Audience and Content in Public History Projects

In the last several decades, public historians have theorized the importance of sharing authority with community members to develop exhibits that represent or serve them. Public historian John Kuo Wei Tchen describes creating a “dialogic museum” at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in the 1990s as a process that developed less from theory than from necessity. The museum historians worked closely with the New York community to create collections when they lacked primary sources and artifacts. Tchen supports an inquiry-driven approach through which historians and community members work together to establish the research questions that exhibits address.  He and his team have identified as especially helpful the following in enabling the museum to serve as a “space of self-discovery”: the creation of exhibits that resonate with people’s personal experiences, help young people understand their parents and grandparents, and offer a “touchstone” against which the present and future can be interpreted. 

The first and last attributes are useful to me as I plan a digital public history exhibit designed to connect members of my university committee to the campus.  My interviews with alumni have reinforced the notion that they would be most interested in projects that reflect their experiences on campus and deepen their knowledge about groups that they belong to or were affiliated with in their collegiate years. In addition, assessing the experiences of different groups on campus in the 20th century allows us to take stock regarding current topics such as diversity, equity, and inclusion. Ronald Grele urges in his famous 1981 article that public history could do much more to do what local history at its best had always done well: “help people write, create, and understand their own history.” This work, he argues, is where history remains popular and thrives.  With professional historians, publics can begin to contextualize those pasts and see them as part of past and future social movements. 

Audience and medium matter as much as content.  In 2018, the Digital Delta Summer Fellowship at the University of the Pacific (a team of faculty, staff, and students) created a virtual reality game featuring Stockton’s Little Manila, which had been the largest community of Filipinos outside of the Philippines in the 1930s and 1940s.  We collaborated on the project with Little Manila Rising (LMR), an advocacy organization in Stockton, and the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS).  Oral history interviews provided information for the content, LMR members narrated the video game and offered insight into what sites in the community warranted study. As a result, the sounds and sights of the neighborhood in the 1930s and 1940s came to life, and we gathered descriptions of the buildings and photographs that the programming team used to do modeling. (See a demo of the VR game at

Screen shot of the VR Lafayette Lunch Counter where Filipino immigrants collected their mail, met friends and family, and networked.

The VR game went on display at the FAHNS museum downtown in the fall of 2108 to everyone’s excitement, but few people actually wanted to put on the headsets.  For the specific users–retired, Filipino, Stockton residents–a documentary or standard HTML game probably would have been used more.  In addition, when we rolled the game out to local middle schools to complement the curriculum’s coverage of the history of immigration in California, teachers noted that their public schools had no access to VR headsets.  Even as the prices have dropped, schools still see this as a novelty, not a necessary school tech.  Therefore, a team developed an HTML version that was appropriate for the Chromebooks that the schools do have. 

Traditional websites and websites that run smoothly on mobile devices may indeed be less exciting, but they are more accessible. As the Pew Research Center’s 2015 report indicates, over 90 percent of American adults have a cell phone, a majority have broadband, and nearly 80 percent use social media.  It follows that making public history available through traditional websites and linking them to social media is a good bet to reach interested audiences. 

The architects of the “Building Histories of the National Mall: A Guide to Creating a Digital Public History Project” project have worked hard to merge the needs of tourists with the desire to reveal untold stories about the spaces those tourists encounter. Sheila Brennan and Sharon Leon write, “Our key strategy for making the history of the National Mall engaging for tourists was to create a website designed for hand-held devices, populated with surprising and compelling stories and primary sources that together build a textured historical context for the space and how it has changed over time.” They used a standard website rather than an app that tourists would have to download to ease access.  Digital public historians must be sensitive to how users interact with digital technologies.  This is an important part of collaborating with likely audiences.

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