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History

From Yosemite to Chernobyl: How the Principles of American National Parks Can Apply to Ethical Disaster Tourism

Premise

On April 26th, 1986, the worst nuclear accident in human history occurred at the Chernobyl power station in Ukraine. As a result, people in the area were forcibly evacuated, and to this day, the exclusion zone around Chernobyl is virtually devoid of human habitation. Despite this, there has been a steady increase in tourists visiting Chernobyl. This is part of a trend known as disaster tourism. This trend as we will be examining it has its roots primarily in the late 20th century. However, scholars suggest that visiting sites of death and destruction has its root in religious pilgrimages from pre-modern times.[1] Although this trend is meant with a wide degree of controversy, it’s showing no sign of falling out of style. Therefore, I think that we should promote meaningful interpretations and ethics in the scope of disaster tourism.

Chernobyl and Yosemite: Two Origins of Tragedy?

In 1851, Lafayette Bunnell walked through what we now call Yosemite Valley. Being so overtaken by the beauty, he said “I have seen the power and glory of a Supreme Being; the majesty of His handy-work is in that Testimony of the Rocks.”[2] At the moment, his company was attempting to force Indians out of their valley and onto a reservation.[3] While now we can appreciate a doctor in a military company taking some time to appreciate beauty, we must not forget that this appreciation of beauty occurred in the midst of a great injustice. In this respect, Lafayette Bunnell was the first disaster tourist.

Over 150 years later, a journalist by the name of Nicole Shulman visited the Chernobyl disaster site and had this to say about it: “Birdsong rings from all directions. Wild roses burst out through stone; tree trunks absorb iron fences. It was hard to know if what we were looking at was hope or despair.”[4] Though these statements are many years apart, they both were made after a great tragedy occurred. Though the ways in which these tragedies played out was vastly different, they also both represent a sense of hope and beauty. An opportunity if you will, for the land to become something different after humans committed atrocities on it.

It is an understatement to say that Chernobyl and Yosemite National Park do not have a whole lot in common. Yosemite National Park is a breathtakingly beautiful natural area. Chernobyl was home to the worst nuclear accident mankind has ever witnessed. The landscapes are entirely different, and they are not even on the same continent. But that is not where the similarities matter. Places such as Chernobyl and Yosemite represent choices made by humans. Choices that can bring unimaginable beauty or suffering depending on how they play out. Just as Chernobyl could have been a pristine forest without the scar of nuclear fallout, Yosemite Valley could have been a deforested piece of land converted into a series of housing developments. Although we’d like to imagine such a dark fate for Yosemite to be near impossible, if James Mason Hutchings had his way in the Supreme Court, this very well could have happened.[5] In this respect, both Chernobyl and Yosemite as we know them were created by a single decision. Despite their differences, I think that ethical disaster tourism should governed by the same great principles that guide our national parks. The following research will explore examples of disaster tourism, their problems, and provide framework for how disaster tourism could be done with the same sorts of principles we use in national parks. This research will discuss several disaster tourism sites. However, in the scope of historic interpretation wildlife conservation, Chernobyl has the most relevance to these ideals. Therefore, that is where the bulk of the perspectives on disaster tourism will be based on.

Chernobyl as a Nature Reserve

One of the most surprising things about Chernobyl is that it essentially functions as a nature reserve. This is especially puzzling to people who saw the HBO series on Chernobyl and saw the depiction of hundreds of thousands of trees turning red and dying in the path of the fallout leaking out of the reactor. Although many aspects of the series were exaggerated, this was completely true.[6] Yet today, you can travel to Chernobyl and see birds, an abundance of vegetation, and even top predators such as wolves within the boundaries of the exclusion zone. To explain this, we are going to take a step back from history and have a quick lesson on nuclear science. The average amount of radiation people get exposed to annually is around three millisieverts.[7] The occupational limit for exposure to radiation is 50 millisieverts per year.[8] Fuel fragments around Chernobyl were emitting upwards of 200 Sieverts (200,000 millisieverts) per hour. This would almost certainly kill you in less than a minute. Currently, radiation levels around the exclusion zone are far lower. They are generally measured in microsieverts. 1 millisievert is equivalent to 1,000 microsieverts. Most areas in Chernobyl emit less than .5 microsievert per hour.[9] This means that even living in Chernobyl for a year would only put you at 44 millisieverts per year, which is still below the maximum acceptable dose for industrial workers.

There is a degree of debate about how bad this radiation is. Some scientists argue that a dose of more than 50 millisieverts wouldn’t pose a considerable risk to health. Others argue that smaller doses could potentially cause harm. However, while humans have been arguing over what harm this radiation could cause them, wildlife through no choice of their own have survived and thrived in this irradiated environment. Michael Byrne, an ecologist at the University of Missouri mentioned how “Gray wolves have especially flourished in the exclusion zone, with their population density within the zone estimated at up to seven times greater than in surrounding reserves.”[10] I think that this is both a testament to the resilience of wildlife, but also perhaps a warning as to how much harm humans can cause wildlife. Afterall, even after harming a landscape for thousands of years, nature is still essentially just saying “I’ll repair myself in time if you just leave me the hell alone.”

