In April, New York Council for the Humanities Grant Officer, Kate Sidley, spoke with Thomas Guiler about his funded grant project “UpstateHistorical,” a Vision grant to plan for a website and smartphone app that visitors can use as a tour guide through historical landmarks in upstate New York. The plan is to launch a pilot program with the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild and then spread out to other upstate sites. Tom is also a Public Humanities Fellow with the Council’s Humanities Centers Initiative focusing on intentional communities and communal groups.
Can you start off by telling us a little bit about what this project is and what inspired you to start working on it?
I grew up in upstate New York (in Rochester) and fourth grade is always the New York state history unit in class and we always would go to historic sites in upstate New York like Brown’s Race or the Genesee Country Museum and Village. Those were always my favorite field trips because you could go and it was like living history. I’ve always been really interested in that. I had heard about all these new smartphone apps and the digital technologies coming out to make these tours of historic sites much more interesting and interactive and immediately what came to mind was this place that I’m doing my dissertation on called Byrdcliffe which was an arts and crafts colony at the beginning of the 20th century. I had gone there for my dissertation research just to get a lay of the land. They had a tour but it was a little brochure with a tiny map and blurbs about the different buildings and I thought it would be great to take that new digital technology and apply it to Byrdcliffe. We could make a really interesting tour that lends itself really nicely to some of this new technology because you could use photos, audio, video. Since it was an art colony, there’s great opportunity to share some of the furniture, rugs, or paintings in addition to some of the buildings that aren’t there anymore.
Through your Public Humanities Fellowship [part of the Humanities Center Initiative], is that how you got connected with Byrdcliffe?
I had done research at Byrdcliffe before so I knew some people there but I really got acquainted with them through the Council. After [HCI] orientation and figuring out how to go about a project like this I reached out to a few people and got hooked up with the Byrdcliffe Guild. Through them we really started planning the tour.
Did you pitch this idea to them?
I pitched it to them. I knew people there and had floated the idea to them while I was doing my research to see if this project was something they might be interested in. I approached them and said I was thinking about doing a tour. It would be great for tourism at Woodstock and could make Byrdcliffe a destination besides going to see things like the Levon Helm Studios or the other art installations in Woodstock. They were really excited because, as it turns out, 2015 is going to be a huge year for Byrdcliffe. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Maverick Festivals which are another Woodstock installation founded by a guy who broke away from Byrdcliffe so they were excited. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner.
In a way you almost have another partner on this project, Curatescape, the company who designed this app. How did you end up with this specific company and why did you decide to use an app?
The digital humanities are exploding right now. There are so many fascinating opportunities to do so much interesting scholarly work and work for the general public. I love the idea that you can use GPS, fire the app up wherever you are – if you’re on a road trip or just visiting friends. You’re standing in front of the building and you click on a pin and you get a brief 500 word story about what’s going on there, maybe some photos, and you can get a quick little hit of history when you’re on the go. I thought that was great because everyone’s got their phone on them and it’s much better than any roadside marker because you can really dig into it. It also gives a lot of opportunities for links to further knowledge.
The other thing I really like about it is that it could be a real public endeavor. I don’t pretend to know everything about upstate New York, so I want to hear from people who live in an interesting home or know about an interesting story that happened at a specific place. I want people to contribute that way. I think the digital platform, with its accessibility really makes for a great opportunity to do that. In terms of Curatescape, I will be the first to admit I knew nothing about how to do this. I knew I had an idea, I kind of knew how to get partners, but I had no idea about the computer side. So after talks with Leah (Nahmias, former HCI coordinator), she had heard from her experiences at Brown that there’s this software called Curatescape and that they’d been doing tours and interactive apps for cities and regions all across the U.S. The ones she mentioned specifically that were really interesting were Rhode Tour in Rhode Island and Cleveland Historical which is the flagship of the CSU Center for Public History & Digital Humanities – they are the ones that have pioneered Curatescape.
So, I reached out to Professor Mark Souther at CSU. He wrote me back a long email and we had a conversation on the phone. He basically laid out the options. What he does for people is offer for $1,500 – which is great because that’s exactly the Vision grant – you can go down to Cleveland and do a one-day workshop where they give you a crash course in how to do it. That pays for all the hosting and everything you’re going to need to get started. This has been an awesome opportunity to work with Mark and his team and learn about the really exciting things going on with Cleveland Historical and Rhode Tour.
You’ve been talking a lot about the digital humanities. In our previous interview [with Alexander Provan] we talked about the digital humanities a lot, too. We discussed the fact that it’s a pretty huge term which becomes hard to define as we move into a more digital world. How do you define the digital humanities?
I think you’re right in the sense that it’s such an amorphous term – nobody really knows what it means anymore. I guess I see the digital humanities as a tool to deepen and broaden scholarship. Coming from a history background – and I think people coming from other disciplines would say something different – I think the digital humanities opens up new ways of seeing things.
The digital humanities is important not as an end in itself but as a tool for better, deeper and broader scholarship.
I’m not saying this should take over for the written book or the regular humanities, but I think it’s something that needs to deepen that kind of scholarship. I don’t see them as at odds at all but as things that work together.
You pointed out that this app will become something that the public can contribute to?
