Dialogue in Creating the Project

As I have found out not only from our readings, but first hand as I began my research, shared inquiry and authority are key components of a public history project. Thus when I read Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. (Dick) Miller’s introduction to their article, A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry, on collecting oral histories and conducting research for the Depression era women’s strike, I was feeling a bit relieved. As they observed, “All good historical practice is reflective, but public history requires a special commitment to collaborate, to respond, to share both inquiry and authority. Because trained practitioners and lay people often seek different pasts for different purposes, public historians may find themselves poised between advocacy and mediation, monitoring and adjusting their own behavior through the process of shared inquiry.” Since I have never done a public history project before, I was desperately searching for a good way to go about it, but soon I had to let that go finding out and being reaffirmed that “Since public history is inherently situational, there is no one-size-fits-all methodology.” While I began with a much broader aspect of local history in King City, I had to pull my reins back and focus on not just a smaller piece, but listen to my immediate audience. It was apparent during the first meeting I had with the couple who inspired the project that what I had intended in unfolding was beyond the ability the scale of this digital history project.  Among all the different artifacts, documents, photographs, and anecdotes, another voice was emerging – I simply needed to listen with a sense to understand what is it that these people want me to present. The tow’s history is rich, there are several historical buildings that deserve attention, the high school has a distinguished place in California history, but instead, before I realized what was happening, we were watching a video created in memory of a pilot and instructor of the flight school at the King City Airport. Thus I found myself i similar shoes to Corbet and Miller, in the course of uncovering facts and  listening stories, my interviewees “transformed a modest academic fact-hunt into a nuanced and empowering story”  of these cadets’ lives and how it transformed theirs along with the city.

My questions of purpose somehow suddenly disappeared and instead I was full on into the research mode, at first simply listening to the suggestions from contacts I was given. Soon it became clear that there is a story that needs to be told and the audience is eager and willing to share and explore with me along the way. Besides the news articles and logs, I was made aware and also discovered surviving members of the cadets and was offered a transcript of an interview with one of them, while encouraged to collect one on my own from another pilot who is more than willing to tell his stories. So Michael Frisch’ words in his article, From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back where he relates the digital process, the power of words, and the idea of letting go and sharing historical authority in a user-generated world, made me feel that I was standing again in the same place he describes, “smack in the middle: these new modes of access make the raw collection a legible and explorable hub, and in so doing make the framing and fabrication of usable cooked products more dispersed as a capacity and more open-ended, fluid, and continuous as a process” (129). I was examining the news articles, which were readily “cooked” for me to serve, the transcripts, and the logs, but I was curious to work with the “raw” material to see where that leads and what more we can discover or cook up beyond the prepared recipes provided. I also agree with his analysis regarding digital modes being the vehicle that will ” help to overcome the dichotomy between knowledge creation and knowledge consumption”  (130).  Similarly to Frisch, I see “possibility of new approaches to making meaning…a stance directed less toward the either/or of collection stewardship and fixed outputs, and more toward the active in-between—a more creative, more open-ended, less linear, and hence a more sharable space” (130). These new ways of making meaning are guided by the perceived audiences and the input of their efforts in collaboration with the researcher. I believe that a new presentation of history catered to specific audiences could be the most exciting and telling of any project could offer.

Thus, in conclusion, creating personas, as much as it has never occurred to me, is a good way to expand the understanding of a project.  It is a “way to model, summarize and communicate research” (Goltz), it is a way to build the dialogue, and allow for us to pause and reflect about the process and its reception through these collectively imaginary personas. It also forces us to relate and consider what  John Kuo Wei Tchen explains in Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment, when he says “a resonant and responsible way of engaging any community in the interpretation of its own history needs to balance local, intensely private uses of history with the larger-scale understanding of why and how life has become the way it is. A variety of historical insights need to be brought together in a cultural free space for open discussion (295). The raw material, the casual inquiry from the archivist, and the sense of personal and public presence during the collection of oral history may yield an insight that cannot be ignored in the outcome of the project.

 

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