Exhibiting History: The Digital Future

I attended a seminar by HUMlab postdoc fellow Paul Arthur in the History Department here at Umeå University this week. It was an extremely interesting session and as it is not, to my knowledge, being represented anywhere online, and that it was so relevant to such a broad number of subjects officially outside the discipline of history, I thought I would blog my notes here. The seminar was roughly based on the paper of the same name.

Following a summary of his recent work, Paul began with a general introduction to the concept of digital history. Not an easy thing to pin down into a single definition. The definition from the text for the seminar:

‘Digital history’ is a term used to delineate all aspects of the study and appreciation of history, heritage and material culture that involve digital rather than conventional media in its presentation, storage and access. It can also refer to a stand-alone text, in the sense of ‘a digital history of’ a particular topic. In this sense it does not refer to a genre but to the digital means of delivery itself. Digital history can be found in physical settings, including in museums or galleries as interactive displays.

We were directed to the Digital History Wikipedia page, which Paul informed us he used in a course at Rutgers University that he recently taught. Undergraduate students were asked to edit the page in order, among other things, to place them in a direct relation with many of the key issues defining the subject itself, including the non-linear and interactive characteristics of the media as well as user created content. Interestingly, the Wikipedia page for digital history does not appear in a Google search for the term until page 4, a sign that the field is well populated by interconnected players. Paul spoke of his need to edit many of the entries made by the students. In discussing this experience I found his reference to the establishment of a “sense of work space” for students (and presumably others using digital media for historical ends) very interesting. The questions ‘Is there a texture in this New Media that is new?’ and ‘What is reading in relation to digital texts?’ appear in my notes at this point of the seminar. I think I was paraphrasing Paul’s own early concerns with doing research work in the area of digital history. A major point of departure in regards to these questions (and for myself in my own work) that was pointed out by Paul is Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s Remediation: Understanding New Media. The concept of remediation as discussed by Bolter and Grusin, while ten years old in a field where twelve months can change a lot, remains an important text in understanding the exchanges that occur between media forms in digital formats and how meanings can be assigned to them.

Paul then gave several examples of work in digital media where history is exhibited. These included the Duryea Panorama, which Paul questioned (rightly I think so) regarding how the panorama functioned as a digital re/interpretation of the original artifact. An awareness of an over-enthusiasm for new technology where the “assembly of information can take the place of the story itself” needs to be considered in the exhibition of digital history. The Radio National Australia project Re-imagining Utopia was given as an example of where the tool function provided by digital media enables a collaborative assembly as opposed to a deconstruction of the historic.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) Paul described as an example of shifting between media. Soon (2014) to be only an online publication after more than 40 years as a print edition. The ADB was recently granted journal status as an academic publication under the Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) program. Such a move raises questions regarding attribution of entries. In comparison the New Zealand government project TeAra: Encyclopedia of New Zealand does not attribute entries. Such discrepancies create gaps for interpretation in the field of digital history.

Following the discussion around the ADB and attribution in user driven content sites Paul spoke about issues that are provoked by such an approach to digital history. Objects and strategies that include the non-linearity where there is no strict beginning and end or a single sense of progression through the work. This can be contrasted with the dominant discourses around print media and in particularly the book. Points that were brought up included that one does not necessarily know the size of a web site presenting digital history when one first comes to it. What Paul referred to as ‘the politics of interlinking’ is an area in itself within digital studies (just read any early hypertext theory – Landow, Joyce etc. on linking). It is interesting when one thinks that many links within a site take the reader to other sites outside the point of initial contact. In effect the site loses readers through its design.

Summing up the seminar a number of interesting questions and further examples were mentioned. The Labyrinth Project and Scholarpedia are digital objects that lend themselves to historical interpretations. The discussion around the use of maps (a strong focus in the work of Paul) raised the question about how an interpretive layer is ingrained in the overall texture of the digital object? There is no single answer to this question. I thought a lot about interactive and experience design in relation to how sites are used and what analytical strategies can be encouraged in their instantiation (to refer to the work of N. Katherine Hayles). I suggested Wikileaks as possibly a more ‘direct democracy’ site after a conversation around what voices are heard in truly democratic media.

I left the seminar Exhibiting History: The Digital Future feeling like issues in my own discipline, English Literature and Cultural Studies, had been addressed. This is unusual considering I was attending a seminar in the history department. However I think this may be typical of so much digital research, whereby disciplines cross at numerous points and knowledge is exchanged

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  1. Pingback: Teaching the techie side of digital history — Colleen Greene

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