Peering Over the Wall | Sharing Space Online

Featured image courtesy of

It is often said that historians inhabit ivory towers, that they are aloof and happily self-contained Rapunzels who have lost touch with the world below. It is often an apt description, yet in his article The Web is a Service Medium, Paul Ford uses metaphorical language that struck a particular chord with me.   In the face of the fluid and democratic space that is the Internet, Ford writes, “the idea of a defensible territory, a walled garden,” is very appealing to people he cleverly calls the Gutenbourgeois, but I would include some historians in this category as well. So what if – and forgive me for perhaps taking this metaphor a few steps too far – historians are not Rapunzel but Dame Gothel, the fairy tale equivalent of the disgruntled old woman shouting “get off my lawn!” to anyone who ventures into her walled garden?

In this version, the historian is a meticulous gardener, carefully tending to her research, her content, nurturing her ideas into maturity, maintaining the kind of “possessive individualism” that Roy Rosenzweig says is at the core of the field. The exact nature of what is contained within those walls – and who is left beyond them – changes. In some cases, the gardener is the academic historian, writing for his peers, neglecting the public. In other cases, however, the garden is a museum, one that keeps its content within its walls, hesitating to engage with digital space. And at times, I think the garden might even be the museum website, one that presents information without asking visitors to engage, contribute, or collaborate.

This is really just a drawn out way of making a simple point: the web offers cultural institutions unique opportunities to be more than just another transmitter of information. The Internet, Ford notes, has been used to emulate other mediums. It has become, at times, a television, a newspaper, a book, a radio, or, I would add, a museum, as institutions have sought to use the Internet in the same ways they use their physical spaces. They create exhibits, display objects, and offer clever interactives. Of course, these efforts are not to be discouraged. As Sheila Brennan has pointed out, museums have been slow to engage with the web – so arguably any attempt to digitize and be online is worthwhile.

Yet, and I’ll again turn to Ford, the web “is not just some kind of magic all absorbing meta-medium. It’s it’s own thing [emphasis mine].” The web has answers its own kind of media question; according to Ford, “why wasn’t I consulted?” If museums attempt only to create digital versions of physical spaces and things, they are doing history in a walled garden. They aren’t addressing this question, they aren’t, in Ford’s words, “tapping into this fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power).” These attempts, Michael Peter Edson writes in Dark Matter, focus on “only a small part of what the Internet can do to help us accomplish our missions.”

The answer seems simple: crowdsourcing. If museums could only tap into the tremendous popular interest in Wikipedia, for instance, they could make use of their audiences’ desire to be consulted. Wikipedia has demonstrated, Rosenzweig points out, that there are ways to “foster the collaboration creation of historical knowledge.” There are ways, in other words, to remove the barriers between the public and content. Some institutions are exploring the potential of crowdsourcing. The Transcribe Bentham project at University College London, for instance, harnessed the tremendous energy of its volunteers to successfully transcribe extremely complex manuscripts. The Victoria & Albert Museum, meanwhile, is engaging visitors in a very simple way, asking them to crop and select the best views of the 140,000 images that their online catalog automatically uploaded to the web (talk about letting go of control!). This gives visitors a sense of involvement and ownership in a museum project, and offers staff some much needed support.


Before and after shots from the V&A’s crowdsourcing project.

There are thousands of ways for people to get information on the web, and often the inclination is to turn to sources like @HistoryInPics, sites that churn out popular but oversimplified and sometimes misleading content. When museums use the web to emulate their physical spaces, they do not necessarily challenge these popular sources, they simply become an alternative. And to many, the museum’s walled garden is not as enticing. Yet by asking the public to participate in their processes, museums can do more than produce content, they can make use of the Internet in smarter and more effective ways. This drives home the point I was trying to make last week. The web is a fundamentally different space than a museum, one that overturns the very notion of authority. Until historians realize and embrace that, they will remain in their walled gardens, watering and pruning the kind of carefully guarded content to which the public feels no real emotional connection.


4 thoughts on “Peering Over the Wall | Sharing Space Online

  1. Anna Snyder says:

    Hi Jen,

    I really enjoyed reading your post this week. I loved your example of the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is such a great demonstration of museums welcoming the public into their sacred sphere. It’d be amazing to see more institutions adopt this kind of attitude.

    I also liked your concluding point about how the web “overturns the very notion of authority” and that historians need to embrace this or “will remain in their walled gardens, watering and pruning the kind of carefully guarded content to which the public feels no real emotional connection.” It’s such a nice visual that really sums up what this whole division is about.


    • Jen Giambrone says:

      Thanks for your comment, Anna! I am a huge fan of the V&A’s model, especially because it is such a simple way to get the public involved in the work of a historian. It also seems like there is not too much risk involved in the project – not a lot of room for error that the museum needs to worry about.


  2. protok1t says:

    I really like your analogy of the “walled garden,” but have to say I am somewhat content in my ivory tower. The concepts of “possessive individualism” and open access do not seem mutually exclusive. On the one hand, the historian is probably right to reluctantly share their hard earned research and content. While Wikipedia does not even allow for original research, it can be a good place to find out general information and locate initial/rudimentary sources. Furthermore, even if Wikipedia allowed original research, would historians add to a general crowdsourcing concept that would not give them the recognition or regarded respect that they may desire?

    On the other hand, the Internet is full of “cultivated gardens,” and you are free to pursue any interest or niche, from the most mundane to the most extreme. In a similar fashion, people seem most keen to contribute to things they have an actual interest in or are most relevant to themselves, just like I would prefer a WWII museum over a renaissance art museum. Perhaps it is the crowdsourcing itself that can allow the historians/museums to reconcile that “possessive individualism” with the desire to give “visitors a sense of involvement and ownership in a museum project.” Through allowing the user to actively contribute to their particular garden or niche, crowdsourcing can perhaps play a crucial role in the transformation of the museum and allow me to provide my own particular knowledge to a project. It is only the open web that provides the freedom for everyone to embrace the “unique opportunities to be more than just another transmitter of information” the web offers.


    • Jen Giambrone says:

      Thanks for your comment, Kit. I think you’ve really highlighted one of the central problems (at least in my opinion) with the profession – that there is no respect or merit to be earned from doing the kind of history that the web encourages. The “publish or perish” paradigm simply does not encourage alternate endeavors that may not lead to recognition but would reach a wider public. The ivory tower/walled garden persists, I think, because historians are confined to these metaphorical spaces not because they have necessarily willed it, but because the profession requires it. The public historian in me is definitely showing… but this seems like a problem to me!

      And I absolutely agree with your second point, this is precisely what I was trying to get across. Even if historians are reluctant to contribute to sites like Wikipedia, they can create history on the web that invites public participation and, as you say, allows “the user to actively contribute to their particular garden or nice.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s