A Short History of the History Documentary

Clio and the Camera from DSTspring10 on Vimeo.

I’ve been thinking about form of the “modern” history documentary. The format that has come to dominate the field — certainly the PBS “American Experience” documentaries is the Ken Burns approach. It includes the use of historical photographs, using pan and scan, plus interspersed “talking heads” providing commentary or telling a story. This format has come to dominate the field — certainly the PBS “American Experience” documentaries.

I came across this interesting ten-minute survey of the history documentary, Clio and the Camera, completed by Andrea Odiorne, a student at George Mason University. It traces the changing styles of telling history via moving images, not only in format but also in technology. As someone who has created nearly 200 short form history documentaries — pastcasts — I wonder how the advent of the portable viewing device might change how the next generation documents history.

Whitewater Shaker Village

J. P. Maclean, a historian, set about researching the Shakers in 1903, traveling across southern Ohio. He wrote about his first glimpse of Union Village, a Shaker community located near Harrison, Ohio: “When I caught sight of the first house, my opinion was confirmed that I was on the lands of the Shakers, for the same style of architecture, solid appearance and want of decorative art was before me.” The University of Cincinnati, through their Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites, is doing some exciting work in using virtual reality to interpret history. Using tools like Google Sketch-up, students have recreated the exterior and interior of buildings in the Whitewater (Ohio) Shaker Village. While not the revelation that Mr. Maclean had, it opens a new perspective into the “land of the Shakers.”

CERHAS has used the approach to create a fascinating website about ancient Troy, complete with a virtual tour. Visit:

I’d like to see a historic downtown streetscape created for a Main Street Community.

Downtown Stillwater

The St. Paul Pioneer Press has a great story in today’s edition, with reporter Mary Divine looking at the city’s new podcast walking tour. City planner Abbi Jo Wittman said of the series, “From the city’s standpoint, they’re designed as part of the public-education program. They are a tool to help residents and visitors of all ages. I’ve already been contacted by a local teacher who would like to use them as part of a Minnesota history class.”

And Divine picked out a quote that summarizes my philosophy. “Each town has its own very interesting story,” [Hoisington] said. “You just have to listen a little bit, and it becomes evident what makes that town special.”

Philadelphia’s Museum without Walls

In Philadelphia, the Association for Public Art has developed a “museum without walls” program to interpret its public art, and it is one of the best “street” tours in the country. The self-guided tours are available in several multiple platforms: You can call phone numbers listed with each sculpture, use a free smart phone app, download the audio to an MP3 player, or scan a QR code (known as a QR or quick response code) on the free “Museum Without Walls” map at locations around the city.

The tour stops are very well-done, with interesting content provided by historians, curators, sometimes the artist or a living relative. For the linked video, for example, they enlist author Kirk Savage, who wrote Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in 19th Century America, historian Harold Holzer, and Millard F. Rogers, Jr., author of Randolph Rogers: American Sculptor in Rome. All knowledgeable, entertaining, and passionate about the subject. Visual content is simple — photographs of the work of art itself.

As with our pastcasts, the three-to-five minute length seems optimal. What Philadelphia does well is provide a place on their website where you can upload your own pictures and add your own thoughts about the sculptures. There is also a set of lesson plans for 4th and 5th grade students. This project was funded by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Heritage Philadelphia Program, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.