A week in New Mexico: Reflections and Ideas from the Bridging Ages Conference

DSCN1624I returned home late Wednesday night from a really fun and engaging conference in New Mexico. It was the annual conference for the Bridging Ages International Organization of Historic Environment Education and Time Travel. The conference included a diverse group of people from 9 countries and 12 different U.S. states. Although my schedule didn’t allow me to stay for the whole week of activities the, conversations, presentations, and people I got to engage with gave me a lot to chew on.

It all started at the Welcome event Monday night. A friend of mine from my MA program, who is now an assistant professor and Director of the Public History program at New Mexico State, introduced me to one of his colleagues, Phil Lewis. Lewis is also a professor at NMSU and serves as the director of their Creative Media Institute. Lately Phil and my buddy, Peter, have been working together on a few projects that combine documentary style videos with history and a person’s “sense of place.” They pioneered and this week launched the first of their creations (which they’ve called place based cinema). The goal of their projects is to take movies/documentaries out of the theater, and history out of the textbooks/museum and into the places where they happened. The movies they create are generally documentary based with reenactments and depictions based on solid historical research. It’s a pretty simple idea that incorporates GPS, podcasts, videos, and other media to help people understand and learn about the places they’re currently in. It’s not too dissimilar from other DH projects and apps being created right now, such as Next Exit History, except they add a video component. (For a better explanation and more info visit their blog)

I really liked the idea and hope to contribute and use it in some of my own work. Phil is a creative guy. He is always experimenting and thinking up new ideas, and even trying to pull seemingly disparate projects and ideas together. This happened during one of our conversations that night. He was telling me about Place Based Media as well as another project he has been working on. It is an interactive ethics training video for the State of New Mexico (as well as 5 other states). In the videos viewers are presented with different situations and able to chose which scene comes next as they work through the video. This reminded me a little bit of video games and virtual reality that I’ve been reading about in a few of my digital humanities and technology classes. Anyhow, over the course of our discussion we got to thinking about what a documentary/movie would like it if it could combine the historical, place-based elements with multiple possibilities. I offered the idea of contingent history as a sort of unifier – that is, the idea that there’s no predetermined outcome and that it is valuable to go back to historical debates and imagine alternate paths/outcomes. So in a contingent place based movie you would be able to explore historical debates and events that offer multiple perspectives. (It goes without saying that all of this is based on strong historical research into the views/voices of different historical actors). Through the process of watching it, you learn about a specific historical moment in a specific historical place that helps you understand how and why this place is the way it is but you also get hints about other ways it could have been.

I really love the idea and really enjoyed talking with Phil. Throughout our conversation I kept thinking of some of the design issues and problems of video games. In a sense, these movies combine a lot of the elements of play and games to movies and history. It was almost like an “ah ha” moment where I was able to flesh out a degree of applicability to so many of my course readings on design, technology, games, and digital humanities.  Indeed, the conference in general sort of took this approach, although not necessarily in obvious ways.

DSCN1696The conference was for the Bridging Ages International Organization of Historic Environmental Education and Time Travel. The event was held at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum. The Museum had a lot of neat stuff, but perhaps my favorite was the “parade of cattle.” The parade consisted of a museum curator showing us a variety of cattle breeds and telling us about them. They were presented in chronological order based on when they were introduced to New Mexico. I thought it was a novel idea and a good use of livestock as “artifacts” that could be interpreted to help tell the history of New Mexico.

The conference was populated by a bunch of folks from around the world who study and participate in living history and explore ways to get children and classes involved so that they can “time travel” and experience the past. Many of them are museum professionals and public historians. There were sessions that reflected on past “time travels” as well as other which offered tips and suggestions for those creating their own. Panels addressed things such as teaching in historic environment and creating authentic food and costumes.  Although I did not partake in any of the of reenactments or living history exercises, I enjoyed seeing people come together and discuss the best practices of creating and conducting living histories. Although I was somewhat skeptical of the time travel component at first, I started to see them as instances of identity transformation and perhaps even play. Time travel has the potential to help students decenter themselves and view the world from another perspective. This is because students are able to immerse themselves in new environments and play new roles as they “time travel” to explore history. I’m a firm believer in learning-by-doing and see the value in some immersive experiences, but I still don’t know where I stand on the whole time travel thing. I definitely see some cross over and similarities with other pedagogical strategies I‘ve learned, but I don’t know if I’m convinced of its effectiveness quite yet. I would like to have seen some presentations offering a critical pedagogical analysis of this time travel as a distinct teaching style. Even without being convinced, however, it has given me a lot to think about as producer and consumer of history, a public historian, as well as a teacher.

Beyond the conference I got to spend several days with one of my closest academic friends. Because of our closeness and familiarity with each other’s work, our conversations are incisive but encouraging. We talked about his latest research projects, mine, and our mutual interest in public history and the digital humanities. I lamented how I’ve lost touch with some of public history roots while being absorbed in PhD course work. Although my digital humanities field has kept me busy, I feel like I haven’t been reading as many public history books as I should to stay up-to-date. He encouraged me and gave me list of some of the top books to read. I came home motivated and refreshed after only a few days in the New Mexico sun. I have a renewed confidence in myself and my work. I’m also thrilled and excited that his hard is paying off. I love his project and can’t wait until his book comes out (probably not until Spring 2015). As for me, I need to keep on being productive and keep looking for more ways to get more hands on public history and digital humanities.

2 thoughts on “A week in New Mexico: Reflections and Ideas from the Bridging Ages Conference

  1. Dr. Philip Lewis

    Andrew. This is Phil Lewis here. I just wanted to update you that we are in conversations with the Computer Science department to create the app that we envisioned that afternoon. The ability to choose a character in the program would allow a multitude of opportunities for learning and teaching. We are working on this now. Keep up the great blog!
    Dr. Lewis


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