted the development of diverse communities of interest, which in turn inspired an associated exhibition, schools programs, and public events. In 2012, a supporting video conference–based program enables schools to participate remotely in live reenactments as part of their use of this resource.
History and the web: new ways to see and show the past
The web is home to a plethora of historical resources—documents, databases, photographic and object collections—but the engagement of professional historians and history museums with digital media has been patchy and often ambivalent. Although resource-based websites abound, there are very few well-integrated products of historical practice online.
While digital libraries and archives of primary source materials meet the needs of many professional historical researchers, they are typically unsuited to the interests and skills of the general public. Of course, there are some shining examples of well-interpreted historical collections: the BBC/British Museum’s History of the World (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/) and narratives of historical events such as The Price of Freedom (http://americanhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory/)—but for the most part, such digital history telling remains firmly fixed in the collection and exhibition memes of the physical museum.
VandeCreek (2007) argues that “[w]hile most historians have largely ignored the World Wide Web,” it has undoubtedly increased the dissemination and discussion of information about historical events, much of it produced outside of the academy or museums.
In part because professional historians have produced so few online resources examining significant historical events, many laymen turn to these resources for their knowledge of the past. Lacking the command of historical details necessary to evaluate these sites’ reliability, their users often consult resources that most historians would find highly dubious, at best. This unfolding technological and social dynamic challenges historians’ authority in the public eye. It also obliges them to step forward and share their ideas and interpretations with the public.
The relative absence of professional historians on the web puts at risk both their standing and their audience. As well as new modes of presentation and engagement, showing and sharing history on the web requires more active representations of historical practice.
Patrik Svensson (2010) has identified five principal modes of engagement between the humanities and digital technologies: technology as tool, as a study object, as expressive medium, as experimental laboratory and as activist venue. He notes that “[d]ifferent disciplines are likely to privilege different types of engagement.” In the tradition of humanities computing, history and historians—and arguably museums—have typically engaged with information technologies as a tool for extending existing practices. What Janet Murray and others encourage us to do is to go beyond viewing technology as tool to experiment with the digital as a medium in its own right—one that enables new practices as researchers and curators and new modes of expression that are non-linear, multi-voiced, and genuinely participative. The success of blogging as an Internet-enabled mode of communication is proof that new modes of communicative practice can rapidly emerge and change the dynamics of knowledge production and sharing. Museums and historians have typically followed what Davidson (2008) describes as “Humanities 1.0,” focussed on “monumental” data-based projects, as that represents a closer fit to existing practice and the traditions of humanities computing. Blogging history is decidedly Humanities 2.0.
In Digital History, historians Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig (2005) identified five genres among history websites:
• Archival (primary sources)
• Exhibits, films, scholarly, essays (secondary sources)
• Teaching (students and teachers)
• Discussion (online dialogue)
• Organizational (about an historical group).
While these categories provide a useful way to think about the opportunities for history on the web, particularly since the advent of the social web, such boundaries are increasingly blurred and less useful in planning a rich user experience. In Bound for South Australia, we consciously blended these genres by interweaving primary sources, interpretation, teaching resources, and opportunities for discussion. The site is an integrated archive, exhibit, teaching, and discussion space. Used this way, the web enables history to be a much more integrated experience; and one that is open, both in the sense of making visible the historian’s craft of locating, analysing, and comparing original source material, and also in the sense of inviting active user participation. At every opportunity, we encourage active engagement with the progress of the story by enabling user comments on every post, sending weekly personalised subscription e-mail updates, and using social networking tools to promote each new post and encourage sharing. While the majority of comments made were factual, others made use of the opportunity to share their own experiences of the unfolding story, expressing empathy and amazement or speculating on the fate of the protagonists. After a particularly torrid week, one commented:
I’m not quite sure who I’d rather be aboard the good ship John Pirie; the hapless sow that met a quick end, or poor Mrs Chandler, who had to sacrifice a pint of blood?
These contributions add another interpretive dimension for all visitors to the site, and we used them as hooks on the home page through a “latest comments” block.
From journalism to narrative: blogging as an interpretive medium
Museums have been using blogging technology for the past decade to promote their activities, share stories about collections and life “behind the scenes,” and develop networks of professional practice. The voices behind the blogs have been individual and institutional, representing a range of views and perspectives and inviting user feedback through commenting tools. A survey of museum blogs five years ago revealed a roughly 50/50 split between blogs that focussed on museum professional development and those aimed at a public audience (Spadaccini and Chan, 2007).
