21st Century Public History, Part III

This is a revised and expanded version of a talk I gave at MITH’s Digital Dialogue series on April 14. It is Part III of III. Read Part I and Part II.

III. Digital Public History and Knowledge Creation

If we’re not doing enough to help the general audience learn about history, how can we do more? How can we design digital exhibits and experiences that focus on public history collections but that also allow users to learn to think historically?

One answer is to expose some of the cognitive work that public historians do to produce the very polished narrative results that audiences are used to finding in public history settings. The work of content experts starts with questions — with being able to recognize gaps on our knowledge and understanding, and being able to work to bridge those gaps. To expose this process means admitting that the important thing about experts is not that they are bottomless sources of knowledge about particular topic, but rather they have existing knowledge AND the skills to build new knowledge.

For the most part, content work is done by experts, whether they are academic historians, museum curators, archivists, or librarians. Noticing the differences between how experts and novices approach knowledge and knowledge creation can provide us with a set of elements to consider as we try to create more meaningful and engaging digital public history. How People Learn lays out six principles of experts’ knowledge that suggest they have a different relationship to approaching new material and solving problems than novices. This relationship has significant import for how useful and transparent typical narrative exhibits are for an audience of novice learners.

1. Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices.

If we want to bring audiences along in critical thinking and problem solving, we need to help them begin to notice the things that experts notice. Providing access to historical materials without taking the time to help users understand what to look for and how to make sense out of it does a disservice to our goals as public historians. We need to carefully explain to users how experts notice those patterns, whether this is through providing a careful scaffolded interaction with historical sources or through providing models of expert practice. More than likely, we need to do both.

2. Experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect a deep understanding of their subject matter.

We cannot expect users to have access to the depth of content knowledge that experts have, but we can be clear about the organizing principles that are useful for attacking disciplinary problems. In public history we need to be identify the historical thinking skills that experts use, and the concepts that are central to solving historical problems. These include having an understanding of:

Evidence: Historical sources are not illustrative materials that accent a narrative. Historical sources are the heart of public history and they should be the focus of our work.

Perspective: Historical sources are created, and users need to account for that in their attempts to make meaning from those sources.

Context: Users will have varying degrees of context knowledge to bring to bear on historical questions, but they have to at least understand that asking about surrounding events, issues, and circumstances is central to beginning to understand how to interpret historical sources.

Multiple causality: Unilinear narratives do not always convey the messiness of history. Once users start to grapple with evidence and perspective, they come to learn that historical inquiry rarely results in the discovery of a single causal factor.

Interpretation: Users might grasp that historical actors bring different perspectives to a particular situation, but too often they forget that historians participate in a process of actively constructing meaning out of historical evidence. The notion that historical knowledge is constructed must be connected to the notion that different historians can reasonably come to different conclusions about the past. We must invite users to recognize interpretive differences and to question which interpretation they find most convincing. Placing those differences in interpretation front and center can quickly make audiences aware that history is not a single unified story, but rather a process of engaging with evidence and creating interpretations about what that evidence means. The existence of multiple interpretations automatically engages the visitor with the material because they can assess which interpretation they find most convincing.

Historiography: Related to the concept of interpretation is the idea that historical understanding changes over time, due to the same factors that influence the creation and meaning of historical sources. Users need to realize that historical experts are part of a long-standing conversation about meaning, and that the current dominant interpretations will not likely be the last word on a topic. Similarly, they need to understand that that conversation is subject to the same kind of rigorous analysis as original historical sources. [1]

3. Experts’ knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions but, instead, reflects contexts of applicability: that is, the knowledge is “conditionalized” on a set of circumstances.

Certainly, novice users will not have the foundational knowledge to draw upon that experts have at their disposal, but more importantly visitors with little experience addressing historical questions will have difficulty decided how to use the knowledge they do have to work on a particular historical question. We need to construct digital work that helps model the ways that historians know which elements of their knowledge are useful in what situations. Undoubtedly, being able to quickly locate the useful tools for problem solving is dependent on practice, but we can provide scaffolding and examples that support that practice for users.

4. Experts are able to flexibly retrieve important aspects of their knowledge with little attentional effort.

Once individuals internalize these common cognitive moves, they begin to stop noticing them. This is true of content experts and explains, to some degree, why so few digital public history sites provide the support, models, and tools that users need to begin to be able to ask and answer their own historical questions.

5. Though experts know their disciplines thoroughly, this does not guarantee that they are able to teach others.

Experts may not be aware of the kinds of moves they make, so it might be hard for them to make that work explicit. Therefore, we have to re-notice what we do when we interact with historical sources. Additionally, we need to pay more attention to the common missteps novices learners might make when they do historical work, so that we can help move them in the right direction.

6. Experts have varying levels of flexibility in their approach to new situations.

Most experts are aware of these limitations and the level of effort and adjustment necessary for them to engaging in critical analytical work in new contexts. We need to help users develop a similar awareness so that they can adapt to new interpretive challenges. This means being able to assess their own level of understanding and realize where their understanding is inadequate so that they can work to learn something new.

Taking this research into account suggests that we need to fundamentally rethink the way that we address our visitors, both within physical institutions and in digital environments. This moment calls for more than lecture hall experts delivering neatly packaged stories about the past. Instead, we have to showcase the key elements of our disciplinary approaches, providing models of inquiry for the public.

We must find ways to make users aware of the kinds of real intellectual work LAM experts engage in as they labor to construct knowledge and interpretation from collections. How would public engagement with our collections be different if we provided visitors with significant questions to investigate about the past, rather than tidy unilinear narratives? How would public engagement with our collections be different if we provided examples of content experts examining materials from the collections and articulating the gaps in their knowledge and their thinking processes, rather than a polished interpretation? Making these questions and processes visible will begin to provide the key conceptual link for the public between the rich content of our cultural heritage institutions and the more general 21st Century skills.

These points have significant implications for the ongoing conversation about social media, crowdsourcing, and LAM expertise. If we were to do a better job of moving novices from superficial interaction with content to a place where they can begin to think conceptually about competing and contradictory claims, we might have more satisfaction with the types of audience engagement we see. Participation and engagement is good and interesting. It has lots of benefits to community and good will, but we can do more – we can collaborate in the building of knowledge and understanding and questions.

Digital technologies provide particular promise for creating an environment of inquiry, engagement, and meaning making. Institutions have made tremendous strides digitizing their collections and making them available to the public with full collection searches and APIs. Now we must provide users with both the models of and tools for the critical inquiry that will allow them to make their own meaning out of the collections.


[1] My thinking about this list of concepts and their importance for the teaching and learning of history is heavily indebted to my collaborators on Historical Thinking Matters, Daisy Martin and Sam Wineburg, and my discussions with the project directors the Teaching American History grants in which CHNM has participated, particularly Eleanor Greene (Peopling the American Past) and Sarah Richardson Whelan (Foundations of U.S. History).

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