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A new Heritage Project dives into U-M’s past

By James Tobin
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Editor’s Note: In September 2007 Michigan Today introduced U-M Heritage, a monthly installment by historian and U-M alum James Tobin. This month Tobin introduces the University of Michigan Heritage Project, a dedicated website with a new view into U-M’s past.

Something old, something new

Three years ago, in 2010, Kim Clarke and I thought the year 2017 seemed really close—uncomfortably close. Seven years didn’t seem like much time for the job we had in mind.

Kim is the University’s director of executive communications. I’m a historian. Both of us used to write for newspapers, and both of us like to discover things about the history of U-M. (We just do, OK? It’s like your brother-in-law collecting old video games.)

To Kim and me, 2017 meant “The Bicentennial”—the 200th year since the University was founded. (It was in Detroit, not Ann Arbor.) That would be one time when lots of people besides us would be thinking about U-M history. To us, it was a golden opportunity.

The idea was to create a website, but not an ordinary one. Not just something to look at on a desktop screen for a few minutes, but something to plunge into, like a good book or a good movie.

This was when the iPad was first catching on. It was pretty clear that by 2017 lots of people would be consuming digital content on tablets or something like them. We thought if we could make a really good site—truly interesting and beautiful to look at—people using their tablets on a quiet evening might lean back in their chairs and take a long, leisurely look at what we had to offer. And, of course, come back again to look for more.

But for a site like that to really work, it would have to do certain things.

First, it should show off some of the amazing treasures of U-M material stored at the Bentley Historical Library on North Campus. We knew that whenever people saw that stuff, their eyes got wide.

Next, the content should be organized into stories, not lists of facts and dates. And those stories should be mostly new stories about the University’s heritage, not just the same old stories that lots of U-M people know, or think they know—John F. Kennedy proposing the Peace Corps (sort of) at the Union; U-M doctors announcing the polio vaccine (except that’s not exactly what they did), etc.

Then we made a decision that some people said was crazy: We weren’t going to pay special attention to intercollegiate athletics. We figured that gets enough attention. The University’s core is the production and dissemination of knowledge. Our task would be to make that interesting. And how could it not be, if we did it well?

Something maize, something blue

We had nothing against feel-good nostalgia for sentimental alums. (I’m one of those myself.) But we thought people would get more out of stories that went deeper than that. We would tell stories about U-M’s contributions, but we weren’t going to pretend away its controversies, mistakes, and struggles.

After all, the most interesting thing about a great public university is the way it reflects our society’s biggest issues and worries. We’ll deal with the University’s new challenges more intelligently if we see ourselves in historical context—that is, if we see ourselves in a long continuum of trial and error, of debate and contention, of setbacks and progress.

Finally, we wanted the site to look great and work well. This led us to an extraordinary digital marketing agency called Enlighten, based in Ann Arbor. They heard what we wanted to do, put some very talented people to work, and came up with a design that dazzled us.

So now a website called “The University of Michigan Heritage Project” is up and running at heritage.umich.edu

The site hosts 10 multimedia stories so far—some shorter, some longer—and links to many other resources on U-M history. You can comment on the stories, post links to them on Twitter and Facebook, and join groups to share your own related experiences and historic photos.

I won’t tell you what the stories are here, because I’m hoping you’ll go to the site and find out for yourself.

Today 2017 is much closer than ever before, and the Heritage Project isn’t everything Kim and I hope it will be in the end. But it’s a beginning—a space where we’ll frame and hang more and more content. New stories will appear every month—with more than 50 by the bicentennial.

After that, we hope you’ll want the Heritage Project to be a permanent digital publication, evolving and improving as technology changes and we get better at the work of telling multimedia stories.

When I was doing graduate study in history at Michigan, I once heard Professor Sidney Fine say that all the American history ever written was a drop in the bucket compared to everything that actually had happened. The same thing could be said about the history of the University of Michigan. So, as we continue to populate the new Heritage Project with stories, I’ll continue to write monthly U-M Heritage stories here at Michigan Today. I hope you’ll enjoy them all.

James Tobin

James Tobin

JAMES TOBIN is an author and historian. His new book, The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency,was published by Simon & Schuster in November 2013. He contributes regularly to the U-M Heritage website, an online repository of historical stories and images about the University.

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