Sunday, June 17, 2012

Living in a Visual World

I am currently one of three administrators for the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve's website. Specifically, I have been assigned to update our "History and Culture" section of our website. Go ahead, take a look. Currently, barely a framework of information is available through our website. Go to the People link (warning, you are about to be underwhelmed). That is what I have been developing in my spare time this past week. I have pages and pages waiting for approval and activation. Hopefully, if you are reading this any time after June 30, you are not going to see the old information; rather, you will see some of the products of my energies at work.

Specifically, I have started with a series of articles of the many people groups that have contributed to the diverse culture found in south Louisiana and in New Orleans. New Orleans, especially as a port city, existed as a place for many immigrants to pass through or settle. Many distinct features of the city come from the blending of these cultures. As you can see, we have nothing (currently) that addresses the diversity, either contemporarily- or historically-speaking. That's what I am working towards.

In this 1884 image, "Peace" and Uncle Sam is greeting a parade of
citizens from Latin American countries to the International and
Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. 
One challenge I have been trying to overcome is finding images the park has rights to use. We can't post photographs or drawings if another organization owns the rights to those images. And knowing my audience, I need to have visuals on the pages. I decided to go about searching the good old Library of Congress, the United States of America's oldest cultural institution. Most digital images are either boring or racist in nature. The Library of Congress has many political cartoons from the past and some political cartoons from the past reveal our nation's racist leanings. As political cartoons, however, they also reveal complexities of society (and from a design point of view political cartoons are usually vibrant and artistic- good for illustrating a boring historical article on a website).

Obviously, I am not going to use the racist images (although, I noticed that the Library of Congress does not provide large or easily-accessible files for those, like this 1891 cartoon on immigration). But some of them, like the illustration above, have more complex ideas beyond what meets the eye. Many of these complexities rest in the nation's foreign policy at the time. Some complexities exist in how the United States presents itself as a totally welcoming nation to immigrants (not true, even in New Orleans). I am also planning on using this image to illustrate the rich diversity in New Orleans. While this picture is colorful and shows many countries represented, it may not be the most accurate.

So if the last paragraph reveals my "glass-half-empty" attitude, filled with negativity, I should consider the flip side. It is colorful! It does show a diverse group of women in New Orleans. I would only use it to illustrate the page that introduces the idea that many people groups came to the area, influencing the region's culture. And if you aren't too familiar with American history, you would have no concept, historically, of our nation's international policies so you might just assume this is a pretty picture and keep reading. That is what I want, right? For people to take a moment and read the posted content? And then continue thinking (and reading).

So until those pages go live, I will teeter back and forth about the value of using historic images to illustrate ideas without fully explaining the image. Am I doing a disservice to the image or the history by not using it in context? Or am I just using the resources available to me to enlighten readers about a broader story? Can the image speak for itself or am I abusing it? Thoughts?

Reminder: these thoughts are my own and do not reflect those of the National Park Service.

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