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Digital and Public History

Public History: Blending Academia and Social Reform Through Access on Digital Platforms

In the first sentence of the chapter “Pedagogies of Race: Digital Humanities in the Age of Ferguson,” in the book Debates in the Digital Humanities, written in 2016, the authors of the chapter, Amy Earhart and Toniesha Taylor reference a 2013 essay by Alexis Lothian and Amanda Phillips. The essay is entitled “Can Digital Humanities Mean Transformative Critique?” Lothian and Phillips pose the questions, “What would digital scholarship and the humanities disciplines be like if they centered around processes and possibilities of social and cultural transformation as well as institutional preservation? If they centered around questions of labor, race, gender, and justice at personal, local, and global scales?” Since the essay was published seven years ago, there has been surprisingly little change in the museum, public history, and history field. It is essential that museums, and others attempting to educate the public, connect the past to the present, and it is most impactful for them to focus on controversial issues that persist today, some of them remain unnoticed. However, they may need to be more blatant about the problems that are presently occurring as there has not been significant social change for the better. The type of public history work Lothian and Phillips are suggesting is similar to the original form of public history called applied history. There will always be those who hate in the world, but perhaps those who perpetuate the hate and prejudice unknowingly can be educated to understand the forces working against their neighbors.

The chapter “Pedagogies of Race: Digital Humanities in the Age of Ferguson” also mentions that the authors, Earhart and Taylor, want to have the communities involved help make the exhibits and tell their own stories. This goal is made more attainable by online open-source technology. This kind of public digital history can keep the public engaged, and will make it easier for historians in the future because the stories of people who did not live their lives in the public eye will already be recorded, in their own words.

Digital History, and open source technology, creates an opportunity for historians to share their research with the general public. Also, it is known that it is difficult to obtain jobs in academia, which may make digital history, public history, or public digital history a viable alternative to a career in academia. Part of the reason that historians started working in museums, initially owned, operated, and curated by the general public, was because they could not find work at colleges and universities. For those who oppose this new method of employment for historians who originally intended to join academia, this is a form of academia. While it is not the way that historians have practiced scholarship for centuries, this does not mean historians have put any less work and research into the final product. There is an East Asian philosophy, legalism, which states that we should not follow tradition for the sake of following tradition. One example of this is that our ancestors used to have a tradition of living in caves, but we do not do this anymore because we have houses.

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Digital and Public History

Sharing the Wealth

The readings for this week got me thinking about several complex issues in the field of public history today. One is the debate over whether or not museums and other public history institutions are meant to hold knowledge with authority and attract visitors based on this merit alone, instead of making historical practice and learning a collaborative effort. The other is the importance history can hold in constructing personal, family, regional, and national identities and narratives, and how public history is involved in that.

For example, in her article, “Playing Into the Past,” Brenda Trofanenko calls attention to the question of whether or not museums are focusing more on “experiential and performative aspects in exhibitions,” instead of individual learning and engagement with objects on display. This issue has many layers, but the one that sticks out to me is the fact that museums, as Trofanenko’s article later proves with high school students, adopt technology experimentally, focusing on impressing their audiences, yet they fail in that mission. The students in the article claimed that they did not experience a deeper level of learning because of the use of technology in the National Museum of American History. This was because the technology had a mostly aesthetic function, such as video and photo technology, instead of an interactive function.

If museums, especially the nation’s most well-known museums like the Smithsonian, subscribes to the idea of impressing an audience over sharing knowledge, that presents a problem for the field of history and public history. It is an ineffective use of digital tools for spreading historical knowledge, and it is based on the idea that museums are there to hoard knowledge and hand it out, as if it were granted to the visitor as a reward for visiting, instead of facilitating and cultivating individual growth and learning about history for visitors in an open, interactive way.

Visitors to museums often read a standard interpretation about an object, and then that is all they take away from it, passively moving through a line of more objects presented in the exact same way. This is not interactive enough to foster critical thinking about the objects and their place in history, or to establish connections between the objects, their history, and the modern identity of visitors. Also, it is one interpretation made by an authority, and depending on who interpreted it and what their biases are, could be contributing to the silencing of different narratives related to the object. For more info about this concept, I highly recommend checking out Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, by Michel-Rolph Trouillot.

One possible scenario of this might be interpreting an object created by an enslaved craftsman without including the enslaved individual’s story in the interpretation. For example, MESDA (The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts) in Winston-Salem, has several stoneware jars in their collection created by the enslaved craftsman David Drake, otherwise known as Dave. He inscribed his name into his work, as can be seen in the picture below, courtesy of the MESDA database website:

If those who interpret this object at the museum fail to include mention of and adequate attention to the story behind the name on the jar, they do a disservice to visitors and to the descendants of David, because they are silencing a story that deserves to be told and is historical truth. They are also doing a disservice to Dave himself, by ignoring his experience and talent. Not to mention, leaving out an explanation of the name on the jars leaves visitors with more questions than answers to begin with. Ultimately, this practice is also a way racism and discrimination can be perpetuated, even unintentionally. This is just one danger of museums hoarding knowledge and not promoting interactive interpretation and viewing of objects.