Absolutely. I haven’t gone through the training yet so I don’t know exactly how it works, but there’s room for comments and there’s a way it can be edited by the crowd. So, if I say something about some building that’s not true like that it burned down in 1950 instead of 1920 I want to know about that. These things can be changed and I want feedback. Involving the community in that way and giving people a stake in UpstateHistorical is super important. I think it can make for an amazingly diverse and interesting app.
Along with that, is there a challenge to integrating digital technology into this sort of cultural and historical work? There can be a technology divide not just with people participating as an audience but with organizations who might not have the expertise or access to facilitate this sort of platform. Have you encountered any of those challenges?
Not really yet. I think part of the beauty of Curatescape is that it is so user-friendly. A lot of the people I’ve been working with are pretty plugged into the digital humanities or at least open to what digital technology can bring to them and their organizations. Once you explain it people are really interested. The other thing that turns people on about it is that you can look at things and experience some of these historic sites without necessarily disrupting them. You can show pictures of furniture or paintings and not run the risk of them being damaged or having them out in the open and fading. Even sticking a sign in the ground can mar the landscape, so once you explain that this is a low-impact type of thing, people are really excited to get started.
That’s an interesting point. When you approach projects like this, are there other organizations, individuals or past projects that you look to for inspiration?
I looked toward Cleveland Historical because that’s been the most developed and the flagship, really, of Curatescape. I looked to see how they’re doing it and what kinds of sites they’re looking at, how they’re wording things, because it’s got to be engaging, it can’t be dry. This is really story based. That was something I really learned from the people at Curatescape and Rhode Tour, especially since the people at Rhode Tour sent me their style guide. I think that’s an incredible resource because it’s about the story, it’s about hooking people. The way they run it is really great because I don’t think they’re trying to do too much. They’re slow, methodical, and letting it grow organically. Having oversight and valuing quality of content over quantity is key. If you only have three sites and they’re quality that’s much better in my opinion than having a hundred half-done sites.
The other thing I’ve looked at is the local history going on on Instagram now with people taking pictures of homes and doing short blurbs. I was looking at some of these sites to see what people are interested in and what they are interested in talking about. That’s given me a lot of inspiration for where to go next.
You started to talk about this a little bit already and I know you haven’t done your training yet but from the process of applying for a grant and the process of deciding between a vision or action grant what have you learned so far from this experience?
The thing I learned specifically is that you’ve got to find a good organization to work with. I was incredibly fortunate to have Byrdcliffe. You’ve got to put yourself out there: write emails, make phone calls, and really pick people’s brains. Come up with a list of questions and ask. I approached maybe three or four different organizations to partner with and I got various versions of “no thanks” until I got to Byrdcliffe. Don’t get discouraged because it’s not always because you have a bad project. It could be because there’s no money or people don’t have time, especially when you’re working with historical organizations because they are often all volunteers. You can’t fault them for that.
The other thing is: know your project. Be passionate about your project. Once you come up with the elevator speech, really hone that and tell people what this is going to be in a concrete way so that they can envision it. Be excited about it! I love upstate New York, so I want to expose that history to everyone. If you’re excited about it, other people are going to get excited about it, too. I think that’s part of generating buzz and momentum for projects. If you can get other people excited and stoked about it then you’ve got it made – you can’t go wrong.
I think that relates to the grant writing process as well. If you can express that excitement on paper then a review committee will read that and they should hopefully leave as excited about your project as you are.
That’s one of the fun things about grant writing for these kinds of projects: you can express that excitement. I can’t do this alone so I want to get a lot of other people on my team. It’s a fun grant to write when you’re really passionate about it.
That’s gratifying to hear! What made you decide to apply for a Vision grant rather than an Action grant?
I think I fit the Vision grant a little better because I wasn’t necessarily implementing anything yet. When I applied I was still in the process of negotiating partners. What really drew me to this grant was that I needed the training in Curatescape in order to pull this off. The other reason I wanted to do a Vision grant first was so that I could eventually build it into an Action grant. That way maybe in a year when we’re looking to expand a little more I can go after that one because that will be more concrete implementation rather than training or preliminary steps. The Vision grant is really laying the groundwork for the whole thing and then we can build from there.
So now having gone through the process, do you have any words of wisdom for people who might be going through the grant writing process for the first time?
Come up with a fun and exciting way to describe your project. That is the number one thing you need to do. If you can get your project down in a solid paragraph that explains what it is, why it’s needed, what you’re going to do and how excited you are about it – if you can get that down into one paragraph the rest of the grant is easy. Be excited about it – let your passion show in the grant. And take some time with it. Take it seriously and go through a bunch of drafts – that’s how I write grants.
I think that’s good advice.
I also have a great partner who reads everything I write. Talk about your project a lot with people that maybe don’t know about it but represent your target audience. The stuff they are interested in isn’t necessarily the stuff I would be interested in. I study a lot of architecture and would want to know about architects and names and dates but that’s not always what people want to hear. So making it more story-based is something that I really took from bouncing ideas off of people.
That’s always something we recommend, too – that people do their first draft, put all their passion into it, and then give it to someone with fresh eyes. Thank you so much for sitting down to talk to me about this and I can’t wait to hear about your experience at the training.