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?