Citizen and Community History

This afternoon Annemarie de Wildt (curator at the Amsterdam Museum), Lonnie Stegink (head of the resource centre of the Joods Historisch Museum) and Mia Ridge (research fellow at Trinity College, Dublin) spoke about Citizen and Community History. The three professionals talked about their experiences with the cooperation with citizens and communities within society. How is it possible to use the web as a historian? Is digital history different from traditional history? Can we use crowdsourcing to interpret history? And can we share the process of ‘doing’ history?

Annemarie de Wildt opened this lecture and spoke about the several story and community websites in which the Amsterdam Museum was involved. These websites are centred around an area, a community or a theme. De Wildt gave three main examples: the Geheugen van Oost website, the Corner store project and most recently Football Hallelujah. According to De Wildt, these projects were about empowering citizens, developing skills, to offer a platform for intangible heritage and to collect information about objects. All of these websites were connected to several exhibitions at the Amsterdam Museum.

The Geheugen van Oost website was set up as a website next to an exhibition on the East district of the city of Amsterdam. It helped to overcome social distance within society. The main goal of the project was the collecting of stories by volunteers and the fun of it. The process was more important than the results and De Wildt emphasized the Geheugen van Oost wasn’t really an oral history project. The second community website De Wildt spoke about is the Corner Store project, which was connected to a theme instead of an area. The purpose was to connect stories on corner stores in Amsterdam to a grander narrative. In this project, the stories were collected by students in Public History and Urban Sociology. The last project Annemarie de Wildt spoke about is the website that is connected to the exhibition Football Hallelujah at the Amsterdam Museum. This website, which is incorporated at the ‘Heart‘ of the Amsterdam Museum, enables volunteers and friends of the museum to meet and cooperate, in this way by sharing their stories on the football exposition and reacting to one another. Some of the reactions to controversial objects in the exhibition resulted in escalating responses, but the project showed it is possible to write about ‘controversial’ subjects.

After Annemarie de Wildt, Lonnie Stegink spoke about the community website ‘Joods Monument’ or ‘Jewish Monument’, a community website of the Joods Historisch Museum. Stegink approximated this website as a meeting place for survivors, descendants and historians of the Holocaust. The Joods Historisch Museum wants to be the museum for Jews and non-Jews and to connect with all groups. The websites tries to collect items and to provide access to collection and knowledge. This is done in a way that is different from the approach of the Amsterdam Museum: a database is formed in which people can add profile page, photos, documents, reactions at persons pages, stories and links between family members. One is able to find family and relatives via this database and can interact with one another. Stegink showed us this is happening in very different ways: people are able to find long lost relatives or start new connections just out of curiosity, but the medium is also used by historians and students to research the history of the Holocaust, for instance.

Last but not least Mia Ridge approximated the concept of citizen and community history from a different perspective. She spoke about crowdsourcing projects set up by museums and other historical institutions. Ridge described crowdsourcing as follows

 “the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined and generally large network of people. Ask the public to undertake meaningful tasks related to cultural heritage collections in an environment where the activities and/ or goals provide inherent rewards for participation.”

After this, Ridge gave some inspiring examples of history crowdsourcing projects, like Trove, Old Weather and Herbaria@Home. What is engaging about this projects, according to Ridge, is the fact that the public can experience close encounters with material they normally would not have access to. But there also is a factor that is quite disturbing about these projects: to participate does not make you a citizen historian, as participants may think. The projects may raise some anxiety about the image ‘lay’ people have of the tasks of historians. This is not something you can just ‘do’,  it is a set of practices teached in universities and we should protect this. This is something we could teach the public, but do we want to do that? Are these projects really to engage with the public, is it really public history? Is it a challenge to our authority as historians? Ridge thinks it is important to engage with the community and to get involved, because these projects are happening. But this takes time and the willingness to learn. Ridge suggested it might me a solution to involve students to this process, which I think could be a very good idea, because it can show public historians in training what it takes to share the construction of history and to question their role within the community.

What became very clear after the three presentations is that crowdsourcing knowledge and sharing authority are very different kinds of collaboration with different publics and varying goals. What all of the projects do stress, in my view, is to work together and generate more knowledge. However, some important questions do remain: which of the described examples are ‘real public history’? What are the  best ways to engage with a public? Which public do we as public historians actually want to reach? What do we want to share with our public? And what do we want to reach with digital participation projects?  This does of course differ per institution, per public, per person and per project. I am very curious about the different experiences of participants in the conference and if you were inspired by it to think differently on this questions than you did before.

  • Written by Eva Bleeker