For the most part, museum blogs employ a journalistic narrative form, providing reportage and commentary on collections, exhibitions, and museum practices. A few have relied on photographs (photoblogging) and actively sought user contributions (Mosquin, 2006). Others, such as Science Buzz, have successfully created a blog-based shared learning space (Grabill et al., 2009). The Van Gogh Museum combined a digital archive with a blog-based presentation of the artist’s letters to increase interest dramatically (Peereboom et al., 2010). What we see in these innovations is the emergence of new interpretive practices that use the affordances of blogging platforms to create new modes of interaction and story telling.
Recently, Nancy Proctor (2010) asked, “[w]hat roles do or should curators play in the age of social media” at a time when the museum ‘public’ is a more equal partner in the creation of content and interpretation?” New forms of curation, whether of artworks, historical artefacts, or archival documents, are necessary to reflect the shift in the balance of participation between users and creators, institutions, communities, and individuals. Historical narratives are no exception. Contemporary users, “digital natives” in particular, expect to be able to talk back to the “authoritative voice”; to ask questions, clarify, and contest both “facts” and interpretation. In a social media environment, that discussion is inevitably a public one. Open historical retellings in digital spaces such as the Bound for South Australia blog allow history to become a live conversation, decentring the authority of the historian with this now unmuted “audience” able to question and comment in public cyberspace.
Beyond the openness of social media forms, narrative practice itself is remade in a blogging environment. Hypertextual narrative has long been hailed as offering the possibilities of infinite pathways for the user (Landow, 1992, 2006; Murray, 1997; Ryan, 2001). “[H]ypertext changes the way narrative structures are encoded, how they come to the reader and how they are experienced in their dynamic unfolding” (Ryan, 2001). Blogging adds another fracture line to the narrative structure in Bound for South Australia through the serialisation of the story, in this case into forty-five weekly installments. The serialised blog format allows a slower, more considered and complex picture to emerge, providing an opportunity to contemplate the contingent nature of historical events rather than rushing headlong into established facts. It is a narrative degustation that allows more possibilities to surface in the reader’s mind and suggests different lineaments of causation in the sequence of events. In her seminal work on digital narrative, Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet H. Murray (1997) observed, “We often assume that stories told in one medium are intrinsically inferior to those told in another.” She notes throughout the history of narrative creation in Western cultures, from the ancient Greeks to hypertext, that new narrative forms have been seen as less legitimate and valuable than those that preceded them. “But,” argues Murray (1997),
narrative beauty is independent of medium. Oral tales, pictorial stories, plays, novels, movies and television can all range from the lame and the sensationalist to the heartbreaking and illuminating. We need every available form of expression and all the new ones we can muster to help us understand who we are and what we are doing here.
A blog-based reconstruction of historical events such as the Bound for South Australia experiment suggests the possibilities of new modes of historical narrative and engagement that increase the immersion, agency, and participation of users through open, social, and interactive digital technologies. Of equal interest to the researcher is the way in which this approach seems to promote a different reading of the sources, as well as getting behind the wall of known historical “facts” to the very human stories of aspiration and struggle that propel historical events and outcomes.
(Re)creating history on the web
Bound for South Australia is a story about a journey, a journey made halfway around the world by a group of people 175 years ago. At one level it is a familiar story of colonisation, a story played out in many places over many centuries. At another level, it is a collection of hundreds of personal stories of hope, fear, courage, and ambition that are very particular to the circumstances of time and place and to the individuals involved.
Between February and July 1836, 546 people, or thereabouts, left England in nine ships to be part of the formal establishment of the Province of South Australia, eventually proclaimed at Holdfast Bay on December 28, 1836. For all but one of those ships, there remains some kind of documentary evidence of that journey and of the lives and experiences of the people on board. In total, the source material we were able to reassemble from the journeys constituted 1,052 individual written entries made in journals, diaries, and logs or by way of letters to people at home by eighteen individuals. A few drawings and watercolours also survive from the work of John Skipper, an artist who sailed aboard the Africaine, and Captain (Colonel) William Light, the new province’s surveyor general and also captain of another of the ships—the Rapid. A number of artefacts from these voyages are held in public and private collections, including a surgical kit used by ship surgeon Dr. Charles Everard, a printing press used to print the first newspapers in the colony, and a child’s doll belonging to Elizabeth Beare, a passenger on the Duke of York.
