“I’m Gonna Steal the Declaration of Independence” (Or, My Career Path So Far)

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.

NationalTreasure

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.

NickCage

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5 thoughts on ““I’m Gonna Steal the Declaration of Independence” (Or, My Career Path So Far)

  1. Anna Snyder says:

    Jen,

    I love everything about this post. I’ve told many people (too many people) about how I incorporated National Treasure into my grad school application essays and how it also inspired me to want to study history. So all you’re references are right up my alley.

    I like how you outlined all the different ways that digital historians are shaking up the field and I particularly appreciate your recycling of our Seminar assignment and making it fit here. I think you managed to hit on all the reasons why digital history is so crucial to public historians. It manages to engage audiences in new ways and prevent our profession from going stagnant. Your statement that “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” is crucial. It reminds us that society is constantly changing, but as historians, we should be able to understand these trends and work ourselves into them.

    I can relate to all your comments about questioning your career path because I am in the same boat. I never thought of myself as a “digital person,” but after this class and my past internship, I’m realizing how much I really enjoy this aspect of public history. I love your concluding sentences because you managed to get into my head and say all the things I’m thinking.

    Like

    • Jen Giambrone says:

      Hi Anna, thanks for your comment, I’m glad that I’m not the only one who feels that way about National Treasure! I think this class, more than any other, has taught me how important it is that we keep learning and expanding our understanding of the best ways to engage the public so, as you say, we keep “from going stagnant.” I get the sense that, once you know how to write interpretive labels or create a good tour, for instance, those are skills that are more or less developed, but the web is constantly changing, and we as public historians need to be more invested in keeping up with it!

      Like

  2. ar5249a says:

    Hi Jen,

    First let me tell you how awesome it is that you incorporated National Treasure! While I already knew that I wanted to study history, this movie definitely solidified it. Nerd alert, I saw this movie more than once in the theaters because I liked it so much!

    I completely relate with you. I did not know that public history is as vast and complex as it truly is. As a result of this, my career goal has been pushed, pulled, and altered in ways that I would have never expected.

    Like you, I am embracing these changes and with the help of these new tools we have learned in History and New Media, I plan to take part in the new and exciting things that digital and public historians are doing.

    Like

    • Jen Giambrone says:

      Thanks for your comment, Anna! I am glad you feel the same way, I think that if we all walk away thinking that digital history is important this course will have accomplished its goals. I would like to see digital history as a requirement for the public history program, it’s hard to imagine working in the field and not being aware of the tools and potential we have learned about in just six short weeks.

      Like

  3. Sydney says:

    Jen,
    I enjoyed your cross-class connections. It really exemplifies how intertwined public and digital history are. They seemingly share the same foundation and aims and have the ability to positively affect the historical-mindedness of the masses. I like how you mentioned this idea of the complicated-ness of digital history and how it has made your career selection even tougher. I agree that because of the vast possibilities that digital history presents for the propagation of “good” history that our options as emerging historians have greatly expanded. We are now equipped with tools and digital methodologies that we can employ at various institutions to increase the accurate historical knowledge–what an exciting prospect. We are the next generation of professionals in our field who have the responsibility (and now the knowledge) to cause a methodological shift that will greatly benefit our constituents and how the past is taught and applied to the future.

    Like

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