After creating “Battleground America” I was asked to consider what difference digital work makes for public history. I have framed my answer with the kind of onsite exhibit, online exhibit, and digital archive which I created for my final project in mind.
I think that at the most basic level the use of digital work in public history is a way to end the problem of limited run exhibits. Instead of only being on loan for six months or a year, the objects and content from an exhibit can be digitized. This allows them to live online in digital exhibits forever. This capability is perhaps the best place to start for those hesitant to embrace the digital medium for public history.
Once exhibits and objects have been digitized, museum professionals must ensure that information is as accessible as possible. This accessibility can be ensured by following standards of markup and archiving.The online archive holds the possibility for strong historical education. This is because, unlike history textbooks, or even history websites, the historical digital archive provides the possibility for non-top-down learning. The digital archive allows individuals to do primary source research, ask their own questions of the sources, and come up with their own conclusions. This teaches not only research skills but also reinforces the idea that history is not just useless trivia, but is instead a constant debate based on interpretations of primary sources.
Digital components which are accessible by mobile devices allow visitors to interact with deeper, more diverse content which they may have wanted in the past but were not able to obtain. They are now able to interact with this content through tools which they themselves already own. There is thus no need for investment on the part of the museum. This frees up panels to suggest more provocative ideas, pushing the visitor to find out more by investigating online. Additionally, online tools and resources allow the visitor to experiment with information in a low risk environment outside of the museum, often the privacy of their own homes. However the act of investigation can also be used to encourage group participation and interactivity through historical investigations.
Digital tools of Web 2.0 also allow for the kind of interactive, bottom up conversations long the goal of museums. Social media and interactive web based tools move the “comment board” online. Using Twitter accounts or Facebook walls visitors get new ways to respond to content and get direct feedback from museum professionals in real time in a way that would not have been possible before.
Digital tools can also push new kinds of projects which would not have been possible before. The sheer scope of information which is now accessible to the public through digital collections is a revolution. Archivists and curators no longer have to worry about damage to fragile objects being handled by the public. The public can now handle them digitally. This allows the true goal public history institutions, access, to be obtained. Additionally, the ability to provide users with the ability to come to their own conclusions, but providing them with historical content rather than historical answers fulfills a long term goal of history education. That is to encourage research skills, critical thinking, and the ability to come to logical, defensible conclusions.