Surfing the Humanities

by Zachary Howard

Less than a decade has passed since the Chronicle of Higher Education decreed the Internet to be “a shallow and unreliable electronic repository of dirty pictures, inaccurate rumors, bad spelling and worse grammar, inhabited largely by people with no demonstrable social skills (4/11/97).” Given such an inauspicious beginning, at least in academic circles, it is surprising that the Internet has come so far so fast. Indeed the online world has proven the perfect medium for the lesser-known among us to have their voices heard.

Several recent Massachusetts humanities projects, ranging in scope from modest to ambitious, have utilized the Internet to bring to light some of the stories we didn’t learn in history class. Funded at some phase of their development by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, these sites bring unique opportunities for cultural tourism and public history right to our fingertips.

web pageMost people associate colonial-era witch trials with Salem; the story of Mary Parsons of Northampton is known by few. The Parsons family was one of the first to settle in the Western Massachusetts town, but their successes there led to neighbors’ jealousy and spite-fueled rumors of witchcraft and devil worship. Historic Northampton’s online exhibit and educational site (ccbit.cs.umass.edu/parsons/) provides detailed analysis of the life and times of Goody Parsons with primary source documents, courtroom analysis, and resources for teachers and students. The evidence that has survived is presented here in an engaging and insightful manner, weaving a vivid picture of Puritan values and colonial superstition.

web pageThe Royall House in Medford was once the home of Isaac Royall, Jr., the son and heir of a wealthy slave trader. Although he had divided loyalties, his ties to the Tory elite compelled him and his family to flee to Nova Scotia as the American Revolution drew near. The Royall House Association (www.royallhouse.org) has crafted an easily navigable website, meticulously detailing the history of the house and its residents—both slave and free. The house is part of the Tory Trail, a group of historic sites that tell the story of English loyalists during the Revolution, a perspective history often overlooks. The site also features the only surviving slave quarters in the North.

web pageUsing the Internet to combine historical themes with present-day activities, Roads to History www.roadstohistory.org) presents six itineraries for exploring Greater Boston’s expansive history. Historic sites are organized into “trails” based around themes such as politics, innovation, and women’s history, providing users with comprehensive lessons in key aspects of state history. The importance of each site on the trail is summarized and presented with information such as hours and admission prices. The trails invariably lead visitors off the beaten track, both geographically and historically, with destinations ranging from colonial estates to modern-day government archives to college campus art museums.

web pageIn 1992, Eugenia Kaledin and other residents of Lexington formed the Lexington Oral History Project to preserve the memory of an important event that a mere 20 years had all but erased. The LOHP’s work led to the prizewinning film Unfinished Symphony, which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. When an exhibit on the 1971 antiwar protests and subsequent arrests on Lexington’s Battle Green was indefinitely postponed during the Persian Gulf War, the exhibit evolved into an online compendium of information on the events that rocked Lexington on Memorial Day weekend, 1971. The Democracy & Dissent project (www.lexingtonbattlegreen1971.com/) catalogues 66 video interviews with veterans, onlookers, clergy, and town politicians. Also noteworthy are transcripts of the Board of Selectmen’s meetings surrounding the Memorial Day weekend protests.

It’s easy to imagine any one of the fascinating stories above relegated to the footnotes and sidebars of modern school books. But by utilizing the full capacity of the Internet to explore the backroads of any (and nearly every) subject, humanities projects such as these succeed at putting history and culture back into the fore of the public sphere. While the Internet still has its share of rooms we’d rather not explore, these sites clearly show that history works best with all its doors open.


©2005 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2005