Tag Archives: Cahokia

Reflections: Digitizing Public History

6 May

by Becky Johnston-

Technology is playing an increasingly large part in the study of history. The Internet has allowed instant access to information through websites on historical events, figures, records, and old and rare books. The time it takes to research has been drastically cut because of this access. Technology and public history now seem like a natural fit. The Internet and mobile applications have placed history at the public’s fingertips. Digitization of physical documents and artifacts allow everything to be seen by anyone with Internet access.

Virtual museums are a digital innovation for the presentation of public history. They allow people hundreds of miles away to see a collection or exhibit that they otherwise would not have been able to visit.  These may be the digital version of physical exhibits, or exhibits purely in the virtual world.  Working with Omeka (a medium for digital and virtual museums) gave the practicum students the opportunity to access all objects used in CUSP exhibits over four years, though the physical objects were no longer in our possession. We created exhibits based on themes that we saw, not ones pre-described by the original exhibits. Other museums could digitize their entire collections–including items hidden away in storage. Visitors to the museum’s website could browse through them based on predefined collections or, by way of a tagging system, could create their own exhibits using filters like Ancient Egypt or Pre-Columbian.

I would like to envision that one day all the museums and collections everywhere would contribute to the digitization of public history by donating digital photos of their objects to an Internet-based collection. Here, anyone could research, compare, organize, and exhibit a consortium of artifacts, paintings, documents, or anything else deemed of historical significance. A free, public “World Museum,” would be a gift to not only the academic community, but to the people. What wonderful exhibits could be formed from joining relics from collections in countries separated by hundreds of mile and political interest, that otherwise would never be able to be united.

Another form of the digitization of public history are mobile applications. This is an emerging union between history and technology, which gives users the ability to visit historical sites with a personal tour guide. Images, videos, and sound could all be activated based on location. As I’ve discussed before, the most up-to-date information could be relayed to the user.  Besides the project Tom and I are working on this summer, I have thought about how I could interlace this with my research in Native American Studies.

People today do not have the concept of how many mounds there actually were in the area. The vast number of mounds in the St. Louis area lent to its former nickname of Mound City. Incorporating GIS mapping technology with the GPS in a mobile device would allow researchers to walk to areas with integral information at hand, to see the layout with their own eyes, and gain a better perspective of what they are studying.  A tool such as this, combined with the research at Cahokia Mounds, could inspire new theories about why the mounds were laid out in a certain position. Mounds would not have been random constructions, but were placed with purpose. They defined a landscape and, therefore, how the landscape was used and walked upon. It has been theorized that they directed paths and a guided tour–including locations of bygone mounds- might help to visualize this function.

If you can’t tell, I find this merging of two disciplines absolutely fascinating. I am looking forward to this summer’s project and trying to incorporate these ideas into my future research. I do not find this turn to the virtual pulling away from the physical. Those who seek to see things for themselves and not through the lens of a camera and screen of some device will still visit museums. The experience of being inches away from history cannot be recreated. But the poor middle school that has lost funding will now be able to take that trip to a museum that would not have been possible otherwise. This cutting-edge field of study will undoubtedly lead to new theories and discoveries because it allows for correlations that could not have been made if the past had not been brought into the digital world.

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Giving Lip Service to Preservation

22 Apr

by Melissa Burns-

Living in Southwestern Illinois, you find Cahokia Mounds almost in your backyard. Growing up, I, like everyone else, took the requisite school field trips and learned about the people who once lived there. I was fascinated by its size and scope and how it once rivaled  cities like London, Paris, or Mexico City in its influence. Now, working in the tourism industry, I give directions and encourage people to go see the mounds. I sometimes wonder, though, how much we really think about Cahokia Mounds or work to preserve them.

Monk's Mound

Monk's Mound

The first thing that always stands out to me when I visit Cahokia Mounds is not the number of mounds or the impressive height of Monk’s Mound, but the billboards that have been placed right in the heart of the site and the highway that cuts it in half. I am always amazed that such a wonderfully historic place as Cahokia Mounds has been so recklessly treated. Of course, one could make the argument that the mounds are available to everyone at no charge, and some trade-offs are therefore to be expected. After all, commerce and expansion do have a way of making themselves known in even the least likely of places. But even this open availability has become limited recently. With the budget crisis that the state of Illinois is in, the hours and days that the Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center is open to the public has been drastically cut for the majority of the year.  The question I have to ask, then, is are we truly trying to preserve Cahokia Mounds and, if we are, what is going wrong with that attempt?

Big Mound

Artist's sketch of Big Mound in St. Louis, shortly before it was demolished

Not long ago, I read an article in National Geographic titled “America’s Forgotten City.”  Written by former magazine staffer Glenn Hodges, who had only recently learned of the mounds existence, the story gave me a new perspective on something that we take largely for granted. Hodges’ opinion was that, as a site of Native American history, Cahokia Mounds has fallen victim to the long tradition of American disdain and ambivalence toward Indian culture.  According to this theory, the mounds’ historical significance went against the prevailing eighteenth and nineteenth-century opinion that Native Americans were savage peoples who were incapable of living a “modern” or “civilized” existence. An Indian city was simply too much for Americans to comprehend. As such, farmers in Illinois and city planners in Missouri demolished the mounds with careless abandon, finding them either a nuisance in the middle of a cornfield or more valuable as fill dirt in the city.  This is an intriguing hypothesis, and, while I am not sure if I am totally sold that this is the exact answer, I do think that it provides some interesting insight.