Another danger is that people don’t get to connect to the objects, and to the stories behind them. Therefore, connections to modern life and to current events are also not made in the minds of visitors. They need access to further information about objects, and inspiration to pursue that information, in order to truly carry something away from a museum visit. This is where digitization and the discussion of the project the students in Trofanenko’s article come in.

The students spent a long period looking at objects and exhibits in the National Museum of American History, specifically in the exhibit entitled “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War,” which was actually related to a History Channel documentary of the same name. Students were tasked with creating a project relating history to identity, and were overwhelmingly successful. They had to question the authority of the information at the museum and how that information could go further than the basic interpretations the museum provided. Their deeper learning involved making connections between the objects they saw and a larger American historical experience of warfare, and consequently warfare’s impact on American societal development, moving into modernity.

This is something the author stresses youth should be able to do in museums, and I agree, but I also think adults should be able to do this as well. This requires, in part, access to information outside of the museum’s basic interpretation of the object, such as online data. Museums are slowly gravitating toward this idea, but have not in the past, perpetuating their identity as hoarders of knowledge, instead of completing the mission to educate people about history and their objects they have collected through facilitating learning with a collaborative attitude, promoting individual visitor research about objects instead of taking on an attitude of finality of fact in their interpretations.

One museum that I feel does this well is MESDA, because they provide access to their objects on their online collections database, which is how I had access to the picture of Dave’s jar. Not only does this catalog the objects, it also provides all the necessary information that the museum staff possess about the object in order for viewers to take that information and try to connect it to other info and further research on the object. This is an open way to communicate information to audiences about objects, and gives them insight into the museum’s knowledge. Providing more online databases for museums like this could help audiences feel less like passive viewers and more like active learners.

This concept also relates to the article by Sheila Brennan, entitled “Public, First,” where she mentions the concept of shared authority in terms of digital humanities and public history, coined by oral historian Michael Frisch. Basically, reconsidering who has the right to be the holder of knowledge, and who can participate in creating and sharing knowledge about an object or exhibition. In “Pedagogies of Race: Digital Humanities in the Age of Ferguson,” by Amy E. Earnhart and Toniesha Taylor, this concept is taken further when students and members of the community were invited to participate in a project called “White Violence, Black Resistance,” in which they were to help document and interpret “historical moments of racial conflict” digitally.

To me, including people in projects like this is a museum or archive acting as facilitators of learning and making connections to history instead of hoarders of knowledge, and is an exciting possibility for engaging the public in an active, instead of a passive way with history, both digitally and in person. All Americans, not just historians, have the opportunity to see how their past connects to their present and how history has significance to their lives, which is ultimately what needs to happen to keep the field of public history, and history in general, alive.

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Digital and Public History

Audience and Information

Many of us in the class are public history majors. A recurring theme, no matter the class, is understanding your audience. I would like to pose a few questions to this theme. First, in attempting to understand an audience, is it possible that a curator is shaping their displayed collection, digital or physical, to simply bring in more visitors? If it is a digital collection, are they crafting their exhibits to get more views? By trying to understand your audience, is it possible that you are subconsciously finding ways to misconstrue information by worrying what your audience will think if you display what you think is the “truth?” This likely has more consequences in physical museums (due to overhead costs) than digital collections but there is likely to be a similar effect.

In Sheila Brennan’s essay, “Public, First,” Brennan discusses twentieth century public historians in the United States interpreting the public as “generalized and passive.” The errors in this way of thinking are obvious and have ethical implications. For those of us in Dr. Burns’ Material Culture class, this past week we read Is It Okay to Sell the Monet? edited by Julia Courtney. In the essays, there is discussion of the public domain, who owns the objects in a museum, and does a museum operate as a public trust? If a museum is a type of public trust, then viewing your public as generalized and passive is not meeting your goal as a museum. Clearly, there does need to be effort to understand your audience but is it possible to take this idea too far?

A digital source, say an Omeka collection, may not operate on those same fundamentals as a physical museum space. While you are creating an essentially public resource, your goals are likely to be drastically different. It is very possible your digital project can be accessed by the general public, but it is meant mostly to be accessed by other people in your field or as a pedagogical resource (like for undergraduate students).

It does feel like digital history and public history go together well. Digital humanities in general seem to have similar goals to that of a public historian. There are limitations, however. Stemming from the idea of trying to understand your audience, there is the debate and challenge over digitizing archival collections as covered in Why Don’t Archivists Digitize Everything? by the Archives @ Pama. As society continuously moves into the digital realm, the newer generations expect resources to be available digitally. Archives have recognized this and there is movement to move primary source documents to a digital collection. Having physical copies, and having to make a trip to an archive, is an incredibly burdensome task. As Dr. Sibaja mentioned, some are lucky enough to simply make a trip to your local state archive. Others, however, may have to make a long and grueling trip overseas to perform research.

