Listening to an oral history of La Crosse could some day be as easy as punching a toll-free number into a cellphone.
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse students who sign up for a new history class this fall will gather and compile personal stories about geographic points in the city and make audio recordings available to passersby who happen upon those locales.
Course instructor Ariel Beaujot hopes the project, spanning two fall- and spring-semester classes, will bring out local stories that might otherwise go untold or unnoticed by residents -- stories about La Crosse more personal than the tale of Nathan Myrick and other well-worn entries in local lore.
“I want this work to reflect community,” Beaujot said, “and show us what our community is, and where it can go.”
Beaujot, an assistant professor in UW-L’s history department, said she has noticed a fascination with local architecture in La Crosse, but her project would allow the discussion to go beyond building design.
“We tell a lot of stories about architecture,” Beaujot said. “We don’t talk about our experience of that architecture.”
Signs posted around the city would alert people to the opportunity to dial a phone number to learn about events that happened right where they’re standing.
After the playback, callers could press a button and leave their own story. Messages left on the phone system would be reviewed by experts and could eventually be added to the bank of stories.
Beaujot wants the end result to be a historical narrative of the city.
“Ariel’s approach to teaching history has a very strong public community component,” said Annette Valeo, senior outreach specialist for UW-L’s Department of Continuing Education and Extension. “She’s teaching public history.”
Valeo’s department is teaming up with Beaujot to take the project beyond campus borders. Both the fall course, “Material Culture,” and the spring course, “Exhibition Design and Development,” will be open to local history buffs or curious members of the La Crosse community as well as UW-L students, though the fall class is a pre-requisite for the spring class.
The project is ripe for community involvement because of its local spin and because it can benefit K-12 teachers who need source material for community-based history lessons, Valeo said.
“Ariel’s course really has the potential to reach a wide variety of audiences,” Valeo said.
Beaujot’s inspiration for the project comes from an oral history movement that began in Canada. She modeled the idea after the digital art project [murmer], which began on the streets of Toronto.
Shawn Micallef was one of the Toronto artists who came up with the idea for [murmer]. The project was retired in 2013 after 10 years. The phone system is still operational, though “we’re not replacing the signs,” Micallef said.
Many people call it art, but the project also mixes in journalism, anthropology and history, said Micallef, who helped gather the first set of personal stories from Toronto residents when the project went live.
“It’s a very intimate experience,” Micallef said. “You have to establish a trust with the person.”
Like Beaujot, he and his partners wanted to highlight people’s stories, and not the ones about the major market sports teams or Toronto’s colonial history.
“Once you hear a story about a particular location, that location sort of lives in your imagination,” Micallef said. “Rather than being a nondescript state.”