Online Musings of a Public Historian

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.

One of my first "grown up" group outings to Washington, D.C., taking in the view from the rear of the Lincoln Memorial. (Summer, 2007)

One of my first “grown up” group outings to Washington, D.C., taking in the view from the rear of the Lincoln Memorial. (Summer, 2007)

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.

"History and Culture" page for the Lincoln Memorial, featured on the NPS National Mall website

“History and Culture” page for the Lincoln Memorial, featured on the NPS National Mall website.

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.

TripAdvisor reviews of the Lincoln Memorial.

TripAdvisor reviews of the Lincoln Memorial.

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.

Comments on: "Social Media as a Tool of Research" (2)

  1. You certainly raised very good points about the differences in how locals vs. tourists or those from out of town view the monuments. As a local myself, I can relate to the familiar nature of the monuments and sites downtown. That is precisely why I think such “informal” comments, thoughts, and reactions should be analyzed by those responsible for the stewardship of such sites. Just because we are familiar and have been to such locations multiple times, our relationships to these places are just as meaningful as the reactions of a more recent visitor. Even my relationships to these monuments has changed as I now view them in a more professional and critical manner. Also, such social media comments have the potential to capture the reactions of a visitor in a more candid way than a post-interview can for example. These comments and reactions thus serve as very useful tools.

  2. Great post! You make a strong and clear argument and connect it to your personal experience.

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