Online Public History

I was excited to do the readings this week since they are discussing public history. Since I am hoping to go into public history I was curious to see what this week’s articles would say about how public history can be applied to the web, the challenges that entails, and how putting history online is inherent to the democratization of history.

Smith’s article does not ever discuss audience. While The Great Chicago Fire is designed for use by all age groups and educational levels, not all online public history needs to attempt to reach such a wide audience. Does all public history need to be serious scholarly work? What if you are only attempting to describe the Civil Rights Movement to elementary school children? I would think that would be inherently descriptive in nature, and wouldn’t fall under the category of “serious history.” I do agree with Smith’s definition of serious history – history that is original work based on primary source evidence, is aware of other research, and makes multiple points about the subject.

The two websites of The Great Chicago Fire are noticeably different at first glance. The first, from 1996, is obviously dated and it is difficult to maneuver through the site. The second, from 2011, is more aesthetically pleasing and is organized in a much more sensible fashion. I particularly liked the use of mapping in the Touring the Fire section.

Tebeau presents a great argument on the democratization of history in his article about the Cleveland Historical Project. Tebeau argues that oral history is particularly suited for digital public history since sound has a certain capacity to evoke a sense of place. Cleveland Historical is both a website and an app, and by listening to an oral history on a mobile device users are transported to the time and place in which that person lived. In creating the site, Tebeau utilized community crowdsourcing rather than the more orthodox approach to crowdsourcing, in which the community was trained in documentary techniques. This can ensure that the information produced and put online is both accurate and of high quality. Cleveland Historical is not only aimed at the entirety of the community but actively engages the community in producing and creating the work found on the site and app. This is democratized history – one that is created by the people who also serve as the audience. I would have liked to hear more about the technical side of creating this website and app. Apps do not have a long life span and need to be updated constantly. How did Tebeau and his team address this problem?

Wyman et. al. share some best practices for how the museum field can keep up with changing technology, and how that technology can be adapted and used in museum settings, whether that is the traditional setting or through an online presence. Museums have largely stepped up to the plate concerning their use and presence on social media. The National Archives, the Smithsonian, and the National Museum of American History all have some sort of social media presence and use that to engage with a wider audience. While the suggestions were helpful and interesting to think about, I started to consider how smaller museums and institutions would be able to implement them. Such places generally do not have large budgets. How are they able to cope with this move toward the digital? What challenges have they faced? What is their online presence like?

In Lindsay’s article, she discusses how museums, heritage institutions, and the like can effectively engage with virtual tourists. What struck me the most about this article was the importance of a unifying narrative. According to Lindsay, these places must develop an overarching narrative that shows the everyday life of the period and includes multiple voices of participants. This reminded me of when I went to the International Spy Museum. When first admitted, I was able to choose which spy I wanted to be. Should I be a 45-year-old banker from Madrid, traveling to London for “family reasons”? Such methods allow visitors to engage with the material on a more personal level, in addition to making them think about the information in a different way. The narrative is unified in terms of visitor experience – they identify with said narrative, experience that narrative visually and tactically, and think about the information from that person’s perspective. I believe the Holocaust Museum employs a similar tactic as the International Spy Museum.

Both Terras’ blog post and Sherratt’s article show how democratizing history, digitizing content, and placing information on the web can be used in ways contrary to the original intent. On her blog, Terras uses digitization’s “most wanted” to frame a discussion about shallow versus deep engagement with digital collections and how social media impacts digitized collections. Sherratt shows how visitors to Trove often use the content for social media purposes. This is another consequence of democratizing history. People will use the content for non-scholarly purposes (such as posting a funny picture of a dog with a pipe on Facebook), and will engage with the material in a different way than was intended. I do not think this is always a bad thing. When someone pulls a picture from a cultural heritage site solely to put it on a social media platform, this action increases the amount of visitors to the cultural heritage site, publicizes that content, and increases awareness of that institution. So while the intent is not in any way scholarly, it lets the content from that institution reach out and speak to a much wider audience. There are downfalls to democratizing history, but being snobbish about how sources are used is not one of them.

Week 8 readings

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