DH – 804 – Public History

The primary question coming out of this weeks readings on the crossroads of Public History and Digital History is that of audience. When developing or working on a public history project, digital or otherwise, the question that should be lingering on your mind throughout is “who is your audience?” Sheila Brennan’s article “The Public is Dead, Long Live the Public” articulates this issue very well when asking what “public” are you trying to reach in your digital history project. After reading through my fellow classmates posts, I found their thoughts and insights on this very question intriguing and well articulated. Thus, I wish to discuss some other themes that arose from the readings.

The reading that caused me to pause the most was Michael Peter Edson’s “Dark Matter” from Medium. It is a well written article discussing the dark matter of the internet and its overall relation to cultural heritage projects online. Ultimately, he states that the dark matter of the internet “is open, social, peer-to-peer and read/write.” Two important concepts floated to the surface during this reading and continued to ring out in my mind.

First, Edson’s devotes a large section of his article to discuss two individuals, John and Hank Green or the Vlogbrothers. Edson outlines their journey to reduce “world suck” and in the process, their educational ventures online. Essentially, the presence the Green brothers have on the internet far exceeds the presence of other public history institutions. In the article, Edson highlights that the Green brother’s Youtube channel has “106 times more views and 759 times more subscribers than the Louvre’s YouTube channel.” And this type of discrepancy is not an aberration. In many ways, major public history or cultural heritage institutions dwindle in their digital public presence. When reading I paused and tried to understand why this discrepancy exists. I even voiced this conundrum to my wife who found it intriguing as well. I arrived at a shoddy but still pertinent answer/question: “Where is their [the person/place/thing in question] grounding?” For Hank and John Green, they originate their field of work in the fast paced, ever changing, world of the digital. In this way, they are grounded to that medium which allows them to reach out and expand their influence and followings. For most public history institutions(museums, archives, libraries), they are grounded to the physical. These institutions have flourished in that medium for years and only recently have tried to approach the digital. As such, their background and framework is not built for the ever fluid and starkly different world of the digital. While this topic deserves further exploration, the second point articulated by Edson in the article deserves attention as well.

Edson outlines, what is called, the clothesline paradox. This phenomenon can be explained in an analogy that was discussed in class already but I will outline for those who are not a part of this course. A woman goes for a walk one evening. As she travels along she passes through a tunnel only to come out on the other side to find a man crouched down under the single street light. She comes up to the man and asks what he is doing. “I am looking for my car keys. I have lost them.” She quickly crouches down and begins to help look for his keys. After a few minutes she asks “Where exactly did you lose them?” He responds “Back in that tunnel.” Confused and a bit irritated, the woman responds “Why, then are you looking for them here.” He pauses and looks up at her and says, “The light is better over here…” All this is meant to articulate that we often gravitate where the light is even when the more important things may be in the dark. Edson describes the clothesline paradox as “the phenomenon in which activity that can be measured easily (e.g., running a clothes dryer) is valued over equally important activity that eludes measurement (e.g., drying clothes outside.)” For public history/cultural heritage institutions this means they value visitor counts and journal publications over “the sharing of museum-related materials on social media sites or the creation of wikipedia pages.” How important it is for the right “things” to be measured and quantified. If the medium is changing (physical -> digital) analytics needs to change as well.

Overall, I am left with many more questions than firm answers in regards to the crossroads of Public History and Digital History. Questions of audience, meaningful measurements, and online presence abound. Yet these questions intrigue me…more than I originally thought they would. Coming into the PhD program I thought I knew so firmly that I wanted to remain in academia as a professor. Now, as I have had more exposure to Pubic history as well as the potential for the digital in Public history, I find myself wavering in my staunch commitment to academia.

DH – 804 – Public History
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