Mobile (Digital) Public History

Between my final project for Clio Wired, one of the projects I’m working on as a GRA at RRCHNM, and the fact that I rarely go anywhere without my smartphone, mobile digital public history has been percolating in my brain for a while. I really enjoyed this week’s readings for pushing some new ideas and approaches I hadn’t previously considered. Like many digital historians, I think there’s a great deal of potential in mobile implementation, as well as some serious challenges.

Obviously, one of the best aspects of mobile is its ability to explicitly link history and place. Some people, myself included, wonder about historic landscapes when we look around, whether abroad or at home. Not only can mobile-based public history answer the questions of those of us who already wonder, but it has the potential to get others to start thinking about the history of the places they see. It can ask and answer (at least in part) the question “What was Here?”

I capitalized those words not because I’ve been spending too much time reading 18th century documents but because each of them is important to the question, and, I think, to mobile public history. What (or who) asks about buildings that have been removed, landscape features built over, communities and individuals who have moved out or passed on. Here says “in this place, right where I am currently standing” and creates a connection between the past people or places and the user/visitor. The Past in Place has resonance, which is why people visit battlefields and there are so many signs that say “Famous Person Lived Here Briefly.”

Another potential for mobile, which I hadn’t thought of until this week’s readings, is providing another access point for institutional collections which aren’t on display. In the galleries, it could be a “see more items like this one” which shows you all the other teapots in addition to the one in the vitrine in front of you. (( Yes, teapots again )) You can also enhance what people are seeing by giving them more information than you can fit on label text – particularly useful if your label is simply the genus and species of a plant. Even more exciting, to me at least, is taking material from archives and digitally putting it in place in a city, as PhillyHistory is trying to do. Not only does that really put the collection items “out there,” but I would hope it also lowers barriers between the user/visitor of the website and the institution or archive which contributes the material. Historical societies and archives can feel restricted and unwelcoming; putting their collections virtually into the hands of visitors/users may be a good way to lower access barriers.

There are, of course, challenges to making mobile public history. The CHNM report lays them out quite well, but I think some of them bear repeating. The major question is, of course, whether you want to build a responsive website or a native mobile app. Personally, I prefer responsive websites, at least for building, because you don’t have to deal with two (three?) different sets of specifications for native apps, nor do you have to worry about updates to the operating systems. Also, I don’t have to remember my password and type it in to get to the content. You do, however, have to make sure your design choices work as well on a full-sized screen as a mobile screen (this can be a bonus, it just takes some thought). On the other hand, there are also benefits to building native apps, and I have downloaded some apps that I enjoy. The next time I go to Baltimore I intend to try out the Baltimore Heritage app.

On the whole, I find mobile exciting. In my head, it’s like having a museum, tour guide, and history book with me at all times. I carry my smartphone everywhere and use it all the time anyway, so having historically focused content, whether native or web-based, is an added bonus.


2 Replies to “Mobile (Digital) Public History”

  1. Megan,
    I’m so glad you’re working on this fascinating question! A couple of quick observations:

    – I completely agree that there is – or should be – something magnetic about discovering what happened at a given location in the past. In the same way, audio & audio-visual tours should be among the most indispensable, mind-blowing experiences available in the museum. Yet most of the time location-based history tours, like digital museum tours, fall far short and are, frankly, boring and unengaging. Why isn’t mobile living up to its potential (most of the time)? I fear it’s because too little time is spent developing great content and honing our experience design skills, compared to the effort and resources spent on the technology. We also still really suck at mobile interfaces in general. So while mobile web vs native app is an important question, I fear it glosses over the really hard, underlying issues that are standing in the way of greater use of mobile for history and cultural experiences.

    – Right now I’m really enjoying the irony that after the web spent decades dematerializing the museum’s walls and making “place” less important for experiencing collections and exhibitions by broadening access via the web to anyone, anywhere, mobile is bringing us “home” again. Location and context of use can be critical factors in a mobile experience, and when it is, mobile no longer “frees” us from the physicality of the museum and its geography, as the web did; on the contrary, it obliges us to be in specific locations in order to get certain experiences and content. In other words, just as the rest of social interactions are being measured in the millions and billions of users/participants, location-based museum mobile is taking us back to long-tail sorts of audience numbers: the few, the passionate, who make the effort to come to our museum, or wherever we have staged the mobile encounter with the museum’s content. I find this beautiful, poetic, and a little sobering when I think about business models and the sorts of metrics that museum management and funders look for.

    – Digitizing and putting content out there is the first, critical step, but doesn’t in and of itself create a compelling experience. If museums on the web 1.0 was about creating digital catalogues and archives, and 2.0 is about getting people talking with/about the museum, how can 3.0 be about creating digital encounters that have the same immersive, emotional impact of the real world experience of the collection, object or exhibition? Here is one great example (non mobile) – Tate’s online exhibition of Lost Art; you must see it by July because the website will then be taken offline!!:

    – I’d like to know more about what people like you do with their smartphones when having a cultural encounter. We’ve just been surveying visitors at NASM about this, and are finding that the vast majority (like really, almost all) are taking photos; not, as I do, looking stuff up online to answer questions that the in-gallery interpretation doesn’t answer. (Note to self: I am not a typical museum visitor!!)

    – I am also a wannabe teapot collector, fwiw.

    Good luck with your research, and stay in touch!

  2. Mobile historical teaching, either through maps or websites, is so important because it provides the context for history. It is impossible to create an engaging, informative history without hooking the learner first through context. Attaching place to history through the “presence of the past” is an important part of history in the digital age. I too found this weeks readings important and informative in their own rights, and because of how I will likely use the tools they discussed in the future.

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