Reflections: Digitizing Public History

6 May

by Becky Johnston-

Technology is playing an increasingly large part in the study of history. The Internet has allowed instant access to information through websites on historical events, figures, records, and old and rare books. The time it takes to research has been drastically cut because of this access. Technology and public history now seem like a natural fit. The Internet and mobile applications have placed history at the public’s fingertips. Digitization of physical documents and artifacts allow everything to be seen by anyone with Internet access.

Virtual museums are a digital innovation for the presentation of public history. They allow people hundreds of miles away to see a collection or exhibit that they otherwise would not have been able to visit.  These may be the digital version of physical exhibits, or exhibits purely in the virtual world.  Working with Omeka (a medium for digital and virtual museums) gave the practicum students the opportunity to access all objects used in CUSP exhibits over four years, though the physical objects were no longer in our possession. We created exhibits based on themes that we saw, not ones pre-described by the original exhibits. Other museums could digitize their entire collections–including items hidden away in storage. Visitors to the museum’s website could browse through them based on predefined collections or, by way of a tagging system, could create their own exhibits using filters like Ancient Egypt or Pre-Columbian.

I would like to envision that one day all the museums and collections everywhere would contribute to the digitization of public history by donating digital photos of their objects to an Internet-based collection. Here, anyone could research, compare, organize, and exhibit a consortium of artifacts, paintings, documents, or anything else deemed of historical significance. A free, public “World Museum,” would be a gift to not only the academic community, but to the people. What wonderful exhibits could be formed from joining relics from collections in countries separated by hundreds of mile and political interest, that otherwise would never be able to be united.

Another form of the digitization of public history are mobile applications. This is an emerging union between history and technology, which gives users the ability to visit historical sites with a personal tour guide. Images, videos, and sound could all be activated based on location. As I’ve discussed before, the most up-to-date information could be relayed to the user.  Besides the project Tom and I are working on this summer, I have thought about how I could interlace this with my research in Native American Studies.

People today do not have the concept of how many mounds there actually were in the area. The vast number of mounds in the St. Louis area lent to its former nickname of Mound City. Incorporating GIS mapping technology with the GPS in a mobile device would allow researchers to walk to areas with integral information at hand, to see the layout with their own eyes, and gain a better perspective of what they are studying.  A tool such as this, combined with the research at Cahokia Mounds, could inspire new theories about why the mounds were laid out in a certain position. Mounds would not have been random constructions, but were placed with purpose. They defined a landscape and, therefore, how the landscape was used and walked upon. It has been theorized that they directed paths and a guided tour–including locations of bygone mounds- might help to visualize this function.

If you can’t tell, I find this merging of two disciplines absolutely fascinating. I am looking forward to this summer’s project and trying to incorporate these ideas into my future research. I do not find this turn to the virtual pulling away from the physical. Those who seek to see things for themselves and not through the lens of a camera and screen of some device will still visit museums. The experience of being inches away from history cannot be recreated. But the poor middle school that has lost funding will now be able to take that trip to a museum that would not have been possible otherwise. This cutting-edge field of study will undoubtedly lead to new theories and discoveries because it allows for correlations that could not have been made if the past had not been brought into the digital world.


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