New Technologies and Public History

It is natural that as new technologies emerge, historians will seek to explore how these can be used to achieved the goals of public history. In the most recent modules we looked at how virtual reality, the use of mobile devices and podcasting are being used by large institutions such as museums and universities as well as individual researchers. In this blog, I will seek to assess to what extent these technologies are helping institutions and individuals encourage historical thinking among users, as well as to increase engagement and participation from the public in the making of history.

Not surprisingly, VR technology has so far been mostly used by large museums or institutions. Virtual Reality this is a complex and costly technology that would be very expensive to use in a community or even university-based project. Even large museums can only make limited use of it. For this very reason, we saw that museums are being strategic and judicious in their choice of where and how to use it. In most of the examples that were highlighted, VR is mainly used to highlight and enhance particularly popular exhibits. For example, the Gioconda in De Louvre or Alice in Wonderland and the Victoria and Albert Museum show the strategic thinking behind the investment in VR enhancements of these exhibits. These are designed to increase engagement and maybe even attract more visitors to these specific exhibits, but also to the museums more generally. Thus far, the impact of VR has been to allow visitors a more intimate experience, or simply a different way to “see” or appreciate artistic or historical objects.

Having said this, some important goals of public history are not well- addressed by this technology. In fact, VR may be somewhat counterproductive in helping institutions listen to and connect with their visitors . Community-based projects try to capitalize on their ability to offer increased human contact with visitors and greater collaboration with the community in the curatorial process, Virtual Reality creates more robust barriers between the curator, the historical or artistic object, and the visiting public. Even though these exhibits may offer visitors a rather unique experience, it is not clear that they allow for a more meaningful one.

Another technology that has been profitably used by museums are websites that can be easily deployed in mobile devices and mobile- applications (apps) where museum content can be delivered and customized by visitors. The key attribute of these twin approaches has to do precisely with the possibility for visitors to craft their experiences according to their time availability, interests based on age and knowledge, and maybe even their particular location in the building, or city. To a large extent, these technologies offer visitors the ability to curate their own exhibits.

The development of mobile technologies has also added new challenges and possibilities to community and place-based projects. Visitors or even residents can use these applications or sites to navigate their surroundings, and even make contributions to the projects, either by commenting or even creating new entries. These technologies have made it portable to reach a wider audience into the curatorial process. However, it also highlights the tensions that we see in other projects that try to incorporate the wider public in the creation of historical knowledge. It is difficult to allow for unlimited participation while trying to maintain historical rigor. It is also difficult to break away from the more traditional forms of history: the history of great-men and famous individuals, vs. the history of everyday people and their changing ways of life. These technologies can encourage and allow many people to think about what the places where they live mean to them, but also to embark in serious historical research to explore, and question those very meanings. In this regard, I believe this types of technologies to have a great deal of potential. Unsurprisingly the realization of such potential is not dependent on the technologies themselves but on the human guidance, connections and relationships behind each project.

The last technology that I would like to discuss is podcasting. This is both old and new in that broadcasted audio has been around, in analog form, for more than a hundred years. Thus the question is, what is new about the digital production and distribution of audio for the purposes of public history. Podcasts are, in some ways, the poor relatives of VR in the that they also are very good to increase interest and engagement of potential visitors but they do so in a relatively inexpensive way. It is possible to achieve high production values of podcasts with technical expertise that is not difficult to acquire and without very expensive equipment. As with VR, podcasting, or at least narrative podcasting, offers limited opportunities for interactions with the public. Good narrative podcasts will evoke the past in ways that only great audio story-telling can do, and, in doing so, it will provoke or highlight new interpretations, new problems, or simply will bring those to a public that had not previously engaged with such questions. However, these stories are still in the control of historians and producers.

Having said that, the ease of producing podcasts, at this  point, does allow for members of the public and communities to produce their own works and thus create a wider diversity of interpretations. This is, in some ways, both the blessing and the curse of digital technologies; they allow for such proliferation of views, that it seems less necessary that these diverging views speak to one another. To what extent the increased means of participation of the public, lead to the dissolution of the public sphere? Or to a weakening of a sense of community? This is, in fact, one of the great challenges that these technologies pose to institutions that try to harness them precisely for the purpose of creating stronger and resilient communities while still making space for rich differences in history and experience.

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