Featured image courtesy of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage
Long before a defiant Elsa belted out her signature song from her ice palace, public historians have been engaged in a conversation about “letting go.” To the authors of the 2011 book Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, the phrase means “letting go of the notion… that one can or should control all outcomes in the museum” (13). The experience should instead be one that the public is actively involved in creating, one in which the public shares authority.
There are certain limits to shared authority in a physical museum; staff cannot, for instance, allow visitors to handle important artifacts. Yet the stuff of a curator’s nightmare may be the digital humanist’s dream. The web is a place where letting go and sharing authority take on new meaning, a place where participation and preservation can coexist. In this blog I’d like to wander into this wonderland and explore just a few of the ways that the web can and should break down institutional authority. While the most obvious connections here are to born digital materials, there are lessons to be learned about digitized collections as well.
Public and digital historians must let go of traditional assumptions about preservation.
Storage, as Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart point out in Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, can do more harm than good when it comes to born digital materials. When stowed away, technologies obsolesce, bits decay. Ippolito and Rinehart offer several recommendations for better ways to preserve new media art, and it is clear that the digital community has begun to implement these ideas. The authors of “Collecting the Present: Digital Code and Collections,” for instance, discuss the acquisition and preservation of the app Planetary, which is being preserved, in part, using open sourced code that allows the public to interact with and change the code. This ensures that the app will live on as it is adapted, updated, and shared. This challenges not only traditional preservation practices, but also the ways historians engage the public, inviting a truly immersive and interactive experience.
Public and digital historians must let go of control of the exhibit experience.
This is precisely the message that the authors of Letting Go? want to send, but the web can take this to a new level. In a physical exhibit, planners can predict, to some degree, visitor experiences. In many cases, for instance, they can determine the order in which guests will move through the exhibit. They can wager that large objects prominently placed will attract at least a glance.
On the web, all bets are off. Hypertext and search capabilities mean that the exhibit experience never has to be linear, and probably never is. With no admission fees or time constraints, visitors can browse and bookmark, enter and exit at will. Public historians need to embrace this – to create exhibits that respond to and enable these behaviors. Unfortunately, as Sheila Brennan points out in “Getting to the Stuff,” despite the movement to share authority on the web, “there still seems to be little effort to… explore the ways that evidence can be interpreted in different ways, that ultimately encourage visitors to learn to look, compare, contextualize.”
Yet there are many tools at a historian’s disposal to do just that – Omeka, for instance – and plenty of available advice. In “A Draft Style Guide for Digital Collection Hypertexts,” for instance, Trevor Owens offers some useful guidelines for what he calls “online exhibition-ish pages for the web.” According to Owens, exhibits should anticipate the ways that users interact with the Internet – creating labels that can stand alone and using hyperlinks to connect concepts, for instance. Historians can use these techniques to create meaningful online experiences, letting go of the ways an exhibit functions.
Public and digital historians must let go of the notion that digital interactions are less meaningful than human ones.
They must, in other words, share authority with the Internet. As insane as that might sound, letting go of the assumption that, in Tim Sherratt’s words, “experiences mediated through online technologies are somehow less authentic than those that take place in this space that we often refer to as ‘the real world,’” opens some fascinating doors for historians. MuseumBots, for instance, are able to randomly select and share objects from a museum’s collection, exposing the public to artifacts that a curator may never have otherwise shared or put on display. Truly letting go in the digital world means ceding control not only to the public, but to the medium used to reach it.
Thus, while historians have long talked about letting go and sharing authority, the web is a game changer. In fact, I would argue that there is no authority to share online, because the Internet is a great equalizer, where everyone is a consumer, a creator, and a participant. Public and digital historians must earn authority by creating spaces that respond to and explore new possibilities on the web. I’ve tried to avoid any more references to Frozen, but here’s one for the road: it’s time to “test the limits and break through.”