Friday, April 15, 2011

Digital history: When a tool, when a toy?

One of the items discussed at The Public Historian editorial meeting in Pensacola on Thursday, April 7th was the January 5, 2010 blog post "History museums in a wiki world." In her 10th anniversary review of Wikipedia's roles and potential for public history applications, Lori Byrd Phillips, a project leader for WikiProject Public Art, describes current practices using the Wikipedia model and invokes Roy Rosenzweig's hopeful 2006 JAH essay. Respondents to the post, including Steve Lubar at Brown, suggest the importance of retaining the signed curatorial statement.

Members of the TPH editorial board located several examples in which history (and art) museums - Museum of the Chinese in America, the National Museum of American History at Smithsonian and Metropolitan Museum of Art have developed collections-based digital timelines & item descriptions, all with some degree of visitor responsiveness and interactivity.

A Friday afternoon conference session at Pensacola showcased a couple of projects that looked at digital media, public interaction and the delivery of program services. Michael Frisch from SUNY-Buffalo and Anne Conable from the Buffalo & Erie County Library presented work from a pilot program in public humanities that focused, first, on digitization of community-wide Depression era (1930s) collections from many institutions in the area and, second, on public access through inventive programming devices such as customized personal walking tours using the digitized materials and construction of public meeting formats structured around social
history/human dimensions of policy issues such as government's role in the arts. The quality of the images showcased was wonderful - portraits of musicians at work from the Colored Musicians Union, exquisite puppets produced during the WPA, Science Museum collections most of us would never see. Mark Tebeau discussed the regional history vignettes (using oral histories, documentary footage, historic images, voice over narration) produced at Cleveland Historical - a free mobile app developed by the Center for Public History and Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University - emphasizing, as Frisch and Conable had - the need to figure out one's audience; what do access and interactivity mean for them? Digitization is not useful if not connecting people to people. In Tebeau's view, mobile technology is an increasingly important tool in reaching audiences.

I am not doing justice to the content of the Buffalo and Cleveland images and oral histories in this brief discussion. However, both projects, along with a third quite different museum project at Connor Prairie that places visitors in the midst of a Civil War raid, grapple quite inventively with the issues of using digital technology to engage visitors and connect with them. These presenters have digitized with purpose and imagination - and a programming use in mind. To this end, they've created models well worth our collective attention.

~ Jo Blatti

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