Thursday, April 21, 2011

New Technology, Cultural Tourism, and Public History

After considerable delay, I have more to say about digital history and cultural tourism. For the last five months my colleagues at Northern Illinois University Libraries and I have been working on the development of the online cultural tourism resource that I first described here on October 19, 2010. Working versions of the materials are available at: Upon their completion next month, they will be available at:

Our project has several goals. First and foremost, it provides visitors to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site with additional information. It focuses on ten structures and lots within the site itself. National Park Service staff members already do a good job of providing visitors with an in-person tour of the Lincoln family home itself. Other structures on-site, which have been restored to reflect their condition at the time of the Lincolns' residence in the neighborhood, as well as lots where other structures stood in that period, also have stories to tell. Our project allows the Lincoln Home National Historic Site to help visitors explore them without struggling to develop and staff additional in-person tours. 

The Lincoln Home National Historic Site has recently introduced a cell phone tour resource focusing on many of these same structures and lots. Interested visitors may dial a telephone number to hear spoken-word discussions of specific structures and lots on the site. We believe that our resource differs from it in significant ways which shed light on the practice of public history.

It is my sense that public historians often struggle with the issue of audience. When creating interpretive materials for an exhibit or historic site, for example, they often feel obliged to set aside some of the complexity and nuance that makes history so fascinating, in order to appeal to the largest possible number of visitors or patrons. Public historians' concerns stem in part from the fact that they have, to my knowledge, long developed a single set of interpretive materials for their audience. I realize that public history interpretive materials may consist of tour scripts, films, signs, placards, and other media. My point is that, despite their presentation in different formats, interpretive materials presented at public history sites have almost always sought to reach the same broad, general audience. Although it makes use of a new media platform, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site's cell-phone tour remains a resource aimed at the broadest possible audience.

By contrast, we have envisioned our smart phone/hand-held device-based cultural tourism resources as a complement or supplement to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site's existing interpretive materials, using the technology available via the Internet to deliver more detailed and challenging resources to such visitors as may desire them.

The technology on which the Internet (and device-specific applications, or apps) is based can provide its users with a far more interactive, variable experience than is available via static media like placards, brochures, films, or even cell phone tours. This is especially significant for its use as related to the discipline of history.

Our resource provides Lincoln Home National Historic Site visitors with a brief video discussing each of ten selected structures or lots. In this video Northern Illinois student Ashley Michels, a broadcast journalism major, presents a script written by Dr. Jeffrey Smith of Lindenwood University (St. Charles, Missouri), which discusses the experience of an individual or family who occupied the house during the years the Lincoln family lived nearby. Each discussion focuses on how the experiences of these individuals or groups shed light on major themes in American history, from race and gender to politics and economic development.

In several cases, our project also provides users with short videos in which academic historians, including such figures as Eric Foner of Columbia University, Michael Holt of the University of Virginia, and James Horton of the George Washington University, discuss these themes.

In addition to providing visitors with interpretive materials, our cultural tourism resource furnishes them with additional types of primary sources, including period images, readings of period texts, and present-day recordings of period songs.

For over fifteen years, individuals using desktop and laptop computers have benefited from the web's great utility for the study of history. Using hyperlinks, users can easily toggle back and forth between primary and interpretive resources, and practice active learning. Smart phones and other handheld devices, matched with wireless networks, enable visitors to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site to benefit from this technology while they are inspecting the site itself.

The practice of public history is essentially the promotion of active learning, in that it provides interpretive materials which visitors or patrons may use to explore and understand an historic site or exhibit materials. I believe that our cultural tourism resource, providing visitors with an enhanced and expanded set of interpretive and primary sources, can expand the practice of active learning taking place at the Lincoln Home National Historic site in fundamental ways.

It is my hope that these materials can serve as a supplement to the interpretive resources already provided by National Park Service personnel on-site, via their in-person tours, exhibits, signage, and cell phone tour. In developing them, we have sought to reach an audience that may desire a more detailed discussion of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site than that presented in materials specifically designed to reach the widest possible audience. It remains to be seen just what the size of this potential audience really is.

1 comment:

  1. I have been visiting various blogs for solved question papers for physics. I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information... Regards
    iPhone Tricks