This is the second of a two part look at the Northampton Historical Society, a century plus old institution located on Bridge Street in Northampton. In this piece we focus on the ways the Historical Society is working to bring it’s resources out of the galleries and into people’s hands. Specifically we look at the Northampton Timelines project.
The Northampton Timelines Project is an enormous and ambitious online collaborative effort being staged by the Northampton Historical Society which aims to make both a navigable and interactive map of the town going back to it’s inception as well as an interactive timeline covering the history of Northampton.
In a culture ever obsessed with the latest and newest, an organization that traverses exclusively in the past can seem as antiquated as the history it aims to preserve. Of course it is exactly because of the myopic vision of our social media driven 21st century culture that our history - a context for all that information - is so important. Unfortunately, the stories of people living a hundred years ago can feel a bit unreliable to many young people now. In addition taking a trip to a history museum might sound about as fun as going to summer school to many.
It is here Nancy Rexford, director of the Historical Society, hopes to steer the Society towards greater community involvement. As she explained, the role of the Society must change to meet the needs of the time’s it lives in.
“Earlier generations kept spinning wheels because that evoked for them their sense of who they were. […] Very few people today look at a spinning wheel and say […] that’s my life.”
As discussed in part one, Rexford sees the Societies role evolving from a place of refuge from the changing times to one of dynamic interaction. “We provide structures within which people can save their own history in a way that is meaningful to them.”In the video we take a close look at the website as well as some examples of where curious parties can do research on their own.
To this end Rexford aims to get the society out of the galleries and into people’s hands. And it was this which inspired first, Midnight to Midnight and then Northamton Timelines. Both are online projects whose content rests squarely on the public’s shoulders.
Midnight to Midnight was a twenty four hour photo documentation project wherein Northampton residents were asked to photograph places and things in town “that were meaningful to them,” as Nancy put it, during a one day period. The results, viewable here, provided a panorama of current life in the Valley.
In the future as part of the Midnight to Midnight project, The Historical Society plans to also ask that people photograph their houses as part of the aforementioned Northampton Timeline’s Project.
The Northampton Timelines project is a community led open sourced collaborative effort being coordinated by the Historical Society. In addition to an interactive map and timeline the site aims to oast exhaustive histories of private and public properties throughout Northampton. An early working mock-up of the site can be seen here.
At the site visitors should navigate to the maps section where already some houses are pinned and also where is viewable a wide assortment of historical maps. Each pin or “hot spot” shows a picture of the house at that location as well as a brief history. In addition each house will have an every growing page of deeds and genealogical information. It’s here that the public will come in.
As Nancy points out about the Northampton Timelines Project, “It’s a very flexible structure. Its a good example of what I’m trying to accomplish here.”
Of course, trying to make a project community fueled and driven requires the community get involved. And it’s here that Nancy has been working to spread the word. “We have a lot of work that needs to be done and we can’t do it without the help of many many local residents. Many people have already stepped forward and we’re really pleased. And there’s room for more. ”
Change. Context. Relevance. These are the emerging themes of the Historical Societies attempts at bringing themselves into a digital world.
The traditional gatekeepers are have fallen in radio, television, movies and many other areas of culture - The Northampton Historical Society aims to take a page from bottom up organization and put the residents of 2015 Northampton in charge.
“There are a lot of ways in which people can use us as a way of leaving their own historical record. You don’t really have to leave it to someone else. You can take a part and be your own historian and leave your own history."