This portfolio post contains two sections: the first examines definitions of audience and public history. In many ways, it is best to start with these definitions/discussion so that we can adequately discuss the second section which is to examine the relationship between the two. In the end, this posting does not offer a end-all-be-all discussion of audience and public history projects. However, this posting does offer an opportunity to discuss such relationships, and how these relationships change and morph over time.
Part I: Definition Discussions
Museums of any strip and color wanted visitors to come to and see the exhibitions, objects, and resources. During this discussion, museums are referring to history museums, historic sites, and local historical society exhibitions. These museums, therefore, are called public history institutions. In breaking down this word, “public history”, one can gain a better understanding as to how this field emerged and changed over time. According to Meringolo Denis, “public” offers questions of method and content interpretation. (xv) Meaning, when a scholar of history, medicine, art, music, etc., engages with the public, he or she opens the flood gate of interpretive democracy. People from the general public can now offer a form of critique, pose questions, or add to the discussion. Moreover, “history” offers a discipline standards that are universal, not up for debate. Therefore, public history is the opening of historical content to debate from the public in insomuch as the public adheres to the professional, scholarly standards of the practice of history. Denis concludes that public history is collaborative via its authority sharing with the public and other forms of scholarship. (xxiv)
Public history can, due to its dialogue with the general public, offer new modes and produces of scholarship. Ronald Grele notes that public history offers new definition as to the role of the historian. (48) He also notes that public history creates a form of historical consciousness in which the historian is there to guild public discussion of history. In other words, historical consciousness is this action of the public becoming involved in the workings of the history profession, but these interactions are monitored and supervised by a new breed of historian – a public historian. (48) In the end, we have discussed how public history can be broken down into “public” modes of content discussion and “history” modes of reorganizing the scholarly profession, but what of the public? How would one define such a group?
This second section will dive into what is the make-up of the audience. Who are the audience members? What is there role besides that of content discussion? Simply, in the field of public history, the audiences is not only a duel partner for content creation but also a targeted group of consumers. Sheila Brennan and Sharon Leon of Building History of the National Mall note that public history can also be dubbed an “product” that should be consumed by the general public, and that consumption of a digital history project should be designed to be used by a wide variety of consumers. (4-6) These digital history project also create primary and secondary user groups to help understand who will be using the product – are these on-site visitors or are these off-site users? (“Audience Section”) The research done by Brennan and Leon show that users of digital public history projects range in age, demographics, and are often off-site visitors looking for interesting activities to do when on site. (“Audience Section”) In the end, digital public history tools are geared towards site visitors who have an interest in the historical narrative, but, perhaps, wants to find more layers of complexities and join the historical debate. In the end, as one can see, the audience can be hard to define. Katherine T. Carbett and Howard S. Miller note that “public history is always situational and frequently messy,” because there are many times when public historians have to negotiate with ” non-historians with fluid agency.” (19-20) This brings us into our last section, audience interaction with public history.
Part II: Audience Interaction
John Kuo Wei Tchen of the Chinatown Museum notes that past public history exhibits tend to speak in “a single, authoritative voice”. (290) This singular voice does not allow for the opportunity for there to be discussions between the audience and the museum goer. (290) One of the main themes of audience interaction is this idea of authority. Who is giving authority or who has authority are major questions in the field of public history. This brings us into discussions of “shared authority”. Michael Frisch in his work “A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen and Back” illuminates that possibility historians are not giving authority to the public, but are interacting with authority the public already possess. (127) A shared authority, by definition, is the idea that authority cannot be taken by one group and given to another, author is equal to the historian and to the public. (127)
This shared authority, according to Frisch, allows the historian to present collections, objects, and data to formulate and argument; however, the audience then has room to critique the arrangement or, perhaps, make a new argument from the existing collections of objects. (129) This role that the audience member takes is to not ask for more objects or to discredit the object already on display (objects curated by the public historian), but to explore the objects with new questions. Frisch argues that exploring “offers a non-linear searching” opportunity for the imagination. (131-2) In other words, the historian can, and should, make an argument, but offer enough evidence for the public to do the same.
In many ways, public historians often push visitors to interact with exhibition. The goal here is to drive the audience out of their confront zones. Carbett and Miller note that public history exhibits sometimes tell stories are are uncomfortable. (22) If an exhibit is to push people to critically think about an exhibit, then they, perhaps, will be more inclined to partake in interactive elements of the exhibit.
Overall, as one can being to see, this relationship between historian and audience member is fluid, often complex and nuanced. What is most difficult for the historian is to accept this new definition and reorganization of roles. Scholars have to be open to allow interpretation of objects curated. However, as we have seen in the first section of this posting, the audiences providing the feedback must also adhere to scholarly standards of interpretations.
Brennan, Sheila and Sharon Leon. “Building Histories of the National Mall: A Guide to Creating a Digital Public History Project.” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. October 2015.
Corbett, Katharine T. and Howard S. (Dick) Miller. “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry.” The Public Historian 28.1 (2006): 15-38.
Frisch, Michael. “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back.” Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, 126-137. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, 2001.
Grele, Ronald. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 40-48.
Kuo Wei Tchen, John. “Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment.” In Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, edited by Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer, and Steven D. Lavine, 285-326. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
Meringolo, Denise. Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.