As the semester draws to a close, my group and I are hard at work applying what we’ve learned about digital public history to our final project, an Omeka.net exhibit on vocational education in Chicago entitled “Ladies Who Sew, Men Who Weld.” In this post, I thought I’d make note of a few observations I’ve made and helpful things that I’ve learned about this aspect of the field.
On copyright, it can be better to ask forgiveness than permission. The readings and discussion on copyright issues in digital history were interesting, particularly the chapters in the Cohen and Rosenzweig work Digital History about the issue, where they assert that for many digital historians, the cost vs. benefit analysis on using material without getting the rights could often fall on the side of “risking it.” I can’t say that I have real clarity about how to handle this issue in my own work, and I do wish that there had been more discussion about it as it relates to our class projects. Since we were unable to get the rights for most of the images in our exhibition, we have decided not to publicize it. Even though Cohen and Rosenzweig suggest that digital historians should risk putting their work out there, our team felt it could be damaging to professional relationships we have, or would like to have, with the institutions that hold the rights to our exhibition’s images. I’m sure this is an issue that I’ll continue to negotiate in my future career.
With digital projects, more is not necessarily better. Given how expensive and time-consuming digital projects can me, public history institutions should think carefully about what kinds of digital projects will best serve their mission and their audience. While a robust Twitter presence or YouTube channel might be essential for a large institution that can afford to pay a staff member to maintain it, smaller institutions might choose to focus on sustaining a well-designed and helpful website, perhaps with a repository of digitized research materials. Institutions should be wary of “bells and whistles” that may look flashy but that won’t serve the overall mission.
Public historians don’t (necessarily) need to learn to code. This was a question I had been thinking a lot about at the beginning of the semester: how many technical skills should I spend time learning for a planned career as a curator or an exhibition developer? I enjoyed the coding class we took this semester, but quickly recognized how much time and effort it would take to learn a set of skills that I may not use very much. I’ve concluded that basic website building and exhibition development skills–with tools like WordPress and Omeka where coding is not involved–remain very important; even if I’m not doing that development myself, an understanding of what’s involved in a project like that is crucial for leadership.
Overall, it’s been very interesting to learn about different forms of digital projects, and to recognize the potential that things like virtual tours have to increase accessibility to museums. In the end, though, I retain what I think is a healthy skepticism of how far into the physical space of the museum and its objects digital technology should encroach. I still believe that most people visit museums to be in the presence of the past, and as public historians we should use digital technology to enhance, not distract from, that experience.