The Puzzle of Public History, Collaboration, and Research

It is almost no surprise that during the AHA/Mellon “What Use Is History?” Conference at UNM this past week, I found the Government and Public History panel most interesting. After all, as a historian and educational game developer, most of my non-academic (i.e. video games) work features strong ties to public history, both in whom I tend to work with (museums, generally) and in what information I try to convey in these games. While I would like to create a game which features all complexities and contradictions in my research, such narratives rarely appear in a palatable format for a wider audience and are simply not fun to play, defeating any reason to use this format as a medium of presentation.

The Government and Public History panel took time to address these issues and stressed the importance of audience, a consideration to always bear in mind, regardless of what hat (academic or non) you happen to be wearing. Most commentary on this issue was provided by William Convery, the State Historian and Director of Exhibits and Interpretation at History Colorado. He emphasized knowing whose history you are talking about and for whom is it for. In public history, whatever narrative you provide should be accessible and encompass multiple voices, providing as much representation as possible. However, this is easier said than done. The sheer fact of the matter is that only so many perspectives can be presented in a public history format without clouding the main narrative and confusing your audience. Such line must be carefully tread, and is all too apparent for such historians as myself whose research is meant to explore these complex moments in their entirety.

This is the roadblock I hit in the public history video game presentation of my research in medicinal uses of herbs in New Mexico. I have pages of information regarding how to use certain herbs and what ailment they can cure. The Maclovia Sanchez de Zamora Papers at the Center for Southwest Research had an entire recipe-like box filled with note cards that listed from A-Z herbs and their curative powers. Amolé (yucca) extract can help arthritis. Lavender (Alucema), when made in to a tea, can cure stomachaches and colic. There was even reference to a New Mexican Garlic Charm Tradition that can help a young girl get rid of an unwanted boyfriend.

These herbal medicines, as discussed in my previous blog post, heal more than the physical self and have cultural implications associated with their use. Further, such alternative medicine can be preferable to prescribed medication, which can have adverse side effects, not result in the desired outcome, or be too costly to consider. These herbs are considered medicinal for a reason; in addition to their cultural and spiritual associations, many contain legitimate healing properties that should not be discounted. After all, what else is modern medicine made from, but concentrated components of these plants? And, while this information is exciting to unveil, the question remains of how I can convey all of it in a short video game.

In addition, there are larger questions I considered in the construction of my game which mirror questions public historians ask. One of the games I plan on constructing will be a RPG PC game, wherein the player will be asked to locate specific herbs and on their journey, they will learn about its uses the cultural background for the use of herbal medicine. However, how should this quest be presented? If it were a relative asking to be healed with a certain herb, in what context will they frame their question? If I do not provide information about modern medicine (e.g. set the game in a fantasy world or in the past), then I will lose the opportunity to show that the use of traditional medicine is still utilized today and potentially imply the “uncivilized” use of herbal medicine, which is assumed to be overshadowed by professional medicine.

If I were to discuss modern medicine in my game, how would I frame that? I want to avoid the implication that modern medicine is superior and illustrate that both professional and traditional healing can be used in conjunction with each other. I want this game to be fun and still emphasize the exploration of healing potential in herbal medicine. Such questions remain difficult to answer, and are thematically ones that public historians work with constantly. There is no absolute solution, but the Government and Public History Panel at least provided advice on how to navigate these issues.

This problem also highlights another topic emphasized throughout the conference: collaboration. These team efforts help in planning and implementing public history projects and provide team-created framework to guide your work. As we discussed at the panel, your work does not exist in a vacuum, and I would add that this applies to the process to create the work as well.

This past week, I talked with our contacts at Sustainability Studies about what they would want in a mobile-based game. While I plan to discuss this project in another blog post, I will say that the meeting provided a cause-related focus. While cause-oriented research toes a line in unbiased historical research, having a set, concrete goal in mind for a video game as facilitated by a collaborative effort prevents over-saturation of information and general waffling between ideas and intent, as I have with my RPG game. While wanting to create a video game for educational purposes is great, it is not enough. In the game, as with any research project, you need to be able to answer “so what?” and use that to frame your development. Think of your audience and consider not just what you want them to get out of the game, but how you would persuade them to play the game and argue its importance. With that in mind, perhaps this is not as far off from academic historical work as I originally thought.

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Gianna May Sanchez

Currently a Master's student at the University of New Mexico studying History and earning my certification in Museum Studies. Interested in Southwest history, women's history, traditional medicine and its interaction with professional medicine, video games, and games as a way to facilitate learning.

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