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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.