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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.

2 replies on “Digital History in Public History”

I agree, there is a large overlap between the fields of Digital history and Public history. My internship for this summer is likely moving to an online format where I work on the Public Digital history of the site’s online activities. I do not believe Digital history is a subgroup of Public history though. Digital history is history that is presented online, while Public history keeps the audience in mind when presenting material. The main differences being that Digital history is available to the public, and Public history is specifically designed for the public. The two fields’ overlap in the form of Public Digital history. I had not heard about Be Washington. I am very interested in the potential of games, both online and in museums to educate the public, young and old.

I admit, I’ve recently wondered often what type of lasting impact COVID-19 will have on the world. If there is one word the everyone keeps using to describe the virus (repeatedly and to the point of annoyance) it’s “unprecedented.” To survive an unprecedented situation, everyone needs to adapt and change. I’ve watched my father, a high school principal, attempt to lead his teachers through online teaching, and my brother, a worker at a grocery store, explain the methods his manager is employing to keep up with demand, and my 80-year-old grandparents embrace social media for the first time to keep in contact. What will the world be like after the virus is under control? Will people across the nation have an increased understanding of technology? Will schools, businesses, and public programs continue to to use digital means to reach people.

It’s just rather fascinating to consider. And you’re definitely right, museums where already implements technology and creating digital archives for quite a few years already. Visitors have the opportunity to enjoy iPhone museum tours, and informative touchscreens, and VR recreations of buildings. Museums have been employing trained educators, tech experts, and public surveys to find ways to innovatively support their visitors. If major museums are already doing this, perhaps COVID-19 will hypercharge the process? At the very least, it’s an interesting idea.

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