Family History in Public

As Tammy Gordon writes in Private History in Public: Exhibition and the Settings of Everyday Life, one of the characteristics of community history projects is that the “exhibits emerge from curators whose identities are profoundly informed by the history presented in the exhibition” (36).  In contrast to exhibits driven by an academic desire for a more balanced treatment, community history projects are inherently tied to a desire for its consumers to appreciate the perspectives and voices of the local community, as the community understands itself.  Gordon notes that exhibits emerge from the work of curators for whom “the historical subject profoundly informs the[ir] identit[ies]” (38).

This concept operates at two different levels in the Weaving Our Story project.  As documentarians, my students are profoundly connected to the stories of their grandparents and the perspectives they offer.  While students do place those perspectives in a larger historical context, the goal is not to offer a counter-point to the grandparent’s experience but to locate it within the historical record.  For example, one student has documented her grandmother’s experience in an internment camp in Indonesia during World War II.  While she frames that story within the larger context of World War II, she does not dig into the Indonesian resentment of Dutch colonizers and who first welcomed the Japanese as liberators.  Granted, these are short documentaries completed by seventh grade students, but the point remains that the “exhibit builder” (in this case, my student) is greatly influenced by a desire to extract empathy for her grandmother from those who view the film.

On a similar level, Gordon observes the bind that local history curators face in maintaining positive public relations in order to obtain the volunteers, recollections and material culture that bring community history to life. Certainly, sensitivity to grandparents’ experiences is an important factor in continuing to generate enthusiasm for the project.  Now that the archive will be digitally accessible, the public permanence of the project will make it increasingly important to be mindful of community history resources while maintaining the project as a vehicle for practicing historical thinking skills.

This article has also helped me to understand the nuances of community history, especially as it relates to its unique goals.  As Gordon notes, the goal of community history is not necessarily to contribute to a scholarly dialogue but to communicate “their interests to outsiders, connecting elders to young people [and build] a sense of shared past . . . . ” (39).  While students may be curating content in a manner that shares only one perspective on an event, they are creating a space for practicing historical thinking and for historical conversations to occur.

In regards to the overall design of the digital site, Gutterman shares important lessons learned from designing  She corroborates the strategies discussed in earlier modules that incorporate generous visual interfaces by noting that the site’s traffic tended to gravitate to pages with large images and away from pages that were textually burdensome.  Additionally, complex search features may have overwhelmed visitors to the site who were more comfortable with a more simple approach.  In the same way community history curators may be influenced by community identity, digital history project designers may be influenced by such familiarity with content that they may design experiences that are too complex for a first time visitor to a project.

A final observation relates to Gordon’s reminder that one goal of community history is to draw people to a place for the purposes of tourism.  Billboards draw turnpike travelers toward local museums and attractions.  In a similar fashion, promoting a robust social media strategy and creating intriguing design elements are critical to generating traffic to digital community history projects.  However, historical societies also have a role to play.  The vast array of projects digitally curated by the Minnesota Historical Society is a good example of how local projects could get lost without “signage” directing users to the sites.  Many of the projects were fascinating but would not have turned up on a Google search of a particular topic because one wouldn’t necessarily know that thread of community history existed in digital form.


Gordon, Tammy. “Community Exhibition: History, Identity, and Dialogue.” In Private History in Public: Exhibition and the Settings of Everyday Life, 33-57. Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2010. Gutterman, Lauren.

“ An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making.” The Public Historian 32.4 (2010).

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