Reflecting on Digital Public History Work

Note: For my HIST 691 Museum Studies class, I read several books and articles that influenced my thinking about Public History and my project. These readings along with the ones for this class came together to affect my thinking. These additional books and articles include: 

-Beverly Serrell’s book Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach

David Glassberg’s article “Public History and the Study of Memory”

-Leslie Bedford’s book The Art of Museum Exhibitions: How Story and Imagination Create Aesthetic Experiences

-John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking’s The Museum Experience Revisited


This semester, I have learned a great deal about Public History in both this class and the other Museum Studies class I was enrolled in. While I have discovered many new ideas through readings, activities, and examples of other sites, I have learned the most through the creation of my own piece of digital public history scholarship. This project has allowed me to apply what I have learned from the readings and activities and really put them to the test in a real world scenario. While the process has been overwhelming and frustrating at times, I am proud of what I have accomplished. I am glad to have had this experience and gained news skills and knowledge. The end product is just the icing on the cake!

The original idea for my project came from viewing the website “Raid On Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704,” which was created in 2004 by the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) and Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, MA. This website uses a storytelling approach to present the Raid on Deerfield from five different perspectives: Huron, Mohawk, Wobanaki, English and French. I was also inspired by an example given in Beverly Serrell’s Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach. In Chapter 10, Serrell discusses the importance of identifying the point of view when writing an exhibit label. She used the example of Voices of the Forest at the Brookfield Zoo in order to illustrate her point. For example, the exhibit creators identified four points of view to present in the exhibit: the indigenous people who lived in the forest, the indigenous people who lived on the edge of the forest, Western zoologists who studied the animals, and local rangers who took care of the animals. They then created their labels by presenting one central fact or question and then creating two or three labels surrounding it, each presenting the perspective of one of the identified groups (Serrell, 137-138).

In addition, I was influenced by David Glassberg’s article Public History and the Study of Memory. In the article he states that “The task of the public historian may be more to create spaces for dialogue about history… and to insure that various voices are heard in those spaces, than to provide a finished interpretation of events translating the latest professional scholarship for a popular audience” (Glassberg, 14). Ronald Grele would agree. In his article “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?”, he writes that “the task of a public historian, broadly defined, should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events” (Grele, 44).

These two examples and Glassberg’s and Grele’s suggestions prompted me to think about how I might tell the story of Sackville from many different perspectives and allow many different voices to be heard. I also realized that I wanted to incorporate as many primary sources as possible to allow people in the past to speak for themselves and enable visitors to come to their own conclusions after weighing the evidence provided.

Next, reading Lynne Spichiger and Juliet Jacobson’s article “Telling an Old Story in a New Way: Raid on Deerfield, The Many Stories of 1704” which told about the site’s development process helped me get a firmer grasp on their purpose and methods. I agreed with them that an interactive medium “allows users to move quickly and easily among the different perspectives, facilitating comparison and enabling the telling of the story from conflicting points of view without the loss of coherence in the narrative” (Spichiger and Jacobson). In the beginning, I planned (much like the “Raid On Deerfield” website) to tell the story for my project from 4 different cultural perspectives: French, American, English, and American Indian. Spichiger and Jacobson’s article helped me better visualize how I might want to lay out my site’s navigation. For example, I embraced their idea of “scenes” or events with a overview and then tabs that explained that scene from the different perspectives. In my site, I planned to have 5 main events on my site. On each event’s page, I would have tabs to tell the story from each cultural perspective.

Next, I created my story boards. At first I was skeptical of this step in the process. If I already had a good idea in my mind of how I would organize my site, I didn’t know why I needed to sketch them out on paper. Even so, I completed the story boards, and surprisingly felt good about it at the end. It helped me have an even more solid plan of what I wanted to do. As I would later find out, story boards are a really good way to test out different layouts and navigational structures before actually taking the time and effort to make a prototype. Unfortunately, I created an entire prototype of my site before reconsidering my organizational structure. Next time I create a digital public history project, I will make several different versions in a storyboard format and then mull over them for a little bit before taking the leap with creating a prototype.

My idea for how to structure my site slightly changed after reading Leslie Bedford’s book, The Art of Museum Exhibitions: How Story and Imagination Create Aesthetic Experiences. In Chapter 6, Bedford discusses the importance of helping audiences form a personal connection between the exhibit objects or exhibit stories and their own lives. She believes that presenting unique moments or individual stories can have a universally felt quality. This prompted me to reconsider my previous emphasis on cultural groups and move my focus toward telling the stories of unique individuals instead; rather than just giving an American Indian or French perspective, I wanted to look at the lives and action of individuals such as Tobacco’s Son or Father Pierre Gibault.

Because I was now focusing on individuals, I decided that I needed to use a narrative, storytelling approach. In Chapter 3 of Bedford’s book, she highlights the value of a good story, writing that “Research shows that information received in story form is more easily absorbed and remembered” (Bedford, 60). I also drew from Beverly Serrell’s Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach. In Chapter 2, she comments that exhibit labels can be a form of storytelling and should invite visitors to use their imagination and pretend they are in the situation presented in the exhibit. As I presented these individuals’ stories, I wanted visitors to really identify with these historical figures and imagine themselves in these situations. What would they have done or felt when faced with a 180 mile march through flooded rivers in the middle of February?

