One of the most difficult dilemma’s a public historian can find on his path is the one which concerns the role that people might play in making history. In respect of the central theme of this conference, the participants of this session tried to show how the internet and digital tools might strengthen the participatory potential. This was implied in their respective projects, which all draw on these kinds of digital innovations.
The main issue of this session was the estimation of the value of non-academic people in contributing to historical practice. One could bring forward the utility of non-academic ‘historians’ and believe in the value of their contributions. Or one could point out the lack of scientific education and experience. These two conflicting positions became apparent during the course of the session. Questions about how people can participate in historic activities were answered by showing some examples of projects wherein the internet and digital tools might strengthen the participatory potential.
Story/community websites: whose stories are being told by whom?
Annemarie de Wildt of the Amsterdam Museum started the session with a presentation about Story/community websites: whose stories are being told by whom?’ In presenting two examples of story websites launched by the Amsterdam Museum, she showed how a whole scale of stories can be collected. ‘The memory of the East [of Amsterdam]’, first set up by the museum, now runs completely on its own. People keep writing stories on the website even after the project ended. ‘The memory of the East’-project shows how the history of a city can be told in an original way. This way of making history can be seen as a process in which the encounters between citizens produce an extra dimension. Each volunteer contributes for a little part to a larger whole. A sort like initiative was set up around ‘neighborhood shops’ and ‘Football Hallelujah!’.The website of the neighborhood shops didn’t live on after the exhibition ended. This illustrates how these projects can only work when a considerable amount of people collaborates.
Annemarie de Wildt made clear that this approach was part of a marketing strategy. Certainly, with the Football Hallelujah project. It is a way to attract more visitors and the interest of different population groups. The community system makes the themes limited as you can only use contemporary themes if you want to interact with a community. It could be interesting to make use of a popular theme’s or attractive projects to attract visitor’s en use as a way to introduce history or less accessible information.
The Community Jewish Monument, a Meeting Place for Survivors, Descendants and Historians?- Lonnie Stegink
The same thing applies for the ‘Community Jewish monument’, which is an online archive of memories. With this project they want to create a collective memory for the Dutch Jewish Community trough crowd sourcing. The database makes it possible to find information about Dutch Jews who were killed during the Second World War. The site provides not solely a platform in which people can leave info. It also serves as a meeting point for members of the community. The interaction with the community is enriching. The projects are an opportunity to find information that otherwise would be forgotten.
Place of crowd sourcing in public history?
In this project, the citizen history is used to transcribe. This project would be successful in Australia, Jeremy Bentham. You could make some remarks. You still need time of professionals to control the transcriptions. Historians are not in large parts involved and the stories/information added by the members of the community are difficult to check. The Museum’s role is reduced to a facilitating one.
The same problem comes forward with these projects. Namely what kind of history is being written by whom? What is the role of the historian? What is the role played by the museum?
De Wildt argued the museum were the sharing authority as the museum always kept control of the project. At least a moderator is needed to avoid negative discussions or spam
You could say that the nature of the projects and themes are suitable for such an approach. Possible false information can be countered by other people belonging to the community.
The Antwerp Red star line museum is also working on a community history project. People can tell the stories about migration on the website. These stories are elaborated by professional historians and combined with other sources. De large inflow of stories makes it a lot of work to process. It is good to use crowd sourcing to collect information that otherwise would be forgotten en make them accessible for other people. These memories are unique sources and often the only way to access information about daily life etc. But these memories are often colored or adapted and you will only see the selection of facts they made. At the website of LECA, where people can write the history about their cultural heritage, they don’t check the information added by people. They believe exaggerations are part of the traditions. For us it is necessary that this information goes trough professional control. And it should be mentioned which information is written by whom. Anyway, we can’t deny the potential of crowd history. If used on a professional way and with the expertise of historians it can only be an enrichment.
One of us is working as an intern at the Institute for social history in Ghent. He is doing research about the student protest movement against the increasing entrance fee for the Flemish universities in 1978-1979. The presentation was very inspirational and he is currently considering if it would be possible to use community history by creating an online platform to bring participants of the student protest together and involve them in his research.
The presentation not only provided interesting ways for involving people in historical research, it also made aware that more people are interested in history. The internet is increasing the potential for historical research and it is our task as public historians to grab this opportunity.