Historical Authority and Sense of Place

On the Saturday of #ncph2012 I attended a number of great sessions.  My favourite session of the day, and perhaps the whole conference was “Letting Go? Historical Authority in a User Generated World.”  Despite being at 8:30am, this session was lively, discussion filled, and actively engaged attendees.  The session began by the presenters encouraging participants to use sharpies and post-it-notes to record thoughts on the idea of user generated content.   This simplistic activity did a great job of getting everyone moving and getting the conversation started.

Some of the examples of user generated content and exhibits included:

  • 21st Century Abe, the project aimed to explore the idea of Abe’s long lasting impact 200 years after his birth.  Artists, experts, and people from all walks of live were invited to contribute their conceptions of Abe.
  • PhilaPlace, is a community driven project by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, that connects stories to places in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.This project uses interactive maps to allow people to connect personal histories to the past and a sense of place.
  • Franklin Remixed, this initiative focused on school aged children sharing their perspectives on Franklin.  The children were exposed to primary sources and encourage to re-conceptualize and redesign a traditional exhibit on Franklin.
  • StoryCorps, a historical interview project that puts regular people at the forefront.  This form of history is highly personalized and without context, short clips are regularly played on NPR. 
  • Denis Severs’ House, an unconventional approach to historic house interpretation.  The development of this site was completely artist driven, and allows for a feeling of presence in a historical space.

These great examples of user driven content provided a foundation for discussing the pitfalls and rewards of working with community groups to create and inspire content.

The ideas inspired in this first session, were complemented by the session I attended next: “Right Here on This Spot: Place and Meaning in Historical Scholarship and Community Engagement.”  This session focused on the importance of place, the multiple interpretation of place, and the notion of location as storyscape. 

Presenter Michelle McClellan, addressed the concept of space by examining the heritage tourism associated with the book, Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.   McClellan noted how interpretation can greatly impact how visitors conceptualize a sense of space and that preconceived notions of space often shape tourism experiences. 

McClellan was followed by David Young and his discussion of the Cliveden historical site.  In recent years the Cliveden site has been reinterpreted to focus more on the racial experiences than the history of the Chew family.  Young focused on the ability of a single geographic local to tell a wide array of stories and impact numerous communities. 

Both of the sessions I attended Saturday morning sparked thoughts about how I approach history and ways in which traditional interpretation can be altered to improve visitor experiences.

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