Week Eight Reading Blog: The Digital Face of Public History

The status of public (or popular) history when compared to academic history has always intrigued me.  At what point does the academy accept history generated by the non-academician?  Or, for that matter, history produced for a non-academic audience? I think the question posed by Carl Smith in his 1998 article “Can You Do Serious History on the Web?” cuts to the heart of this debate.   If the Web is open to all comers, then Smith’s question suggests that such a rift between  academic, or “serious,” history exists. Thus, if “serious” history is academic, as Smith implies, then public or popular history is the exact opposite — “unserious.” Given what the readings for this week have described, I think history developed for, and presented on, the Web for a broader public can be just as (if not more) “serious” than what the academy produces.  And, in many ways, that Web-based history can touch many more lives and influence the present more dramatically than if historical debates remained the exclusive domain of the academy’s so-called “ivory tower.”

For me, history serves a purpose. I craft the military history I write for a specific audience — soldiers and, yes, the general public. The experiential lessons gleaned from past conflicts consistently inform our application of military power in the present and future.  Moreover, the public’s understanding of warfare further develops a broader appreciation for the sacrifices men and women have made on behalf of the nation over time. But in a broader sense, history helps us stake out a way ahead and, ideally, prevents us from repeating the same mistakes over and over again.  Thus, only by making history more universal can we hope to fulfill such an ambitious charter. Thankfully, the rapidly developing digital world is pushing us inextricably toward this very goal.

Carl Smith’s discussion about the online project he curated, The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory, provides an excellent example of an academically  managed, digitally constructed site of historical knowledge targeted toward a wider, non-academic audience. The beauty of this public Web site is that it remains visually immersive without losing the  authority of the trained historian.  The site’s various snippets of carefully crafted, tightly packaged  historical narratives, all based on reams of primary-source material, material that the average user can also browse and evaluate,  lends a remarkable power to the site. And yes, the narrative is there if you want to follow it (an important feature for me in particular). I appreciate the fact that Smith recognized the limitless capacity of his digital medium; he included and then managed over 300 different pages on the site, each with its own wealth of material in the form of facsimile representations of original documents, lithographs, and photographs.  The analog world would never let him get away with something so cost-intensive.  In my view, Smith has given the public more than it needs and can possibly hope to absorb; but, in doing so, he has increased dramatically the possibility that something on that site will appeal to a more robust audience of varied tastes and interests.   And in appealing to that broader public, someone is likely to take away a powerful lesson about what the Great Chicago Fire means to us today and how its memory can influence that city, and other cities, in the future.

Most importantly, public history on the Web enables powerfully immersive visual and sensory experiences that have largely been missing from the history I tend to experience. I agree with Mark Tebeau that the voice of someone who lived through a historical event describing what happened and what it meant to him or her is powerful. Such voices, he rightly contends, “call forth memory, time, and context” (Tebeau, 28).  Can a monograph achieve that end? Perhaps … in some cases. But the experience is not the same. Even the virtual tours of American heritage sites like Monticello that Anne Lindsay described can create a sensory experience of history that the printed monograph cannot achieve.

I often recall the ridiculously cerebral character in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, Egon Spengler (played by the late actor Harold Ramis), responding to another actor’s question about what books he liked to read. Egon simply deadpanned the following line: “Print is dead.”  Granted, that remark was written for comic relief. That statement has haunted me for 30 years, because I’m someone who loves to immerse himself in the power of the written word. But that statement also made me aware that  not everyone experiences the written word in the same way and that historians can and should pursue other possibilities for an immersive historical experience to enhance the power of history. In other words, in keeping with Egon’s assertion, we need to find ways to bring “print,” and history, to life in order to immerse people in the experiences of the past. Today, the digital world allows us to achieve much of that goal. One example is how today’s digital world allows us to experience the past visually and aurally, a capability that makes  history all the more compelling to many people.

Bruce Wyman, Scott Smith, Daniel Myers, and Michael Godfrey argue collectively that “people are becoming different types of learners” and require new ways to experience history (Wyman et al, 462). I agree fully. The more we can do to immerse an interested public  directly into a multi-sensory historical experience, the more that that history will mean to them in the context of their own lives. For my first book, I walked the very ground in Belgium where the battle I was researching took place, and I had the ability to interview scores of surviving veterans from both sides about their experiences in that same battle.  These remarkably immersive experiences were life-changing for me, but such opportunities faded quickly as the veterans passed on and as former battlefields became private property. Such experiences are rare for historians today — and even rarer for the interested public. But, as Wyman and company have testified, museums are a great place to leverage the emerging sensory capabilities of the digital world in order to replicate for future generations what I experienced in the early 1980s researching that book. Wyman and company’s strategic thoughts for an immersive, interactive historical experience in a museum are on target. In fact, the most important guideline they proffer, in my opinion, is to “[r]emove barriers to content and experience” (Wyman et al, 467). The average museum visitor should not need a PhD in history or computer science in order to wade through layers of technological fanfare and dense content just to experience the past interactively. A clear goal and a consistent content approach, as the authors contend, are crucial to the success of any interactive, immersive experience.

Furthermore, Melissa Terras has described the vastly different historical interests people have exhibited based upon her analysis of the most commonly accessed digital archives at places like Oxford and Cambridge. Thus, the immersive experience must cater to these wide-ranging interests. I can see the point behind Roy Rosenzweig’s ambition to make history more democratic. History must be useful, but it has to mean something to us first so that we can use it. Thus, history must be accessible to all — not a select few. I think the digital world of today can get us there.

Steve Rusiecki

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