Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund – Collaborative Planning Grant
Christopher Wells (Macalester)
George Vrtis (Carleton)
Jerald Dosch (Macalester)
Louisa Bradtmiller (Macalester)
Birgit Muehlenhaus (Macalester)
Lesley Kadish (MHS)
Background and Overview
In 2008-09, Macalester College and MHS, supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, established a collaboration focused on developing environmental history resources and curricula. In 2010-11, we built on this burgeoning partnership with this ACHF-funded planning grant, in which we requested funds to:
Review content for digitization and curriculum potential; and
Develop an implementation plan.
Ultimately, all five items in this planning grant have been designed to help launch a broader project, which will seek additional funding for three interrelated projects:
An academic conference on the environmental history of the Twin Cities during the Summer of 2012, in which scholars from around the country will present original research on the environmental history of the Twin Cities;
An edited volume of essays, comprising revised and expanded versions of the research papers presented at the conference, including a chapter on the place-specific case study funded in this planning grant.
A suite of “companion” resources to the edited volume that makes its scholarship more broadly accessible, extending its reach by developing new 4-12 curricula and creating an extensive on-line collection of the most important historical documents that the authors drew upon to craft their essays.
In service to this larger vision, the work for this planning grant proceeded on two parallel tracks. In the first track, two historians and one research intern conducted a broad overview of urban environmental history resources. This work generated the knowledge essential to hosting a successful academic conference on Twin Cities environmental history, which in turn will support work on the edited volume and its companion resources. In the second track, two scientists, two research interns, and students in the Environmental Studies Senior Seminar launched a place-specific case study of Macalester College’s Katharine Ordway Natural History Study Area (KONHSA or Ordway) , a 300-acre urban field station located on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, 17 miles from campus.
Along the first track, the first student research intern worked together with the two environmental historians on a pair of closely related projects:
Conducting a wide-angle survey assessing the “state of the field” of urban environmental history generally and Twin Cities environmental history in particular; and
Identifying, assessing, and cataloging relevant archival sources held by the Minnesota Historical Society, with an eye toward their utility for potential new research and for possible digitization and curriculum development.
Work on the first point produced the Bibliography of Urban Environmental History, in which we compiled more than three hundred major scholarly publications in the field of urban environmental history generally, along with roughly five hundred publications on subjects that are specific to the environmental history of the Twin Cities. The first section of the bibliography reveals the areas within the field of urban environmental history that are producing cutting-edge research, and the second section highlights the relative strengths, weaknesses, and gaps in the existing research on Twin Cities environmental history. Both furnish essential background information on the state of the field, without which it would be impossible to host a successful conference.
Work on the second point produced the Database of Archival Sources, in which we assembled and catalogued the roughly seventy-five manuscript collections in the MHS archives that have significant content on Twin Cities environmental history topics. In addition to bringing together all of these resources in a consolidated database on a focused range of subjects, the database also includes digital copies of finding aids for each manuscript collection in the database, including many that are otherwise only available in hard copy in the MHS reading room. These digital finding aids will dramatically enhance the quality of information available to the researchers who become involved in the conference and book projects, especially those who do not reside in the Twin Cities. The database also represents a significant first step toward identifying archival holdings that may be ripe for future digitization and curriculum development related to the planned edited volume.
The Bibliography of Urban Environmental History has already demonstrated its potential for shaping college-level curriculum development in two courses, both taught by Prof. Wells. He taught the first of these for the first time in Spring ’11, drawing heavily on the Bibliography of Urban Environmental History to assemble the course syllabus. The course description appears in the Macalester catalog as follows:
ENVI 194: Three Rivers Environmental History: What might an environmental history of the Twin Cities look like? Although the field of environmental history has grown by leaps and bounds over the last three decades, scholarship focusing on the environmental history of the Twin Cities, Minnesota remains underdeveloped. Mixing the history of local subjects with cutting-edge scholarship that focuses on parallel developments in other parts of the country, this course will provide an introduction to the field of urban environmental history using the Twin Cities—and the three major rivers in its orbit, the Mississippi, Minnesota, and St. Croix—as a detailed local case study
Work on the bibliography also inspired a complete overhaul of a second course, ENVI 340: U.S. Urban Environmental History, so that it is now reoriented around new scholarship published in the last several years.
Conducting a Place-Specific Case Study
Along the second parallel track of work on this planning grant, and in order to complement the project’s broad focus on the history of the Twin Cities environment, we also included a place-based pilot project focused on Macalester College’s Ordway field station, established in 1967 with the help of a major gift from Katharine Ordway. This pilot demonstrates on a small scale how the availability of carefully identified historical materials and geo-databases can advance projects in urban environmental history based in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Ordway is worthy of investigation, both for its incredibly diverse natural features and its location in an urban setting subject to myriad ecological and environmental changes as land uses evolve due to suburban sprawl. Currently the object of a preliminary strategic planning effort funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Ordway prompts basic but complex questions related to the restoration of its natural features, the possible biological impacts of introduced species that were not historically present, and its use as a teaching and research site in urban environmental processes. The historical aspect of this inquiry is essential. The general intent to conduct ecological restoration at Ordway must be informed by a solid understanding of the area's cultural and environmental history. Without this historical background, the question of “restore to which phase of its natural history?” cannot be answered satisfactorily.
