Mining the Public?

I have an academic crush and his name is Fred Wilson.

Everyone in the public history world knows Fred Wilson and if you don’t yet you will. Fred Wilson is a conceptual artist who is known for his challenge to traditional presentations of art and artifacts. In the public history world he is most notably known for his exhibit for Maryland Historical Society titled “Mining the Museum” in which artifacts like a gorgeous European silver tea set was juxtaposed to slave shackles. The kind of thing he does unsettles and is amazing! He dug deep (“mined”) the museum’s collection to say something new and valuable. I am most inspired by him and that is where I get my blog title “Mining the Public”. For me, mining the public is my public history philosophy; my belief is that the general “public” has incredible complexity and wealth of historical knowledge and we public historians should recognize it, analyze it, critique, and contextualize it with our specialized learning. Call it shared authority, if you want, I call it respect.

Recently I discovered two websites that are related to this concept. The Experience Project is a social media website that has millions of users and was founded in 2007 as a platform for people to share their experiences on a particular subject with others. Those experiences are categorized under subject headings such as food, health, travel, etc. Responses range from short and lighthearted to deep insightful reflections. Sometimes users ask others about their experiences. The site is an exemplar of web 2.0: social media, interaction, and user-generated. While this site doesn’t have anything to do with history exactly I did find another site that operates on a similar premise but as a digital archive of social history.

Indian Memory Project
was founded in February 2010 by Anusha Yadav as a way to allow “regular” Indians the chance to digitally archive their family stories, letters, and images as an open repository of Indian history. The site reads like an open scrapbook of a whole country. Stories relate to the history of Indian independence or a widowed great-grandmother who educated herself. While the site could profit from objective historical context or commentary, this site is the brain-child of social history and web 2.0. Yadav noted that archives in first-world countries are successful but archives are very different in India and Shefali Bhushan of Beat of India (a Indian folk music site) also complains of Indian archives criticizing that they:”lock things in a cupboard where they gather fungus” [1]. Formalized memory isn’t just for the elite and its an archaic message that is clearly being challenged around the world.

Neither Yadav or Bhushan are public historians but we can all take a lesson in learning how we can use the web to diversify and democratize history. Of course, we must question whose stories have more weight; is everyone’s story equal? Should everyone get equal say in history? How best can we contextualize these expressions of social history while still recognizing non-academic public knowledge and experience? It is no easy set of questions but it deserves continued exploration. Until then we, academic and public historians, should keep mining the public.

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4 thoughts on “Mining the Public?

  1. Your reflection on the Indian Memory Project and its need for objective historical content or commentary raises an interesting question about the compatibility of memory and history. Do you think the two can coexist? Or are they potentially in tension with each other? Is there a danger that too much of the latter would turn off those inclined to contribute the former? Doesn’t it go back to our ability to actually share authority? Great stuff!

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