Disaster Tourism vs. Honoring the Past

For better or for worse, Chernobyl now functions as this de facto nature reserve that is slowly gaining popularity as a tourist center. Some people come for a sense of adventure. Others come to see a Soviet city frozen in time. People also come to pay tribute to the workers, known as liquidators, who helped decontaminate the area in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. When it comes to honoring past heroism, sacrifice, and adversity, the United States has plenty of its own examples of that. We honor past wars with sites such as Gettysburg National Battlefield Park so that we can honor those who fought to preserve the union[11]. Even shameful moments in our history have a place in the national parks. For instance, we share these shameful moments as interpretive sites such as Manzanar National Historic Site, a place where Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to during WWII.

What exactly is the difference between disaster tourism and interpretative places honoring the past such as Manzanar or Gettysburg? On the surface, we might say that places like Manzanar and or Gettysburg represent a brighter future, whereas Chernobyl depicts not just the past, but a single point in the past. Perhaps this symbolism holds true to many, but I recognize that natural forces have left the area in a constant state of flux even human creations are frozen in time.

Another factor unique to disaster tourism is the fact that the destinations are often still dangerous. Whereas places such as Gettysburg or Pearl Harbor haven’t seen conflict in many years, there are still places throughout Chernobyl that can kill you, though in all honesty, it would be impossible to get to those places due to security. A sense of danger is not endemic to disaster tourism. Eastern Washington University History Professor Dr. Youngs talked about base jumping in Zion National Park. He described a scenario where “A friend of one of the deceased jumpers has now lost five friends to Base-jumping deaths during the past year, but says that he intends to continue jumping: “It’s a personal choice,” he told a reporter.”[12] Even John Muir sought a unique sense of thrill in the national parks as he climbed precarious cliffs and even a tree during a windstorm.[13]

I think that the desire to take extreme risks for a sense of excitement is normal, or at least common among many people. Even if people are not doing extremely risky things, the idea of danger or just a raw sense of wilderness is appealing to many. Dr.Youngs mentioned this during his travels to Australia when a bus driver welcomed him to a country where “even the butterflies can kill you – and you’ll be dead in ten seconds!”[14] This hype of death isn’t just a joke either. Dr.Youngs mentions later how a boy fell off the porch and into a river while attempting to get his dog and was killed by a crocodile in the park.[15] Death and misfortune are common features in national parks, and though they are amplified in disaster tourism, disaster tourism doesn’t hold a patent on them.

Regarding Chernobyl, I could not find a single example of a tourist dying there. There were hundreds of deaths immediately after the disaster, and thousands of indirect deaths. However, the idea of Chernobyl as this presently dangerous area does not have a whole lot of truth. Frankly, if I went to Zion National Park, went base jumping, got injured, and had to get a few x-rays, I would get more thrill and a higher dose of radiation than I would have at Chernobyl.

Rejecting the Past: Lessons on Historical Interpretation from Disaster Tourism

If anything, instead of a monument to the fallen, or a truly perilous adventure, many people get a sense of peculiarity or even comedy when going to Chernobyl. Despite what you might think, this is often tolerated if not encouraged by locals. Tourists visiting Chernobyl described a guide named Olena joking that “my grandfather made me promise not to go in there until I’d had my children.”[16] Many of the guests were more somber, but according to tourist accounts, the gifts shops near the exclusion zone with their unnecessary radiation suits and even Chernobyl themed ice cream suggest that this somber attitude is not mandatory.

Chernobyl welcomes tourists but it's a morally queasy experience
Chernobyl Gift Shop

Photo Credit: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/travel/europe/chernobyl-welcomes-tourists-but-it-s-a-morally-queasy-experience-1.3916738

I had a discussion with a friend from Ukraine about this attitude. He told me that “this whimsical attitude is permitted because a lot of Ukrainians don’t see the Soviet Union as part of their shared past. Therefore, mocking something that occurred under Soviet rule is a way of telling the world that this wasn’t something they were a part of.”[17] This quote by tourists in Chernobyl reflects a similar tone among the tour guide.

“So when Olena talked about the regime’s inane attempts to contain the truth even while radioactive clouds were drifting over Europe, she could barely repress her admiration at the sheer anarchic disobedience of gamma radiation, passing unseen through checkpoints and borders, and its genuinely equitable treatment of persons, in contrast with Soviet hypocrisy in such matters.”[18]

I cannot personally judge the people who hold this viewpoint, as I know many had terrible experiences under the Soviet Union. However, I think that being able to say that certain things that happened in your country are not part of your shared history is a precarious notion.

Even when discussing the Confederate States of America, which at least for a time, were separate from the United States, we generally acknowledge that the Civil War and the Confederacy are a part of our nation’s history. Even Germany acknowledges that its Nazi past, even if it was under an entirely different government, is still a German past. In fact, they have the word “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” which essentially translates to “overcoming the past” to describe this phenomenon.

Sadly, this trend of denying a past event as being a part of one’s shared history is a common theme in former Soviet countries and manifests easily in disaster tourism. The House of Terror, which is a Museum in Budapest, Hungary takes a similar approach in their interpretations. This Museum had the misfortune of hosting both the Hungarian Fascist Party during WWII and then the Communist Secret Police during the Soviet era. Sadly, the following quote suggests that this museum is not functioning as a historical interpretation site, but instead as a partisan tool.

