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This August marks the 150th anniversary of the world's first known queer protest. In commemoration of this historic event and the activist behind it, I ask that you please read and share this article. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs died in relative obscurity at the age of 69. It is my sincerest wish to honor his legacy, and I hope you will join me in telling his story.
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A big thank you to the National Council on Public History for featuring my digital history project "The Semiotics of Sex: A History of Queer Identity Politics" this week. Thanks especially to the History@Work editors for working with me on this blog post!
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Select images above to view the model with an audience & side-by-side comparisons to historical photos.
Double-click to activate the interactive model; click and drag to rotate;
click the arrow on the right side for more navigation tools.
"The past did not happen in 2D and that it cannot be effectively studied or taught as a series of disconnected static images that, for the most part, represent incomplete remains." – Donald H. Sanders, "Why Do Virtual Heritage?"
Did you know that this year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first queer political protest in the world? Surprisingly, most people do not. What would you say if I offered you the chance to relive that historic moment – when, in 1867, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs took to the stage of the Grand Hall of the Odeon Theater in Munich to protest anti-sodomy laws in front of the five-hundred-member Association of German Jurists? He did so on the basis of a new, communal, queer political identity of which he alone had conceived. He was eventually shouted down, but his efforts inspired generations of queer activists – a lineage that can be traced to the modern LGBT rights movement.
As I previously proposed, virtual heritage makes available that which no longer exists or that which is not easily accessible for all. Three-dimensional modeling recreates spaces in which history was lived, enacted, and experienced. Exploring such recreations is a means of engaging our senses. Visualizing history helps us attach imperfection, emotion and memory to events, contrary to claiming "objectivities" and reciting "facts." This particular representation of the Odeon can help us, as public historians, to humanize and celebrate Ulrichs' activism, and to offer an alternative perspective to the narratives absent in history textbooks and our popular historical imagination.
Contrary to the idea that "virtual environments cause disembodiment, disorientation, discomfort, and social alienation" (Champion, 109), digital surrogates like the one I have created of the Odeon help us to both contextualize the spaces in which historic events took place and attempt to situate ourselves in the roles of the historical actors we study. Through a process of emulation, or approximation of lived experience, we can empathize with our historical subjects – thus improving our historiographies.
Rather than idolizing and, thus, objectifying the past – its significance and historical figures – how may we re-enact, bear witness to, and interpret it as human observers-cum-subjects? This project draws on disjointed fragments of information – synthesizing them into something that is not simply consumable (such as a text or tome), but something that is dynamic and interactive. To be clear, this project is not digital for the sake of being digital; "being impressed by technology is not the same as being inspired by it" (Champion, 109). Rather, this model reveals a version of the Grand Hall that no longer exists (having been bombed and reconstructed a level lower as a courtyard). Indeed, we may conceive of three-dimensional modeling (and other kinds of virtual heritage) as a form of preservation. We are creating large-scale digital records of our past. This project does not reveal historical information so much as it elucidates it. I started out with different pieces of a puzzle; SketchUp allowed me to put them together.
Still, we must be wary of accessibility issues that extend beyond breadth of circulation; the digital divide (issues of class and age that make technology a privilege, not the everyperson's tool), disability and learning style (future expansion of this project that keeps it from remaining exclusively visual), as well as questions of copyright, ownership, privatization and commercialization (of space, history and memory). Problems might arise from using a tool like SketchUp to draw from photographs, then upload the completed product to the 3D Warehouse – where anyone might access and even download it. Is that a wonderful, open source, informational free-for-all or a new frontier for plagiarism?
I had the opportunity to present my research at the 2017 National Council on Public History Conference this past week. This was my first experience meeting and interacting with public history professionals outside of Philadelphia. It was a wonderful experience listening to, learning from, and networking with individuals from a variety of disciplines and specialties. I got to connect with other students ("Out to Lunch – Grad Student Edition"), LGBT historians ("Dine Around: Presenting LGBTQ History"), and people of color (Diversity Task Force Roundtable).
When it came time to present my project, I found that the comments and questions of the people who visited my poster echoed common contemporary conceptions of gayness. Most notably, remarks on the gender demographics of early queer activists predominated. This observation (that the most visible activists of the time were men), while very accurate, is informed by a continued resistance to androcentric historical narratives – something with which we must still contend. In fact, 2017 NCPH attendees' identification of this issue touches on a larger question; could we, in fact, view the origination of queer activism by men as "the root of all evil" – a major part of the reason why women have been sidelined in our histories and continue to be, rather than the circumstances of our past merely mirroring those of our present?
Likewise, despite my colleagues' preoccupation with male-dominated narratives, no one mentioned the issue of whiteness also present in these early activist narratives. Why is that? Because NCPH conference goers (and members) were (are) exceedingly white. [This issue was explored last year in a post on NCPH's History@Work blog; one may note, however, that the post's author and misguided commenters are presumably white.] This issue, overall, illustrates what happens when a conversation is led and/or overtaken by the voices of those "in power"/with privilege. Case in point – a room full of white people discussing race and racism is an inconsequential, unproductive farce. When combined with the lived, multidimensionality of our real lives (i.e., intersectionality), we can understand how a field predominately composed of white, middle-class women receives a project that commemorates the work of white, upper/middle-class men: an acknowledgement of gender imbalance, but no consciousness of race and class disparities.
