Friday, 12 September 2014

What to do with Digital Tools?

Welcome! As part of my digital history class, I am blogging about various questions presented in class. This week's topic: How do I see digital tools and approaches affecting my current and future practice of (public) history?

Well, digital tools are becoming more and more an integral part of our daily lives. I don't know about you, but I can no longer leave the house without at least my phone and either my tablet or my laptop. And if I do leave without them, I feel completely disconnected from the world around me. Even the New York police service is getting onto Twitter!

Public history too is becoming part of this trend. It must if we want to remain relevant. But before we embark of that, we must know what we are talking about. What is Public History?

When I tell people I am doing a masters in Public History I often receive blank stares. The inevitable question soon follows: "So WHAT is public history?" Patiently I answer, "it's the study of how the public interacts with history." Knowing that this is not a clear enough for most people, I promptly add, "like through museums, archives, websites, documentaries, etc." Although I lament the fact that most people have no concept of what I'm studying, I myself was ignorant of this branch of history until a few years ago.

By chance, as I was looking for a summer job, I noticed a posting on a museum website. One of the requirements for the job was a Master’s degree in public history or similar. Since I knew that I one day wanted to work in a museum full time I thought to myself: "Aha! I shall have to get one of those!" And so began my exposure to the field of public history. Of course, public history had been a part of my life long before this rather dull epiphany. It began the same way I imagine it begins for most people, with a visit to a local museum.

So how do digital tools affect Public History? Since the digital world is fusing to every part of our lives, this includes history. New tools are being developed every day to help us interact more easily with history. Where would we be without Wikipedia? How would we procrastinate effectively if we did not have Horrible Histories or Crash Course History available on YouTube? And what of Clash of the Titans or 300? What would those movies be if their creators had not so thoroughly researched the myths and history they based them on? Probably the same as they are now. Bad examples.

As for me, I see myself using digital tools to promote the museums I work for to a wider audience. This can be done through Facebook, Twitter, or blog and, as technology evolves, I'm sure new ways we cannot even fathom now will also become available. So I’ll take this opportunity to present one of the museums in the Ottawa area to you. This is Billings Estate.

It is the ancestral home of the Billings family. The house was completed in 1829 by Braddish Billings, one of the first settlers in the Ottawa area. I could go on and on about the history of the house, the family, and the area, but I will stop here for now. The museum often promotes its events and activities on Facebook and I had the opportunity to contribute a picture to one such post about an upcoming event at the Estate.

The city of Ottawa also has digital exhibits about its museums on its website. This is another way that we can expand the museum world into the digital world. Unfortunately, the digital world cannot offer direct human contact. I have found that the best way to engage people in history, especially in a museum setting, is to interact with them in person. Digital exhibits can be very engaging but inevitably you will not learn as much from them as you would from a museum employee.

I believe that museums must become part of the digital world but that the digital world in turn has to become a part of the museum. In this way we can ensure that human contact is still a part of the museum experience but at the same time present historical information in a more efficient and engaging way.

There are many ways to do this currently. Often the exhibits themselves have multimedia aspects to them which can be an engaging element. Sound and multimedia can be very effective ways of getting the public to interact with the exhibit on a new level. One of the most novel integrations of technology into exhibits that I have seen was at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. They integrated an Xbox Kinect into their exhibit called Creatures of Light. An image was projected onto the floor and would change to follow the people walking upon it. It was very entertaining.

I would like to go a step further by integrating personal smart devices into the museum exhibit. I am often frustrated by the lack of information available about artefacts, especially in large museums where there is no staff to answer questions. It would be nice if you could scan a code or take a picture of the item with your smart device to get more information about it. This way, you would not be overwhelmed by information and you could investigate only those artefacts that interested you. It would be possible to do now but would require a lot of labour to get it set up and the number of people who might use it is uncertain. In any event, that is how I see digital tools affecting my practice of Public History. As new technologies emerge, I hope I will be a part of integrating them into the museum experience.

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