How are digital tools reshaping the field of history?
To me, the answer to this questions has been apparent to me throughout the entire semester as I have participated in a graduate level digital history class. Digital tools are reshaping history by finally connecting the general public to real, honest history in a meaningful way, allowing them to make it personal and engage with it directly. They become knowledge-holders, and are on the inside instead of the outside of the circle.
In Brenda Trofanenko’s article, “Playing Into the Past,” the author argues that public history museums have always been a place of education for the public, and have been accepted and respected because of this.1 However, Trofanenko goes on to explain that this has led to a specific narrative of American history to be presented to the public.
If this is true, then digital tools are one way to counteract this and make history more realistic, more accessible, and more personal for the average modern museum goer or high school student. Trofanenko claims that using digital technologies to make history “playful” can help engage audiences more deeply than traditional methods of presenting exhibits in museums, and can consequently counteract the privileged and oversimplified interpretations in museums of objects, which cast the museum as a “knowledge holder” and everyone else as needing to beg for access to that knowledge.2
They can make history in museums draw more people in, and spark more curiosity and inspiration in visitors to explore historical ideas and topics, instead of taking a simple one or two sentence interpretation of a dress such as the following, made in 1750 by a Native American craftswoman at face value, because the object contains so much more significance and a longer story than that; “Cherokee ceremonial dress, Western North Carolina, circa 1750.”
By causing a public audience to want to know more and to realize that there is more to an object in an exhibit than what the museum says, therefore not seeing the museum as the end all be all of historical knowledge, voices that have been silenced throughout history can be given a chance to speak, and public audiences are also able to learn the true history of their country more easily, because they will seek it out, counteracting harmful narratives of the past. Consequently, this deeper engagement and curiosity causes them to make more personal connections to history and to how it has impacted their present society.
Another example is the augmented reality game, Tecumseh Lies Here, created by public history professors Timothy Compeau and Robert MacDougall. This game captivated the attention of their students, and led them to completely immerse themselves in learning about the subject and trying to find answers to the various mysteries in the game.
While the authors admit that this costs a lot of time and money, it is important for consideration in both schools and museums, because it makes history personal. The students learned way more about the topic than they could have from a textbook, and in a way that did not relegate history to the title of “boring,” and also did not place history on a pedestal of knowledge and superiority that no common person could touch.
The authors claimed that they wanted to have students see what it was like to do history from the bottom up, starting with “fragmentary remains” of the past and working up to find the answers. The students went through this process, and then came out with a stronger knowledge. However, this game and its success also proves that anyone can do history.3
Implementing this in a museum setting, with the right money and help, could cause the public to feel like they are part of the story of history, see its importance, connect with it, and carry on learning about it because of their experience. If the public became as invested in a research project as these students did, that would be a huge change from the traditional mode of historical research. This tool changes history because it gets the public involved in the process of history, debunking the myth that historians are the only ones who know anything.
My last example is that digitization of historical archives and collections, and digital tools that aid in researching topics online, along with online historical projects specifically catered to an audience,4 create a way for the average person to pursue a historical interest, become involved in historical practice, and learn history, without leaving their home. They do not have to pay to go to the museum or to a park, and they don’t have to drive to a certain place or attend university classes. They can engage on their couch.
For instance, visualization and spatial history projects like the one I had to do for this class, and this one from Stanford University,5 allow those interested in geography and where history has taken place to look over the projects from their computer, learn something new, be inspired, research, and carry on their new knowledge to the next person and to their next interaction with history, all without going anywhere.
Essentially, these tools do much the same thing as a museum, but they require less work on the part of the audience, which is a big change from normal historical practice. It also changes history because it makes it easier for audiences to access topics and research related to their interests quickly from home, meaning they have more time to engage with it and they are personally invested because they choose what to look at and what they want to research further, and what links to follow. People do not have to depend on historians to tell them in a book or at a museum about something. They can seek out answers for themselves.
- Brenda Trofanenko, “Playing Into the Past: Reconsidering the Educational Promise of Public History Exhibits,” in Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology, edited by Kevin Kee (Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan UP, 2014): 257-269.
- Timothy Compeau and Robert MacDougall, “Tecumseh Returns: A History Game in Alternate Reality, Augmented Reality, and Reality,” in Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History, edited by Kevin Kee and Timothy Compeau (Ann Arbor, MI, Michigan UP: 2019): 176-180.
- Sheila A. Brennan, “Public, First,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, first edition, chapter 32 (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
- Richard White, “What Is Spatial History?” in the Spatial History Project (Stanford University Spatial History Lab, working paper, February 1, 2010).