“The sleight of hand here — equating Fascism with Communism, and dismissing both as foreign intrusions — is typical of Orbán’s [The Prime Minister of Hungary] rhetoric. It’s also central to the museum’s mission. Its exhibits deliberately avoid making distinctions between perpetrators. They argue that Fascism and Communism both lie outside what Fidesz calls “authentic Hungarian history,” despite the fact that Hungary had its own fascist party and its own Communists. This narrative provides absolution for the worst parts of the twentieth century: since both movements were foreign imports, Hungary bears no responsibility for either the Holocaust or the Gulag. At the same time, it promotes a vision of history in which Hungary is a perennial victim, and Fidesz [Orban’s political party] its long-awaited savior.”[19]

Historical issues such as this should compel us to understand that national parks and interpretive sites are a “mingling of the past and present.” Dr. Youngs mentioned this phenomenon when he mentioned a group of Pueblo people bursting into song at Mesa Verde. He heard a ranger say “in that moment he could sense the presence of those long-ago native Americans who once lived at Mesa Verde.”[20] I think this shows the best side of a mingling of the past and present. However, the phenomenon has a dark side, and I am convinced that interpretations such as the Terror House in Budapest utilize that dark side.

I am not suggesting that disaster tourism inherently makes bad historical interpretations. I also do not believe that a certain sense of light-heartedness or Soviet jokes at Chernobyl automatically equates to a rejection of the past. However, as disaster tourism increases in prominence, so will these issues. Ultimately, I would like to see disaster tourism become a historically important outlet of national park history. Therefore, I think these issues are important to highlight.

How Can Disaster Tourism Be a Meaningful Historical Experience?

The remainder of this research will discuss what we should and perhaps more importantly should not do to promote valid historical interpretation and reflection in disaster tourism. Firstly, I implore anyone partaking in disaster tourism to be aware of their biases and hold a certain sense of empathy when going on these tours. Ask yourself, “would I be ok if someone interpreted my country this way?” Would you be ok if rich Western Europeans toured abandoned buildings in the rust belt and commented on how poor and backwards Americans can be? Would you be ok with people going to bars in Wallace, Idaho unnecessarily dressed in hazmat suits to avoid the lead contamination? It is ok to have a certain sense of humor about these sorts of places. Most locals, political views aside would support this. However, you should at least be aware that people could easily make the same jokes about America, and if the equivalent of joke offends you, it probably offends them as well.

Mission: Revive the Rust Belt: We should subsidize employment, not  joblessness, and target efforts where they are most needed. | City Journal
Midwestern Chernobyl has a ring to it nonetheless.

Photo Credit: https://www.city-journal.org/revive-rust-belt

The second piece of advice I have is to know a bit about the political situation and the history of the place you are visiting. A few summers ago, I visited Bratislava, Slovakia. On the ride into the country, I took the liberty of reading a few articles about the country and of course had a basic knowledge of the country from my background in international affairs. I went on this tour of an abandoned Soviet-era hospital and what I considered surface-level knowledge proved useful. For instance, I saw a sign and told the tour guide “I don’t speak a lick of Slovak, could you tell me what this says?” She smiled and said she was happy that I at least knew that I did not speak Slovak, and not Slovakian like everyone else kept saying. Quick lesson here: Slovak is what you call the language of Slovakia. If you wanted a beer from the country, you would say “I would like a Slovak beer.” You can say “Slovakian beer” and probably still get the same result, but the locals will appreciate it if you use the right word.

Best Slovak and Czech beers, souvenir from my vacation in Slovakia 8-) |  Czech beer, Best beer, Beer
You’ll definitely love “Slovak Beer.”

Photo Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/177399672792233954/

Image preview
Abandoned Soviet Hospital in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Beyond grammar, knowing a bit of history is important. For instance, I asked about how the hospital was abandoned. The tour guide said it was abandoned during the Velvet Revolution in 1989 which was a non-violent protest in what was then Czechoslovakia against the communist government. Speaking of Czechoslovakia, the country separated into the Czech Republic and our subject, Slovakia separated into their respective countries in 1992. This is referred to as the Velvet Divorce because it also was generally a peaceful transition. I also studied a bit about the current political situation in Slovakia. For instance, the year after I was there, the country had its largest protest since the fall of the Soviet Union due to two journalists who exposed corruption in the government being assassinated.[21] It proved useful for me to read about the political situation as a lot of the locals were pleasantly surprised that a foreigner took the time to understand their country. I cannot expect everyone to research complex histories and political situations in the country they visit. However, if you visit Slovakia and tour an abandoned hospital, it will at least help that you can order Slovak beer and not tell people that you want to visit Czechoslovakia next.

The last piece of advice I have is to read up on current issues or proposals surrounding the disaster tourism site you are visiting. Perhaps see if there are ways you can contribute. For instance, to many park enthusiasts, Hetch Hetchy is almost considered a form of disaster tourism. The park was once home to a beautiful valley which is said by John Muir to have rivaled Yosemite Valley. Sadly, the valley was dammed in 1937 thus destroying much of the natural beauty it once offered. Dr.Youngs himself took a somber approach to the place saying “I had come here today almost as I might have gone to a concentration camp.”[22] Though he despaired over the loss of the valley, we find out in his interview Jan Van Wagtendonk that there are efforts to restore the valley.[23] Though the damage at Hetch Hetchy has already been done, the idea that there is hope for the valley should raise spirits even as one tours the flooded valley.

The exclusion zone around Chernobyl is also home to ongoing conservation efforts. In 1998, Przewalski’s horses were introduced around the exclusion zone. This species of wild horse was previously almost extinct, but their population has increased in the exclusion zone.[24] Although this certainly does not outweigh the harm done by the radiation, it certainly shows that there is always hope. Ultimately, I think portraying a sense of hope, reflection, and adaptation are the most important elements of meaningful disaster tourism.

