Toward a Definition of Digital Public History

catalyzing collective attention around a topic from the past using the refocusing power of digital technologies.

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.

— Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI, “On the Concept of History”

Public History: A Working Definition

Public history, broadly conceived, catalyzes collective attention around a topic from the past. It can do so through many means: op-eds and media appearances, monuments and material culture, interviews and oral history, music and performance, policy interventions and social justice advocacy, placards of any sort, books and articles. It can do so within institutions such as museums or parks or cultural centers. It can also do so without or beyond institutional walls. It often springs to life in the interstitial spaces between institutions and non-institutionalized social interactions, contact zones of differences in background, experience, power.

Public history can be in deep, extensive conversation with specialized scholarship, but it also tends to expand what counts as specialized scholarship. It extends who is deemed to have knowledge of the past and on what terms they possess it, wield it, and choose to (or not to) share it. Since arising in the 1970s (with antecedents prior to that), public history has been driven by the motivation to reimagine what matters as history, who gets to be a historian, and where our understandings of history get to be seen, heard, captured, displayed, processed, attended to, and addressed. In some sense all history is public history now, particularly as academic history struggles to sustain itself as a profession. Nonetheless, public history has its own rich historiography in of itself after 50 years of practice and reflection (see the National Council for Public History’s “About the Field” for more).

Public history can be deeply critical and adversarial, demanding immediate, urgent change in the moment, but just as often it involves the long game of carework and maintenance, bridge-building and sustainability, striving for transformation along more extended lines of cultural and civic labor. In either mode, it seeks to galvanize intimate encounters with structuring forces. It aims to connect the personal to the political, the individual to the collective, through multifaceted informational, interpretive, and affective experiences of the past.

It often does so through some kind of civic or even market orientation beyond the academy. It goes off campus. Or, alternatively, it seeks to bring the world beyond campus into the classroom. Either way, the goal is to manifest historical consciousness in action, to summon up the ghosts of the past in the present, to bring history to life by bringing life to history.

What is crucial to notice about exchanges between the academy and the non-academic is that they always invoke unbalanced power relations. Those on campus often seek to access the special enchantment of less formally institutionalized off-campus historical knowledge. Those off campus, meanwhile, are often curious to access the institutional resources and status that come with official scholarly attention. There is no way to remove these dynamics. Indeed, efforts to ignore them or render them invisible are typically part of the problem. What we can do is become more aware of the inequities, acknowledge them, theorize them better, and try to confront them honestly in both concrete instances and in our overall sense of what constitutes public history.

To this end, in the future it might be worth bringing public history more fully into dialogue with public sphere theory. The thinking of John Dewey, Walter Lippmann, Jürgen Habermas, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, the Black Public Sphere Collective, Bruno Latour, Miriam Hansen, Oscar Negt, Alexander Kluge, Michael Warner, Lauren Berlant, and others is useful for the ways in which their myriad theories of publicness complicate any simple definition of the term. Too often, public historians treat “the public” as a static entity, a fixed group. This mistakes the public for other configurations of large multitudes of diverse populations. The public should not be reduced merely to a consumer market for example, nor to a focus group. It is not an imagined mass of followers, or for that matter, on social media, “followers.” Publicity is not the same thing as publicness. Nor should we conflate citizenship with publics given the ways in which citizenship can be wielded as an exclusionary weapon by the state. Even the term community, tantalizingly warm and magical as it can feel, necessarily leaves people out. Communities necessarily require ostracization of those placed beyond the bounds of the magic circle of belonging.

Publics, by contrast, have the capacity to be more democratic than that, more expansive, more inclusive. They are weaker in a way, their bonds more ephemeral, but they are also more potent because of their looseness. A public can be a commonweal, but it can also be a difference-wheel. It can centripetally pull people into contact with each other or, just as often, spin them out centrifugally into new, expanded senses of connection across distance.

For public historians, it is worth remembering that the old term res publica quite literally means “public thing.” Public history’s attention to things—monuments, objects, maps, songs, performances, artifacts, texts—becomes one of its strengths in this sense. Things call publics into being. Old things are especially good at this. History, when handled effectively for public contemplation, fosters mobile and moving gatherings and assemblies that arise from collective attention focused on particular things.

Too much of a focus on things as such, however, and public history becomes too fixed, too static. Presented truthfully and evocatively, public history instead strives to make things move, magnetizing the past, mobilizing history, drawing it into the present in compelling forms that organize publics around the presence of memory and meaning. Things help by generating magnetic fields around them. Public historians can then wield “public things” like compasses for navigating the past. They can assist in piloting historical topics into contemporary life through the staging of opportunities for creative, fact-driven inquiry. These allow diverse individuals to sail together, if even just for a fleeting moment of convening, and sometimes for more sustained, continual, and lasting ensemble engagements.

Public history also keeps us from becoming utterly lost at sea. Out of the past, offered up through thoughtful and expressive estimations of what direction the many have voyaged thus far, both publicness and history themselves become palpable, alive, in play, on the waves. The past makes its presence known—in transit, in the moment, in all its depths. By turning back for a time, we can then glimpse the future all around us, a horizon.

