“We’ll need to rethink a few things.”
That’s the closing thesis of The Machine is Us/ing Us, a YouTube video about Web 2.0 produced by Michael Wesch, an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. Among the things that will need rethinking, according to Wesch, are copyright, authorship, identify, aesthetics, governance, privacy, commerce, love, family, and ourselves. Quite the list.
We can add one more thing to that list: how historic memory institutions (museums, historic sites, archives, etc.) create, maintain, or re-capture relevance in the age of smartphone apps, YouTube videos, and Wikipedia pages created by, in Alison Miner’s words, “created [for free] by someone who’s just f*****g off at their corporate office job.” Miner’s piece, titled “if everything on the internet has to be free, why isn’t my healthcare, too?“, lays out one concern: “institutions will pay for a 2 year digitization project, and fancy equipment for that, but don’t want to employ another archivist so that there is actual CONTEXT to the things they digitize.”
When I was going through training to work at historic sites, one thing my trainers stressed was that the modern visitor has so many options to replace spending money to travel and visit a historic memory institution. Why waste a weekend and possibly hundreds of dollars traveling to watch someone demonstrate how a musket is loaded and fired when there are thousands of videos posted by re-enactors on YouTube? Why go to a museum when fifteen minutes on Google might answer all your questions? Michael Peter Edson says in Dark Matter that “It’s likely that the public doesn’t think of what memory institutions often do as being sufficiently accessible, smart, joyous, attentive, generous, welcoming, imaginative, bold, educational or meaningful to merit much of their attention.”
The web can be a huge source of publicity, visitors, and revenue. But these benefits only accrue to historic memory institutions that can engage and harness that potential in productive ways. Using the web to just increase the number of people who can view content fails to grasp the thing the web, especially Web 2.0, has best enabled: the ability to feel like you are being heard. In Why Wasn’t I Consulted, Paul Ford says “The web is not, despite the desires of so many, a publishing medium. The web is a customer service medium… Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.”
Historic memory institutions can piggyback on that tapped need by making their online presence interactive and engaging, instead of just viewing it as an extension of their brick-and-mortar offerings. An excellent example of this kind of engagement is Fort Ticonderoga’s social media presence: Fort Ticonderoga presents ways for people to exercise their knowledge by posting weekly challenges asking people to look at a partial image of an artifact from the Fort’s collection and attempt to guess what the artifact is.
An important caution to remember is that this sort of engagement cannot rely solely on capturing the brief spotlight of social media fame. The Museum of English Rural Life might make headlines for being funny on Twitter but memes cannot be a replacement for the work of historians. To quote Alison Miner: “we can’t rely on the hot flash of meme-popularity to justify our existence, because our jobs require a long period of time to be done well. and fundamentally, the archives and other collections deserve better than a momentary blitz of attention.” Historic memory institutions must endeavor to use the web in ways that spark long-term interest, not just momentary acknowledgement.
It is also important to remember that there are some things that online engagement cannot do. Barring massive improvements in virtual reality, viewing the most engaging online content cannot replicate the physical sensations that come with in-person visits to historic sites. Watching a video of a musket firing cannot fully replicate the ways that watching that same demonstration in person affects the senses. Web content is also incapable of having a conversation, which is critical to effective historic education. One historic site where I worked had floated the idea of adding QR codes to various exhibit spaces. A visitor who scanned the code with their smartphone would be able to watch a video of an interpreter in historic clothing present information about the exhibit. One reason this project was scrapped, apparently, was that members of the interpretation team pointed out that replacing on-site interpreters with videos would remove the ability of visitors to ask questions and have extended conversations. That human element cannot become devalued by the flashiness and novelty of digital content, no matter how essential an online presence is.