Note: 87.1% of archivists, curators, and museum technicians are white, compared to 61.3% in the general population. Similarly, the National Council on Public History’s 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals found that 88.5% of respondents identified as white, while only 7% identified as “of color” (4.5% chose not to answer). The same survey also found that two thirds of public history professionals were women – a reversal of gender ratios from thirty years ago. Even still, we must remember how the public history field (its institutionalization) circumscribes the practice of collective memory management – legitimizes the work of some (wrests the power of narrative construction from others), all the while professionalizing practitioners (imbuing them with a false sense of authority). I overheard one conference attendee of color remark to a colleague: "There's such a focus on bringing us 'into the fold,' without any acknowledgement that we've always been doing this kind of work. It's just not viewed as such." Indeed, one might say white people columbused the entirety of public history by occupationalizing it. To combat how these dynamics inform our work, we can begin by looking inward and owning up to our own racial biases (not just expounding upon them).
For my final project in Digital History, I will be using 3D modeling software (SketchUp) to reconstruct the Grand Hall of the Odeon Theater in Munich – the site of the first public political protest for "gay" rights. Using drawings, descriptions, and photos (taken at the beginning, middle, and end of the last century), I will extrapolate how the Hall might have appeared to Ulrichs in 1867 as he made his speech. The Odeon was bombed during World War II in an air raid and, as such, both the interior and exterior restorations differ very much from Urichs' time. In attempting to capture this site's former aesthetic, I hope to humanize (perhaps even dramatize) this important moment in queer history for my audience. The tangibility of space is an important and engaging aspect of history that I would like to explore through this project. "Setting the scene" by replicating the Grand Hall allows us to experience history in new, poignant ways.
SketchUp bills itself as "modeling for everyone" – easy to use and versatile. The software has already left its mark on the relatively nascent field of virtual heritage; after some research, I found several projects in which cultural heritage sites are being recreated/reconstructed using SketchUp:
But what differentiates three-dimensional modeling from printed, two-dimensional pictures? The dynamicism of the tools we use to convey complex ideas and arguments is a prevalent theme in the digital humanities. This tool can bring research to new audiences by allowing them to engage with history in new and meaningful ways. We are capable of exploring sites to which we might not otherwise have access – thereby democratizing the physicality/intangibility of the spaces we occupy and to which we form an emotional attachment (if not conjuring questions of "reality" and "presence," as well as the privatization of the tools we use to conduct such exploration). We can also broaden the scope of historic interpretation by appealing to cross sections of learners: those who might benefit most from reading the descriptive text that accompanies the reconstruction (e.g., as above), or from visualizing the space in three dimensions while interacting with the model (e.g., rotatation, zooming). In expanding this project, I might consider other avenues of making my reconstruction more accessible and meaningful; perhaps a booming Ulrichs voiceover that narrates the events of that day, making the audience feel as though they are witnessing the historic moment; perhaps a (miniature) 3D printout that people can touch and examine "in-person."
Queer history needs to be explored with digital tools for three reasons: (1) popularization, (2) canonization, and (3) reconstruction. Narratives of queer politics have long been neglected by our collective historical imagination. Public history is first and foremost an act of publicizing underrepresented histories (making them readily available and understandable for the layperson); it is not simply the interpretation of that which is already well-known and well-documented. Digital tools are crucial in disseminating this "new" information by offering a variety of learning methods that are not restricted to a single location (e.g., a physical exhibit or historic site). As public history seeks to extricate itself from academia (theories and paradigms that are often revealed to be meaningless pretension), it must also disrupt the historical "canon" – a hegemonic intellectual falsehood that gatekeeps our sense of validity by encouraging adaptation and assimilation rather than proclamation and testimony. In parallel, digital humanities scholars have had to contend with similar issues at the foundational level. If both fields unite to address these problems, we may be better able to both popularize and radicalize our histories. Even within queer history itself, we find mis/underrepresentations of POC, trans people, women, the poor and working class. These issues can be exacerbated by a dearth of primary source material. Digital tools can empower us to document our own histories and disrupt dominant narratives within our own communities, while accounting for the losses that our histories have suffered. Even in the case of a nineteenth-century "white" European man like Ulrichs (and other queers of his time), censorship and time have both played a role in diminishing the historical record. It is my hope that this project can reconstruct some of it.
Creating a model of the Grand Hall opens up my research to new methods of analysis by allowing me to depart from prevailing paradigms in traditional historiography that claim "objective truths" and "concrete facts." The concept of a singular, impartial history is an institutionalized myth born of racism, classism, (cis-hetero)sexism, etc. We can humanize important events by engaging site-specific history, by infusing history with pathos – an appeal to emotion, to empathy. As such, my intended audience is the LGBT community, because my primary concern is with demonstrating history as a mechanism of self-empowerment. Peripherally, my audience is also cishets (especially the phobes) because, pragmatically speaking, their education (rather than their spectatorship and animosity) benefits us.