Publication Date

May 1, 2009


Public History

Even in these days of instant communication and seemingly unlimited information at one’s fingertips, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep pace with new technology and to think critically about how we can use it to educate the public about history.

How can new media extend an organization’s reach?

The internet, though in its second decade, is still a new medium; yet it has already transformed the way information is communicated. Museums, historic sites, archives and other public history organizations initially viewed the internet with suspicion. Many feared that putting images of their resources and collections online would discourage onsite visitation. They also foresaw major proprietary and copyright challenges arising from illegal use of materials. This first fear quickly dissipated as they realized that the intrinsic power of the real easily eclipsed the allure of the digital. The second fear remains, though an opinion shift has begun. Some progressive thinkers, encouraged by the digerati, are seeing the value of letting go of proprietary interests and embracing a full-scale sharing of collections in order to maximize education.

Today most exhibitions have a complementary online component, allowing access to people who cannot visit the physical exhibition, thus extending geographic reach. The virtual exhibition can incorporate different media, allowing the exhibition development team to re-think the exhibition without the confines of space, security, and conservation limitations. Various tools now allow users to manipulate the images to research, inspect, and share with friends. Several magnification tools allow users to zoom in on an image, getting a closer look at a map, document, or painting, often closer than they can get in the physical exhibition. Other tools do even more—for example, a “magic lens” on the Harvard site,, allows the user to look at an 18th-century diary with a lens that magically transcribes the handwritten script into type. Virtual exhibitions often include additional material that did not fit into the conceptual plan for the exhibition, just as movie DVDs include special features.

I once received an e-mail about an online exhibition I had developed based on a traveling exhibition. The writer was very complimentary about the site, but two lines caught my attention: “I am a lover of museums and art and never thought of how much I could see by going onto the various web sites. The pictures are better than being there.” But she added that she would definitely visit the exhibition when it traveled to her city. Here is a classic example of how the internet can enhance the study of a museum’s collections at home and also drive traffic to the museum itself. Online exhibitions complement the physical version and can virtually extend a visit. And they usually remain online long after the physical space has closed.

New media are also allowing organizations to extend generational reach. During a visit to Washington’s Newseum, which markets itself as the most technologically advanced museum in the country, I encountered a group of teenagers surrounding an interactive table where users can manipulate images on the tabletop. I hadn’t seen this new technology in action yet, and stood amazed as I observed these students wholly engaged in a competition to populate a newspaper front page by answering questions related to journalism ethics. They reluctantly left only when their teacher announced it was time to meet the bus.

As technology becomes more pervasive in daily life, exhibitions are becoming more and more interactive. Developers see the value of providing visitor experiences that engage the senses and address a variety of learning styles. Touch-screen monitors are beginning to give way to interactive tables and walls that allow multiple users to simultaneously manipulate images and engage with various sources. New technology offers more opportunities for visitors to exchange information and learn with others. It can engage groups of visitors, interpersonal learners, and younger generations that have embraced social media.

Do social media threaten an organization’s voice of authority?

The big question that many history organizations are confronting now is whether to tap into the so-called Web 2.0 or social media revolution. Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2006 was “You”—the many internet users in the world who are transforming the fabric of the Web into personal social commentaries, online communities, and personal collections to share with fellow internet users.1 Social media tools (such as Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, wikis, blogs, and others) give users more opportunities to create their own Web content and offer greater potential for them to interact with others in the digital world. Such tools also offer new types of marketing opportunities and new ways to engage young audiences.

Not surprisingly, this trend of users creating and contributing to content can be rightfully alarming to institutions seen by their constituents as a voice of authority, like history museums. It seems antithetical to the concept of museums as bastions of expertise and scholarship. When public trust is involved, the fear of losing control of the message becomes understandable. A 2001 survey by the American Association of Museums found that “museums are the most trusted source of information, ahead of books and television news.”2 Another survey concluded that Americans put more trust in history museums and historic sites as sources for learning about the past than in any other source, including personal accounts from family.3

The tension revolves around control—social media bring a fear that when users contribute, control is forfeited and anything could happen. The notion of “radical trust” springs from this tension. It suggests greater equality between museum and user. However, to ignore social media is to risk alienating your organization from a large percentage of users, specifically the youngest generations that use social media the most. There are no easy answers at the moment, but a variety of history organizations are experimenting in the social media realm.

