Encouraging Public Participation in the Digital Age

I was drawn to read “Archeologies that Hurt; Descendants that Matter” in the Heritage Reader this week. The article pertains to a website created about the Levi Jordan Plantation outside of Houston, TX. The author, Carol McDavid, discusses the challenges of the website’s creation and dissemination “as a case study to examine whether Internet websites are effective communicative media for archaeologists to interact with the public in open, democratic, multivocal and relevant ways, particularly when the archaeological interpretations themselves are “sensitive” and “charged” in political contexts” (515).

There are different ways public participation can occur in media such as a website. McDavid framed the website as a conversation, rather than a static analysis of the archaeological interpretations of the plantation. This is important in establishing a connection with the public, who can comment about and even correlate or augment the arguments of the archaeologists. McDavid had a rather conservative unfolding of the website, including a public comment section and only posting information about the slaves who lived on the plantation after receiving permission from his or her descendants.

In the years since this article was written, it can be said that smartphones with Internet access have surpassed computer-web-based communication. With the advent of apps that can be created for smartphones, there is increased potential for communication between historic sites and a community in which it is situated. One app that comes to mind for me as a model for future preservation efforts is OpenTreeMap, a project sponsored by Philadelphia’s own Azavea. The app allows users to document trees planted in their communities, which contributes to a larger map network of trees in their city or town. This could allow an interested arborist to see where all of the oak trees in Philadelphia are located, for example. A similar process could be done for historic resources in a neighborhood or historic districts; users could add descriptors to a building such as architectural features, dates of important events, or notable residents. This could be updated to-the-minute; an Occupy Wall Street protest in Union Square could be added just as quickly as an event that had occurred there in the 19th century. This allows participants to define for themselves what events are and are not historic, thereby helping to curate the history of their neighborhood or city.

Another idea that could be used for connecting people with the historic built environment through their phones is through a QR-code reader. Pre-written descriptions about a place or site could be pulled up through scanning a bar code on a marker or structure (I believe this was used at Eastern State Penitentiary for their self-guided tour, but I could be mistaking this for another site).

It is important not to forget that smartphones and internet access are not universal. We must still be able to engage citizens with their history “analogly” and prevent the possibility of digital historical interpretation turning into a case of the haves and have-nots. As such, long-standing practices such as historic markers and plaques remain an important way to remind people that history is often right at their footsteps. Although the text of these plaques often do not change, perhaps preservation and history enthusiasts can think of a way to allow for open-ended conversations in these static forms of historical and archaeological interpretation.

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