Digital Public History: A Reflection

In HIST 694: Digital Public History at George Mason University, I have learned more about the work of doing public history online. The course is rooted in understanding the purpose and practice of public history and it explores methods for doing public history in digital spaces. I especially learned about the foundations of the field, thought about some new perspectives on audience, and developed strategies for measuring user experience.

 We started with Ron Grele’s essential 1981 article, “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of Public History?” which notes that “the study of history is in almost total collapse in the academy, while the popularity of history with the public is growing everywhere.”  Ah, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Similarly, John Kuo Wei Tchen observed a decade later that although “historical scholarship has become more insular, there has become a great increase in the public’s interest in historically based miniseries and films, theme parks, living history museums and the like.”[1] For nearly a half-century academic historians have grappled with the relevance of the field even as various publics have turned to history for hobby, entertainment, civics, and personal meaning.

Grele describes the emergence of public history as an academic discipline, a process he points out displaced many practitioners who had been doing public history for years. He argues that the emphasis on being a professional actually ignored the social justice movements that mattered to many history students and local practitioners in the 1960s and 1970s.  Public history in the academy too often sought out consensus narratives and did not initially seek broader roles for historians as activist citizens.[2]  Grele notes early on that historians need to avoid retelling consensus narratives that were complicit with “racism, war sexism, and class bias.”[3] This is an important starting point for the class because it provides a grounding in the early debates in the field and reminds us that not all public historians have come through PhD programs.

Since many of my fellow classmates did work focused on uncovering and correcting racism and discrimination. These projects reflect the public history starting point that historian Lara Leigh Keiland identifies in Clio’s Foot Soldiers. The grassroots movements of the 1960s and 1970s, she argues, were as important as the academy in developing what we now regard as public history.  Feminists, LGBT activists, and Black Panthers demanded histories that included them. They sought ownership of their narratives, and they established their own schools, museums, and newspapers to disseminate them.  Few entered academic Ph.D. programs, but they were nonetheless activist historians.[4]

Citizen scholars speak not only for themselves but they answer questions that various publics are interested in investigating. The course helped me think through various approaches to audience engagement.  Tchen describes the shift in museums toward an inquiry-driven approach rather than one driven by the current status of a collection.  Museum workers seek out collections, engaging with their communities to find and explore questions important to the community.  This does not mean abandoning scholarly perspectives but blending them with the interests and needs of local communities and identity groups. Tchen has held reunions and called for sources from the communities represented by the Museum of Chinese in America.[5]

As a practical matter, I was certainly aware of the importance of writing for a particular audience but had never used prototypes in order to keep the audience centered in my vision.  In HIST 694, I learned to develop particular character composites of my likely audience members.  These composites helped me think through what should be included in my digital public history project about the monuments and memorials at University of the Pacific.  As an academic and a faculty member, it is easy to get sidetracked by what other academics might say or how an administrator might respond.  Keeping my alumni prototypes handy helped me forefront the student experience as I was developing the story.

Audience-focused work is also advanced by assessing user experience. Craig MacDonald advances several characteristics of online museum collections that improve user experience.  These characteristics include: multisensory (they may use image and sound, for example), compelling storyline, mood-building (setting an appropriate tone), fun, and socially interactive.[6] MacDonald recommends a rubric for checking for these and other components important to the creator and their audience.  Other practitioners recommend user testing and participation in the review process as a scholar to ensure that we maintain a dialogue about methods in digital public history.[7] As I work with students in the fall to add to the Monuments and Memorials Exhibit, user testing and focus groups with students and faculty will be an important part of the website development.

The digital public history course has deepened my understanding of public history as a field. It has furthered my knowledge of how to do digital curation, narrative writing, and develop a content strategy consistent with my anticipated audience. And the community of learners has provided a supportive network with insightful critiques and very cool digital projects.

[1] Ronald Grele, “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 46; and  John Kuo Wei Tchen, “Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment,” In Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, edited by Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer, and Steven D. Lavine, 285-326 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 288.

[2] Grele, 46.

[3] Grele, 46.

[4] Kelland, Lara Leigh. Clio’s Foot Soldiers: Twentieth-century U.S. Social Movements and Collective Memory. United States: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018.

[5] Tchen, 289.

[6] MacDonald, Craig. “Assessing the user experience (UX) of online museum collections: Perspectives from design and museum professionals.” MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published February 1, 2015.

[7] Sharon Leon. “Reviewing is an Act of Leadership,” 2018.

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