Thursday, April 9, 2009


Yesterday our class presented our year long exhibit on William Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system. After 2 hours of visitors, I learned a few lessons about visitors to museum exhibits. For one, they are reluctant to ‘dive in’ and attempt interactivity. Usually, they hang back and analyze the exhibit to try and deduce what must be accomplished, and step forward once they have been invited to interact. Visitors are, however, eager to engage in the exhibit once they understand how it works. This is one of the problems with current museums featuring fully interactive exhibits – the explanation is usually in text form, while visitors much prefer to engage with a person who can use verbal communication to describe, in many ways, how the exhibit works, and what it attempts to teach the visitor.

Another interesting observation I made was the behaviour of visitors upon entering the exhibit. Many museum researchers have concluded that visitors like moving to their right upon entering a room. In my experience yesterday, visitors moved to whichever side of the room that had the most space. We enjoy our personal space, and it is apparent that museum visitors avoid high traffic areas on purpose.

The order of presentation also appears important to visitors. At the start, I explained Harvey’s mechanical philosophy, then proceeded to discuss how the exhibit functioned. Frequently I noticed the visitor level of interest begin to wane; they just wanted to touch the buttons! Ultimately I made the appropriate adjustment, detailing how the exhibit worked first, and then informing them of Harvey’s philosophy and its relation to the exhibit.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Public landscapes are an artificial construct. As humans, we have a need to categorize and make order of anything we come upon. This is especially true in terms of public spaces, and especially those spaces considered ‘natural’. But what is ‘nature’? How do we return a landscape to its original splendour? Obviously this question has its inherent assumptions – our perception of its origins probably includes trees, fields, wild animals, etc... If we sidestep this assumption for a moment, we realize that there is no way to identify exactly what these origins are since we cannot interpret them through anything other than human eyes. Nature does not actually become nature until we see it. Furthermore, merely the mention of the word ‘nature’ causes our brains to focus on what our own interpretation of nature should be. Building on this, these interpretations will differ greatly from person to person, especially if we compare one person has been confined to an urban atmosphere their whole life to someone who has spent their life living on farm.

Restoring landscapes can be considered an interventionist type of public history. Usually the goal is to return the landscape to a point in time that has been identified. This time period is identified by locals and local historians alike, and highlighted as a means of stimulating community pride or drawing in tourists. But, as previously mentioned, interpreting this landscape through a modern lens reduces the authenticity. In essence, even though the landscape may be uninspiring, I do not think it merits intervention which would undoubtedly ruin other historical aspects of the landscape which have not been chosen for renaissance. As David Glassberg notes in his article ‘Interpreting Landscapes’, public historians “seek to understand not only how past generations shaped the land, but how they perceived it and gave it meaning.” Is it then responsible to present a historical landscape depicting only one time period through a modernist perspective?

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Historical interpretation changes quite frequently. Does it not seem odd that one of the more prominent forms of public history cannot be changed? Statues and monuments are literally set in stone. When historical interpretations change, it is much easier to re-write history than it is to re-carve it.

With this in mind, do statues and monuments still have their place in public history? Ultimately, I would suggest that the best application of statues to public history is in the form of symbolism. Eileen Eagan notes in her article Immortalizing Women: Finding Meaning in Public Sculpture that women are typically portrayed as symbols of good citizenship and embodying stoic values. I find this the best type of public history as these characteristics maintain their longevity. Statues and monuments of recognizable historical figures represent only their accomplishments, and rarely depict the overarching symbolism that should be displayed.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Recently a class discussion was held regarding historical film and public history. The most interesting article we read in preparation (in my humble opinion), was The (Un)Making of a Historical Drama: A Historian/Screenwriter Confronts Hollywood written by Daniel Blake Smith. In brief summation, the article followed Smith’s trials and tribulations in his attempt to write a historical film script that would be produced into a Hollywood film. Eventually, Smith’s script was given to another screenwriter, who removed any semblance of historical accuracy. In a roundabout way, Smith criticizes Hollywood for its refusal to stick to historical accuracy in favour of popularizing its scripts. Thus, I began to explore the question of whether or not it was possible to create a Hollywood film that was truly a product of public history.

Smith lamented the fact that all of his scholarly research was pushed aside in favour of creating a script which appealed to a wider public. The question I struggle with is whether or not the initial product (Smith’s script) encompasses the ideas and values of public history, or whether the commercialized version of the script was legitimate public history.

To begin, Smith’s script was written using scholarly research, including many interviews and primary sources. Despite its roots in scholarly practice, the information was adapted to a more public medium: film. This process is similar to that of a museum exhibit, in that it is rooted first in scholarly research before being interpreted for public consumption. Analysis of Smith’s methodology allows the reader to conclude that he was indeed practicing public history.

The second script, which was adapted from Smith’s original work, allows for more speculation. Indeed, it made use of original research in order to produce a form of public history. However, it is unclear which aspects of historical research was used, and which was simply adapted. As a result, one would have a difficult time determining what information has its roots in historical fact. In this instance divergent opinions clash – historical material is being interpreted by an interlocutor in order to create a work that is solely meant for public consumption, thus, it is public history; conversely, the new script was written without the aid of research, using the original script as its basis for historical fact.

Is it possible to determine a cut-off point for diluted research, or, is it all just public ‘history’?

