For all of the amazing work and thinking going on at America’s museums and heritage sites, much of it currently on display at an exciting National Council on Public History conference in Connecticut, public historians face an uncomfortable truth: According to a recent study of the public’s relationship with the world of history museums, 60% of Americans visited no museums, of any kind, in 2018, and only 7.5% reported visiting a history-related site. Yes, that 7.5% is trended younger and more active, but we have to face the hard reality that any American is 9 times more likely to never set foot inside a museum than she or he is to visit yours.

But, as I have argued, and others have denied, that does not mean that Americans’ interest in history is on the decline. Fully half — a solid 50% of all those surveyed — believe that the past has a clear and direct impact on the present. Another 30% think that the past somewhat affects today. Very few, less than 10%, either think not, don’t know, or don’t care. And the vast majority wants to know more, but, in doing so, they are arriving at some troubling conclusions. For example, two-thirds of Americans oppose the removal of Confederate monuments or the renaming of places named for slaveholders. That’s a position radically different from your average Kevin Kruse follower, who — like me — tend to believe that such monuments are not fixed in space and time, intended to stand forever as symbols of oppression and white supremacy, when cultural imperatives demand a reconsideration. But we are a vocal minority.

Why such a disconnect, when tens of thousands of Tweet likes or podcast downloads represent something of a victory within the public history community?  Aren’t academic Historical Communications programs working to improve how academics talk to all those people who never go to a museum and believe Confederate monuments should stay just where they are? The answer lies in just how Americans actually consume history, and it isn’t on Twitter. It’s not even in the classroom (the survey found that only 11% of Americans credit formal education as a primary source of historical information).

Where they’re actually getting it is on demand, on YouTube, at the movies, and through the multiplying streaming services that have already come to dominate the lives of many, if not most, Americans.  So it should come as no surprise that top primary sources of historical information are historical documentaries (74.2%) and period dramas (60.2%) like Outlander, Poldark, and Downton Abbey, which, we must note, are historical fiction that need good academic advisers to keep them from doing more harm than good to their viewers’ historical literacy. Reading nonfiction books was cited by 57.9% of respondents as a primary source, but that includes the best-selling tripe from the likes of Bill O’Reilly (who seems to enjoy writing about killing historical figures, just as he tortures prose and the past) and Ben Shapiro (whose risible “The Right Side of History” is right now at the top of the New York Times Hardback Nonfiction Best Sellers List). But, in a boost for the heritage tourism industry, and a market for travel contextualization that’s begging to be tapped, almost half of Americans — 47.9% — cited travel to historic sites as among their primary sources of historical information, even if they don’t seem to be going into the museums and institutions near those sites. (Here’s an exercise for you: Go to YouTube and search for your museum or site and see what comes up. That’s how travelers are making their destination decisions these days. Do you like what you see?)

So where does the future of public history lie, if, perhaps, not in onsite visitation in the traditional sense? Is it blurry? No. It’s coming into increasingly crisp focus. It might move, but it’s all online, and it’s not a podcast.

Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard that before. Those kids and their interweb thingies. But it’s not just about generational communication mechanisms. It’s about behavorial economics or, more simply put, how almost everyone who doesn’t have a vivid recollection of having to get up to change the channel on the television relates to their world, and that includes their understanding of the past and the present. These are new audiences that are almost wholly online and can — through mediums such YouTube and IG TV and Periscope — feel more connected to the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands than to the history museum on their own street.

That’s because places such as the Rijkmuseum, and, on this side of the Atlantic (or, er, Pacific), the Monterey Bay Aquarium, get the importance of cultivating and maintaining a sustainable online audience that can be a source of funding and visibility through their canny and consistent use of social media. Even quite smaller institutions, such as the Walden Woods Project, are doing it well, within their means. And it’s not because they’ve invested in new media marketing teams, because it only takes one smart phone, one person who knows what to do with it, and one person who gets it when it comes to shareable content that creates what we used to call virtual online experiences, which in our time have become actual. There’s nothing virtual about it for digital natives.

But all that engagement is beginning to focus on one particular method: Video, mostly recorded but increasingly live. It’s one of the reasons I have almost entirely shifted my public history energy to center on filmmaking (and not the 8- or 16-hour comprehensive marathon kind) with my new production company, sponsored by a mouse that I used to advise. According to a soon-to-be-released study, funded by that company and others, video consumption, at every level of communication, is now — not next decade, not next year, right now — the main means by which audiences consume content of pretty much everything.

And you can pick apart those demographic toplines all that you want, especially as Gen Z has overtaken the spending power of Millenials as America’s largest generation. The numbers remain true. This year, 80% of all Internet traffic will be driven by video content, just as mobile video consumption increases by 100% every year. 55% of Americans watch an online video every day and 92% of them will share that video with others.  In fact, Americans are 1200% (!) more likely to share their e-mail, Tweet, or Insta, Vero, or, Heaven forbid, TikToc post, if it contains video rather than still photos (forget about text, unless imbedded in the image).

