The Relationship between Audience and Content in Public History Projects

Contemporary public historians seek to develop material with their audience in mind.  As a first step, gathering input from the potential visitors of an exhibit or end users of a website is part of the development process.  For example, the founders of the creators of The Chinatown History Museum made one of their initial goals to create a “dialogic” experience with their potential audience.  In creating an exhibit on laundry workers, they made it a point to reach out to those who had worked in the industry, not only to gather oral histories and original materials, but to get their input and insights into how their work should be portrayed.  Similarly, Kathy Corbett and Dick Miller reached out to members of the local ILGWU workers union to help identify individuals in historic photos held at the U of Missouri’s archives as part of executing an exhibit on the history of the garment workers union in St. Louis in the ‘30s.  Quotes from oral histories were used on museum exhibit tags to bring the workers’ voices into the exhibit itself, giving the workers a sense of ownership of their story.

The U.S. National Parks have long been involved with the issue of how to address the public that visits these sites while also preserving the sites’ history.  Historians and guides working for the Park Service had to devise new ways of interacting with the public, including involving public feedback on what was most interesting and valuable to them and balance that with the need to preserve and archive materials.  Giving the public access to historical items—as well as input as to what items deserve study and preservation—was new to historians who were used to making “top-down” decisions about the curation and dissemination of culture.

In the digital project Histories of the National Mall, the compilers had a different set of goals:  To offer an easy-to-access and use website that visitors to the Mall could access on their phones to learn more about the area as they walked through it.  Thus they focused development work on making a website that would be quick to download (even where WiFi was weak) and easy to navigate on a typical smart phone.  They also developed special programs like “Scavenger Hunts” that would allow the visitors to learn more about the sites—such as the Grant Memorial—drawing their attention to key elements that visitors might otherwise miss.  When designing the site, the developers worked with a small focus group of end users to test its basic navigation, level of information offered, and how it was accessed.  For example, users who clicked on a building or site to read about its creator were disappointed that biographical information was not offered; this was rectified by linking this information—already in the core database—so that users could pull it up as they visited each site.


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