Our nineteenth-century “bloggers,” the authors of these archival sources, had no doubt whatever that their letters and diaries were fascinating artefacts. Whether they were first-time sailors, literally embarking on the “journey of a lifetime” (our by-line for media publicity), or seasoned sailors writing to loved ones at home, they assumed that the recipients of their letters would read them avidly. More to the point, they could be confident that their descriptions and their cultural and religious references would be readily understood. In posting these sources to the web in the twenty-first century, we could make no such assumptions. As historians, we were aware from the beginning of the project that simply transcribing these sources and placing them online was unlikely to be sufficient to engage a general audience, for all it might benefit scholars. A number of historians have argued in recent years that providing “access” to historical sources does not necessarily render them accessible to readers who have no knowledge of the relevant culture or the time, and no training in reading historical documents critically (VandeCreek, 2007; Rosenzweig, 2001). This was certainly the case here. But we also felt that there was more we could offer to encourage a more nuanced reading of these documents, allowing interested readers to move beyond a superficial understanding of what happened, to grasp the multiple meanings often encoded in the narratives—to share, in other words, some elements of the historian’s craft.
These documents presented a number of challenges for a general reader, and, as it turned out, to us as historians. For a start, they were written by a diverse group of people to serve very different purposes. For example, the diary kept by Robert Morgan, captain of the Duke of York, the first of the vessels to leave, was part captain’s log and part a daily account of events. The log part of the diary consisted of nautical abbreviations, notations of latitude and longitude, and abbreviated weather summaries that required translation to make them comprehensible, although after a while even the non-maritime historians amongst us began to get the knack. There were several other sources that included similar daily observations, all of which were essential to those who wished to plot the routes and progress of the voyages. And of course, even the diaries of the passengers were sprinkled with nautical terms, especially after they had been at sea for a while. Some of these terms are probably fairly widely understood (starboard is one), but you would search in vain for its contemporary companion term of port. Instead, these early nineteenth-century bloggers referred to larboard, and that was not the only archaic nautical term in common usage in 1836. Those of our readers who wished to understand even the rudimentary workings of these sailing vessels needed a whole new vocabulary of specialist terms, most of which we no longer encounter. We decided to provide a rollover glossary tool to provide instant translation and lessen reader frustration. In the end, there were more than 200 glossary entries—not all of them nautical, of course.
From access to comprehension
But nautical terminology is only the most obvious barrier to general comprehension. Our nineteenth-century bloggers also used a plethora of specialist language commonly understood within their religious, social, or political groups, but now obscure. Captain Morgan was a devout and, it must be admitted, a rather tedious Methodist. We edited him rather heavily on occasions! But even his everyday accounts used otherwise ordinary terms like Society, which had a specific meaning within the context of nineteenth-century Methodism. Ditto his many fond references to his wife and his concern for her at the beginning of the journey as she neared her trying hour—a nineteenth century euphemism for childbirth. In addition to providing a translation for the term, such references prompted us to offer short hyperlinked entries on relevant topics—in this case, childbirth in the early nineteenth century—which offered readers some insight into the society and culture of the times and, in this specific instance, helped to explain Robert Morgan’s obvious concern. These topics are also searchable and were used as descriptive tags on individual postings, providing a ready topic index for users interested in reading across the source material.
In addition to the language our bloggers used, their narratives are full of the assumptions and beliefs of people of their particular time, class, religion, gender, or political persuasion, many of which are foreign to contemporary readers. We thought long and hard about how to draw attention to these underlying narratives, without directing our readers too closely in their reading of the sources. In the end, we chose a mix of brief explanations in the weekly introductions, and hyperlinked topics wherever the narrative seemed to warrant special explanation. Analysis of the user statistics suggests that readers did seek out these topics, and that they spent some time in reading through them. Generally speaking, the average length of time spent reading any one topic equated with the length of the topic entry. What we hoped to achieve by sharing our knowledge was a greater understanding of the assumptions and beliefs these early settlers in South Australia brought with them.
