Forecast: In the history museum of the future, curators’ work will be driven by our audiences’ curiosity, and their preference for inquiry over certainty.
In the age of the twenty-four hour news cycle and a well-researched, well-policed Wikipedia, museums like to believe that we still have the advantage of being Authorities. We know how to do Research. We know how to pose the Right Questions. We know, most importantly, how to Give Our Visitors The Answers.
Citizen History is an experiment in finding out what happens if we trust our visitors enough to allow them to bring their diverse perspectives and boundless enthusiasm into the research work of the museum and share our authority.
Citizen History is similar in concept to Citizen Science, in which a museum or other research institution invites participants to go into their backyards to count birds, for example, or sample streams. The institution sets the question, determines the parameters of the study, may provide training, and checks the results—but trusts participants of various levels of skill to collect the actual data.
Citizen History opens up a museum’s existing data to participants and, through scaffolded inquiry, invites participants to draw conclusions to answer big questions. At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for instance, our Children of the Lodz Ghetto project
|Screen shot of the project.|
We currently have 5,000 names on the project site, and provide the information we have on each: the name as it was signed in the album, the number of the school the student attended in the fall of 1941, and a general age range of students in that school. We designed a user interface that helps citizen historians organize their research: for each student there is a “workspace” divided into five chronological sections, and each section contains fields for specific information researchers are challenged to seek out: given name, date of birth, address and date of address change, parents’ names, name of labor camp to which the student was sent, etc. We link many of the museum’s searchable online names databases related to the Lodz ghetto to the relevant chronological stage, facilitating the search for snippets of information to fill these fields.
In the future, we hope to turn some of the work of facilitation over to “expert users,” who have established their credibility by using the site extensively and accurately. I can imagine a future in which this research process lies entirely with citizen historians: self-organizing research groups submitting work that is checked by an expert user, and integrated into museum content. This will require a high degree of trust on the part of the museum—but so far, our most dedicated citizen historians have proven themselves to be accurate and thorough, in other words, trustworthy users and guardians of the memory of the students who signed the album.
We believe that Citizen History can encourage more people to become historians, or at least make history and historical thinking more accessible to participants. If we don’t talk at our visitors, but instead talk with them, listen to them, find out what makes the curious—we welcome them into the conversation and open up the possibility that history is interesting, or, even fun. And the museum benefits from this shared authority as well: maybe the findings of our Citizen Historians will challenge our assumptions about the Lodz Ghetto. Maybe they will pose questions we haven’t yet thought to ask.