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.

5 replies on “Sharing the Wealth”

Your pro-interactivity argument in the context of museums was very compelling! I like how you discussed the implications of noninteractive and factual driven museums.

Museums have always seemed like these authorities of historical knowledge to me. For larger ones, like the Smithsonian- it seemed reasonable that the exhibits would feature quantity over quality. A large range of exhibits is good for marketing and covers a wide-range of interests, yielding a larger audience.

But you’re right when you discuss how this can unintentionally perpetuate racism and discrimination. Your discussion on the jar made me realize how single-sided exhibit interpretations are. Even if captions and interpretations consist of facts, that doesn’t necessarily mean they captured the history behind the exhibit. And that’s detrimental to the likelihood any audience connection will be made, and therefore critical thinking. Luckily with the web and technology, museums are no longer limited to small interpretations on plaques.

Thank you for writing this blog post, it really helped me fully comprehend why interactivity is a critical thing. It’s not just about accessibility and audience interest. Interactivity promotes holistic information that a small exhibit plaque cannot provide- and in turn: historical critical thinking.

There are however limits to interactivity. A museum, and archival facilities more generally, have their primary role as the preservation of historical artifacts, be that pottery, papers, or furniture. Creating interactivity, for example through digitization, or the creation of activities to be done alongside the exhibit is a significant ongoing cost towards the archival facility. For some facilities, and some exhibits, this is certainly worth it, however, for others, simply presenting the object is the best they can do.

Many museums can be caught in the trap of exclusive exhibits that curators bank on drawing the public into their museum. While this is a perfectly normal thought process, it can lead to a proverbial wall built around the exhibit. By refusing to lend out items to other museums or refusing to update the collection into the digital world, museums are working against their own interests.

By locking down the collection, the museum in effect, are creating a major paywall in front of their doors. With a new exhibit, the museum only creates a market that caters to the geographical location. This locks out the vast majority of interested persons whom may can not afford round-trip airfare across the country to visit a museum. By lending out artifacts and working with other museums, curators can reach a much wider audience while marketing other materials from the academic community (ie books, souvenirs) for economic incentive. One of the best examples I can think of would be the King Tut World Tour that happened in the 1980s and which is currently shutdown by COVID-19.

I really appreciated how you connected history with identity. Too often, it seems that historical figures become the stuff of legend, for better or worse. They were not really trying to be remembered by history, but live their lives as best they could. We do not know how the figures of today will be received, and how that interpretation will change over time.
Museums show people these amazing objects, and while they are nice, they are very much removed from a larger context. Was that someone’s favorite chair? Was it there to show off the family’s wealth? Was it handmade by a relative? Things like that are questions that should be given more thought to, from both the museum and the visitors.

Elizabeth, your take is very great and is so reminiscent of our Intro to Public History course! I love that you have talked about many complexities and struggles that we deal with in the field of public history. As you mentioned, I think that it is important to make sure that if exhibits are interactive, then the technology doesn’t take away from the learning.

Also, you know how I feel about silencing! Thank you so much for talking about Dave, because the stories of those purposefully silenced by history need to be highlighted as well!

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