It will be obvious from even this brief summary that what might have seemed at the outset a fairly straightforward exercise in uploading historical narratives to the web was actually far more complex. And it required expertise far beyond what we as a group of historians and curators had at our disposal. Even our maritime museum curators were challenged by the detail of the nautical terminology and practices, for example, while those of us who are social historians by training struggled to cope with the breadth of references to the minutiae of daily life and belief. We were immensely fortunate to have as part of our team a volunteer maritime history specialist who has a lifelong interest in these vessels and these voyages. He is not a trained historian, but his knowledge and attention to detail were a lesson to all of us, while his research into the much-vexed question of the passenger lists for these ships was invaluable. We worked throughout in a collaborative team using a wiki, which all of us could review, and it was a very rewarding way to work. Once the blog posts were live, of course, we also had the advantage of perspectives from our users, and some of these provided interesting insights.
New readings, new perspectives for scholarly research
Many of the most extensive digital history resources to appear in the last few years have assumed a scholarly audience, either primarily or in addition to a general audience: Valley of the Shadow (http://www.valley.lib.virginia.edu), Lincoln/Net (http://www.lincoln.lib.niv.edu), Vincent Van Gogh–The Letters (http://www.vangoghletters.org), and Trove (http://www.trove.nla.gov.au). We hoped that the Bound for South Australia project would interest scholars too, partly because we had transcribed some sources for the first time, but also because the project represented the first time that the known sources had been brought together. And indeed, this has proved to be the case. A number of scholars are now using the site to inform their research on the early period of colonization in South Australia, and we hope to see it cited in monographs in the near future.
But if the Bound for South Australia experience has changed our historians’ view of South Australian history, has it had a similar impact on our general readers? To judge from reader responses, it has certainly changed some perceptions. There are a number of cherished tropes of the “pioneers” in South Australia, as there are in most settler societies, and some of these have taken a bit of a battering on the site. Perhaps the most obvious is the stark contrast between the high ideals of the “founding fathers” in their planning for and writing about the province, and their subsequent behaviour during the voyages and on arrival. South Australia famously distinguishes itself from other Australian colonies in having been a free settlement (no convicts) with a commitment to religious freedom. In later years, its capital, Adelaide, would be known popularly as the City of Churches, and indeed, it had many. It has also kept a reputation for being rather staid and proper. What a shock, then, to discover that these early settlers were an astonishingly quarrelsome lot, who drank what are by our standards prodigious quantities of alcohol, and who marked their arrival in the colony with drunken brawls and an extended strike! Very few of them attended any of the religious services held either on ship or after arrival and indeed seem to have preferred drinking and fighting to most other amusements. Now this is not what we were brought up to believe. And it is most decidedly not what we were taught in school! But it has proved a much more amusing and interesting story for our readers than they had thought, and they have written in to tell us so.
That said, we must admit that we have not pleased everyone. There is one popular myth (we use the term with trepidation) that some dedicated adherents absolutely refuse to surrender. It came to light through the social networking part of the site, and the subsequent debate was largely played out through reader comments there.
The Duke of York was the first ship to arrive at Kangaroo Island, a staging post en route to the formal settlement at Holdfast Bay. While there was already a small, transient community of sealers and others, the honour of being the first of the new settlers to set foot in their new home is still considered a worthy prize. As always, our weekly posts used the available primary-source documents. In this case, there were two accounts of the first landing. One by Samuel Stephens, the unpopular colonial manager, stated, “I was the first who ever set foot on the shore as a settler in the Colony of South A.” Meanwhile, a second account, penned by Captain Morgan, does not record who was the first of the colonists to set foot on South Australian soil, but does record that Stephens was in the first boat to go ashore.
There is, we discovered, yet another popular account of that first landing. This one claims that it was in fact two-year-old Elizabeth Beare who was first ashore—a solution supposedly engineered by Captain Morgan to end an argument amongst some members of the party as to who should have the honour. However, the first documented account of this version of events that we have been able to find comes from a newspaper story in 1886—fifty years after the event. This is a popular story that has been cited on many occasions since.
