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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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21st Century Public History, Part II

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

II. Digital Public History and Traditional Narrative Exhibits

Everyday those of us who work in the digital humanities see new online work that changes the way that we think about evaluating cultural material, whether it be work influenced by the geospatial turn or the results of large-scale text-mining work. Unfortunately, much of the work digital public history produced for a general audience is descriptive and summative rather than inquisitive or analytical. Reproducing the voice of narrative authority in public history projects reinforces the notion that history is just a string of facts, events, dates – not that chronology is not important, but to mask the wonder and questioning that historical sources raise is to misrepresent what history is as a discipline. This is even more important in public history than it is in the academic ranks of digital humanities, because the majority of the public did not receive significant instruction in historical thinking, but rather a steady stream of lecture, dates, and rote memorization. Without modeling authentic historical inquiry, digital public history projects have little chance of actually making a significant impact with their users because those users will be significantly less likely to begin asking their own questions of historical material.

To show the difficulties of many digital public history sites, I am going to focus on two award-winning digital history sites from 2005: NMAH’s The Price of Freedom and Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s Raid on Deerfield. These are sites that required major design and development work, and that show the distinction between work that reproduces a narrative of seeming inevitability and that which allows for the complexity of history. Both sites are several years old now, and have all of the drawbacks of content assembled within a Flash interface. Nonetheless, my concern is with their approach to history and not with their design aesthetic or their accessibility.

First, take for example the 2005 Muse Award honorable mention, Price of Freedom: Americans at War from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Graphically this is a stunning site. This site accompanied the very large exhibit that opened at NMAH at the end of 2004 and is ongoing in Military History Hall. The web developers and designers from Second Story Interactive Studios built an attractive interface that made it possible for users to move chronologically through American History, by focusing on major conflicts. Each conflict presents an introductory movie, and then an array of narrative text and artifacts associated with that conflict. It is clear that there was a major investment of time and resources used to create the site, but it is not clear that it serves any goals other than to reproduce the physical exhibit in a digital form.

That physical exhibit was not stirring success with critics and many of their observations can be applied to the online exhibit. For example, Carole Emberton noted in a Journal of American History review, “The exhibit’s title suggests an interpretive stance that assumes freedom is, and has always been, the objective of American military engagements. But freedom is a problematic term, and in failing to recognize how the meaning of freedom has been contested historically, the exhibit takes the viewer on a whiggish stroll through American social and political history, conveniently indulging any desire he or she might have to rely on a facile belief in the mythic march of progress and democratic expansion.” [1] Emberton was not the only critic of the exhibit. Beth Bailey’s review in the Public Historian took notice of an important aspect of the work: “In many ways, the exhibit calls to mind a high school textbook.” [2] These two reviews point to what might be said of so much of current digital public history—that it unthinkingly reproduces the all-knowing voice of the textbook, and that it often fails to raise hard questions. The unilinear narrative of the exhibit forecloses meaningful engagement and questioning from the audience because it fails to model any sense of rupture in knowledge or difference in interpretation.

It is important to note that every narrative exhibit site answers an implicit inquiry question. Those questions, however, may be completely obscured from a novice user by the tone inevitability that is present in the narrative. There are scores of digital history exhibits that follow the traditional narrative model. Some of these even give users access to an archive of materials and sources that supplements those used in the narrative exhibit. In some cases this works to a very good effect for users who are familiar with historical inquiry or for the teachers who want to draw upon the site and the archive to work with their students. But for others, access to the unmediated archive ends up feeling like access to more isolated items—curiosities, not elements in a larger body of evidence.

At CHNM, our own digital history exhibits, which are the result of the intellectual work of George Mason University historians, graduate research assistants, and a team of staff and web developers, provide both a narrative exhibit and an archive of sources. Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives presents a complex portrayal of the lived experience of the Soviet Gulag for the thousands of prisoners who did not fit stereotypical profile of political prisoners. Users have the option of navigating a rich exhibit that has a strong narrative voice, but is populated by documents, art work, and interviews. Users also have the possibility of querying a deep archive of related sources and materials to answer their own questions about the lived-experience of the Gulag. Martha Washington: A Life presents a biographical narrative about the nation’s first First Lady that links her experiences to larger trends in early American history and life. In addition to the narrative exhibit, users can access an archive of Martha Washington’s surviving correspondence. Both of these sites were premised on an inquiry question—Was the Gulag the same everywhere for all prisoners? What was Martha Washington’s life like and what can it tell us about the experiences of planter-class women in the Early Republic?—but neither site exposes the process of forming or investigating those questions for the user. Rather, both present beautifully polished answers (of which we are very proud).

