Public History on the Ground

Philadelphia is a city filled with colorful, weird, and prominent public art, and when I was a student I often asked myself “Why is this here?” Public history allows questions like this to be asked and answered in new ways. With projects like Phillyhistory.org, I might raise my phone to Claes Oldenburg’s giant clothespin opposite City Hall and see a very different image of construction and row homes. Digital Public Humanities, coupled with new technology, allowed for deeper explorations of space than the human eye can see unaided.

Christopher Tilly in his “Phenomenology of Landscape: Paths, Places and Monuments” (Bloomsberg: 1997) argues that archaeologists (and other humanities scholars) cannot fully understand the past without physically walking through the landscape. I often had this book in mind as I read through the readings assigned for this section of my Digital Public History course. All the readings seem to offer new ways of implementing many of Tilly’s principles. I can’t sit in a library and expect to fully understand the Via Appia, nor can I hope to understand its use in antique without the resources of the library.

This new work in digital public history most facilitates questions about change. How did a landscape change? When did these changes take place? The “why” is easy to ask, but most of the project I’ve seen don’t seem to answer it. Taking Phillyhistory.com as an example again, I can see that the giant clothes pin wasn’t always there, but not why the change took place.  These projects seem to be very good at looking into a landscape’s path, but not a analyzing it.

In regards to my own project, I haven’t gleaned much information from these project. I do find them very exciting, because I absolutely think layering experience with historic information is a part of good historic research. Although my project is place-based, I shy away from either encouraging or requiring users go to those places to use my website. My places are churches. I feel, and many of the parishioners and clergy feel, that a house of worship is not the place for mobile devices. I am thinking of the Pokémon go faux pas, where players were trying to capture virtual Pokémon outside of the Holocaust Museum. It just wasn’t appropriate. Although my website, I hope, respects and honors each place, I wouldn’t want to have clergy discourage people from using it because they’re on their phones during a baptism. I won’t be making my website mobile compatible, but I do hope it is used in the spaces I talk about on laptops during after-service educational programs.

 

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