History in the Public Sphere

Coming into the PhD program at George Mason, my career goal was to land a tenure track professorship at some research university. My experience in my undergraduate courses with fantastic professors who showed excitement and devotion towards their field as well as passion toward their students inspired me to follow in their footsteps. In this way, I have spent little time exploring various career paths and options related to a PhD in history.Essentially, every person who asked what I want to do when I graduate, I responded with the stereotypical “I want to teach.” Yet in my mind the word “teach” meant professorship. The irony of this very narrow definition is that during my undergraduate I worked for over two years in the education department of a museum. I worked for Brigham Young University’s Museum of Peoples and Cultures as their Volunteer Coordinator (which also included tour guide, web content manager, and all around handy man). I had been so focused on being a college professor that I did not stop to consider alternative types of careers. This first semester has helped me to take a step back and explore the many avenues available to me.

I had never heard of the term public history before I started my PhD program. With my background in geography and GIS, I wasn’t as immersed as others in the field. Within my first couples weeks, my historiography class read James Banner’s Being a Historian which discusses both the discipline of history as well as the profession. He spends a decent amount of time discussing public history and academic history. Since then, I have pondered on the importance public history has with me as well as the love I have for museum work (stemming from my years at the MPC). I think Banner’s book and the discussions that have come from it have helped to prime me for this weeks readings and topic of Public History. While I read, I found myself invested more in the readings as I am interested in that profession.

I was really intrigued by Mark Tebeau’s article “Listening to the City: Oral History in the Digital Era.” I have never been very interested in Oral history or working in oral history. I found the project that he was involved with, however, very interesting. In his article he delves into what he calls place based history. That the digital medium puts preference on the visual and the end user loses the importance of the others in the experience. For his work, they were able to bridge oral history with the digital to provide a unique and beneficial experience. They were able to present their work on mobile devices that allowed the end users to experience the stories from the oral history in its own settings. In the article they use the phrase “to experience memory within the landscapes where the stories were lived.” How impressive a way to connect with history. I thought of all the historical places I have been and how a place based history using a digital medium would provide such an amazing experience. This article has definitely piqued my interest.

Bruce Wyman’s “Digital Storytelling in Museum: Observations and Best Practices” focuses directly on museums. I really liked that he focused on the experience of a museum. A museum is not merely a platform to provide information, this can be achieved through a simple Google search. In Wyman’s words “While much of the information offered by museums has become readily available through alternate means, the total experience—environment, destination, and information—still hasn’t been replicated elsewhere.” In my time working at the MPC, the visitor’s experience was paramount in all aspects of the museum’s workings. Wyman goes on to discuss the incorporation or adoption of digital technologies within museums. He asks the ultimate question in how to leverage new forms of technology while ensuring that they don’t detract from the power and significance of stories and content. It was interesting then to read Anne Lindsay’s article “#VirtualTourist: Embracing our Audience through Public History Web Experience.” While Lindsay doesn’t reject museums, she does ask museums what purpose do they have in their web presence. This is important as today, the web is in various ways by institutions. Web based exhibits provide access to an innumerable host of people that otherwise might not be able to attend the traditional museum. The use of the digital in museums prompts a bunch of additional questions and concerns. Yet it is important to provide that platform. Lindsay references a study that shows that “guests want to feel like they are part of something larger than themselves and be part of a new way of experiencing history.”

Another interesting part of the articles, especially the final two (Melissa Terras “Digitisations Most Wanted” and Tim Sherratt “Life on the outside: collections, contexts, and the wild, wild, web,“is the impact of social media. Now there is a part of me that would love to just steer completely clear of the social media world when trying to engage history. When I think of the discipline of history, Facebook and Reddit do not come to mind. Yet both these articles show how powerful these social media platforms have become in the consumption of history. It is fascinating to see how a simple Reddit post can double the number of visitor hits to an online archive. Or that a Facebook post of a document can make it the most search item in a digital database for the last few months. The implications of these things are tremendous. For myself, I need to better understand how to best go about utilizing these platforms that best represents history. One major problem I know of is attribution. A great example of this is HistoryPics on twitter. Often the metadata or the information about the photo is dropped thus losing a large part of its historical value. A paradigm needs to be developed, and it will be, on how to best approach these venues. The importance is summed up in a quote by Merete Sanderhoff (quoted in Tim Sherratt’s peice) “When cultural heritage is digital, open and shareable, it becomes common property, something that is right at hand every day. It becomes a part of us.” That is the ultimate goal, I believe.

History in the Public Sphere
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