Sex, Captions, and Digital History

An image from "Frontier to Heartland"

Exhibit-making does not rate as highly as article- and book-writing in orthodox academic history.  That’s an unfortunate fact of life.  But as I wrapped up a long overdue online exhibit project this past summer, I was reminded of the things I find compelling about exhibit-making, whether online or in physical spaces.

First off, eyeballs. The typical exhibit gets more visitors than the journal article or book gets readers.  Fewer than 1,000 people have read Indispensable Outcasts (it being the 1.4 millionth bestselling book on Amazon), which I spent many a year crafting.  About 10,000 people visited Outspoken during its 4 month physical installation.  Concept to close, maybe 3 years.

But at the moment I’m more interested in the exhibit-making work process as a model of historical research and meaning-making for the curator.  And here my tale suggests important differences between physical and digital exhibits. Consider the image at right: a flyer from a Chicago’s Dill Pickle Club preserved at the Newberry Library. 

In the 2004 exhibit, Outspoken: Chicago’s Free Speech Tradition, we included this as part of a collection of flyers from the club.  It didn’t have its own caption, just an example of the wild and crazy times at the Dill Pickle.  Honestly, I considered it just a fun curiosity.  The combination of Mae West and two speakers from the left-libertarian labor world–to the extent that visitors got it–was meant to show the cultural crossover between the fun and the serious that was typical of Dill Pickle Club events.

Fast-forward to this year and the wrap up of an online exhibit for the Newberry featuring the library’s midwestern collections.  The project, titled Frontier to Heartland, is built on the WordPress-based exhibit-making program Omeka from the Center for History and New Media.  In Omeka every item gets its own entry, so now there is no hiding behind collective captions.

And so the research process, a very narrow research process:  Mae West’s “Sex.”  Was this real or just a joke, a come-on to get people in the door?  To be honest, I had always assumed it was a joke.  But I was wrong, and I should have known better.

In March of 1930, Mae West and the cast of “Pleasure Man” were put on trial for obscenity in New York City. As the Chicago Tribune reported it, the crime was “putting on a show that made policemen blush and brought out more patrol wagons than a communist picnic.”  In August of 1930, West arrived in Chicago with a new play titled “Sex” that promised audiences “55 people” on stage and “555 Thrills.”  And so, a burlesque review, an anarchist, and an IWW icon all in one week.  Quite something.

This is why I have an image captioning assignment for students.  The challenge of unraveling a single image always leads to other sources, other contexts.  Thankfully, it is much easy to do now that we have full-text archives.  But it is still well worth while.

If you’ve read this far, take a look at my caption here, and enjoy the collection.

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