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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.

4 replies on “Public History: Blending Academia and Social Reform Through Access on Digital Platforms”

As a general history MA student, I had no judgmental feelings towards public history, but I truly didn’t understand what “public history” meant. Since I took Dr. Burns’s Intro to Public History class last semester, I think the field of public history is extremely important to the wider discipline of history. As we have often stated, our work truly does not make much of an impact on greater society unless we make an effort to connect with others. Public historians, who constantly make this effort through digital tools, should be our guides. I agree with you, I do not understand why some historians have looked down on this field. In reality, they should be taking note of how these professionals work to have their work reinstate with the public.

I feel that tradition becomes an issue within any field once it has been established. Indeed, the work that is involved to create a learning environment must have structure in order to not create a mess of various methods that have no standardization. However, the institutional tradition can become a toxic environment that actually prevents an open forum for needed reforms.

While the move to reform tradition can be subverted for trivial matters, the idea of “it has to be done this way” is a dangerous way of thinking when it comes to knowledge and information. By leaning too heavily on the traditional aspect, one can stop the evolution of ideas based on new findings and sabotage their own work by refusing to use new technologies in their field.

I agree with your comment about how digital history can be an easier medium to get the public involved with public history. If they have photographs or journals or letters, they can be added to an online archive, (like Omeka), for free, with relatively little training. As they have more input into what goes into the archive, they have more control over the story and be able to see things that outsiders may not, due to differences in viewpoint. The civil war, for example, was a massive undertaking that affected the country, but no one person or place was affected the same. Cities, in contrast to rural towns, had a different view of the war, as did slaveholders, slaves, poor farmers and artisans and gentry. A minor battle, comparatively speaking, could be the most crucial event in the history of the town.

I’ve been to a few museums that use digital tools to great effect, such as the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and Cleveland Museum of Art. While it depends on the museum’s focus and on its financial situation, there are quite a few that have adapted to modern technology and have implemented no-traditional ways to teach and entertain the public. While I honestly haven’t been to enough museums to say this for certain, I’ve found that museums that cater to a wide variety of clientele are often the best at adapting digital tools to reach their audience. This makes sense, I suppose. They have to create programs and tours that will entertain many different types of people. Some will have a fulfilling experience in a traditional museum setting, but others will learn best from iPhone tours, and informative touchscreens, and VR recreations. Museums need to with trained educators, tech experts, and the public to find ways to innovatively support their visitors. Perhaps there are web surveys and platforms that communicate with the general public to discover how to create the best museum environment.

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