Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Does history exist?

First, let me say, I loved the abstract, existential 1932 Carl Becker article, "Everyman His Own Historian." I have told my students in my HIST 125 discussion sections that the search for that one ultimate "truth" in history is pointless. We must, instead, search for the truth through the perspectives of the actors and analysis of the primary sources. Secondly, I agree with his assertion that history changes with each successive generation of historians and that is why we have historiography. I suppose historiography did not exist in Becker's day. Does anyone know?

Now, I do take issue with some other things Mr. Becker had to say. One of them was his claim that historians had to change their style to engage the public more directly. Again, not knowing as much as I maybe should about how historians were viewed in the 1930s, I don't see this as a big issue today. There seem to be two distinct types of historians (probably more but at least two) and that is well represented in our class: academics and public historians. Would we still consider this a problem today? Both sides seem to be well represented both in our class and in our discipline. And that is where our discussion of the ultimate in public histories comes in...museums.

I love museums, as I'm sure most if not almost all historians do. I had visitors in town this weekend and we went to the American Art museum downtown. Their collection of colonial works was great, even though I can tell I will soon want to go to the American History museum again but it will not be reopened for almost two years.

I want to briefly talk about two aspects of museums and new media or Web 2.0 that I have been thinking about for a while. First, the idea of tagging collections. It doesn't seem like a bad idea, but I fear the Wikipedia effect that Kevin von Appen talks about in "Community Sites and Emerging Sociable Technologies." Namely, that a very small percentage of the people will do the bulk of the tagging. Now, if this group is mainly historians/artists/etc., I am fine with it, but will it be?

Secondly, will making more collections available for viewing online either take something away from visiting museums in person or shave off visitors from the museums themselves? I seriously doubt it. If done properly (which seems to be the biggest problem right now, figuring out how to do that), this online access will give people who have never visited those museums at least a glimpse into their content and hopefully encourage them to go see the collections in person. And for those who have already visited, this would give them an opportunity to dig deeper into pieces they liked and even tag the items with their thoughts. Seems like a win-win but it also seems like there is a lot of work to do!

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