Learning From Public History

As the technologies and the Internet have take hold in almost every aspect of life, digital tools gradually expand our ability to research, teach and demonstrate. Digital public history has effectively reach a broader audience and broken the space limit in a public history exhibit. However, the methods and technologies of public history offline still provides useful lesson for the digital public history works today. The digital public history is in some ways different from the traditional public history thanks to the digital means but in some ways an extension of it.

A major influence of public history on the digital public history is how to organize the stories. With so many resources in hand, it challenges the historians’ ability to turn the mute objects (pictures, diaries, newspapers etc) into stories and ┬áto “furnish imagination with the makings of good stories.” (Richard Rabinowitz, eavesdropping at the well). The interpretive media, for example, plays a much important role in the success of such a project. The good arrangement of stories can also effectively express and communicate the historical ideas. The interpretive media such as display technique, audio-visual programs and graphic annotations brought visitors and virtual visitors emotionally closer to the experience of the history exhibited. For example, in the northern slavery exhibition in New York city, the exhibition organized focuses each gallery on a particular story exemplifying and dramatizing the era rather than assign the space to cover one time-period. This method, together with other literary devices such as flashbacks and contrasts in tone, brings visitors closer to lives of the enslaved, transforming them from objects to subjects. The interpretive design from public history can also be applied to digital public history. Digital tools can help us organize and arrange stories with unlimited space and bigger variety of resources. But the public history still provides good ideas about how to keep the audience focused and attracted to the exhibit. No matter what the means, the content of the exhibition is the most important, online and offline.

The engagement with the public is another way that influences the digital public history work created today. The interpretative approach asks us to collect resources from multiple perspective and arrange them to show an argument and attract the audience. Community history, oral history, social media such as blogs and twitter all provide the opportunities for a historian to collect, record and interpret history with resources from different perspectives, engaging regular people to participate in the history. This engagement with the public not only attracts more people to participate in the history projects, keeping them from being monopolized by academics or history professionals’s interpretation but also enhances historians’ research work by “crowdsourcing” the resources. With more resources on hand and better arrangement of stories, the historians can make the public history not “a book on the wall” but a dynamic history show that expresses historical ideas and animates wider public’s interest in history.

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