Presenting History to the Broader Public

Morgan Hubbard

One of Heather's posts from December got me thinking about the challenges of presenting history visually. As a public historian I'm interested in narrowing the gulf that exists between professional historians and the broad reading public. Part of this job involves thinking about how we've always presented our arguments about the past—and how we might make those presentations more engaging, more memorable, and better suited to the twenty-first century.

A historian who wants both job security and to teach people about important things might find herself pulled in different directions. Tenure committees want to see specialized monographs best suited to university libraries, books that expand the boundaries of what we know. The emphasis in these works is on mastery of the subject and relevant historiography, exhaustive research, and a style that puts the book's conclusion first. But the general-interest reader is interested in the story, not what other historians have said about it, and tends to want a narrative that is plotted and paced more than a conclusion that is delivered up front. (I understand these are gross stereotypes and that real life is more complicated, but my goal is just to sketch the outlines of the problem.)

There's no simple way to resolve this tension, but it seems to me we can start to address the problem by conceiving of our projects from the outset as both scholarship and storytelling. Easier said than done, I know. One way to start is by capitalizing on the power of the internet to relay information visually. This doesn't mean “dumbing down” the historical analysis we produce and present. But it does mean realizing that some historical processes are best expressed visually and dynamically. Traditional books can't give us that. But the web can.

One of my projects this semester is a statistical analysis of the ways that themes in American science fiction changed between 1945 and 1965. I'm sampling about a thousand science fiction stories from three of the major English-language science fiction magazines (Amazing Stories, Astounding Science-Fiction, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.) After I read each story, I classify it according to a taxonomy of themes, “tagging” the story with as many themes as it takes to approximate its content and tone. When the data set is complete, I'll display it visually, in a short animation that will condense 20 years of historical change into about a minute.

I could use the results of my statistical analysis to write a report that shows how science fiction changed in the first two decades of the Cold War. But if I do a good job, the animation will accomplish the same task more intuitively, in less time, and with more panache. Die-hard fans might read a written report, sure, but most of the people I know wouldn't want to sit down with twenty-five pages of explication and graphs. But picture this: the story of science fiction's evolution, demonstrated instead of merely described, in colors that draw the eye and with an aesthetic that echoes the vintage science fiction in question.

This project isn't guaranteed to work. But if it does, I think it will be good public history.