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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?).

2 replies on “Audience and Information”

All history shapes the information presented to engage an audience. It is simply a part of doing history. Even in the best circumstances, the limits of the media in question, be it a book, a website, or a physical exhibit mean that not every aspect of a question can be covered.
However, while the concern about pandering to a particular audience is quite real, there is also an advantage to actually courting controversy, so long as you don’t do it too much. Making a controversial statement can in and of itself bring interest in a book, exhibit, or website.

There is certainly a lot to unpack here, so I will focus on your question about whether the attempt to understand your audience can go too far? As all great academics, I will answer with the infuriating “it depends.” For example, if you have two curators who are attempting to create an exhibit on the American revolution, but one is for children and one for adults, then they certainly should be mindful of their audience and what material format they could engage with. I think where we can take this mindfulness too far is when we underestimate our adult audiences. We may think “they do not care about this” or “this will make them too sad,” which could be true to an extent. But, I think it is our job to meet a middle ground of not hiding any material, but also making sure we offer resources to best engage with the material.

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