This grant enabled us to make significant progress on a number of fronts using historical resources located at the MHS library, Dakota County’s government offices, several administrative offices and the library archive at Macalester College, and elsewhere. In conjunction with staff and students assigned to Macalester’s Ordway site in Inver Grove Heights, preliminary databases containing historical, pictorial, ecological and geographical information were assembled by Macalester undergraduate researchers. This work largely began with collections available at the Minnesota Historical Society but quickly expanded to several other sites. In addition to demonstrating the value of organizing and making accessible an array of historical and scientific data, this effort will support strategic planning and curriculum development for Ordway, now underway at Macalester.
Having conducted a thorough search of available materials, we have created the following:
A physical archive of original Ordway materials at Macalester College’s DeWitt Wallace Library, including an updated and expanded Ordway web site (http://www.macalester.edu/ordway/), an Ordway-specific wiki site (https://sites.google.com/a/macalester.edu/ordwipedia/), two Google Docs, and a Google site dedicated to digital materials.
An Ordway Collections Project Plan, developed in coordination with Macalester’s archivist and other library staff, which calls for collecting and providing digital materials suitable for general public access using DigitalCommons and more sensitive digital materials suitable for restricted access using CONTENTSdm. As part of this plan we have created an Ordway-specific finding aid in a searchable Google Doc spreadsheet. The finding aid currently contains over 280 specific entries and continues to grow.
In a pilot effort to make historical environmental research data more easily accessible, we have also undertaken the digitization of historical bird banding data from the work of Richard Christman, Ordway’s resident naturalist from 1970 to 1985. Over 13,300 specific entries from his hand written records of birds captured, measured, banded and released at Ordway have so far been transcribed into a digital format which can now be easily searched, sorted and manipulated for research purposes. This growing database holds great promise for researchers interested in examining how urban expansion has affected avian populations and communities at Ordway.
In addition to the online finding aid and digitized historical biological records, the first student research intern helped develop an Ordway Google site which will serve as a repository for background materials, aerial photographs, pre-Macalester era photographs, and Macalester era photographs (we have discovered over 200 digital photographs,13 albums of physical photos, and numerous loose photographs so far). He also developed a timeline covering the history of the Ordway site in the broader context of Twin Cities growth, development, and environmental change.
A second student research intern initiated work on a geo-database of geo-tagged photographs, archival documents and maps basic to the urban environmental history of the Twin Cities with an emphasis on Ordway, Inver Grove Heights, and the surrounding area (e.g. Grey Cloud Island). She researched local history of the Ordway/Inver Grove Heights area, copying some relevant materials, digitizing others, and identifying still others for future digitization. Her work included local American Indian and European leaders in the development of areas near Ordway as well as more modern developments that may have influenced the area around the Ordway property. She scanned all copied materials and added them to the website. In addition, she created GIS reference files for locations where she had found historic information (e.g. Grey Cloud Island) and created an accompanying reference document explaining what materials were found for each site. This student also collected historic and recent maps of the Ordway area and Inver Grove Heights and had them digitized. Finally, she collected materials related to broader environmental history of the Twin Cities (maps, photos, documents) and had many of them digitized.
In addition to the work of the two student research interns, work on the Ordway case study benefitted greatly by serving as the focus for the spring 2011 Environmental Studies course ENVI-488: Senior Seminar. With Louisa Bradtmiller (a climatologist) as their professor, Jerald Dosch (an ecologist) as the key class consultant, and several Macalester staff members providing expert advice and services, the 12 students spent the semester working on a multipronged project they dubbed Ordway 2.0: Reinvigorating Macalester’s Connection to Our Other Campus. The students’ efforts were key in the design of two new logos, the redesign and early launch of the updated official website (http://www.macalester.edu/ordway/), the creation of a promotional bookmark that will be distributed to Macalester students in the fall of 2011, the creation of a flier for the annual Macalester alumni weekend, the design and installation of an on-site welcome kiosk, and designs for new interpretive signs. Students in this course also updated a historical Ordway trail guide and expanded it to incorporate smartphone compatible quick response (QR) codes, physical trail signs, a new digital trail map, and a companion wiki website (Ordwipedia, https://sites.google.com/a/macalester.edu/ordwipedia/). Dosch then used this information to update and print hard copies of further modified versions of the trail guide and map that are now available for public use at the new Ordway welcome kiosk. In late April the students presented their work at Macalester’s EnviroThursday public lecture series.
The Ordway pilot project had an immediate impact as an education experience for both the Macalester students involved in the senior seminar course and those hired to work as research interns on this project. Work related to this project will continue at least throughout the summer of 2011 and the 2011-12 academic year. Macalester students, faculty, staff and a recent graduate, will continue to build the historical archives and digital collections. This project will also inform a new environmental education course, ENVI 392: Environmental Education in Theory and Practice, in which Macalester College students will teach K-5 children from Pine Bend Elementary School at Ordway, which will be offered for the first time in Fall 2011. The school is located just down the road from the site.
The projects launched by this planning grant at Ordway will endure and expand for many years. The preliminary environmental survey of the Ordway site will help to guide its strategic direction and educational, research and civic engagement activities. It will also serve as a model of the possibilities that this planning grant embodies for the collaboration of historians and scientists (biologists, geologists, archaeologists and others).
Developing an Implementation Plan
Work is currently underway on a grant application to fund the conference, book, and companion materials on Twin Cities environmental history. The bibliography and database completed as part of this planning grant create the knowledge necessary to host a successful conference, and to steer researchers toward vital subjects and rich untapped archival collections at the Minnesota Historical Society. They also demonstrate that ample resources exist to support our related plans for document digitization and curriculum development. Work at Ordway shows the potential of site-specific inquiry to illuminate broader aspects of Twin Cities environmental change, as well as its potential significance for historical research, education, and public history.