One of the most integral parts of public history is paying close attention to one’s audience and creating a project that reaches their needs and wants. While I was aware of this fact, my work this week with Research Protocols, User Interviews and Personas really helped me establish how to go about discovering what an audience really wants. Before the interviews, I had an idea of how I wanted to produce my site. I also thought that I knew what would appeal to my targeted audiences. But the information I received from my interviews was really significant. I realized that having a dialogue with one’s audiences, especially during the planning phases of one’s project, is critical.
I have worked with kids in a museum setting for several years. Many of the schoolchildren who I interacted with were ages 8-12. So when I targeted a 4th grade audience, I thought I had a pretty good idea of their wants and needs. I knew that kids would like a site that was interactive. Kids don’t like to read long batches of text. Instead they like to have something they can click on. The like to manipulate things. But, after doing my User Interviews, I realized that 9 and 10 year old kids are even more “game” focused than I realized. They like to accomplish tasks. They like to be rewarded for accomplishing these tasks. And most of all, they like to have fun. In order to engage with this audience, I have realized that I need to use narrative storytelling to create a “game” environment where kids can learn while also having fun.
At the same time, my project is also directed at an adult audience of educators. I really liked John Kuo Wei Tchen’s point about creating a layered approach to appeal to visitors with different interests, different knowledge levels ,and different amounts of time at the site.1 While the kids are utilizing the “game” feature, I need to figure out how to add more in depth scholarship that might engage adults at a deeper level.
After the conducting my interviews, I was even more struck by what Katharine T. Corbett and Dick Miller say about engaging with an audience in their article, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry.” They believe that “The stories public historians want to tell are sometimes not the stories the public wants to hear.” They explain that “Public history is doomed if practitioners insist that people give up their versions of the past in order to benefit from ours….”2 To me, this means that if I focus on a topic that I am particularly interested in, but that my audience has no interest in, then I am creating something only for me. I am not doing “history for the public.” In the same vein, it also means that if I present my information in a way that I think will be helpful, and I don’t listen to what my audience wants, then I am also not doing public history. I need to think about what they bring to the table.
But at the same time, one has to be careful not to give too away too much authority to your audience. As Michael Frisch mentions in his chapter “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back,” a shared authority is something that is. He did not entitle his previous work “Sharing Authority,” as if sharing the authority with the public is something that every public historian should be striving for. Instead, he believes that it is something that happens and we have to make the best of it.3
While we need to be very attentive to our audiences, public historians, are in someways, the experts on history and public exhibits and should be trusted to do their job. If you let the public dictate what topics or interpretations are presented, you run the risk of setting a precedent that members of the public can rewrite the national history to tell their point of view (as was the case when a Veteran’s group succeeded in forcing the Canadian War Museum to change its exhibit in 2007). In my project, I was thrilled to learn that educators wanted more information about the Siege of Fort Sackville. But, if my research were to lead to some potentially controversial interpretations, it would be my duty as a historian to base my project on scholarship, instead of giving in to what educators or parents wanted (or did not want) to be presented to their students.
As public historians we walk a fine line of sharing authority with others, of being attentive to our audiences’ wants in order to create an engaging site while still basing our work on solid scholarship and retaining some authority for the interpretation and site design. As Corbett and Miller comment, “Public history practice is situational. The field has no one-size- fits-all methodology because every occasion has to be worked in its own way.”4
1. 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
2. Corbett, Katharine T. and Howard S. (Dick) Miller. “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry.” The Public Historian 28.1 (2006): 22-23.
3. 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.
4. Corbett and Howard, 24.