I know that for many park enthusiasts, disaster tourism is not going to be their cup of tea. However, I think that all parks and interpretive sites should maintain certain principles and abide by best practices both for the sustainability of the park, and for the good of people around it. Whereas I might not have convinced you to book a ticket to Kyiv and come visit Chernobyl, I hope I have convinced you that disaster tourism can be done ethically, and that the principles of our national parks should be applied towards the ethics of disaster tourism.


[1]Ganna Yankovska & Kevin Hannam, (2013). Dark and toxic tourism in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Current Issues in Tourism. 17. 934. 10.1080/13683500.2013.820260.

[2]Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea: an Illustrated History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 2.

[3]Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, 2.

[4]Nicola Shulman, “Nuclear Holiday,” The New Criterion, last modified September 2019, accessed December 3, 2020, https://newcriterion.com/issues/2019/9/nuclear-holiday.

[5]Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, 22.

[6]“Why the Red Forest Near Chernobyl Is Still Radioactive Today,”chernobylwel.com, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.chernobylwel.com/blog-detail/125/the-red-forest-the-most-radioactive-outdoor-environment-on-the-planet.

[7]“Radiation Levels Now,” The Chernobyl Gallery, last modified May 20, 2020, accessed December 3, 2020, http://www.chernobylgallery.com/chernobyl-disaster/radiation-levels/.

[8]Kateryna Yuri and Anatoly Zolotkov, “Unit Converter,” Convert Microsievert [ΜSv] to Millisievert [MSv] • Radiation. Absorbed Dose Converter • Radiation and Radiology • Compact Calculator • Online Unit Converters, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.translatorscafe.com/unit-converter/en-US/radiation-absorbed-dose/26-25/microsievert-millisievert/.

[9]“Radiation Levels Now,” The Chernobyl Gallery.

[10]Charles Q. Choi, “Chernobyl’s Radioactive ‘Wildlife Preserve’ Spawns Growing Wolf Population,” LiveScience (Purch, July 1, 2018), last modified July 1, 2018, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.livescience.com/62964-chernobyl-wolves-spreading.html.

[11]Robert E. Manning et al., A Thinking Person’s Guide to America’s National Parks (New York: George Braziller Publishers, 2016), 10.

[12]Bill Youngs, “Danger in the National Parks,” American Realities with Bill Youngs, last modified October 19, 2014, accessed December 3, 2020, http://www.americanrealities.com/home-page/danger-in-the-national-parks.

[13]Bill Youngs, “Danger in the National Parks”

[14]Bill Youngs, “Danger Down Under (2).” Fireside Talks on Canvas, 2018.

[15]Bill Youngs, “Danger Down Under (2)

[16]Nicola Shulman, “Nuclear Holiday,” The New Criterion, last modified September 2019, accessed December 3, 2020, https://newcriterion.com/issues/2019/9/nuclear-holiday.

[17]Jeremy Gerhardt interview with friend, “Conversation: Why Do You Think People Visit Chernobyl?” Personal, November 30, 2020.

[18]Nicola Shulman, “Nuclear Holiday”

[19]Jacob Mikanowski, “The Frightening Politics Of Hungary’s House Of Terror,” The Awl, last modified March 30, 2012, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.theawl.com/2012/03/the-frightening-politics-of-hungarys-house-of-terror/.

[20]Bill Youngs, “Jerusalem’s ‘Wailing Wall’ — a Mingling of Past and Present.” Fireside Talks on Canvas, November 15, 2016.

[21]“Slovakia Protests: 65,000 Join Bratislava Anti-Government Protests,” BBC News (BBC, March 16, 2018), last modified March 16, 2018, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43437993.

[22]Bill Youngs, Hetch Hetchy, 2012. Accessed December 3, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2a-uJwUA5AM&feature=emb_logo&ab_channel=BillYoungs.

[23]Bill Youngs, and Jan Van Wagtendonk. “Jan Van Wagtendonk.” Youtube, October 14, 2012. Accessed December 3, 2020.

[24]John Wendle, “Animals Rule Chernobyl Three Decades After Nuclear Disaster,” National Geographic, last modified April 25, 2017, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/04/060418-chernobyl-wildlife-thirty-year-anniversary-science/.

Categories
San Juan Island History

Data Mining: A Computer Science for the Humanities?

By Jeremy Gerhardt

Data mining gives historians the opportunity to look at vast troves of data and create analyses and narratives that previously would have taken decades to surmise. Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel demonstrate this with their work on Google NGram viewer. In their Ted Talk, they examined how words changed over time. For instance, they made an exact diagram of the word “thrived” overtaking the word “throve” as the popular past tense of thrive. These methods are brilliant for analyzing troves of data, but not too far along, we see issues. For instance, they mentioned how the word “beft” was once used as a spelling for best. This seems valid until you realize that the s in older text once looked more like an f. Data mining is an exciting new tool for historians, but we need to understand that it doesn’t create its own historical meanings or interpretations. Just like it always was, that task is up to us. 

I’m curious how Google NGram view reacts to Sütterlinschrift

Photo Credit: https://www.pnp.de/lokales/landkreis-traunstein/Workshop-zur-Suetterlinschrift-im-Eichenhof-3226091.html

Thankfully, working right alongside their future machine overlords, you’ll find a group of diligent, socially aware, and most of all: human historians. Through our work in data mining, we are able to give voices to people silenced throughout history. For instance, Ruby Mendenhall, an associate professor of sociology at University of Illinois made a data mining project which mapped out the stories of black women suffragists in America. I remember in one of my history classes, the professor said “sometimes an absence of information tells you more about something than an abundance of information.” That’s what I thought about with this project. 

