Featured image courtesy of cirrent.co
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.
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.