“Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is is qualified to replace for you all of the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers, you answer him, another comes to your defense, another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”
Throughout this module on Audience, Dialogue, and Co-creation, I have been reading and thinking about these topics . I have been contemplating how I can best serve my audiences and participants in my new project, how I can make my last one better, and what I can do next.
In “Creating a Diologic Museum,” John Kuo Wei Tchen presents the important question of “how community experience and consciousness relate to historical discourse” (289). He discusses the inquiry-driven approach to museums, but laments that even in the instances when an inquiry-driven approach is used, the contact between the curators and the public frequently does not continue once the exhibition is launched. He cautions curators not to believe they know their intended audiences, but, instead, to listen to the ideas of all members of the community. As he discusses the Chinatown exhibition, Kuo Wei Tchen presents a fine model that I plan to adopt in my work:
“The CHM staff has been developing modules, staffed by Chinatown History Museum personnel and trained volunteers, including timelines that can be added to, a genealogy / biography database, and programs evoking group memories.” (309).
While the project that I am planning a the moment is not a memory based one, I do plan to ask my participants to add people to biographical Omeka items and a timeline. Seeing this timeline of people from many different occupations and geographical areas, both participants and users will gain a more in-depth picture of the United States during the nineteenth century. Near the end of his piece, he argues for “participatory and inclusive” programs that reach out to many different types of audiences (320). I plan for my primary audience to be one that is not addressed frequently, and I am asking for members of that group to be participants in the project. I am hoping that as they learn about history and are inspired by the women they will be studying, these participants will learn new research skills and digital tools that will enrich their daily lives.
Writing fourteen years after John Kuo Wei Tchen, Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. Miller explore the topics of shared inquiry and shared authority. They define shared inquiry as a process ” in which practitioners and stakeholders joined in give-and-take discussion to set mutually acceptable questions and to find mutually satisfying answers.,” and shared authority as “who has the power?” (18). They also note that “Public history always involves negotiation with nonhistorians in situations where agency is fluid and even up for grabs,” and discuss issues of shared authority in oral history interviews (20).
This section of their piece brought me back to the question of “Whose History?” that we explored during the first weeks of this course. It is very important for public historians to ask questions and to listen to the questions and responses of others. Having done several oral history interviews on the same general topic early in my career, I was most grateful for the questions and ideas that came from my early interviewees. Some of what I learned from the first interviewees shaped my questions to the later ones. They knew much more about the history of that topic than I did, and I learned so much. Through that process, I saw a variety of takes on the same topic. Many people had similar views, but others could not have interpreted people and events more differently from the majority and from each other. We need to hear as many voices as possible. Since most of them have left us by now, I also realize the importance of having memories preserved and voices heard by later generations.
For example , a one hundred year old Liverpool native’s story about how she and her husband survived without jobs at home after participating in World War I and related activities is a gold mine. Her decision to tell her husband, ‘Let’s go to America,” and the details of her struggles to find a position, eventually as a cook for the wealthy family I was studying, taught me about history, love, courage, and much more than I ever imagined that interview would provide. I was the student in that situation, and I will never forget her. Fortunately, her words have been preserved and others will hear them as well. Now, with digital tools, these stories can be heard, and sometimes seen and transcribed, by a much larger audience. I hope to create and to participate in a digital oral history project at some point in my career. Shared inquiry and shared authority empower us all. We should celebrate them, not fear them.
The idea of digital transcription is one focus of Michael Frisch’s 2001 piece “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen and Back.” Frisch celebrates the idea of digital transcriptions of oral history interviews, but applies the “raw” and “cooked” dichotomy to the interview transcriptions themselves and what “scholars, documentary producers, exhibition curators, and the like to find and process things out of this raw mass, resulting in a well-cooked, receivable presentation of some kind” (129-130). In their piece, Corbett and Miller note, “The stories public historians want to tell are sometimes not the stories the public wants to hear” (22).
Frisch later speaks of a “post-documentary sensibility,” one which allows for more people to create meaning in public history (130). He tackles the topic of search methods, and encourages “exploring” using a “non-linear spatial imagination” (132). On an optimistic note, he says,
“what I find most exciting in new modes of engaging digital information is the unfolding capacity to present such explorable spaces in imaginative, expansive ways, and the deployment of tools for their fluid, non-directed navigation. Both oral history and a range of digital realms are focusing more on creative exploration than on the dutiful provision of answers that can only be as good as the questions” (132)
In my current project, I will heed the warnings and advice of these authors and provide participants with over a thousand options of biographical sketches to make into Omeka items. There is only so much time one can devote to a project. I will add several items myself, but many of the stories that are told will be those that my participants are the most interested in having others learn about. I’m excited and fascinated to see what they choose. Perhaps I can add a “Why I Chose to Select This Woman” box within the Omeka items and/or somewhere on the site. That would be a chance to hear the voices of the contributors, as well as the stories of the women they will have chosen to add and conduct additional research on. It will be the co-created Twenty-First Century DH project about a co-created Nineteenth Century project about thousands of women whose lives touched many people. I look forward to continuing my part in this process.
Corbett, Katharine T. and Howard S. (Dick) Miller. “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry.” The Public Historian 28.1 (2006): 15-38
Frisch, Michael. “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen and Back.” Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, 126-137. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, 2001.
Kuo Wei Tchen, John. “Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment.” In Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, edited by Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer, and Steven D. Lavine, 285-326. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992