New Possibilities in Digital Public History

Digital technologies open new possibilities for public historians to connect to their audiences. Many rely on mobile devices since ninety percent of adults in the U.S. use such devices.

Location-based technologies that are location aware, such as LED/infrared triangulation, radio frequency, Bluetooth Low Energy and Beacons, Node Systems, and WiFi Slam, are being used by museums to introduce layers of interpretation and knowledge to visitors. Hybrid exhibitions deepen the visitor’s experience of the museum’s physical space. For example, the World War I: Love and Sorrow exhibit at the Melbourne Museum used Bluetooth technology and a series of beacons to immerse visitors in the personal stories of soldiers as they engage with the exhibit materials. The visitor downloads an app and then makes selections about which soldier they want to learn more about. The options in the mobile app and the exhibit details change as the viewer enters different parts of the museum.[1]  Such techniques allow public historians to emphasize their physical locations while they offer visitors a way to interact with the exhibits.                                                          

Public historians can also use new digital methods, especially geolocation and mobile devices, to create place-based stories. Because people access information and historic sites via their mobile phones and tablets, public historians are meeting them there. For example, the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University developed the Cleveland Historical Project in response to the mobile revolution.   Cleveland Historical is a mobile application and mobile-optimized website that “curate[s] the city through layers of interpretive storytelling, with a particular emphasis on multimedia and especially sound.” Its stories are geolocated and displayed on a map, which allows for easy location finding. “Geolocation allows the present physical context of the region to become part of the interpretive frame, transforming the landscape into a laboratory for informal learning.”[2] Oral histories are linked to the locations, creating a personal connection as the user takes their virtual or physical tour.

Another technology that can be used with mobile devices is podcasts.  Although podcasting, now in its third decade, may not be a “new technology,” its potential is only recently being realized by historians. And as the history podcast field grows, public historians are discovering new ways to reach audiences. As Jim McGrath of the National Council on Public History writes, “podcasting as a particular form of digital storytelling” is “legible and engaging to many of the audiences with which we hope to connect in our ongoing work.” They can make people interested in visiting sites and seeing artifacts and documents. “Podcasts present new opportunities for public historians to tell stories about cultural objects and their value, and in some contexts these audio narratives can be invitations for listeners to visit physical archives or exhibitions.” Because commuters use podcasts, historians can create podcasts that narrate the locations commuters are passing through. McGrath’s students did one for Providence, Rhode Island, that roasts the same length as a typical bus trip.[3]  These location-based podcasts might include perspectives from multiple groups with different perspectives on the historical changes under discussion.

Finally, museums are increasingly augmenting their visitors’ experiences with virtual reality exhibits. VR experiences are most effective when they provide visitors with another level of experience that conveys different information than the physical exhibit.  The Louvre in Paris has done this with the ‘Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass’ VR experience. The exhibit explores what Mona Lisa’s original setting would have looked like and allows viewers to see the painting up close and without the glass.  The material of the painting and frame, and how time has impacted the painting, allow museum visitors who only get thirty seconds in front of the painting to enjoy extended and learn about the painting from a curatorial perspective.[4] 

[1] T. Hart and J. Brownbill, “World War One: Love and Sorrow – A hybrid exhibition mobile experience,” In Museums and the Web Asia 2014, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds) (Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web, September 19, 2014).

[2] Mark Tebeau, “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” Oral History Review 40.1 (2013): 26

[3] Jim McGrath, “Podcasts and Public History,” History@Work, September 11, 2019.

[4] Charlotte Coates, “Virtual Reality is a big trend in museums, but what are the best examples of museums using VR?MuseumNext (July 31, 2021).

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