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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