Reflection on this week’s reading and academic perceptions of public history

Reading the JAH Forum “The Promise of Digital History,” I was most forcefully struck by the contributors discussion of the applications of digital history in the public history fields (in the discussion the term “public history” referred mainly to museums and historic sites) and most specifically the need to create a “dialogue” with the public. Overall, the discussion was a lucid reflection and exploration of the uses, potential, and problems in digital history, but certain aspects of the forum struck me a slightly problematic.  Perhaps most importantly, the discussion about the use of digital history in the field of public history conveyed a tone of mutual exclusivity in some aspects that I found problematic, especially given the authors extolling the need for graduate students (whom the authors recognize will need to take the digital torch) to “think in bold and creative ways about how this technology can serve the interests of history.” For example, Frich states that digital history can facilitate “the need to rescue [public history] from some of its own evangelists, by retrieving the too easily devalued displaced sensibilities of those who have more grounding in and respect for the power of things, of experiences—and finding better ways of combining those sensibilities with the powerful questions, themes, and insights that newer historians, academic and/or activist, have brought in to ventilate the indeed stuffy confines of traditional museum exhibits.” Building on this notion, Taylor writes that  he believes “many people find it meaningful simply to be in the same room with an artifact or object.” These are fair points, and some attention is payed to the potential of combining the physical exhibit with digital one’s, but overall the discussion gives minimal attention to the fact that a fair number of historic sites have already taken steps to bridge this gap by including mutually reinforcing exhibitions that offer visitors a chance to view artifacts and take advantage of digital history to enhance visitor experience.

Since all public historians are required to shamelessly promote their own sites as often as possible, I will use my home site, President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C. as an example.  When the site first opened in 2008, we were fortunate enough to receive an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation on loan from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (the site, for those who aren’t familiar is structured around the summer’s of 1862-64, when Lincoln used his summer residence at the Soldier’s Home, as a combination workspace and retreat.  It was here during the summer of 1862 that Lincoln was thinking through and constructing the first draft of an Emancipation Proclamation).   Additionally, the site had developed a program called “Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions,” a touchscreen computer exhibition where visitors take on the role of one of Lincoln’s cabinet members, and looking through pertinent primary documents related to their respective cabinet members, learn about the varying views on Emancipation. Thus, visitors were able to see the actual Emancipation Proclamation, and then enhance that powerful experience by learning about the different perspectives (while looking at digitized primary sources)of Lincoln’s cabinet.  Furthermore, though the primary source documents were chosen by the site staff, and the program follows a logical chronological structure based on the Civil War, visitors have a great amount of control of what documents they view and in what order.  As a result, some of the structural limitations of websites the forum discussed are removed. Further enhancing the visitor experience, since there are fifteen stations operating at one time, this naturally facilitates visitor interaction, and has proven to be a fantastic program for school groups and adult groups alike. Ergo, although the physical draft of the Emancipation Proclamation is no longer on exhibition (it had to be returned to the Gilder Lehrman Institute), the combination of physical primary source documents and digital history reflect steps being taken in the public history field that are not fully conveyed by the forum.  Since there are fifteen stations operating at one time, this naturally facilitates visitor interaction, and has proven to be a fantastic program for school groups and adult groups alike.

This mutually reinforcing combination of physical primary source and digital history is further reinforced by the tour itself.  As visitors are lead through the house, a docent weaves the story of Lincoln’s time at Soldier’s Home using a multi-media approach to show visitors digitized photographs, letters, and official writings, while also using recordings of actors reading stories of visitors who met with the president at his wartime retreat.  Since the whole tour is conducted by an interpreter who can answer questions. Perhaps most importantly, the whole house operates as the visitors connection to the past, as they walk through the same rooms, and in some cases, see and use the same physical features of the house that Lincoln utilized 150 years ago.

I realize that this site may in fact be one of the exceptions that prove the rule, but a greater acknowledgement of the steps already being taken would have allowed the forum guests to expand their discussion by considering the implications of exhibitions like the one’s at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

Here is the link to the Lincoln Cottage website for those who are interested:

And here is are some image of what the house looked like during the time the Civil War, and what it looks like today: 


1) Anonymous editor.  “The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 95 No. 2 (Sept. 2008). 



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4 responses to “Reflection on this week’s reading and academic perceptions of public history

  1. I am impressed with the variety of learning opportunities available at the Cottage. Your descriptions bring back memories of a trip to Gettysburg and the LED map of battle operations. Spectators could follow the different colored lights to see the advances and retreats of the battle groups and we all were quite fascinated with the 3D terrain (complete with trees and fences). This model represented a marvelous breakthrough in technology and could be adapted to tell a story. Years later, those same LED lights (found at many of our favorite sites) suffer from overuse from children not patient enough to wait for the action to begin. I’m curious if the technology available today meets the need for instant answers or if the computer systems also suffer from overzealous button pushing. As for me, I do enjoy the marvel of the new interactive guides. I also enjoy the flip book activities (a question printed on the top of the wooden block that can be turned over to reveal an answer – primitive, perhaps, but less maintenance!). I’m curious to know how institutions such as yours develop these programs to allow for more people to explore a variety of documents or prints or learning objectives AND make them user friendly for many, many hands. Certainly the new formats have the advantage of shuffling exhibits and offering multilingual programing – a boon to visitors from many cultures. Can they also calculate usage and interest levels? That might be an interesting research question: what types of devices or information gathers the most interest?

    • Interesting question Sheri, the best estimate we can get is how many visitors we get on average per year. In regards to the “Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions” program, the issue is not really physical usage (though that does accumulate), but simply that the computers and touch screens have a shelf life (given some of the problems we are currently experiencing, about 3-4 years or so), and part of the answer to your question is that we have to get the best equipment we can, and plan to have to reapply for more funding when we need new equipment.

  2. I appreciate your pointing out that digital history does not have to be online history or in any way disengaged from the experience of a museum, historic site, or educational institution. I know that I, at least, tend to forget that, and I think it’s something which is vital to remember.

    Has the Cottage done anything with mobile devices for historical overlay for visitors? Even just the audio tour?

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