Audience & Content in Public History Projects

“In this sense, we don’t have authority to give away, really…We need to recognize the already shared authority in the documents we generate and in the processes of public history engagement.”

“From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back” by Michael Frisch. Excerpted from Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World.


Explicitly stated, the content produced by public history projects should flow directly from the public which that project is claiming to serve. In his chapter about the “Digital Kitchen,” Frisch acknowledges that public historians do have some authority over project content, but compares the process of creation to two chefs putting in an equal amount of work to mix together a meal. If the patron enjoys what’s being served and wishes to give their compliments to the chef — both creators should receive an equal amount of credit.

Unfortunately, this idealistic situation doesn’t always come to fruition. Some creators choose to shut out their co-chefs from the beginning of the development process (see the St. Louis in the Gilded Age exhibit from the Missouri Historical Society referenced in “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry” by Katharine Corbett and Howard Miller, pages 30-31). Other times organizations confuse transparency with co-creation, an act equal to inviting a co-cook into the kitchen, but not allowing them to touch anything. “What are the implications of practicing history not simply in public but rather for the public?” (Museums, Monuments, and National Parks by Denise Meringolo, page xxv.) Even the guidelines for digital history reviews posted by the Journal of American History (which broadly considers all DH projects, not specifically digital public history works) acknowledges that the merit of a product should in part be based on its ability to serve the needs of its audience.

The consequences for ignoring this “shared authority” are severe — organizations and institutions run the risk of eliminating themselves from the conversation entirely, as was the case when the Missouri Historical Society resisted sharing the creative process with their public. “Visitors walked in with all the authority, and kept it. They wandered in the exits and left through the entrances, ignored some artifacts altogether and looked at the rest in any order they chose…Our visitors controlled the conversation, as visitors always do; the most we should realistically have hoped for was an opportunity to join in.” (Corbett and Miller, 36) Clearly, if public history organizations wish to avoid becoming irrelevant, the doors to the proverbial kitchen must be flung wide open, the public invited in, and encouraged to get cooking.

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