Nov. 15, 2006

A Challenge for Public History

I am concerned.

I am concerned that I have not been using this blog properly or to its full potential. Humility in History is supposed to be a space for publishing my reflections regarding my learning experience as a public historian and a digital historian. I have written a number of posts concerned with the theory of Public History and Digital History, and I like to think that my readers are gaining some insight into what I am learning in the Public History program here at Western. On the other hand, I have written very little about what my class is doing. Yep, it’s true – we Public History students don’t just sit in front of our computers, reading online articles and then blogging about the concepts contained in these articles.

This year, the Public Historians are putting together an exhibit for Museum London, which is located here in London, ON. The exhibit will focus on invention and innovation in London, and we hope to showcase not only many of the items that citizens of London used in the past but also the process of innovation that continues in this city today. We are not alone in this effort either; we’re collaborating with curators and collectors, professors and inventors – not to mention one another. Our responsibilities range from creating a title to typing out the text for each item to be displayed. For the last month we’ve been busy researching exhibit items, conducting interviews with experts, and working together to figure out what idea we want our audience – you – to walk away from our exhibit with. This project is truly a fantastic opportunity to put into practice the theories and ideas that we read and blog about each week!

I am concerned.

I am concerned that we are blowing this opportunity. Twice over.

First of all, we have made lamentably little use of our Number One means of advertising for this exhibit: our blogs! We aren’t publicizing the project that we are creating for the public! Regardless of the fact that many of our readers are probably family, friends, or romantic interests – people who are already likely aware that we are putting together an exhibit for Museum London – we should still be making an effort to share our excitement for this project. It’s fantastic that we have buddies and relatives who are willing to support us; I fully expect friends from camp, friends from Western, friends from McMaster, friends from Ottawa, and extended family from across southern Ontario to make every effort to check this exhibit out in February! Imagine how much cooler it would be if all these people came to see the exhibit not because I was a part of it but because there was actually a hype for the exhibit itself? As the creators of this exhibit, it is our expectation that visitors will react in some way to the information we present; but in order for that reaction to occur, our audience needs to be genuinely interested in the content of this exhibit. The blogs published by this year’s Public History students are a key way to foster a hype that could make people care!

Secondly, and I think more importantly, I believe that we are blowing the opportunity to develop good habits as intentional public historians. Two weeks ago, Public History students read about the importance of process in putting together an exhibit. In our subsequent discussions, we have done a poor job of following the suggested process. I think that this is a result of both a looming deadline (we need to have all of our text submitted by Nov. 29) as well as our efforts to cope with some assumptions made about the direction of the exhibit earlier on in the semester.

I understand and agree that it is important to stick to deadlines, especially when we are collaborating with bodies outside of the university; however, I also place high value on the learning process, the collaborative process within our class, and on turning out high-quality work. At the beginning of the semester, Alan posed the question: When will we cease to be history students and begin being historians? In a similar vein, I would like to ask, “If we did not get ourselves into the habit of putting out quality public history in an intentional, methodical fashion while we are Public History students, when are we going to get into that habit?” This is our time to learn! It is the time when we are allowed to make mistakes! Choose your clichĂ©: You don’t learn to ride a bike without falling a few times; you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs! This is an opportunity to (dare I suggest it?) decide that we will not be meeting our deadline and to instead decide that we will take the time to ensure that we not only proud of our finished product but also the process by which we made that product. I am not suggesting that we have been inconsiderate when planning this exhibit; the Public History students have had numerous discussions concerning the message we want visitors to leave with and the narrative that we desire to tell. On the other hand, we have not yet had a focused discussion to decide how our main theme is supported by both our narrative and the grouping of exhibit items. We have no consensus regarding the tone or the mood of our exhibit. We are most definitely at the point where we have at the very least a basic understanding of our items purpose and history; therefore, I assume that we should be able to come to a solid (though not inflexible) plan as to where precisely we are headed with this exhibit. The readings that we have been assigned give us clear instructions on where our planning energies need to be focused.

I have devoted a great deal of space to some of the challenges that our group is currently facing and which I am as guilty of contributing to as the rest of the class. By no means do I think that I am better than any of my classmates. I am merely putting forward my observations of our group’s progress based on my interpretation of the class readings as well as previous group experiences. In short, it seems that our process of problem-solving, that is to say, our process of answering the question, “What are we trying to say in this exhibit and how are we going to say it?” has been overly-influenced by timelines and a need for success and not influenced enough by intentional goal setting. Conversely, I am confident that we still have time to develop some concrete conceptual guidelines for this exhibit, which will allow us to try out more of the skills that we are learning about in this program. As a plan of action, I suggest:

It is important for us to create a hype for our exhibit by “teasing” the audience in our respective blogs.

It is important for us to examine our plans as they stand on the class wiki and, though discussion and editing, come to a consensus in regards to the focus, narrative, tone, and categorization of items in our exhibit.

It is important for us to re-visit our deadlines to decide whether adjustments need to be made.

It is important for us to keep in mind the journey as well as the goal.

So… reader and future visitor to Museum London’s exhibit on inventions and innovations, you now have a great deal of insight into some of the practical challenges that we Public History students have been facing. What do you think will happen next? Will we be able to produce an exhibit that impresses a central idea on you? What will the reaction be to this post? Will Alan protect me from being lynched by my classmates tomorrow? Will the above words be enough to stir the pot or will we remain complacent and focused on deadlines rather than content? Will you look at our exhibit with a more critical or interested eye now that you have read about some of the challenges that we are struggling with?

Are you concerned?