Hardly surprisingly, the descendants of Elizabeth Beare—who hold this story dear—were surprised and dismayed that we failed to relate this version of the first landing in the blog posts for the Kangaroo Island landings in July. Several people left comments on the website alerting us to the “error.” Several others chose to communicate directly, via email, to urge us to revise the account. They cited the newspaper account and numerous other (later) sources, including the text of a memorial plaque at the site of the first landing, as evidence. We sympathised—the Elizabeth Beare narrative is a much better story!—but we had no reliable primary sources to back it up, merely recollections recorded some decades later. Much as we too disliked it, the disagreeable Stephens gave the most credible account available, and his was not contradicted by Morgan’s, despite the fact that Morgan is given a leading role in the Elizabeth Beare version.
Eventually, we used this controversy as a means of exploring in further detail the historian’s craft of constructing a narrative of the past based on primary sources—but, as subsequent discussion on the website revealed, we failed to convince those who preferred the entrenched account.
Similarly, the historical record regarding who was on board each of the nine ships is vague. Official registers contain some contradictions, and the similarity in names of ships (the Emma arrived in 1836, while the Lady Emma arrived in 1837) adds to the confusion. Unclear and faded handwriting on original ship manifests has also contributed to errors in surviving lists of passenger names. Thorough research was undertaken by one of the project team, and again, we were in a position where some cherished family stories about who was on board (and in what capacity) were not supported by the research that we presented. Opening the historical record to closer scrutiny and debate brings many surprises.
New online opportunities for history museums
As more and more classroom teaching and learning incorporates online content and interaction, the demand for credible and engaging digital historical resources and experiences will increase rapidly. In Australia, the imminent implementation of a new national schools’ curriculum provided two important drivers for this project. Firstly, the new Australian Curriculum is a completely online curriculum: all the resources for the curriculum are created for access in an online environment organised according to core knowledge, understanding, skills, and general capability requirements.
Secondly, for the first time in a generation, the subject of history has been reinstated to the core national curriculum, including for primary (elementary) school students for the first time ever in several states, including South Australia. This means that many generalist teachers at primary level now have to teach specified historical material for the first time. For Australia’s history organisations and museums, these two aspects of the new Australian Curriculum present a unique opportunity to develop digital resources and experiences that will engage the interest and learning styles of “digital natives” and support educators teaching history for the first time. Bound for South Australia was specifically designed to address these requirements and opportunities. It has been selected as the first online resource to be made available for the Australian curriculum in the area of history.
Engaging classroom users
There were more than 500 subscribers to the weekly schools’ e-newsletter during the reenactment, which linked directly to suggestions for teachers on how they might use the week’s events with their classes. The content of Bound for South Australia fits within Years 4 and 5 of the Australian Curriculum, which provides a study of colonial life in the 1800s. Making this content accessible to teachers—and providing teachers in South Australia with an opportunity to interrogate the local experience rather than the better-known story of the colonisation of the eastern part of the country—was a key priority. Our partnership with the South Australian Department for Education and Child Development (DECD) was also significant. Alongside each of the forty-five weekly posts was a parallel post addressed specifically to teachers and students, including a series of suggested activities around a theme raised by the post. Each post was linked to the curriculum through a series of inquiry questions, research topics, explicit links to the historical skills specified by the curriculum, and suggestions for classroom activities, including eliciting opinions and points of view from students. The education posts were also designed to be standalone classroom activities, or to be combined in a unit of work.
Evaluation with teachers prompted us to create additional downloadable Microsoft PowerPoint presentations relating to the education theme of each week. These contain the suggested activities as well as a condensed version of the primary-source material relevant to the education theme. They serve a dual purpose: to ensure that where classroom Internet connections are unreliable, a teacher can proceed with a lesson as planned without the risk of losing the connection, and they provide a succinct summary of the most relevant parts of the primary sources in relation to the weekly theme. Similarly, short audio summaries (two to three minutes) are provided for each week’s post. And although the history presented does not link directly to secondary-school subject matter, the rich historical resources can still be used by high school teachers, and suggestions for how to do this are being added to the site. In addition, a videoconference-based education program connected to the year 5 curriculum has been developed to provide ongoing and interactive engagement with the resource.
More than 50,000 visits and 200,000 page views have been recorded on the Bound for South Australia website in a little under a year. The average duration of site visits was five-and–a-half minutes, which is a good measure of engagement, as is the high proportion of returning visitors (50 percent of all visits). So too are the more than 2,000 subscribers who signed up for the weekly email updates, Facebook page, Twitter, and RSS feeds. Visitors made 251 comments directly on the posts, and many others submitted by email or via Twitter and Facebook. For an obscure and difficult set of source material, this represents a surprising level of interest and engagement.