Regardless of the distance traveled, there seems to be a recurring practice: finding a way to change relevant documents found to a digital medium. The standard practice, currently, seems to be taking pictures to amass a large digital archive for yourself. If everyone is doing that, then why not make the archive digital entirely? The Archives @ Pama make the argument of the sheer number of documents an archive has. The process would be enormous, not impossible, but would require immense amounts of time and money. Typically, as stated by Pama, this would require grants and typically a third party due to the small staff size of an archive. Again, there seems to be an issue of balance. It is probably not feasible to make everything digital. To meet that balance, documents that are heavily damaged and at great risk of being destroyed should probably be digitized. New documents that are donated should also likely be digitized to keep pace with trends in digitization. The majority of existing collections, however, should probably remain in physical form until they are worn from touch and exposure (and then move to a digital format).

As a side note, the Archives @ Pama article had a picture of a document that was scanned with a folded corner and mentioned how this hid potentially relevant information. That is just lazy work and I see no reason why the scan could not have been redone on the spot (maybe taking an additional 15 seconds?).

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Digital and Public History

Brokers of Knowledge

As I was reading this week, a line from Brenda Trofanenko’s chapter jumped out at me. “Instead, I suggest, there is a need for museums to consider themselves as brokers of knowledge,” she writes, “and that such knowledge can come through engagement with technology within and beyond the museum.” When you read that sentence out of context, it seems as though she is reinforcing how some museums currently operate. How many museums have you gone to where it feels like you’re being lectured to? I know I’ve been there. There are definitely still public history sites that see themselves as the defining authority on a topic, and they deign to provide the public with the singular truth about that topic.

But knowledge can have a few different meanings, can’t it? Sure, knowledge can mean understanding factual concepts. In that sense, even the most uppity of museums could be brokers of knowledge. But that’s not what Trofanenko’s talking about. As she writes later on, “Can our youth problem solve, communicate, or be creative and innovative by attending a history museum? I cannot say for certain.” This kind of knowledge goes much deeper than regurgitating facts. This kind of knowledge is about acquiring skills that can be applied to daily life.

We’ve discussed before in class what the role of digital history is within public history. Honestly, that seems to be the topic of discussion most weeks, or at least some variant of that topic. But I think Trofanenko’s chapter has helped me to find the words I’ve been looking for all semester. Digital history is (among other things) a tool for the public to learn critical thinking skills.

If a person is more engaged with something, they’re more likely to think critically about it. I want to use the George Washington site Taylor talked about in his post this week as an example. So, before we were under a Stay at Home order, my dad and I visited Washington’s Crossing State Park while I was home for spring break. The site covers not only the Continental Army’s crossing of the Delaware River, but also the fighting at Trenton and Princeton that followed. We were there for most of the day, and we saw several presentations and many artifacts and text panels in the two museums on site (one on the NJ side, one on the PA side). I thought harder and empathized more with Washington in ten minutes on the Be Washington page than I did in six hours at Washington’s Crossing. This shows the potential of digital history for public history spaces. By allowing visitors to immerse themselves and choose what they want to interact with, sites can create much more powerful connections than by just listing facts (or only providing one interpretation of those facts).

We’ve talked about museums or sites not wanting to cede authority to the public, and I recognize that what I’ve been talking about is the ultimate ceding of authority. It’s certainly a complex issue. Can sites let their interpretation of the past take a backseat to visitor engagement? Is visitor engagement really more important than making sure they get the “correct” version of past events? Should public history sites be brokers of knowledge, or temples of fact?

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Digital and Public History

Digital History in Public History

Digital history is a major part of the Public History field. As technology advances many museums and historic sites are taking advantage of the change. Many public history sites are moving to digital forms of interpretation to reach a wider audience who may not want to physically travel to a site as well as giving new ways for the public to interact with history. George Washington’s Mount Vernon has done this through their new virtual system called Be Washington. This allows users to act as if they were George Washington by choosing a solution from a situation related to Washington’s life. They can also seek council from other historical figures. One they choose the solution they deem the best one the system tells them if they were correct or not and then gives what Washington actually did. This is a more interactive way for the public to learn about Washington’s life without having to travel to Mount Vernon (though there is a large Be Washington set up in Mount Vernon’s Education Center). Also, many museums are putting up digital collections of their artifacts and documents to help historians research without having to be at the museum. A good example of a museum doing this is the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston Salem North, Carolina. MESDA has made much of its collections accessible through an online database. This grants researchers the ability to access to more information on the artifacts than can be given on a small museum display. With the current outbreak of COVID-19 many sites are turning to digital formats to keep people interested in what they do. Places like the USS Constitution and Sycamore Shoals State Historic Site are using Facebook Live to do virtual tours of their site. Other sites like Kings Mountain National Military Park and the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail are doing live question and answer sessions to interact with the public while the site is closed. These are just a few examples of how digital and public history are intertwined and will continue to intertwine as technology advances more and more.