The question history organizations should be asking is how social media can help expand their dialogue with the public. The Library of Congress took a big step into the arena in January 2008 when it launched a pilot project on Flickr, the hugely popular photo-sharing web site. The library had three goals: (1) make more people aware that the library has photos to share; (2) gain a better understanding of how social tagging and community input could help both users of collections and the library; and (3) gain experience participating in Web 2.0 communities interested in the library’s collections—ultimately to drive traffic to the library web site.4 Another history organization, the Minnesota Historical Society, is at the forefront of social media experimentation. For example, its Minnesota’s Greatest Generation web site,, launched in August 2005 and encourages many types of interaction on a variety of levels. Besides collecting oral histories, it has served to inform the development of an upcoming exhibition.

Where should an organization with limited resources focus its efforts?

By far the Web seems to be the technology that holds everyone’s attention these days. At a Museums and the Web conference several years ago, a group of representatives from history organizations discussed how the discipline of history online is different from other disciplines. We concluded that one strength of the Web is its ability to illustrate both multiple perspectives and change over time. The capability of providing unlimited links to additional information makes the Web very suitable for historical and cultural sites that want to provide several perspectives on an historic event. Change over time can be illustrated effectively by layering visual information, whether maps or photos or illustrations.

Many history organizations, having established a presence online, next launched into major digitization projects to create databases for both internal record keepers and external researchers. With online collections expanding rapidly, it’s crucial to think critically about the next step, providing mechanisms to help users understand the historical process—analyzing sources and drawing conclusions. Often we fail to convey the basics of this process. One of the most important things we can teach the public is how we know what we know. Educators should play a big role in this effort.

But other web-distributed technologies are gaining popularity. As podcasts become more popular, historical organizations are realizing that oral history interviews, lectures, talks with staff and guest experts can all be packaged for download onto personal listening devices with relatively little expense. An oral history interview collected for documentation purposes can be edited and made available for public consumption. A public program with limited seating capacity or even low attendance can be recorded for use in a podcast format. Of course, podcasts don’t come without cost, and their expense comes mostly with editing.

In the formal education realm, electronic field trips broadcast to large numbers via the Web remain expensive to produce. While attractive because of their potential for broad reach, they lack the interactivity and more personal nature of a videoconference, which can reach several classrooms at a time. Videoconferencing equipment is becoming less expensive and more and more schools are buying the equipment. Yet the reach is minimal when you connect to just a few classrooms at a time. If an organization’s goal is to reach students at a distance, videoconferencing may be worth investigating. For a broader reach, historical institutions with videoconferencing equipment might consider using it for teacher training purposes.

Exhibition developers are also seeking new ways to use technology to engage a broader range of learning styles and make exhibitions more active experiences. However, much consideration must go into ensuring that the learning objective and messages don’t get lost in the technology. Technology must be a vehicle to teach or communicate and thus, must be transparent.

Large permanent museum exhibitions can take two to three years or more to develop, which, for technology, is a glacial pace. New museums and national memorials have even longer development periods. In some ways it is impossible to anticipate upcoming technology, but it is important nonetheless for planners to try to think of the many audiences that would benefit from varied delivery methods. From audio components for nonvisual learners to content delivered in multiple languages, today’s technology can make it easier to reach targeted audiences by broadcasting to and providing downloads for personal listening devices.

The best advice I can offer is to watch what others are doing, stay connected and engaged in the ongoing dialogue about technology, don’t fear experimentation, and always look for creative partners who can share costs.

— is an education specialist and exhibition developer at the National Air and Space Museum. He originated and writes the “History Bytes” column in History News, the magazine of the American Association for State and Local History, and recently coauthoredThe Museum Educator’s Manual.


1. Lev Grossman, “Time’s Person of the Year: You,”Time, December 25, 2006, 40.

2. Cited in Elizabeth Merritt, “Root of All Evil? The Ethics of Doing Business with For-Profit Entities,” Museum News 85: 4 (July/August 2006), 31.

3. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 21.

4. Author’s notes from a presentation by Library of Congress staff, January 29, 2008.

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