As the world continues to deal with COVID-19, the digital world has become even more populated with new users. As both the classroom and workplace have been forced into a digital format in record time, the path back to “the old ways” of doing things seems to be laid to rest in practice. However, as the global pandemic eventually calms, the crusty Luddites that influence bureaucratic policy will want to return to the ways of old, including history. As historians, we are to look at the past and make rational decisions based on remaining evidence. The cinematic montage of a graduate student sitting in a dimly-lit archive with a mountain of books does not integrate well in a society that has a digital personal assistant with a universal library.
Indeed, as international travel has been halted to a standstill, the normal ways of scholarship have been deeply affected. The ability to see historical artifacts, locations, documents scattered across the world has been in some cases literally shutdown. While the vast majority of public institutions such as museums are closed, too many administrators cannot see the value of online archives and guided tours with live streams. Already prior to COVID-19, simple travel logistics prevented a large majority from visiting learning institutions like the Smithsonian. The economic hardships of flights, hotels, and various travel expenses are simply not available to many families.
With the very minimal initial investment, museums are able to utilize digital publishing platforms such as Omeka to provide a way to provide an exchange of information.1 The ability to create an attractive exhibit is not limited to the physical or digital realm. The ability to create a photo gallery with listed information is well within the means of an amateur. Many commercial businesses have turned to Youtube live streams to generate revenue due to COVID-19, while keeping the public informed of daily routines, along with “backstage” content. Why should the historian not exploit this model? In a world of “clicks are cash” in regards to monetization, museums are able to use views to allow funding while providing the opportunity to see things such as restorations of exhibits, visits to the museum’s archives, and Zoom video conferencing with specialists in the particular field of the exhibit.
The use of open-source software also allows institutions to avoid the pitfalls of paid content. The increasingly corporate-friendly takeover of previously non-profit organizations is one of the most destructive forces in digital history. The constant blast of consumer pop history and sanitization of historical events has led to bland morsels of history stuffed inside a thinly-veiled advertisement. For example, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has continuously has tried to display the Enola Gay as it is a piece of history. Instead of presenting the historical narrative, curators have folded time and again against perceived pressure on the Enola Gay exhibit. The mere threat of minor public discourse of a historical exhibit was outlandish but nevertheless has prevented a full-time exhibit of historical significance. By integrating digital tools, Smithsonian curators would be able to create a permanent digital installation. High-quality photographs from tail to propeller, video interviews incorporated into the exhibit, and data from the destruction and rebuilding of Hiroshima could be realized without the real threat of deranged protesters who would deny history. The Smithsonian was finally able to put the Enola Gay on permanent display at the Chantilly, VA in 2003 after nearly 70 years of debate2.
While the Smithsonian may represent the behemoth of historical interest, the history classroom represents a large untapped historical well that can benefit from digitization. With typical high school history classes consisting of primary lecture and reading in preparation for standardized testing, why should history teachers settle for the old ways? Timothy Compeau and Robert MacDougall developed Tecumseh Lies Here as a way to investigate historical research in a historical game3. The interaction of source material provides a much deeper appreciation of the history if one is emotionally invested in the subject. In keeping students engaged with the material on the War of 1812, Tecumseh Lies Here offers revolutionary ways to realize historical data into active learning and visualization. The model offered also allows for easy input of historical scenarios as a game can be tailored to incorporate the learning goals demanded by the institution, but only limited by the imagination and rule sets designed by the creators. The Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium’s The Oregon Trail, for example, highlighted the dangers American pioneers faced in a simple, yet effective way. Offering a way for the learner to experience history by seeing their family die of dysentery is more engaging than stating that waterborne disease was an issue for the pioneers.
The options available to historians today to express their historical scholarship are unlimited as more and more of the developing world are connecting digitally to exchange information and ideas. The numbers of the audience available are now not limited to the seating capacity of the lecture hall or bad weather conditions. Information will still be processed into multiple revision textbooks that adds little to no new information and keeps academic publishers in business. However, the ability to break the chains of privileged information can be fully realized by historians who embrace the digital world as closely as they embrace their field of study.
- Posner, Miriam, and Megan R. Brett. “Creating an Omeka Exhibit.” Programming Historian 5 (2016)
- Compeau, Timothy, and Robert MacDougall. “Tecumseh Returns: A History Game in Alternate Reality, Augmented Reality, and Reality.” In Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History, edited by Kevin Kee and Timothy Compeau, Online., Chapter 10. Digital Humanities: Digital Culture Books. Ann Abor: University of Michigan Press, 2019.