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Week 5: Public History (on the web)

The title of this week in Clio Wired is Public History and the bulk of the reading list is web sites where the general public can engage with history. The sites are:

Two of the sites – Deerfield and Freedom – use a pre-content site, a sort of splash page. The image and text presentation is decidedly reminiscent of the initial physical encounter with a museum exhibit: a wall with text summarizing the exhibit and a representative image or two. Both of the sites were developed by museum groups, so the transfer of layout theory makes sense. As a web user, I don’t know that I like having to take an additional click to start exploring content, although to be fair you can go from the first page of Freedom to the collections. However, I can see how the layout might create a mental note for the user “This content comes from a museum”; which could increase the users’ trust of the site content, given Rosenzweig and Thelen’s 1998 finding that Americans trust museums for “truth” in history.1

Three of the sites are very clearly about mapping history, geolocating photographs and the like: Cleveland Historical, History Pin, PhillyHistory. Of these, I find myself most frustrated by HistoryPin because it has the least amount of information about each image or object in its collection. Cleveland and Philly’s provide contextual information for each image, Philly going so far as to provide quotes for some of them. These all have mobile app versions of their content, and I would be curious to find out how much of the text data is displayed in the mobile versions. I can see that someone developing a purely mobile app might think photos were the best way to engage people in history, and yet I can’t help but think that the addition of context allows for a richer experience.

In fact, that’s my overall impression of these sites. The ones with more context, more ability to “dig down,” as they say, are more engaging to me. What is the object or image, where did it come from, how did it end up on the web site, what does it mean? As a historian, I’m used to asking these questions and figuring them out for myself, but as a curator one of your jobs is to provide some guidance to your visitors. For me, It’s not enough just to put things on the web. You have to give clues, at the very least, to help visitors understand why it was worth digitizing and putting online in the first place.

1 Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelan, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.


  1. I agree with you on the need to give context. That was a problem I had with some of the more user-driven sites…rather than giving useful and reliable information, some of them (I’m thinking of the Bracero History Archive and History Pin in particular) started to take on the feel of a genealogy discussion board.

    • That’s a god way of putting it. I meant to go back and add to my original post that objects without context remind me of mid-century museum exhibits, with tons of objects in a case with just “west african banjo” for a label. The Archive you mention reminds me in a way of campus bulletin boards.

  2. I was also a little disappointed with the History Pin site. The preview video makes it sounds much more interesting than the photos I found while investigating. Still, it does have the benefit of being a site that encourages user engagement and submission of material. Maybe I need to readjust my expectations from hoping for a site fully developed to tracking the progress of additions or maybe even experimenting the virtual world as a contributor.

  3. “You have to give clues, at the very least, to help visitors understand why it was worth digitizing and putting online in the first place.”

    Yes — spot on. Excellent post and looking forward to reading more. I’m glad that these public history debates are getting an airing 🙂

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