The Importance of Conversation

If I had to sum up this week’s readings in one word, it would be Conversation. Whether trying to create a digital strategy for a museum, create content strategy for a digital public history project, or shift any project from pure broadcast to more participation, the people behind the project need to talk with (not to) their audience and with each other.

It is important to be in conversation not only with your audience but with the staff. The organizations described in both “Navigating the Bumpy Road” and “Social Media and Organizational Change” engaged people outside the social media departments, either to create a digital strategy or to create content for social media. Not only did this allow them to better represent the institution and its mission, but it seems to have facilitated commitment to social and digital media by people who otherwise might have considered it outside the scope of their work. National Gallery (UK) staff who participated in the internal workshops said they felt “respected” and apparently the inclusive process “greatly helped to legitimise” the digital strategy (Royston and Sexton, 2012). Internal communication matters because it isn’t just the audience who will ask “Why wasn’t I consulted?” (Ford, 2007 & 2011)

Another reason to bring in various voices from an institution on a digital project is that you can tell more stories, and possibly more interesting ones. Before starting my PhD, I worked in the curatorial department of a historic house which was in the process of restoring the interiors to their early 19th century state. We had a blog about the process, with contributions from various members of the curatorial department, which eventually merged with the archaeology department blog.  It made it possible for the tour, or the visitor’s internal narrative, to shift from passive voice (“It was decided that”) to active (“curators determined through research and then decided”). I think it also may have helped visitors to see the people who made up the site, and also to think about the process as much as the end result.

The blog was mostly one-way, so it may not count as full on conversation. The readings from Letting Go? emphasized, for me at least, the importance of hearing your audience as well as speaking to them. Fisher and Adair wrote about dialog, about allowing the visitor’s voice to coexist with, but not replace, the institutional voice. McLean pointed out that conversation requires reciprocity. All of this makes me think of my colleagues who are currently in a class on digital pedagogy: They have been helping me to understand why current thinking states that lectures are the least effective form of teaching. I think about seminars, especially the small ones (like this class), where the students speak and share their ideas but the professor is able to step in and offer guidance, with their deeper knowledge of the subject at hand.

What would it take to make digital public history more like a seminar than a lecture?

I suspect that to make it happen, you would need a good strategy. You would need to know your content and you audience, and have a sense of the best way of getting the latter to engage with the former. The readings so far have been full of good ideas for moving forward, yet there must also be a point where you just have to test things out to see if they work for your specific content and audience.