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Public History and the Digital Age

April 6, 2013

The expectation of participation in cultural institutions is both a very new and a very old concept simultaneously. On one hand, the very essence of culture is public participation. If it was not, there would be a whole lot of cultural historians who would disappointed. On the other hand, an atomized modern society, with an industrialized mass-approach to entertainment and eduction, can leave many of us in a Kafka-esque maze where we feel very much disconnected with our cultural institutions.

Then came the internet.

As Nina Simone argues in Letting Go?, the public (or at least, the American public) has come to expect to interact and participate more when they visit museums and other public institutions. In the age of social media and the smart phone, it is no surprise that people want to engage more with new technology. Places like museums are realizing they have much to gain from these developments by creating new platforms for the public interact with their institutions.

This, of course, creates tensions. As inherent in the title of the above text, museums are not accustomed to ceding authority to the public. Thus, Erica Dicker argues that this fundamentally changing the role of the curator. In “The Impact of Blogs and Other Social Media on the Life of a Curator”, Dicker demonstrates that curators are spending a lot more time learning and working with social media in order to consider new exhibits.

Michael Frisch (also in Letting Go?) that this is a both/and scenario. In other words, the public and curators are sharing authority over the content of public institutions. Whether or not this is a constructive development in the long term is hard to say. Like so many other texts considered here on the topic of history in the digital age, these changes are happening before our eyes. Can one really know what the new paradigm will be if the ground is shifting beneath their feet?

  1. I agree that changes are currently happening inside our cultural institutions, which have provided stability over the years for the public. I suppose my background in education prepared me to work in a field where change literally takes place before our eyes. Do you think there are any benefits to not knowing what new paradigms lay around the bend? I tend to find it exciting because of the possible opportunities to be creative and think in new ways. I realize it creates tension, and can also make the work challenging because we don’t always know. I’m interested to know what you think.

  2. Yes, and I think the changes are reverberating on the fringes of the historical discipline. Ultimately the challenges are too fundamental to expect that the profession as a whole will not forever be changed. On second thought, I’m the one feeling the movement. Was that just a truck driving by or an earthquake?

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