But how, then, do digital technologies fit?

Digital History: A New Orientation

Digital history adds a new dimension to public history because the set of technologies we call “the digital” are disorienting and confusing. They mix up the map and the key we are accustomed to using for historical study. Things that used to seem stable and firmly in place are no longer. Digital books can now be entered into as if they were interactive exhibits. Exhibits, meanwhile, can now be read like books. An archive becomes a potential space of reenactment instead of only for storage, as in my ongoing work on the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, among many other digital history projects that consider what a repository might be when rendered digitally. Monuments, meanwhile, start to move, not only getting torn down, but also coming to life in unprecedented ways. One sees this, for instance, in the striking aesthetics of the Reclaiming the Monument project in Richmond, Virginia. Or look at the viral TikTok video of young Brits of color danced in Bristol, England atop the plinth from which a crowd had pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston—a new kind of digital monument in motion, a digitally mediated commemoration in embodied form, transmitted through code.

The digital domain can be a place of storage, inquiry, interaction, publication, affirmation, protest, commentary, critique, analysis—or any combination therein. Artifacts become data, or begin their existence in born-digital form. We might consider the new possibilities this poses. The plasticity of digital data offers fresh ways of remixing, glitching, and repositioning historical artifacts for examination and contemplation. We can transform old data into new maps of the past. We can also navigate old maps by revising them into new datafied forms.

Data analysis, virtual reality, multimedia storytelling, digital animation, computational mapping, interactive gaming, and other approaches to historical artifacts open up the past for collective scrutiny. They are linked to older forms of history, to be sure. The break is not a clean one, and we should be thankful for that. Nonetheless, they beckon in radical new directions. The remediation of old artifacts as digital data (or the creation of new artifacts in the digital domain from the start) transforms the historical archive and what we can do to study it, make sense of it, and present it as history.

If public history is about catalyzing collective attention to focus on the significance of a topic from the past, then digital public history is about the power of refocusing this act of shared scrutiny. Digitization asks us to recalibrate, indeed to embrace continual recalibration as an effective mode of clarification. This is because the res publica, the “public thing” in the digital domain is at once data and also, as book artist and digital humanities theorist Johanna Drucker reminds us, “capta.” Which is to say it is constituted by things that are taken, captured, from the real world (as one would “take” a photograph) rather than things that are a given. One might, of course, say the same of many print artifacts. The analog historical record is just that: filled with analogs, things that are analogous to what actually happened. And the archive, we well know, is already ridden with distortions, gaps, problems, falsifications, untruths, and most of all silences. The digital realm merely brings this reality, already a virtuality, out into the open. It reminds us just how approximate our study of the past must sometimes be to realize the ideal of the factual, truthful, empirical.

Unfortunately, an over-hyped positivist rhetoric has dominated new fields that sing the praises of digital and computational approaches. Data science, culturomics, digital humanities have been too keen to locate themselves against qualitative, interpretative, and hermeneutic techniques. Thankfully, historians have a long history of navigating skillfully between the empirical and the theoretical. In fact (as well as in theory), the distinction between the empirical and the theoretical is a false binary for most historians. So when entering into the realm of binary code, historians, particularly public historians, are well trained to track the flux and flow between representation and the represented through a wide range of analytic tactics.

Indeed, combining methodologies of historical inquiry suits the convergences of the digital domain. As books, exhibits, repositories, monuments, performances, maps, terrains, realities, virtualities, data, capta, animations, reanimations all start to flow through the same wires and transmissions, we can draw upon what we already know to move forward. Historians grasp that the past does not serve up truth on a platter—or in an archival box of folders. The past is a mess, multifaceted and full of flavors, textures, forces barely represented at all or only appearing in shadowy traces and quieted echoes. We know to listen to the silences in the archive, to read against its grain, to look for gaps as well as connections, to know the presence of power at work in shaping how we access, perceive, and make sense of the past. Digital history merely asks us to go further into the study of relationships between representation (“capta”) and empirical reality (“data”) as they play out in bits and bytes, algorithms and programs, the electronic pulsations that now increasingly define history and how we come to know, understand, debate, and circulate it. In whatever form history scrolls past, contigent yet also determinative, we must try to unfurl it for scrutiny.

While he never used a computer, nor understood himself to be a public historian, Walter Benjamin’s evocative words still ring true. With digital public history, studying the past still involves trying to “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Storms rage. The present presses in on our perceptions. And it should. We can make use of the new tools at hand to make our way forward by, paradoxically, using them to navigate our way, together, into the disorientations of the past. After all, as Benjamin himself wrote, “fanning the spark of hope in the past” in the face of histories of catastrophes and conquest, exploitation and terror, remains the duty of the historian, particularly the public historian. Today, in circuits of code, history flickers to life digitally as much, if not more, than it does anywhere else. So too, publicness itself increasingly surfaces as much on the screen and in the computerized machine as it does among bodies in the streets or words on the printed page. The task of digital public history, then, becomes an effort to seize hold of a technology as it flashes up at a moment of danger, to wield that technology as a calculator of time and space, a reorientating device of position and direction, a sextant for determining our human paths, big and small, within the larger celestial orbit.

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