Teachers and students were an obvious and key target user group. Measuring classroom engagement is more difficult because of varying contexts of access and use. The recent addition of the site (and its component parts) to the national schools’ digital content repository, Scootle (http://www.scootle.edu.au), will ensure all Australian schools have direct and easy access through secure school networks. Our initial evaluation shows that teachers still have a strong preference in classrooms for downloadable resources rather than live Internet use, so we have aimed to provide more downloadable “chunks” of material in the For Schools section of the site to support that practice.
Unsurprisingly, the site has also proved popular with family historians. What was most interesting to observe was how these people used the website to make connections with other relations and descendants and to share their research online. Through comments on the website and posts to the project Facebook page, distant family members made contact, and people were able to access networks of those with common interests or ancestors. Facebook also proved to be a way of driving traffic to the site, with weekly updates summarising the key narrative elements of the week linking to each post. Perhaps best of all is the depth of engagement and interest demonstrated in comments and other feedback received.
At the end of the “journey,” we received a number of comments that suggested that people had engaged with the blog as we had hoped and anticipated:
…it has been a wonderful 45 week experience and I’m sorry that all good things seem to come to an end. Sunday evenings or Monday mornings will not be the same again…(Errol) (The weekly blog posts went live each Sunday morning and newsletters were sent later that day, the rationale being that many teachers finalise their lesson planning on a Sunday.)
It has been such a pleasure to receive your emails and share them with my children, it has been a wonderful journey and I trust you receive many emails such as this. (Lynne)
Many thanks for what has been an amazing presentation of such a fascinating story. OK, so why weren’t we taught this at school in South Australia 70 years ago? Or even 40 years ago? Is it taught now?
But what an uncertain voyage, with settlers and indentured workers, many of whom had never been far from home, let alone heading off to the unknown other side of the world on such tiny ships….
How South Australia ever got started is still an almost unbelievable story.
I hope to access your website over the next few years of my life (I’m 78) to read and re-read your presentation with much pleasure…. (Evan)
This project and the responses to it demonstrate the potential of digitally enabled historical narrative and interpretive practices that are open, social, and interactive. The reconstructed and sometimes very personal stories of the journeys made aboard the first nine ships found a diverse and enthusiastic range of interested and highly engaged users. They greatly appreciated the interactions enabled by the blog and other social web tools we used to ask questions and share their own stories, with us and with each other. A rather inaccessible set of significant source materials has now been transformed into a flexible digital resource that is readily available for discovery and reuse by school students, teachers, family historians, and professional researchers. Moreover, we have created a community of interest around the early colonial period, which we will sustain through regular updates on the website of unfolding events in the fledgling settlement.
It is easy to be infatuated with the latest digital technologies and how they might manifest in cyberspace. However, the challenge is to remember, as Murray (2011) suggests, that “new means of inscription and transmission (the bits and the computer network) are only part of what makes a medium: it is the systems of representation that we invent that allow us to turn mere transmitted signals into artifacts of human meaning.” In using digital technologies to explore the past, we need to be inventive in creating new representations that have meaning for today’s users immersed in an increasingly participative digital culture. Our designs need to make full and effective use of the affordances of contemporary digital technologies even when they challenge traditional research and curatorial practices and established modes of communication.
Historical narrative is one of the oldest systems of representation within human culture. Its traditional forms of expression in printed text and displays of artefacts need no longer be the preferred means of inscription and transmission. However, making the past accessible to digital natives is a far more complex task than simply digitising archival material. Nor does technical innovation of itself necessarily lead to significant innovation in representation. We need to use digital technologies to experiment with new methods for creating historical narrative and interpretation that explore rather than conceal the contingent nature of historical events, and which are multi-voiced and genuinely participative.
In (re)presenting the history of events such as the establishment of the Province of South Australia using digital technologies and representational practices that are open, social, and interactive, we enable new forms of historical understanding to emerge and be shared, rather than fixing an immutable interpretive position in a book, an exhibition label, or a commemorative plaque. Now that is a digital revolution.
The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions to this project made by the following people: Bob Sexton, Colleen DeCeukelaire, Jonathan Hull, Kevin Jones, Kristy Kokegei, Mandi Dimitriadis, Mandy Paul, and Peter Lugg (among others!).
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