Data mining gives us a chance to analyze all sorts of less known people in society including convicts. Though in some cases, we find that despite their obscurity, they had a lot more in common with us than we may have thought. Professor Robert Shoemaker and Dr Zoe Alker examined the tattoos of convicts and instead of finding that they represent an explicitly criminal identification system, are better used to depict social ideals, trends, and attitudes among common people of the time. 

This chart shows the changing subjects of convict tattoos over time.

Photo Credit:https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/Convict_tattoos

Visualization by Sharon Howard

Data mining’s applications can vary from comparing language to mapping out changes ideals or attitudes during a period of time. These sorts of applications are in familiar territory for me as a history. However, higher tech applications can create downright jaw dropping visualizations. For instance the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project creates this vast web of Francis Bacon’s network during his time. This sort of metadata project takes what once would have required thousands of books, and allows us to view a person’s entire network on a single screen. 

Yet no matter how advanced the technology behind data mining becomes, the discipline would be a total vacuum without an interpretation from a historian. Even when looking at the Six Degrees of Bacon Project, I’d have to have a starting point as to what I wanted to interpret or research in regards to Francis Bacon. Otherwise, it’s just an intricate web. Though this seems obvious, it’s something other professions easily forget when talking about digital outlets in history. 

Carl Minksy writes about the trend towards allowing history to be made from algorithms and numbers instead of interpretations. He cites an article claiming that “Machine learning algorithms can overpredict historical significance for some documents and overlook others that will prove to be important, he warns, which he demonstrated in a project with Microsoft called “Predicting History”. He also cautions that “Poorly-made data analyses can unwittingly lend an air of objectivity to historical arguments that really can’t be supported by these incomplete archives.” I think that the biggest lesson we need to understand with Data Mining, and really any non-human interface used in history, is that it can’t interpret history for us and more than we could be expected to create the complex visualizations and charts that computers can create. Data mining needs a soul, so to speak. With a soul, we can use this technology to give voices to those who previously had none. We can highlight similarities with our ancestors, and we (perhaps most importantly to students) save hundreds of hours on projects. However, without a soul, Data mining is just a web of numbers. 

Categories
San Juan Island History

The Pig War: Reliving Contested Memories

In the weeks leading up to the election, we are terrified of the lack of information and the ensuing chaos this lack of information may bring. “What if it takes a whole week to know the results?” wail pundits on all sides of the political spectrum. In our world of convenience and instantaneous knowledge, this seems unthinkable. However, Americans have coped with a larger void of information and still acted diplomatically. The Pig War is a prime example of this. 

“With the transcontinental telegraph still several years away, steamships often crossed paths bearing dispatches containing conflicting information. Policies enforced had to be undone. Confrontations escalated—or vice versa—before reports reached their readers.”

The Seeds of Conflict

The pig war started out non-miraculously. In 1859, Lyman Cutlar, a down on his luck miner, took his Coast Salish wife to San Juan Island to survive until better opportunities presented themselves. Fashioned in the traditional Coast Salish fashion, he and his wife delineated their property with stacked rocks around its perimeter. This method suited the Salish people for thousands of years, but white people found problems with it in just a few. As the story goes, a man named Charles Griffen was convinced that this “insufficient mystery fence” allowed his cattle and pigs free access to Cutlar’s garden. Cutlar didn’t agree with this sentiment, and when he caught one of Griffin’s pigs rooting through his potato patch, he shot the pig. 

Shortly after shooting the pig, Cutlar felt bad about it and described it as a “moment of irritation.” He offered either to replace the animal or agreed for three men to choose an appropriate price value to compensate Griffin for the pig. Griffin had different plans and valued the pig at $100, or $3,135 in 2020 money.For further reference, a state of the art Sharps breech-loading rifle sold new for $30 during this time period. According to accounts, Cutlar was deeply insulted by this demand as he didn’t even believe the pig was worth $10. The argument shifted away from the pig and soon became focused on the fact that Cutlar, an American was living on the island. With Griffin threatening to bring a posse from Victoria, and Cutlar threatening a resistance against such a posse, the seeds of the Pig War were sprouting. 

This Chart shows the value of $100 in 1859 at $3,135. The average amount of usable meat on a modern pig is 154 pounds. If the meat was sold at a price proportionate to the pig’s $100 value, it would sell for $20.35 per pound in today’s money. Even more when you consider that pigs weighed less back then. With recognizing the limitations of currency conversion, that’s still one expensive porkchop. 

In an alternate universe, the Germanic Kaufland Königreich intervenes by appeasing both parties with an abundance of questionably cheap pork. 

Contested Accounts

Despite Cutlar’s claims, Griffin and Alexander Dallas maintained that they never demanded a $100 sum from him nor did they threaten to take him back to Victoria. Furthermore, they maintained that the pig was not shot on Cutlar’s property, but was instead shot in the woods bordering his land. We find out later that Dallas’s claim that he never demanded $100 is either a lie, or a matter of his own forgetfulness, but at the time the truth was blurred. Ending the issue of the pig in the pig war, Judge Henry Crosbie ordered Cutlar to pay a fine for shooting the pig. However, the pigless pig war continued as an ongoing border dispute until 1872 when following mediation efforts by Kaiser Wilhelm I, the British left ceding the island to the United States.

