Chapter 7: Conclusion
My project drew upon material culture, digital humanities, and archival theory and method in the service of public history investigations. After selecting an artifact and performing object analysis, I digitized and materialized a new object. I performed another object analysis on the 3D printed object.
The exercise began by provided the familiar benefits of object analysis: both the opportunity to closely research a particular artifact and to broaden the investigation to the artifact’s historical context. In this case, a toy meat grinder provided an entry point to talking about general topics in the social history of the United States: domestic life, the role of women, the meaning of toys, shifting labor patterns, and the impact of technology upon daily life. This particular toy meat grinder also served as a means to discuss a specific Germantown Quaker family, their actions and possessions, and the various means by which their history was preserved and transmitted by artifacts and archives.
The digitization and materialization component of the project offered new ways to engage with an artifact. Object analysis was turned on its head as I investigated an object which I had a role in creating. This provided valuable insights into the artifact and new model, but also into the process of object analysis.
I have proposed approaches for performing similar investigations in repositories, along with a pedagogical argument for doing so. By emphasizing modularity, flexibility, and minimal capital requirements, I hope these approaches can be adapted to a variety of institutions and audiences. Researchers will reap the benefits of intellectual and
emotional engagement, hands-on learning, and technological experimentation. Public historians will have the opportunity to engage in outreach and innovative education and exploration of their collections.
The myriad professions falling under the umbrella term of “public historian”—including archivists, curators, and educators—can all benefit from self-reflexive examination of theory, method, and perspectives. The better we understand our collections, the better we can assist researchers in using them. Expertise in subjects and methodology can allow for a greater degree of collaboration. Well-informed public historians can proactively suggest lines of research or produce their own scholarship: articles for an academic, professional, or popular audiences, or less traditional scholarly works, such as material presented online. Historians working outside of the academy may have greater flexibility in the genre of work they can produce. A lopsided plastic meat grinder with a goiter would probably not impress a tenure committee, but it could serve as an excellent capstone for a series of educational sessions outside the classroom.
Utilizing new—or newly accessible—technologies is a useful strategy. Hands-on learning has pedagogical value, increasing student engagement and imparting new technical skills. Deploying technology in the service of historical investigation may also help raise the profile of institutions often dismissed as “dusty” or otherwise backward or dull. Focused, small-scale projects, especially if undertaken in collaboration with educators, have the potential to be flexible but completable. The project deliverable is a thing, digital or plastic, produced by the student’s effort. The teaching goals range wider, encompassing material culture, historical research, technological proficiency, and creative problem solving.
It is not enough for public historians to care about history. The enterprise is founded upon the premise that a broader audience should also care about history, and has something to contribute to the process of constructing histories. It is our job to foster the passion and confidence that are a necessary part of that process. What better way than inviting the public into our inner sanctum and encouraging them to play with our sacred objects? They belong to the public, after all; we merely hold them in trust.