Moving the Civil War Sesquicentennial Beyond Facebook and Twitter

Over the past few days I’ve been putting together some thoughts for a panel on the Civil War sesquicentennial that I am taking part in this coming April at the annual meeting of the OAH in Milwaukee.  I shared my proposal a few months ago and am now trying to fill in some of the detail.  I am very interested in the implications of social media on how public historians in museums and other institutions have utilized these tools during the sesquicentennial.

As I suggested in my proposal, social media has fundamentally changed the commemorative landscape.  Whereas 50 years ago only a few institutions were positioned to shape a national Civil War remembrance the democratization of the web means that all of our voices can now be heard.  Most institutions have done a pretty good job of utilizing social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to disseminate information to the public, but what are they doing to engage their audience?  Social media is a 2-way street and I am not simply thinking of a Facebook page that allows for readers’ comments.

I don’t know if they still do it, but when I last visited the American Civil War Center at Tredegar they provided post-it notes at the end of the exhibit for visitor feedback.   I have no idea what they do with the notes, but I like the spirit of it, especially now that we are into the sesquicentennial.  We need to remember that while museums are doing their best to focus us on the past, the sesquicentennial is an event itself and these institutions are in a position to help the public begin to make some sense of it.  On the one hand the multitudes of voices that are part of our ongoing discussion of the continued significance of the Civil War is something to celebrate, but what does it all mean in terms of how we as a nation remember this period of our history?  Should museums and public historians even care about such a question?

I would suggest that they do, but I wonder if many have thought through how the web 2.0 world can enhance and advance their goals.  One thing is clear: the sesquicentennial has engaged a much wider range of Americans compared to just 50 years ago, but at this point we know very little about its racial, gender, and generational boundaries.  We are still mired in a narrative of continued war, of black v. white, and of north v. south, which I have argued is an inaccurate picture of where the nation is in its collective memory of the war.  Museums and other professionals can certainly use these tools to more effectively engage their audience and perhaps even expand it.  I would love to see museums begin to embrace the reflections of their visitors as a component of the exhibit, which would begin to address the issue of how we catalog our individual voices as well as broader shifts and patterns of remembrance.

This post is a bit of a ramble, but I am still thinking through a bunch of things.  What do you think?  Are there museums that are utilizing social media tools in creative ways?

7 comments… add one
  • Doug didier Jan 26, 2012 @ 19:52

    Post it notes are nice..

    Suggestion.. To perhaps add some depth to social media metadata.

    In the flavor of opinion polls etc..

    Ask questions.. True false , agree disagree, too low too high,

    To baseline people’s intrpretating of cilia war over next 4 years..

  • Vince Jan 17, 2012 @ 19:41

    Thinking more on the level of local institutions and social media, my feeling is that a major role of social media can be for refilling the nearly empty storehouses of local institutions that do history work. Many local institutions seem to jump into the Sesquicentennial, and then realize they don’t have a foundation of historical content from which to do public history. The original stories have long since disintegrated (figuratively speaking) and those crafted in the 1960s are stale. I think social media has the potential to supply desirable raw content to institutions that sorely need it. The institutions can then refine it and augment their existing public history efforts to greatly improve the quality of those efforts.

    Social media, then, can serve to introduce high quality (in terms of human interest and historical analysis) raw material into the living knowledge of institutions. I’ve had fun seeing social media (mostly a blog and Facebook interactions) help some local institutions–including the county’s historical society, a university’s history department, and a village’s bicentennial committee–reconnect excitedly with long-lost content for interpretive use in the future. This all goes very much hand-in-hand with advances over the last five years in digitized newspapers, document sharing, photo sharing, digitized books, online auctions, etc.

  • Jimmy Price Jan 17, 2012 @ 15:48

    Tredegar does indeed still have the wall of post-its. As someone who worked there for two years, I can say that many of them are thrown away due to the nonsense that people like to write (or, in many cases, inappropriate pictures they like to draw.) But every once in a while you find a true gem. They also created a series of podcasts that help enhance the visitor experience that much more by touching on areas that couldn’t be covered in the exhibit (such as Jubal Early and the Lost Cause…had to mention that one because I wrote it). Here’s the link:

    • Jimmy Price Jan 17, 2012 @ 16:29

      Oh yeah, and I’ll be part of the “Civil War Battlefields: Imagining Possibilities after 150 Years” panel, so see you in Milwaukee!

  • Keith Harris Jan 17, 2012 @ 15:28

    As you might guess – these are points that I give a lot of thought. While I agree that social media have changed the game, I am not quite sure we all know exactly what to do next. The fundamental mistake that I think many tweeters, youtubers, and facebookers make – at least those who are trying to spread the word about something (meaning, those who are using these tools as more than a way to casually communicate with their friends) – is that they are using social media as another form of advertising. Like you say (correctly, I believe) – it’s a two way street. Education via social media will not come close to realizing its potential until those on the education end become engaged in a discussion. All too often I see museums, organizations, etc, etc simply posting links to events, facts, and anecdotes – with the seeming purpose of getting people to their place of business. This is only a small part of what could be a juggernaut in terms of educational discussion. It has just not yet happened from where I sit.

    But it needs to. And I love your idea of somehow collecting a database of Internet interaction between the public and the institution. What a gold mine that would be for future public historians, yes?

  • Roger E Watson Jan 17, 2012 @ 14:40

    I have that board game in basement ! Thanks for reminding me.

    • Ray O'Hara Jan 17, 2012 @ 17:16

      It was one of the first games I got, getting it way beck in 1968.
      a good fun game.

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