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Private historians are supposed to conduct so-called ‘responsible history’; history which has been thoroughly researched, and addresses multiple points of view in order to demonstrate an unbiased scholarly approach. With this in mind, I would like to address the prospect of a responsible public history. Is it possible?

Public history is presented to the public, and as such, must be sensitive to the feelings not only of the majority, but also the minority. How does one present a controversial issue with the least amount of controversy? In 2007, this issue came to light with the roaring debate surrounding the War Museum’s exhibit about strategic bombing entitled “An Enduring Controversy.” Obviously, it is difficult to present both sides of the debate in a small text panel – it is even more difficult to present both sides of the debate using only visual displays. Should societal views play a role in determining public history? As history for public consumption, one would assume that public history would be reflective of widely held points of view. However, in this case, it is difficult to present the truth without going against widely held public opinions. However, there is another important factor which must be considered: public funds. After a review of the museum’s exhibit text panel, the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs acknowledge this implication, and concluded... “After due consideration, the Subcommittee respectfully suggests that the Canadian War Museum has both the public responsibility and professional capacity to take the lead in resolving the disagreement. We feel they have the duty to review the detailed presentation of the display panel in question and that they will want to consider alternative ways of presenting an equally historically accurate version of its material, in a manner that eliminates the sense of insult felt by aircrew veterans and removes potential for further misinterpretation by the public."

With so many interest groups involved in public history, it becomes difficult to assess what is responsible public history. In practice, public history should provide facts, and only facts. It is not the duty of public historians to underline the debate surrounding historical issues as there will always be debate surrounding historical events, especially those which are emotionally charged. By failing to acknowledge controversy, are public historians being irresponsible? If the debate surrounding historical events within the scholarly community spills into the public sphere, does this detract from the museum’s reputation as bearers of factual information?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


A recent discussion with a colleague raised the question as to who the ‘public’ actually are when referring to Public History. Almost immediately, individuals considered to be the ‘public’ imagine Public History as plaques on buildings and museum exhibits. But Public History is far more than just catering to people outside of the scholarly realm. In fact, the ‘public’ are professors, employers, employees, doctors, and so on. To examine this idea even further, Public History can be even more than just history for public consumption. There are many instances where Public History is produced for private individuals, and is kept as such.

In class today we had a lengthy debate about the use of a single word within a text panel for an exhibit. As public historians, we must appeal to the greatest amount of individuals when creating public history. Is there a way of presenting material acquired through scholarly methods in a way that can be consumed and understood by the greatest amount of people?

First, it is important to develop a thesis...and stick to it. It is inevitable that multiple ideas will work their way into a single text panel, and the ability to tie all of these back into the thesis is vital. Otherwise, the message can become skewed, leading to confusing and misinterpretation.

The ability to keep the language simple also ensures that the message is understood by the majority of individuals who examine text panels. To saturate text with advanced vocabulary will alienate the very public that a public historian is trying to cater to. Not everyone who examines public history will have a university degree, and even if they do, there is no guarantee that they will be able to interpret the text the way the writer intends. In the worst case, the individual reading the text quickly loses interest after becoming ensnared in ‘wordy’ paragraphs.

Less is more. According to Archives & Museum Informatics, the average attention span in a museum is approximately 45 seconds to 1 minute. This includes the amount of time spent looking at the exhibit itself, leaving very little time to read text panels. Looking back at the question of language, do public historians want individuals to spend a significant amount of time trying to understand the language used? A safe bet would be ‘no’.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


In her article The Hive Mind: Folksonomies and User-Based Tagging, Ellyssa Kroski notes, “In a traditional classification scheme, a controlled vocabulary must be made in advance in which one category term is selected which includes all related terms. When future objects are cataloged it must be determined that either they fit into a particular category or they do not. In a folksonomy, these items can fit into multiple categories.” With this in mind, I would argue that the collectivization of ideas and language is doing society a disservice. Philologists must be scratching their heads at the thought of society streamlining language to reflect easier user-based search results. While there does seem to be a disconnect between online vocabulary and spoken vocabulary, there is still a gradual decline in the perception of words. Kroski uses the example of the words “kitten” and “cat” retrieving different search results, and while this is a valid point for the online community, in my opinion this is a good problem that should not be addressed. Each individual produces a different emotional response to different words and streamlining language ensures that we distance ourselves from these emotional responses. This issue reflects the recent discussions we have had in class regarding the difference between heritage and history. ‘Heritage’ reflects the emotional (and perhaps nostalgic) response to history, and ‘history’ reflects the facts and opinions pertaining to studied historical events.

Social tagging is not necessarily a bad thing – it allows for greater interaction and exchange of ideas. In the context of social tagging, where thousands upon thousands of results can be generated, individuality should be embraced. Take, for example, flickr’s image search; after searching through their image database it is quite clear that language plays an important role in providing better search results. If a user wants pictures of an “office”, they will be inundated with 1.5 million results, while a search for “office tower” returns 23,205 results. Obviously, streamlining the language used for social tagging does the user a disservice.

Why then, would the online community want to remove this individuality? Collectivization of emotional responses to language removes what makes us individuals. In a world where every fifth word is “like” (ok, a mild exaggeration) and ‘internet speak’ is becoming more prevalent in everyday language, we should be embracing the ability to express ourselves in the most distinct way possible. Language is more than just a tool to explain what we want, it is a way of expressing our individuality. Then again, it could easily be argued that nobody will ever be able to truly interpret our thoughts appropriately since everyone has a different emotional response to certain words...