Digital History = Public History !?

The last round of sessions on day one of the IFPH Conference was about to start. In OMHP 2.01C was the session Digital History=Public History!? taking place but at starting time the room was still nearly empty. Probably conversations during the coffee break were really good, or maybe it was the coffee itself. Anyway, while people were filtering back from the break the session started.

The session, chaired by John Dichtl, focussed on the interesting question: does Digital History equals Public History? The three professionals addressing this question in their lectures spoke mainly out of their own practical experience ‘doing’ public Digital History. This is why the session was full of concrete examples and ideas regarding the subject.

First lecturer Ramses Delafontaine (Doctoral researcher at Ghent University) started the lectures talking about his personal digital project: a complementary website for this master theses about the role of hired historians and the meaning of their work in the tobacco industry. (see The Historian and The Judge) ‘The website presents the profiles of 50 American historians who have been involved in 284 cases as an expert witness in tobacco-related litigation in the United States from 1986 until April 2014.

Besides talking about the actual contend and history of the actual project (giving a striking example of Otis L. Graham working for the ‘killer-industry’) Delafontaine also talked about general motives for historians to ‘go digital’. One of the core reasons for his digital enterprise was utilizing this medium to present his research results to a broader academic community and general public. One of the main arguments for historians to go digital I believe.

Another positive effect of going public Delafontaine pointed out was that he, being a little anxious of critics, reviewed his work time after time. In this respect going digital obligated Delafontaine to polish his work and presentation in a digital environment extensively, and so increased its quality. Delafontaine presents an important insight here, going digital and public can actually motivate scientist work and better there research.

The second lecturer Bruno de Wever (Professor at the History Department of Ghent University) gave a more theoretical reflection on the ideal concept of a virtual museum,  both from a scientific, a public and technologic point of view. He discussed this subject on the basis of his ideas and experiences with the Belgian Virtual Museum of World War II, a digital project that isn’t actually realised yet but about to start.

The first remark de Wever made was that when he looks at the present digital (online) realm, to him the absence of professional historians firstly stands out. The Belgian Virtual Museum of WOII aims to remedy this lack of professionalism in the digital world, concerning this specific topic.

De Wever believes there is a public demand for accurate scientific historical information online. Especially in regard to sensitive historical subjects (such as the Belgian history of the German occupation) since this kind of topics are source of much controversy, and recently even a political crisis. A Belgian Virtual Museum of WOII would be the ideal medium to supply this public demand for accurate information, increasing general access to scientific historical knowledge and creating a better understanding of the shared past.

A critical and up-to-date digital presentation of scientific research like de Wever presents would, however, need an active community of experts to constantly maintain the platform, auditing its content quality. Furthermore, I’m not sure if the general public is actually in acute need or interested in any digital project whatsoever to promote The official national narrative.

In any case, a Belgian Virtual Museum of World War II would, like de Wever concludes, be an ideal test case to develop and test different kinds of digital methodology and could, therefore, be very informative for us, and the digital humanities in general. I’ll be following its progress for sure.

The third and final speaker Fien Danniau (also professor  at  the  History  Department of Ghent University) spoke about the opportunities a digital project offers for reaching and engaging an (academic) community. Based on the experiences she had with UGentMemorie (see Danniau illustrated several struggles of the digital sphere and getting an audience engaged with your digital project. She gave a whole number of examples and possible challenges to keep in mind if you’re trying to get your audience engaged with your digital platform

Dr. Fien Danniau from Ghent University talking        about interacting with an academic community

In conclusion Danniau asked the final question: Is a website a purposeful medium to communicate and interact with a (academic) community?  Her conclusion – not really. Interactions on a website like Memorie are generally just to slow and rather difficult. This is why the medium can’t really function as some sort of hub for all interactions between a community. But Danniau concludes with a positive note. Some platforms (like Memorie) are just ‘more OF interaction than FOR interaction’ and maybe that’s all right.

To me this was a great insight to conclude with because Digital History and Public History is all about having a really well understanding what your goals are and finding out which tools you can best use to achieve these. Consequently, these kinds of insights based on real experiences really contribute to our general understanding of digital public history and so enables us to provide better products and services as historians.

In conclusion, I can say that although I felt the session did not completely addressed the original theme articulated in the title, it was a really interesting and thought-provoking series of lectures on the possibilities and challenges of digital public history projects. Naturally, many allegations made and topics discussed stay open for debate but I expect that at least most people who attended the session (that by the way turned out to be a pretty big group after all) will agree with me on that last one…

  • written by Bernard Kors