In contrast to these narrative-driven sites, Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association/Memorial Hall Museum’s ambitious website Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704 is built around issues of multiple perspective—a concept that is central to historical thinking. This approach drew significant recognition from reviewers, garnering the site an honorable mention for best online exhibition in the 2004 Archimuse Best of the Web Awards, and prompting Journal of American History reviewer Richard Rabinowitz to call it a “brilliantly executed and comprehensively organized electronic exhibition.” [3] Examining the Pocumtuck raid on a English settlement in 1704, the site asks users to approach the inquiry questions by considering the constituencies involved: “Was this dramatic pre-dawn assault in contested lands an unprovoked, brutal attack on an innocent village of English settlers? Was it a justified military action against a stockaded settlement in a Native homeland? Or was it something else?” First, the five cultures involved in the events are introduced first to provide users with a base of background knowledge. Then, the user moves through the conflict chronologically, often facing a question about the situation that asks them to consider the issue of perspective.

In reflecting on the site for participants of the 2005 Museums and the Web conference, Lynne Spichger and Juliet Jacobsen explicitly noted the public import of their work: “The role of museums in the 21st century is an expanded one, moving away from a focus on collections for collections’ sake, toward the conscious use and interpretation of collections for the purpose of engaging and educating a wide public audience in informal lifelong learning.” They argued that their goal was to “develop a powerful and engaging educational experience for a broad public audience” that was structured around the importance of multiple points of view. [4] Focusing on multiple perspectives allows the audience to always be engaged in an effort to piece together a complete story and a complex interpretation that takes into account the partiality of historical sources, and recognizes historians’ inability to fully and definitely know the past.

These few sites are by no means representative of all of the work that is being done in digital history, but they do represent the a large percentage work that is being produced with a general audience in mind. Those creating digital work to serve scholars and to serve students and teachers are doing a wonderful array of work that puts inquiry and process front and center. Others are diligently creating vast digital archives with varying degrees of contextual metadata. Still others are using geospatial interfaces to display historical collections, connecting users to very particular local places (Philaplace, Euclid Corridor History Project, etc.). But, digital history projects targeted at general users do not often enough go beyond traditional narrative exhibits to model inquiry, to speak self-reflexively about cognitive processes, or to provide users with the tools and support to conduct similar kinds of inquiry on their own. We owe our audiences more.


1. Carole Emberton, Web site Review [The Price of Freedom], Journal of American History 92:1 (June 2005) paragraph 3 and 7.

2. Beth Bailey, Review [The Price of Freedom], The Public Historian 27:3 (Summer, 2005) 89-92. Quote from 90.

3. Richard Rabinowitz, Web site Review [Raid on Deerfield], Journal of American History 92:2 (Sept. 2005) 709-710.

4. Lynne Spichiger and Juliet Jacobson, “Telling an Old Story in a New Way: Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704 ,” in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings (Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2005) <http://www.archimuse.com/mw2005/papers/spichiger/spichiger.html>.

Read Part III.

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21st Century Public History, Part I

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

I. Digital Public History and How People Learn

The place of digital history in the digital humanities is topic of frequent conversation at the Center for History and New Media. While the staff have a variety of opinions on the question, we all generally agree that considering the place of digital history in the digital humanities requires that we acknowledge the long kinship between digital history and public history. While the two fields are by no means synonymous, they have similar goals and objectives. Though it may be a thin description of public history, the National Council on Public History offers a starting point, defining “public history as ‘a movement, methodology, and approach that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history; its practitioners embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible and useful to the public.’” They continue to explain “‘public history is the conceptualization and practice of historical activities with one’s public audience foremost in mind.’” This focus on audience is central to understanding the work of public historians, and really to understanding the future possibilities for transformative work in that field.