Celebrating Diplomacy and Reliving the History

The contested stories and lack of information could have easily spelled disaster for San Juan Island and its American inhabitants, but through restraint and diplomacy, peace prevailed. However, this wasn’t the first time in American history that grazing animals caused a war. Lisa Brooks mentioned how disputes over grazing animals were one of the factors that led to King Philip’s War. 19th-century preservationist John Muir referred to sheep as “horned locusts” and was against them grazing in natural areas. In the spirit of promoting nature preservation and indigenous heritage, I think that replicating (perhaps for now just digitally) a replica of what the Coast Salish stone garden fence would be a great interpretation piece as it represents both the origin of the war, Indigenous heritage, and the broader picture of settler colonialism being at odds with Indigenous customs. Boyd Pratt researched the Coast Salish and his book: Island Farming History and Landscape of Agriculture in the San Juan Islands features information on their customs. I think that this interpretive piece would be a great opportunity to utilize recent research and build an interpretative piece that allows people to visualize the Pig War where it began.

Since many of the Island’s buildings were auctioned off after the joint occupation, there is plenty of room for interpretive sites.
Categories
History

Data Visualization: An Old Trade With New Tricks

Years ago, I remember being in a German history course and learning about the fall of the Berlin Wall on the 9th of November in 1989. Despite this, Der Tag der Deutschen Einheit, or Unity Day takes place on October 3rd. The reason for this difference in dates stems from a long-standing stigma with November 9th in German culture. This day represents historical events in Germany ranging from the founding of the Weimar Republic to the Beer Putsch and even the infamous Kristallnacht. For this reason, Germans found it distasteful to hold their holiday on a day with such sinister connotations. Now it’s not too difficult to be aware of such a stigma against a single day. But in our world of data, we can visualize larger trends. David McCandless pointed out how even things such as video games are not released during April due to a stigma associated with the Columbine shootings. Data visualization gives us the opportunity to conceptualize these trends and apply them to research in the humanities. 

“Data is the new oil”

-David McCandless

Water Levels of a building along the Danube in Passau, Germany

Though this trend towards data visualization often involves technology, the concept of data visualization isn’t necessarily new and doesn’t necessarily involve advanced technology.  Maps as far back as the 18th-century chart things from the population of various European cities to mortality and crime rates. In a very low tech demonstration of data visualization, cities along the Danube often display water level charts on their historic buildings which show how high the water level reached in regards to its respective building. 

Though data visualization has its low-tech roots, we now have the opportunity to apply modern technology to older methods. For example, Google maps now has a map of Stolpersteine (stepping stones) which commemorate the last known willfully chosen living space of victims of the holocaust. Data visualization becomes quite advanced when you apply text plots to large files such as with Henry Kissinger’s correspondences. Here, we see an attempted solution to a problem many 20th and 21st century historians face: Too much data. A blog on quantifying Kissinger sums up the situation with this quote. 

“Scarcity of information is a common frustration for historians. This is especially true for researchers of antiquity, but not exclusively so. For students of twentieth- and twenty-first century history the opposite problem is also increasingly common — overwhelmed instead by a deluge of information and confronted by a vast field of haystacks within which they must locate the needles (and presumably, use them to knit together a valid historical interpretation), historians have already struggled with what is now understood as ‘big data’.”

Data visualization allows us to make meaning out of large troves of information that otherwise would be impossible to access. For instance, Joshua MacFadyen and Nolan Kressin created a temporal geospatial map of firewood transport on Canadian trains from 1876 to 1903. In their blog, they mention how Harold Innis published a book called the fur trade in Canada in 1930. They mentioned how his book involved deep archival research, to the point in which they referred to him as a “dirt researcher” in regards to the strenuous nature of his research. Juxtaposed to Innis’ book, MacFayden and Kressin created a 15 second video showing how firewood flowed through various railways in Eastern Canada. This certainly shows the power of data visualization. However, the authors maintained that the visualization raised just as many questions as it answered.

This coincides with a larger observation about data visualization as historians are pushed to create meaning out of larger and larger amounts of data. At this point, we must ask ourselves: “To what point should we rely on data to provide reliable historical interpretations and narratives?” To me, this is a complex issue. I think that geospatial data can be a great way to view historical figures that essentially speak for themselves. For instance, Charles Minard’s temporal geospatial map did an excellent job at depicting the casualties in Napoleon’s march to Russia. However once you get past raw facts such as casualty rates, visualization methods become more skewed. 

 John B. Sparks published a map on global power shifts over the past 4,000 years. Though it’s interesting to see the rise and fall of empires throughout time, the blog about the chart points out that much of its creation relied on guesswork, and that it had an apparent bias against China. Another issue with data visualization is the scarcity of certain information. For instance, much of Galileo’s correspondence was destroyed in the wake of his trial for supporting Copernican astronomy. This can be difficult when trying to visualize the data. However, when making an assessment, historians should know that sometimes the absence of information is in and of itself information. Florence Nightingale provided an example of this when she analyzed the death rates of British soldiers in the Crimean War. She found that soldiers weren’t dying as much from fighting, but rather from diseases. This realization caused the British government to increase sanitation standards. 

