Sunday 1 December 2013

The Past in a Digital Present

On Friday I attended a workshop designed to introduce historians to new ways of presenting the past to audiences beyond the academy. Called 'The Past in a Digital Present' it was organised by Richard Jones of The Centre for English Local History and the day was led by Nick Patrick, producer of Radio 4's 'Making History'. It was really interesting to spend a whole day thinking about questions which are normally viewed as peripheral to the historian's craft, and hearing from people in other industries about how we can present ourselves effectively in an era of digital technology and social media.

After Nick had laid out the structure for the day, and given us the challenge to plan a launch for a heritage project he had worked on in East Anglia, the first speaker took the floor. Janet Awe, a social media consultant and head of Awesome Communications, took us on a whistle-stop tour of the current social media landscape and how we might use various different sites. There was lots of discussion thrown up during this talk, particularly around the different communication styles needed for social media, and some concerns around ownership were raised. Being pretty enthusiastic about social media myself, it was useful to be introduced to the mechanics of sites I've not used, and reacquainted with some of the tools that I could be using but tend not to, for example twitter's search tool. In particular, lots of positive things were said about, a site which I'd previously heard mixed opinions on.

The next speaker was Simon Byford of Ugly Studios, a company working in 'digital interpretation' (i.e. making apps, touchscreen displays etc) for heritage sites. His talk was focused on the design principles involved in choosing how to present complex historical information through technology. We had great fun looking at some of the examples he'd brought along, and discussing the processes involved in creating them. He focused a lot on the importance of having clear aims and a defined target audience, and ensuring that you choose information suited to meet these aims rather than just making everything you have available. This was probably my favourite talk of the day, and I think these design principles could be applied to a lot of what historians do in communicating with the public.

After lunch, Rebekkah Abraham of History Pin talked us through some of their work. As well as providing an online platform for sharing historical images, history pin has led community work to find out more about particular aspects of the past. There were animated discussions around possible future developments, with all sorts of ideas bouncing around. This perhaps felt a little closer to the everyday concerns of historical work, and it was clear that many of the attendees were excited to be thinking about how this kind of technology might be used in their work.

Nick Patrick, who had been heading up the day, rounded it off with a discussion about how to launch a heritage event, followed by a talk about how to write a press release. While clear and useful, I found this part of the day perhaps a touch pedestrian compared to what had gone before. However, these are skills that it is useful to have and I'm sure if I was involved in that kind of work right now I'd have found it fascinating. I'll certainly remember the principles around brevity and clarity that were laid out.

I know that there are some in the academic world who can be a little cynical about these kind of 'new media' discussions. However, it is clear that we are living through an era of rapid change in communication technologies, and if we ignore that then we will inevitably (and increasingly) struggle to communicate at all. Just as historians learnt use television and radio, they must learn to use the new tools of the digital age.