Some of my class readings also helped me decide how I was going to re-organize my exhibit. First, I had to consider if my exhibit was going to be designed with a linear approach. Initially, this seemed like the best approach as the story of Fort Sackville makes the most sense when presented chronologically. But, in Chapter 5 of The Museum Experience Revisited, John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking write that visitors choose to view what is visually and intellectually appealing to them and they do not necessarily view all the elements of an exhibit or view them in the “correct” order. They remind readers that the visitor, not the museum or exhibit designer, controls the experience as the visitor decides where to go and what to focus on. Beverly Serrell agrees, writing that good exhibits should make lots of choices available and that hopefully, “the variety of choices available add up to a greater whole when experienced together” (Serrell, 76). I hope that users will read at least a couple of the “episodes” connected to the individuals presented and that as Serrell suggests, when a few of these are viewed together, they will add up to a greater whole.

My idea for how to present this exhibit to my fourth and fifth grade audience also came from reading Bedford. In Chapter 4 of her book, Bedford writes about the 5 layers of Imaginative Education. One of the layers she mentions is called romantic. This layer is key for elementary students who, Bedford claims, are looking for heroes and heroines. Because of this, I used my introductory label for the exhibit to talk about the heroes of Fort Sackville. For example, I point out that many Americans consider George Rogers Clark a hero because they credit his victory at Fort Sackville as the main reason for the United States’ acquisition of the Old Northwest Territory from the British at the end of the American Revolutionary War. Even so, I challenge the students to listen to the voices of other individuals that were involved and to decide for themselves if Clark is the only person involved at Sackville that could truly be considered heroic. As Bedford says in Chapter 6, a good exhibition “provides the facts but then lets the visitor construct her own meaning” (Bedford, 107). In introducing my exhibit in these terms (“Who is a hero?”), I hope to encourage students to think about what actions or attitudes make a person heroic, have a chance to put their criteria to the test by weighing the many different evidences presented in the exhibit, and finally, come to their own conclusions about these individuals.

Another goal for this exhibit developed from reading Sam Wineburg’s article, “Thinking Like a Historian.” Even though my site was designed to be experienced by fourth and fifth grade students as an out-of school experience, I realized how important it is to provided opportunities for students to develop their historical thinking skills. Therefore, I made it my goal in include a wealth of primary source documents that correspond to this exhibit for them to examine in the site. For example, I hoped that students might evaluate sections from Clark’s personal memoir; a letter Clark wrote to George Mason nine months after he captured Fort Sackville; Captain Joseph Bowman’s Field Journal; Henry Hamilton’s journal; or a the statement written by the Virginia State Council that sent Hamilton to jail in Williamsburg. Like Wineburg mentioned, I hoped that my project would help students 1) Thinking about the document’s author or its creation; 2) Placing the document within its correct time and place; 3) Using background knowledge to understand the document; 4) Considering what the document really has to say; 5) Identifying what the document does not say, ie. what has been left out; and 6) Corroborating evidence between different sources or perspectives and asking questions when two sources disagree.

Finally, one important part of my project that I struggled with the entire semester was educational games. When I conducted front-end user interviews with fourth grade students in Indiana, they overwhelmingly told me that students in that age group enjoy learning the most through interactive gameplay. Originally I imagined interactive elements throughout the site that allow users to quiz themselves and to make choices based on the information presented. Two of my early examples included: a “Who said that?” activity which asks visitors to match quotes to the individuals who said them, and a “What would you have done if you were in their shoes?” activity that lets them spin a wheel to show possible consequences and outcomes based on the visitors’ choices. While I could imagine how these activities might be incorporated and what information I might use, I had a hard time trying to physically create these games with the time, technology, and skills available to me. In the end, I found a website called “” This allowed me to create my own versions of very basic games like Connect Fours (based on the BBC game show “Only Connect.”) In this game, a user is presented with 16 clues or items. It is then the user’s job to group the items into four groups of four. The game rewards users with points for grouping the items correctly and for guessing the category that connects the four items in each group. While these were not the kind of thought provoking games or activities that I originally imagined, they do allow users to quiz themselves and see how much they have learned from the site. I was able to successfully create these games and then import them into my website using iFrames.


Sources referenced in this post:

Bedford, Leslie. The Art of Museum Exhibitions. 

Falk, John and Lynn Dierking. The Museum Experience Revisited.

Glassberg, David. “Public History and the Study of Memory.” The Public Historian, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Spring 1996) 7-23.

Grele, Ronald. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 44.

Serrell, Beverly. Exhibit Labels An Interpretative Approach.

Spichiger, Lynne and Juliet Jacobson. “Telling an Old Story in a New Way: Raid on Deerfield, The Many Stories of 1704.” In Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, edited by J. Trant and D. Bearman. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2005.

Wineburg, Sam. “Thinking Like a Historian.” Teaching with Primary Sources Journal.

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