Currently, data visualization and technology are regular aspects of our lives. Just by viewing the U.S. census website, I can access data that social scientists 50 years ago could only have dreamed of. Though this data is useful, we must not overlook the necessity to critique it. Frederick W. Gibbs mentions how methodology and data critique is now more important than ever in fostering valid historical narratives. As long as we can fulfill these critiques, data visualization will continue to be a useful medium for conveying history. 

Sources:

Routley, Nick. “Histomap: Visualizing the 4,000 Year History of Global Power.” Visual Capitalist. Last modified March 8, 2019. Accessed October 13, 2020. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/histomap/?utm_content=bufferdf855.

Thompson, Clive. “The Surprising History of the Infographic.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, July 1, 2016. Last modified July 1, 2016. Accessed October 13, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/surprising-history-infographic-180959563/.

“Data Visualization and the Modern Imagination.” Spotlight at Stanford. Accessed October 13, 2020. https://exhibits.stanford.edu/dataviz.

“New Forms of History: Critiquing Data and Its Representations.” New Forms of History: Critiquing Data and Its Representations | The American Historian. Accessed October 13, 2020. https://www.oah.org/tah/issues/2016/february/new-forms-of-history-critiquing-data-and-its-representations/.

Nicole Coleman, Stanford University. Mapping the Republic of Letters. Accessed October 13, 2020. http://republicofletters.stanford.edu/.

The Website Services & Coordination Staff, US Census Bureau. “Data Visualization Gallery.” Visualization Gallery. Last modified March 1, 1994. Accessed October 13, 2020. https://www.census.gov/dataviz/.

MacFadyen, Josh. “The Fir Trade in Canada: Mapping Commodity Flows on Railways.” NiCHE. Last modified October 8, 2020. Accessed October 13, 2020. https://niche-canada.org/2020/10/08/the-fir-trade-in-canada-mapping-commodity-flows-on-railways/.

Kaufman, Micki. “‘Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me:” Quantifying Kissinger.” Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me Quantifying Kissinger. Accessed October 13, 2020. https://blog.quantifyingkissinger.com/.

McCandless, David. “The Beauty of Data Visualization.” Last modified November 23, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Zg-C8AAIGg&ab_channel=TED-Ed.

“Napoleon’s Ill-Fated March to Russia – Intro to Data Science.” Last modified February 15, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYwwSHpPZdc&feature=youtu.be&ab_channel=Udacity.

“Stolpersteine in Berlin.” https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?ie=UTF8&oe=UTF8&msa=0&mid=1uIMsJp798Y2OBdQbdPMHjrqS8Hs&ll=52.488633317667805%2C13.353340000000022&z=13.

Categories
History

The Digital Revolution in Museums

The digital revolution impacts just about every waking moment of our lives. People can do anything from adjusting their thermostats to order food on their phones. This isn’t just limited to our convenience. Even museums and historical databases are jumping on the digital bandwagon. This is especially true in the Canadian Arctic of all places. With sites thousands of miles from any major city, and an extremely hostile environment, few Canadians, and even fewer international visitors get to see these arctic historical sites. Sheila Copps, the Canadian minister of heritage recognizes the challenge of bringing people to such a remote corner of the world, but maintains that “raising awareness of the heritage value of these sites is critical to the management of their cultural resources.” That’s where digital history comes into play. 

After reading the article and being bored on Sunday afternoon, I decided to take a “visit” to the Canadian arctic. The site has an interactive map where you can click on icons and see various landmarks and historical sites throughout the Canadian Arctic. Once you click on a map icon, the link takes you to a panoramic view of the area. You can click on icons throughout the panorama to see anything from close-up wildlife pictures to historical sites and videos. 

Close-up picture of an Arctic Hare in its natural habitat. As featured in Canadian Museum of Nature-Arctic Expedition

Although these virtual historic sites have a clear utility when representing the Canadian Arctic, they also are useful in slightly less desolate and inhospitable places such as Spokane, Washington, and Cleveland, Ohio. Though these sights aren’t as interactive as the Canadian Museum’s page, they play an important role in sharing their cities’ history. Though they featured many great articles, one of my biggest concerns with both of these sites was that they often assume that their audience is all local to their respective areas, and if you aren’t local, you may become disoriented when they describe certain locations.

 For instance, Cleveland Historical’s Carnegie Avenue page left me without a clear orientation as to where all the street names they referred to were located. Spokane Historical’s The Unlawful Arrest and Detainment of Frank Hirata was a bit less geographically confusing, but still lacked a lot of context (or at least links) about landmarks such as the Davenport Hotel. Though these sites are often just views by local people and don’t always see the need for wider context, as the cities and the sites continue to grow, catering to a non local crowd will become necessary. Despite their shortcomings, the sites included some great stories such as Cleveland’s House of Wills, or Spokane’s 26 tons of oddity. Both these pages show interesting histories about places that we can either enjoy from our computer screen, or plan on visiting.  

Sites such as Intermountain Histories take a less centralized approach and feature historical sites and stories throughout the Western United States.  The site features tags ranging from Mormon history to WWII history. The site talks about a number of topics ranging from the forceful adoption of Indigenous children to Uranium Mining on the Navajo Reservation. I personally liked all the articles I saw, but I did find that the site would be a bit hard to navigate if you are looking for specific cities or areas. I think that a subsection between states and cities would improve the site’s navigability. Salt River Stories features stories from in and around the Phoenix metro area. I think that this approach works well as the site maintains a set geographic area, but doesn’t limit its content to just the Phoenix area.  

