New Orleans Historical: review of a mobile public history site

New Orleans Historical, a Curatescape project, is a project of the History Department of the University of New Orleans and the Department of Communication of Tulane University. First published in 2012, it is available as a free app for iPhone and Android mobile devices, and on the web at neworleanshistorical.org.

New Orleans Historical stems from the idea that historical scholarship should be freely and publicly available. The central component of the platform is a map that allows stories to be attached to particular sites in the city. Clicking on a folding map icon takes the user to a map of the city showing streets and neighborhoods with relevant locations identified by red circles. A Clicking a circle reveals a captioned photograph, so users interested in historical topics in a particular geographic area may find them. The map’s display of Jackson Square shows four topics: two related to the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, one on pecan pralines, which is part of a French Quarter street food-themed “tour,” and one on mosquitos and yellow fever, which is part of a brilliant “Animals in the French Quarter” theme (the other three stops on this “tour” are wharf rats and public health, mules and modernization, and termites and historic preservation). There are 41 theme “tours,” which the site calls “place-based storytelling” that “transforms the city into a stage” for recounting both popular and forgotten historical moments. One of the “tours” is a “Paper Monuments Project,” comprised of several dozen artistic texts highlighting a “forgotten” history topic such as the pre-European and –African Chapitoulas people who inhabited area; the 1891 lynching of Sicilian immigrants acquitted of murdering the city police chief; and an exposé on the controversial closing of historic Charity Hospital in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Apparently “Paper Monuments” flyers and posters are displayed periodically across New Orleans. The text of stories, written by scholars, community members, and students, is supplemented not only by historical photographs but even a few video interviews of community residents with perspectives relevant to the story. A compelling video showed a resident of the Gordon Plaza subdivision describing her reaction to revelations that the subdivision was built on top of a toxic landfill. Research sources on which stories are based are indicated. Users may browse featured, nearby, or recently published stories. The first two topics among featured and recently published stories were the same ones, on “African presence in Algiers” and “Aimée Potens Residence,” but then the topics diverged. Apparently, users may also search for stories using keywords, although this function did not work when I attempted it; I cannot tell if there is any story on the histories of New Orleans sports teams.

This site emphasizes the long history of African Americans in New Orleans, but not exclusively so. A story focused on Tennessee Williams, catchily titled “’House Sold to Out-of-Towner,” uses newspaper research to reveal the history of a property that the famous playwright occupied from 1972 to 1983. A story on the Huey P. Long Bridge provides context on the rise and fall of the controversial Louisiana governor. New Orleans Historical’s theory of history seems to be that stories of New Orleans residents’ disenfranchisement, tragedies, and struggle not merely to endure, but to prevail, to paraphrase William Faulkner, are interwoven with and have shaped the city’s gilded history as a tourist destination and cultural, culinary, and music bazaar.

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