Loaf Mound

Loaf Mound, St. Louis's final standing mound

When it comes to Cahokia Mounds, or any historical site, what preservation ultimately comes down to is personal involvement. Local or national politics will always have an agenda, one which usually runs counter to the best interests of history in favor of more immediate financial goals.  It is up to us to actively engage with history and show its importance, whether you are the teacher who leads the fieldtrip, the hotel clerk who gives suggestions to tourists, or, as featured in the National Geographic article, a local man who takes it upon himself to care for and maintain a neighborhood historical marker.

Native Americans and Museums

22 Mar

by Becky Johnston-

Where does American history start?  Does it begin with the first European who set foot on the shores of this “New World?”  And who or when would that be?  It could be claimed that in the 1100s or earlier, Vikings came to the North American shores. Does it begin with the first English invader? Or, perhaps when the continent was first inhabited by any person?  Or even farther back,when the continent became separated?  Every event in the span of this region,as far back as we can go, has had some influence on subsequent events. The outdated line that has been drawn can skew history, making it seem as though what happened before Europeans invaded is not as significant as what happened after. That’s why I think it is so important and wonderful that the Labor and Industry Museum in Belleville included the archaeology found underneath the stockyards.

Though Europeans did not encounter these peoples directly, they would have encountered their descendants whose cultures were derived from these peoples’ experiences. Settlement patterns, botanical knowledge, and scientific observations that were taught to the Europeans to help them survive in this world, had a basis in the Mississippians and their ancestors –for everything is connected.

Being a student of Native American Studies, I find this barrier outdated and more than racist. It was in the 1800s that the theory of “prehistory” became a mainstream concept. A French historian was looking for a way to denote the time before a written record in France, but “prehistory” has much worse connotations. In the scheme of world history, it wasn’t long ago that history and story were synonymous. The history of something IS its story. To say “prehistory” would mean before the story. So now, Native Americans prior to European invasion are before the story and not deemed suitable for historical study.

Another misconception within museums is relegating Native Americans to natural history. The idea that Native Americans were “one with nature” has been labeled the “Pristine Myth” by anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians. Cultures and societies prior to European arrival had a large impact on the environment. Because these peoples understood that it was nature that provided for them, their religious views included more of a symbiotic relation with the world around them, but they no more belong in Natural History than the Spaniards who arrived in 1492 and wiped out an entire civilization and are commemorated for it every year.

More museums should take the initiative that the Labor and Industry Museum in Belleville has taken by including Native American Studies into their exhibits. European arrival does mark a permanent shift in the direction of this country -creating a global leader. But without the existence of the first populations that migrated to this region thousands of years ago, Europeans might not have gained the foot hold they did on the backs of the Indigenous populations.

St. Louis Air and Space Museum

14 Mar

by Tom Thompson-

The Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum is another of the small museums in the St. Louis area that most people have never heard of.  The museum is located on the grounds of the St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, IL.  I visited the museum several months ago to research a newsletter article for the Labor and Industry Museum at Belleville.

The museum is in an aircraft hanger that is itself a historical artifact.  It is one of two hangers, which date to the 1930s, and are on the List of Registered Historic Places in St. Clair County.  The hangers still display the original exterior artwork from the Curtis-Wright Company who built engines and aircraft here.  Small aviation artifacts are displayed in one large room downstairs.  Upstairs are the aviation archives and aviation artwork.  The artwork is primarily of those military aircraft that were manufactured by McDonnell-Douglas Company, which was headquartered in St. Louis prior to its merger with The Boeing Company. After going through the downstairs exhibits the visitor is escorted through the hanger itself which houses aircraft and training devices, some of which are undergoing extensive restoration.

The museum and its collections suffered considerable damage and losses during the St. Louis floods of 1993.  Then, they were in their original location at Spirit Airport in the Chesterfield Valley west of St. Louis. It is a tribute to the museum’s leaders and members that they were able to reestablish operations in a different location. The docent who led us through explained the various aviation eras that are represented by the artifacts. One is the early aviation era of simple instruments and wicker seats in aircraft (they have one). Another is the multiple regional airlines which were prevalent in the mid to late 20th century.  Former Trans World Airline and Ozark Airline employees have provided artifacts from this era. First generation (Mercury/Gemini) space suits bring visitors into the space age.  These and other “jet age” exhibits come from former McDonnell-Douglas employees.  Because of the limited area, artifacts are small such as aircraft instruments and uniforms from the various eras.

On the day of my visit, I was lucky enough to speak with Mr. Chub Wheeler, age 99, about the early days of the airfield. Mr. Wheeler learned to fly here in 1934 and he and a colleague ran a flying school at the field throughout the 1930s. The price was $2 for a 15-minute lesson. When the Second World War came the Army directed him to stay at the airfield as a civilian and instruct Service pilots rather than joining the fight himself. The contractor who owned this Army flight training operation was Oliver Parks who later donated his air college to Saint Louis University.

On the whole, the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum provides a small but broad review of aviation history.  I’m sure the past loss and move have made the members concentrate more on physical restoration and display rather than a wider mission of interpretation and outreach to the public.  This is evident in the limited collections and reconstruction required on the aircraft.  As an aviation enthusiast, I hope that they are able to improve the infrastructure problems that are evident in the old hanger and continue to provide service to the public.  Because of its location on an active airport there are always pilots stopping in talk aviation, even those who learned to fly in the 1930s.  I recommend this museum to others interested in American aviation, local manufacturing history, or engineering history.