With the advent of COVID19 and our social distancing requirements, virtual museums are becoming a necessity. Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to set up your own digital history site. Google photo scanner makes it easy for you to post quality pieces of your own museum without even taking them out of the glass case. I have an example posted below with a McDonald’s advertisement taken from a phone. Admittedly this isn’t the best example for a historical site, but I live in a small town and my options are limited. Besides, sometimes even things from McDonald’s make their way into museums.  

Before:
After:

Thankfully McNuggets are very easy to store indefinitely in a museum. Though admittedly they become more related to geology than history after a while. 

With all these advantages digital history offers, there are still some drawbacks. Returning back to the Canadian Arctic, the biggest issue with digital history there is internet connectivity issues.  The author of an article on Canadian virtual museums summarized the issue with this quote.  

“Ironically, perhaps of greatest concern is the issue of accessibility. When creating virtual heritage exhibits, there is often the presumption that the bandwidth necessary to ensure smooth loading and operation of the website and its media contents is present in source communities, and that devices such as smartphones and tablets are easily accessible. Unfortunately, this is not the case in many northern hamlets and towns where reliable high-speed broadband internet connections are non-existent or extremely expensive.”

The big takeaway from this is that virtual museums can be an excellent addition to your museum, but it’s important to recognize that they still pose accessibility issues. Even with relatively decent internet speeds of 30 Mbps, I experienced some lag on the virtual arctic tour. With a particularly slow internet, the tour would have been impossible. Despite these problems, virtual museums are still a great way for historians to share local history. Especially in a time where visiting museums in real person isn’t always possible. But as with all aspects of technology, we must recognize their limitations.

Categories
History

The Digital Humanities: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Future

Digital humanities give us the opportunity to capture the excitement and drama of a historical event. Whether it’s sharing stories from Spokane’s great fire of 1889, or sharing the tales of drunken sailors along the San Juan Islands, this method of storytelling gives us opportunities to excite the reader that previous historians struggled to obtain. Still, digital humanities represents a drastic change to the structural norms of academia and discourse in the humanities. Adam Kirsch goes so far as to claim that “the transition to some version of a post-verbal future is already taking place.” I personally believe that this has a narrow degree of truth, but that in most applications of digital humanities, it doesn’t hold true. Instead, I think that digital humanities add to verbal discourse. Sounds, artwork, and pictures contribute to our existing verbal discourse of the humanities. Perhaps we could compare them to seasoning on a steak. Just because the steak has some paprika and garlic on it doesn’t mean we are in the process of replacing the steak with paprika and garlic. 

Despite not completely agreeing with Kirsch’s initial theory on a post-verbal future, I do heed his warnings regarding the limitations of digital humanities. In particular, I fear the discourse that attempts to replace humanistic thought with computer algorithms is leading us to a world where humanities will hold no value unless they can be quantified, which in many ways is the antithesis of the human experience. Kirsch summarizes some of the greatest fears people have regarding the effect of the digital humanities on humanities as a whole. 

“The problem for the humanities—the institutional and budgetary problem—is that changed minds and expanded spirits are not the kinds of things that can be tabulated on bureaucratic reports.”

Wikipedia’s page on digital humanities discusses similar concerns and even cites Kirsch’s article when discussing the controversy related to the topic. The page goes into detail about various methods such as textual analysis and algorithms used in the digital humanities, but it also notes how these methods often lack cultural criticism and also introduces us to the “black box” phenomenon where “scholars who do not fully understand what happens to the data they input and place too much trust in the “black box” of software that cannot be sufficiently examined for errors.”

 Proponents of the digital humanities refute these issues saying “Digital Humanities is an extension of traditional knowledge skills and methods, not a replacement for them.” This is an important premise in the discussion of digital humanities. Proponents of the digital humanities are correct in their belief that digital humanities are best to complement traditional humanities instead of replace them. Yet this analysis is rare among those outside of the greater humanities field. In a world obsessed with profit margins and quantitative evidence, advocates of the digital humanities must be cautious of making faustian deals with those indifferent about humanities as a whole. 

It’s hard to broadly assess the digital humanities, as the term can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. When talking about the application of computers, much of digital history began in the 1960s with computers being used to perform statistical analyses pertaining to historical events known as Cliometrics, This discipline fell out of style in the 80s. However as technology advanced, the possibilities for digital applications in the humanities increased. 

Today, historical analysis utilizes a wide variety of digital tools and methods ranging from quantitative text analysis to linked open data. What in the early 2000s was simply a tool to store historical data is now playing a broad role in how we assess, interpret, and even apply historical data. Though these methods have proven invaluable in gaining new understandings of history, scholars warn against blind faith in these new methods. The scholarly journal “State of the Field: Digital History” addresses the potential shortcomings in these methods. For instance, with quantitative text analysis, it mentions how words and meanings can change, and that the books stored in these systems don’t necessarily represent our cultural values in a way to make sweeping historical analyses.  The article also stresses the importance of historians understanding how archival storage systems and search engines such as Google and Bing function as their inner workings are paramount to the application and sharing of history. 

The advent of digital humanities has permanently changed how we navigate history as a discipline. The change has brought us great excitement as we are able to share history and pursue historical analyses in ways previously not possible. But it has also called some of our core values regarding what the humanities should be into question. Regardless of our positions on every outlet within the broad topic of digital humanities, nothing sort of a sustained EMP is going to stop it. So we would be wise to make the best out of it.

Photo Credit: History Department: The University of Chicago

https://history.uchicago.edu/content/digital-history