Voices of the Colorado Plateau
http://archive.li.suu.edu/voices/Created by Cline Library at the University of Northern Arizona and partners, and maintained by Southern Utah University.
Reviewed Dec. 8, 2002–Jan. 6, 2003.
A Web site billing itself as a “multimedia museum exhibit,” Voices of the Colorado Plateau gathers together twenty-two oral histories from eight historical institutions in the Four Corners region. The interviewees run the gamut from Anglo schoolteachers to Hopi fire fighters to urban administrators to lumberjacks to whitewater adventurers. The western landscape, the site’s designers imply, is the commonality that unites this diverse group. The site’s graphics (sandstone cliffs basking in the soft morning light) and ambient sounds (a trickle of river water) drive the point home. The Colorado Plateau, a region shaped by the action of the Colorado River, gives the voices collected in the exhibit their coherence and significance.
Academics may want to argue with this place-driven theory of historical relevance, but Voices of the Colorado Plateau is not really a Web site for academics. High school and college history students will enjoy and benefit from the exhibit most. From the start page, students can choose to visit one of three sections: People, Places, or Topics. After selecting a person or topic from a list or clicking on a location on an interactive map, they can choose among audio clips taken from the interviews or multimedia presentations that combine photographs and music with snippets from the interviews. These multimedia clips are impressive, akin emotionally to listening to a grandparent tell stories about the olden days. Yet, while the presentations may pique students’ interest in the history of the region, teachers need to handle these multimedia extravaganzas with care. The clips do not explain themselves. Indeed, many of the stories dramatized in photographs and music seem chosen for their entertainment value rather than their historical import. Why, for example, do site visitors need to know about college coeds descending on the Hispanic neighborhood in Flagstaff, Arizona, to pilfer outhouses for their annual homecoming bonfire? Does the anecdote reflect the complex overlay of town/ gown, racial, class, and ethnic tensions? Who knows? The Web site tries to place its colorful stories in their historical contexts, but the brief essays that accompany the clips often leave many questions unanswered. Fortunately, the site contains a resource that might help reveal the hidden meanings of behaviors such as privy theft.
The site has an archive that includes recordings and transcripts of the twenty-two interviews that underpin the exhibit. This archive is far from perfect. Despite several attempts, this reviewer failed to access two of the interviews, and a number of the recordings have not been transcribed, which makes them tougher to examine in depth. Even with those drawbacks, however, the archive offers teachers a tool for contextualizing the flashy segments that will draw their students’ attention first. The transcriptions also provide a starting point for students researching such western topics as tourism, the timber industry, Mexican immigration, and recent Native American history as well as a demonstration of the pitfalls and rewards of conducting oral histories.
Teachers need to help students connect the site’s engaging personal narratives to the larger historical contexts that shaped them. If they do this work, Voices of the Colorado Plateau could provide an engaging introduction to the region and its inhabitants.
Jon T. Coleman
New Haven, Connecticut