For public history pros who are business-minded, there are clear returns on any investment in upping your online video, um, game, as 64% of Americans are more likely to take action after watching a video than reading a post. In fact, live video, such as what Monterey Bay does daily and Walden Woods schedules every Wednesday afternoon, makes viewers spend three times longer on an engagement and increases click-throughs for viewers to learn more by 200%-300% over recorded videos.

I won’t belabor this topic any longer. Suffice to say, as I already have more than bit of experience in front of and behind the camera, I’m taking the plunge to a new way of practicing public history through film and video production. And, unlike most documentarians, I’m a historian first, as is much of my team, so we don’t need to spend two years in development learning about the American Revolution in order to figure out what stories needs to be told about it. We, as historians, know what we know, and we also, crucially, know who knows what we don’t know (um, yes, that says just what I wanted it to say).

So we’re taking a different approach, for both the filmmaking and public history worlds. We’re carrying an understanding of a past that matters to where the audiences are, to combat alternative facts and fake news on their own battleground, and, hopefully, we can also get those audiences to where you are. I’d much prefer that you come along for this ride. The revolution won’t be televised, but it will be streamed.

2 thoughts on “The Revolution Will Be Streamed: Bringing the Future of Public History into Focus

  1. A couple of thoughts: First, there is no equivalency between people who never go to a museum and those who think Confederate monuments should stay where they are. But I won’t get into that argument since it’s obvious our opinions differ and the whole Confederate monument argument has been rehashed ad nauseum already. I wish you great success with your video enterprise. Reaching new and old audiences with interesting and factual historical information is a worthy aim. But please don’t abandon text just because it isn’t the medium du jour. We need a literate society as well as a historically informed one, and we need it now more than ever.

  2. Taylor, what an exciting next step for you and I know it will be a fantastic journey and a fulfilling one, not only in the making but in the end result. I do believe that the visual needs to marry, or at least be engaged to, the written word for a more lasting impression. For many people, the curiosity born from a film – or live streaming piece – is the search for a little more of the story and the written word has the possibility to sprout the seed your film has planted.
    I agree with the museum issue. With two museum curators and a baseball historian in my family and having visited museums from Germany to Japan, I cringe when I see long dark corridors with small signs with small print. Don’t misunderstand me. I LOVE museums and some are brilliant in their endeavor. But I would rather walk the ground of a site, listen to the interpreter, dig my toes in the sand where my father-in-law and grandfathers fought on foreign lands, stand where my great-ancestors surrenderd with Lee, visit the island park where a great ancestor lost his life as a prisoner of war, retrace the path of my family from their first footsteps when this country was a group of colonies, and marvel at the journey my husband’s ancestors took in an open boat from Ireland to be drafted into the Union Army. Museums don’t hold the same sway for me. (Of course, the reason could be that the above mentioned curators tend to assess each exhibit and I find it tedious! Nothing like the knowledge of a learned person. I say this with great love and respect, of course.) Living and experiencing history second hand, if I may, is the best way to engage the public.
    Engage is the key word. Documentaries, the 3 to 9 hour variety, have been the life blood of engagement for history. Too often, they are as boring as that history class in high school. Ken Burns is brilliant and I adore his work. I met him when he debuted one of his films and we briefly discussed his future projects. This was a few years after his baseball documentary premiered and I suggested George Washington and the war of independence might be a subject. Now, I am not in any way suggesting he remembered our conversation but I wait with great expectation his work on this subject. Will he tell it as I perceive it from my study? (I don’t hold a PHD in history. My degree is in other areas. But I am a student always studying.) Probably, not. Just as my fine Irishman of a husband, the baseball historian, found fault in Burn’s Baseball film, I am sure I will shake my head at some part of the film just as academic historians will. Having lived through the Vietnam era and coming from a military family that experienced that time, Burn’s documentary on that war was painful to watch and our mindset clashed on many issues. But I loved it merely for the fact that it made me THINK. And the discussion began. Film does that.
    One more thing about Ken Burns, and this is more important to me. During his film debut at our film festival, he held a question and answer period after the film Horatio’s Drive. My young daughter raised her hand a few times but adults overlooked her and time ran out for questions. Disappointed she wasn’t able to ask her question, we stood to leave. In the lobby, Ken Burns stopped when he saw her and pulled her aside, saying he saw her hand go up many times. He spoke to her with respect and answered her question and his time was only for her. His kindness has never been forgotten by her or by her father and I. (Bill Barker has showed the same special care with the young people. We’ve experienced it many times over the years, as he remembers our daughter from past visits as a young child to CW.) Of course, my husband still points out the issues with his film but the signed baseball from Ken Burns softens that a bit.
    I am truly excited about your new adventure and applaud you for your forward thinking of how to grab, engage, invite, and spike the curiosity of the public in history. I am part of that public. Having been in involved on the outskirts of a documentary, I know it is a labor of love. I await your films! Good luck and have fun!
    Best Wishes, Susan

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