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History Kicks Ass – Reaching Out to the Public

September 16, 2013
Nadine

Nadine Korte – photo credit: Vivian Doan

I have been hooked on Nadine Korte’s History Kicks Ass! blog for quite a while.  She posts images of everything from the 1957 Valentine’s Day Western Union Telegraph from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to his wife Coretta Scott King to a 3000 year old Egyptian papyrus of an antelope and a lion playing a board game to a letter from JFK to his mother asking her to stop writing letters to Krushchev without his permission.  The posted images are accompanied by brief descriptions and links for context and source.  On quite a few occasions I have found myself going down the rabbit hole of the associated links.  One of the most engaging aspects of History Kicks Ass is the focus on the day-to-day life of the famous, infamous, and the unknown from prehistory to the present day.  The content of her blog is precisely what I find gets folks hooked on the need for presenting and preserving their own cultural heritage.  Nadine graciously responded to my interview questions about her blog.  Her vision for the role public history can play in our culture is exciting!  

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and why you started the History Kicks Ass! Blog?

I trained in history at McGill University, but after my Masters was completed I was discouraged by the gap that seemed to exist between academic history and the general public so I started teaching.  In the province of Quebec, we have a unique system of colleges called CEGEPs that students attend tuition-free in-between high school and university for two years.  In return, students have one year shaved off each of their high school and university programs.  It’s a unique system meant to promote and prepare students for higher education.  I’ve been teaching at Champlain College St. Lambert near Montreal, Quebec, Canada for almost a decade now and absolutely love it!  It is a real eye-opener when you teach a mandatory general history course to a student who knows they’ll never go into history.  I think we, as historians, tend to get in this cycle of promoting history only to people that love history.  It’s been so much fun over the past decade to teach history to those who may not like it and to try to convince them history is worthwhile.  I started the blog because I am always bugging my friends by posting history-related stuff on Facebook, so this was kind of a way to give them a break and ‘get the history out’ by posting it in its own, proper venue!  I just think history is awesome, but I understand that many people consider it the most boring subject in the world, so I wanted to use the blog as a way to convince people that it’s not that bad.

Where does the name of your blog History Kicks Ass! come from?

I’ve always firmly believed that history is one of the best ways to learn about humans, human nature, and the human condition!  I’m not saying everyone should be historians but that learning history can help everyone understand more about the life they’ll end up living.  Unfortunately, history is taught to most of us in such a nationalistic way it makes us forget that history can help us learn more about ourselves as a planet.  The longer I study history, the more I realize its potential to teach empathy.  You have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to study their history and it is almost impossible to do this without gaining a bit more understanding that humans, no matter the culture or time period, have something in common. The world needs a bit more compassion, empathy, and understanding – in my opinion – and studying history is a great solution.

Your posts cover everything from prehistoric jewelry to historic documents related to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  How do you decide what to post?  

To be honest, whatever interests me!  I love historical documents, images, and artefacts. Whenever I see something that interests me to the point where I would text it to someone is when I post about it!  The stuff I like the most is anything that reminds me that humans, no matter the time period or culture, have things in common.  For example, the photo I posted earlier this month of a baby in a walker at the turn of the century is one of my favorites, because my one-year old just learned to walk and it reminded me that the pride I’m feeling is what parents have experienced for thousands of years.

Do you have a favorite subject area?

Ancient Rome!  It’s what I teach and there are times when I think I live, eat, sleep, and breathe ancient history.  But one of the reasons I started this blog was to learn more about things I was not familiar with, so that is why you see so many posts about modern times.

Your posts reflect the wealth of materials that are now available online.  What are some of your favorite resources for these materials?

Anything that has good photos and comes from a trusted source.  I find that the majority of history on the internet is unsourced, unverified, and most of the time totally out of context.  Whenever I see a photo floating around Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc., I’m always wondering: Who took that photo?  What is that artifact made out of?  What year is that from?  And that stuff never accompanies the photo.  So I usually start my posts by looking through databases put together by academics, archivists, librarians, and governments.  My favorite – just because of its size and advanced image quality – is the Library of Congress.  Americans have invested so much money to put their history online and the results are really impressive!  By comparison, the Canadian government has very little digitized content available online.  We just commemorated the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and I was so disappointed by the lack of online presence for the celebrations.  I would love to be able to fix this!  My other favorite places to look for material are museum websites, my favorite being the British Museum, the Smithsonian, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Also, the McCord Museum here in Montreal has a great website that focuses on social history.

Some cultural heritage professionals continue to argue that given the amount of documentation and collections available online, folks are less inclined to visit museums, libraries, and archives.  How do you respond?  Do you visit museums?

I would say emphatically that there is no need to worry!  The people that take the time to go through museum websites are not the types of people who will be discouraged from going to museums.  Unfortunately, I think most museums assume that their website’s audience is the general public. Really the audience is the general public who are already interested in history.  Ask your friends how many times they have visited a museum website for something besides the opening hours and you will see what I mean. Asides from that, I cannot emphasize enough how I believe history belongs to people and should be a public good.  I understand that museums need and use the money they receive from ticket sales.  Yet that has to be balanced with the goal of museums: to educate the public about history, culture, and art. Museums can cost as much as $20 a ticket and for many this is not economically feasible. I am a well-educated professional and I still have trouble affording my tickets into museums and the trips to different cities in order to visit them.  For me, the online databases are a way for me to supplement the time, effort and money it takes to see all the museums on my bucket-list.

What post or type of post on History Kicks Ass! gets the biggest response?

Ancient Egypt always gets the most response, hands down!  As well as anything that is very relatable, for example hundred-year old photos that show situations that are still common today.  What discourages me are the types of posts that receive the least response; if I post about civil rights, discrimination, or inequality I hear crickets.  At first I was so upset because perhaps this meant people don’t think these things are important.  But then again, I think people just prefer positive posts.

What do you consider to be the biggest success of your blog to date?

I still cannot believe anyone reads it, to be honest, because I am so used to boring all of my friends and family with my ‘fun’ history facts!  If I made one person who does not really like history go “Hey, that’s interesting” then I am ecstatic.

What future directions to you intend to take the History Kicks Ass! blog?  Do you have any words of wisdom for others to enhance their blogging efforts?

I have no plans so far.  I’m just enjoying using the blog to learn more about what I love.  As for words of advice the only that I can offer to writers is to chose topics that you wish to learn about, not always ones that you know about.  This way, during those times when no one reads your post (and it will happen) at least you learned something from it.

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