This focus on audience is central also to the work that we have undertaken at the Center for History and New Media. In the Center’s sixteen year history, we have done our best to take the scholarly work of traditional history and make it available to people outside of the academy. Our work has always been at the intersection scholarship and several publics: students and teachers, enthusiasts, “Citizen Historians” (Scientists, Humanists, Archivists, etc.). From this point of intersection, we are in the position to bring many fields into conversation with one another. Thus, our mission statement calls for using “digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.” This combination of open access and a focus on audience engagement has led us to think about how digital technology can allow us to help users significantly engage with the abundance of materials that are now in digital form. Our mission is not simply to add to the openly available stock of resources, but to provide a range of users with the tools, both cognitive and software-based, to do meaningful work with those resources. Thus, we are not focused on engagement for engagement’s sake, but rather on a larger goal of enriching historical understand for a range of publics.

That is not to suggest that the public is not already interested in history. It is clear that they are. Or at least, it is clear that the major media outlets think that there is significant interest, since they have invested in programming such as NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”, and PBS’s “Faces of America”. Similarly, genealogy sites owned by as Ancestry.com have vast numbers of subscribers and users. These venues show that people have very personal questions about history: What was my grandfather’s role in WWII? Why did my mother’s family come to New York? While these questions are important and can be the route to a larger engagement with historical material, the majority of public history work dwells at another level. The real issue, then, is what can digital history and public history do to move these members of the interested public to engage with content and questions that might not be personal, but that are meaningful nonetheless.

This has always been an important issue, but it has achieved slightly more attention and salience in the last several years with the rise of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. This coalition of corporations and educators has come together to fashion a set of skills they believe workers need to succeed in 21st Century global economy. They call for a focus on critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation. P21 has had broad impact in education circles, and the Obama Administration is certainly aligned with their efforts. There are a variety of critiques of the P21 work, but the strongest is the claim from a group of scholars and educators under the title of Common Core, who argue that P21 ignores the knowledge and content base that learners need to acquire and actualize the skills that the Partnership emphasizes.

More than other institutions in our common cultural life, libraries, archives, and museums–the workplaces of many public and digital historians–hold the content that is central for moving from the vague concepts of 21st Century Skill to knowledge and learning. The collections that reside with our cultural heritage institutions can be vehicles for bringing the public into rich conversations about our past, present, and future. This possibility is even more important now that the Institute of Museum and Library Services is embarking on a major initiative to help LAMs take stock of their role in helping citizens build 21st Century Skills.

To build better meaningful engagement for the public around questions of history, we need to actively bring together the insights of our colleagues in public history with those of our colleagues in the learning sciences. We cannot just lay out a collection of stuff in chronological order; that kind of presentation does not do the work that we need it to do. History is about asking questions. All practitioners do it–academics, curators, archivists. Why don’t we share that with the public? Why don’t we model the kind of critical inquiry that goes on behind the scenes?

Only if we expose the cognitive process of doing history–historical thinking–the perpetual beta of historical scholarship, including conflicting interpretations–will we really be able to position the public to engage in meaningful inquiry. We need to surface the ways that the introduction of new sources spawns new questions, and those new questions make us revisit the evidence and the existing interpretations. Learning takes work. It is participatory and relational and represents authentic engagement. Knowledge and inquiry build on the context that users can access if we help them. But, public history–digital and analogue–needs to actively support this kind of interaction, to scaffold public inquiry.

One way to do this is to consciously integrate the work from cognitive science into the ways that we think about presenting content for users. In 1999, the National Research Council published How People Learn as a general overview of the latest work in cognitive science and what it could mean for teaching and learning in a whole host of disciplines. Subsequently, specific committees produced targeted work on learning in history, mathematics, and science. [How Students Learn: History in the Classroom (2005) is the relevant version.] How People Learn outlined three key findings (p.14-19) about learning that are important for how we might transform digital public history–even though these are phrased with respect to students, it is clear from the underlying research that these findings apply to life-long learners:

  • 1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.
  • 2. To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.
  • 3. A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

These three findings have the potential to transform the way that public historians–digital and analogue–think about creating content for audiences. We may not be able to fully assess the preconceptions that users bring to our subject matter, but we can do audience research to start to understand some of them. Similarly, we can provide users with a base of content knowledge and then bring them with us as we form and investigate questions about history. Doing this in an explicit way will help users feel equipped to form and investigate their own questions when they are faced with the abundance of historical sources that are available online.

Read Part II.

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