Dealing with Commemoration in Archives and Digital History

Glass WallFor today’s class we are discussing topics from the following readings:

I believe what stuck to me most out of the readings is a small sentence from Hessler’s article: The storyteller inhabits the story. This small bit of wisdom supports the thought behind the article “Commemoration and the Public Historian.” The work of a digital historian as it pertains to the presentation of material in archives or interactive on-line museum modes, carries the weight of responsibility, and does include a sort of moral obligation to the audience that the historian should present, preserve, and record the past as it actually was.

As a storyteller, a historian’s voice is included within the historical narrative of what transpired in the past. Historians narrate all the time. They analysis data and present it to the world with a narrative of events from their perspective. But, a digital historian can go beyond this. Analyzing data  is a just a platform to the next step. Three dimensions are added to the ‘interactiveness’ of  archive material when it is now more than a narrative. Adding the digital component to the commemoration of events, the storyteller gives the audience more than a narrative, as visitors to online sites are able to see and evaluate images, documents, letters, and other tangible artifacts associated with the event.

Hessler is mindful that there is a challenge for public museums who go online to engage “an increasingly diverse” audience. Commemoration involves identification with the victims. I don’t think this could be accomplished as well solely through narrative as identification asks the reader to conjure up sensations and emotions that may have been experienced by those who were actual participants in the event. This identification most likely could only occur when there are tangible details to see, touch, and hear (as in oral histories or interviews). One thing I did learn when I was going through my teaching certification is that there are many types of learners. This type of interactive authenticity hits upon most of these different types of learning behaviors. I see identification as part of future pedagogy. Yet, as Hessler advises, we also need to be mindful of losing a “critical distance” to understanding and studying the event we attempt to commemorate, if we become too involved in fostering that personal identification in teaching.

The Kent State project is an example of how new digital historians attempt to inhabit the story, by re-focusing attention to tangible details, like forensic evidence long forgotten,  to retell a story as it actually happened. The storyteller here seeks to add another perspective to a long established narrative.

I believe that this could be something I could attempt with my letter collections. It would be interesting to add more dimensions to this stories by finding images of the people who wrote them and other tangible artifacts that could be associated with the authors of the letters and those who the letters were addressed to. Perhaps one or two will have a personal story that a visitor to my future site would be able to identify with. I think that the challenge would be to create a narrative, but more than just a narrative, to commemorate these participants in the war.


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