Growing up a short distance from Washington, D.C., my relationship with the iconic sites and structures of the nation’s capitol is markedly different than that experienced by the thousands of tourists who frequently flock there. For me, places like the Smithsonian museums and the monuments of the National Mall aren’t simply destinations on a travel itinerary. They are familiar figures, featuring prominently throughout each stage of my life so far.
I first became acquainted with D.C.’s heritage sites and cultural institutions in childhood, from a combination of school field trips and obligatory family outings whenever an out-of-town relative paid a visit. In high school, navigating the Metro system and venturing into the city without parental supervision was a common rite of passage. The National Mall became not just an intellectual but a social destination, serving as the backdrop for prom pictures, first dates, and after-school outings with friends.
Reading Trevor Owens’ article on “using the social web to unpack the public meanings of cultural heritage site[s],” the different layers of meaning the D.C. sites hold for me instantly came to mind. Using TripAdvisor reviews of the commemorative statue of Albert Einsten (located in Washington, at the National Academy Sciences building) as an example, Owens examines the interpretive value of online social commentary in studying public relationships with cultural sites and institutions.
Undoubtedly, “traditional” source materials are necessary components of any research project. Knowledge of a site’s background — the motivations behind it, the message it conveys, its purpose in existing at all — is necessary for an accurate understanding of how (and why) the public interacts with that site. These can be found in any number of primary or secondary sources relating to a site, both online and off.
While these materials certainly help historians in figuring out the why of a site, they only provide so much detail on how the public connects with it. For this, Owens argues, we should look to the social web for assistance. Visitor reviews, such as those featured on TripAdvisor, and social media posts can be incredibly helpful not only in discerning how the public views cultural heritage sites, but also in determining the types of interactions people engage in.
Some believe that sources drawn from the social web are not as “legitimate” as those taken from more traditional avenues. Others feel that the experiences individuals describe via social media, such as the use of the National Mall as a venue for prom pictures, are “disrespectful” or “irrelevant.”
Reflecting on my own experiences, both formal and informal, with the cultural sites of Washington, D.C., I feel that Owens’ piece makes a valid argument. Part of the entire premise behind public history is an understanding of how the public connects with the past. Whatever their nature, posts made on social platforms offer valuable insight into how people create these connections through interacting with such sites.
Cultural heritage sites carry a number of different meanings. Visiting these sites and interacting with them — whatever the context — allows people to develop their own relationships for them. In doing so, these places become a part of their lives.