I am just going to be upfront about this. National Treasure made me want to study history.
The movie came out right around my birthday during my junior year of high school, and at the time I was pondering going to school for creative writing or maybe even dance. But then (bear in mind that this was well before Nick Cage began to star in cinematic gems like Stolen, with a plot that is suspiciously similar to Taken – but I digress) the edge-of-your-seat historical adventure hit theaters and I was captivated. I will give myself at least a little credit: it was Diane Kruger’s job at the National Archives (she got to go to galas!), and not Cage’s treasure hunting exploits that piqued my interest.
I have come a long way since the days when National Treasure was my career inspiration. I thought that, when I enrolled in graduate school, I had finally figured out who I wanted to be when I grew up – the curatorial path seemed like a no-brainer. Yet what I have loved most about the past year is that it has continued to shape my understanding of what history is and how I want to do it. The field of public history is far more complex than I had ever realized, and this summer’s crash course in digital history has redefined where I think I’m going next.
At the end of Public History Seminar last fall, we were asked to write an essay in response to the following question: what is public history and why should all historians care about it? I started my essay with a bleak description of what a world without public history might look like:
It is a world that lacks reflection and, consequently, a world that is stagnant, unable to measure progress, to learn from past mistakes, to move forward in ways that are better and bolder because they are well informed. What comes to view is something of a dystopian nightmare, a society without a soul.
I proceeded to outline what I believe are three essential qualities of public history, the things that I think public history does or can accomplish. And as I thought through my experience with digital history over the past few weeks, it occurred to me that digital history does the exact same things, perhaps even better. I’d like to take some time to reconsider my thoughts on the subject. For the sake of this blog I’ve replaced “public” with “digital.”
Digital history preserves and protects places, artifacts, and documents.
This may sound strange but consider this: in a world where human interaction increasingly takes place online, we need people and processes dedicated to preserving content like tweets and Facebook pages that will undoubtedly serve as valuable primary sources for future historians. Digital history offers solutions for preserving born digital content in ways that are far more effective than traditional methods. Digital history also calls for the preservation of documents and artifacts in a space that allows for far more accessibility than a dusty archive or climate-controlled museum storage room: the web. Tools like Omeka enable unprecedented public access, if only more institutions would invest in them. And, finally, mobile apps allow us to preserve place in new and exciting ways, to transform, in the words of Mark Tebeau, “the landscape into a living museum” (25).
Digital history reaches, influences, and is done by the public.
Popular social media accounts like @HistoryinPics demonstrate that the public has an interest in creating and consuming historical content on the web. And the nature of the web invites them to do just that. Crowd-sourcing sites like Wikipedia and HistoryPin tap into what Paul Ford calls the “fundamental question of the web”: why wasn’t I consulted? By acknowledging the best uses of the web as a medium, historians can both engage the public and make tremendous progress on projects that would otherwise cost a fortune. Collaboration, in other words, happens naturally on the web; historians should take advantage of that.
Digital history has the potential to interpret a contested past.
Public historians have long struggled to find ways to tell difficult stories in public spaces: the saga of the Enola Gay exhibit in the 1990s shows just how fraught their efforts can be. Digital history, however, provides them with new ways to teach the tough stuff. Video games, James Paul Gee points out in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, allow players to experience “the “other” from the inside” (149). In fact, Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens argue that this is exactly what video games should be doing. In reference to the game Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization, they write that “we would love to see a Eurocentric, colonialist representation of colonialism in which Native Americans are robust, playable peoples, because it would allow players to experience the ugly, authentic colonization that so radically changed and shaped our world.”
Digital history maps so well onto the exact things that I thought public history should do, which are ultimately the reasons I want to do public history in the first place (well, apart from Nick Cage). I am still not entirely sure where my career will take me; this class has again complicated what I thought I knew. But I will say this. It has been over ten years since Ben Gates decided to steal the Declaration, since I first became genuinely excited about being a historian. Digital history has served as a sequel to National Treasure as it relates to my interest in the field. Digital historians are doing some truly innovative, genuinely exciting stuff. It’s something in which I hope, in some capacity, to take part.