When I describe my project here in Helsinki, I’ve had a few people make the assumption that I spend my days doing research in various archives around the city. It’s happened enough times that I feel I should clarify my approach.
I want to start by emphasizing that I am not an academic historian; I am a public historian. That means my job is to take the research academic historians produce and translate it into something that is not only easy for the general public to understand, but that also is meaningful, unexpected, captivating, or even entertaining. I’m not saying that academic history can’t be those things, but a lot of the time the techniques academics are required to adopt in order to be deemed successful by their peers run counter to the learning needs of the general public. My process typically goes something like this: 1) I study the academic history; 2) I use it to develop interesting content for the public; and 3) I have one or more academic historians check my work before launching, to make sure I haven’t inadvertently misinterpreted an important detail or nuance.
Therefore, while I have spent my fair share of days in libraries and archives, I have spent just as much time studying the needs and interests of museum visitors, or searching for new creative methods of display and interpretation. What I care most about accomplishing while in Helsinki is further developing my skills to help the public understand cities and city history. So my primary sources are not archival collections, but rather the city of Helsinki itself—its buildings, streets, and squares; its residents and tourists; its museums and historic sites. And I spend my time:
• Talking to residents, academic historians, and public historians about Helsinki, history, and city history in general
• Exploring the city—sometimes on my own, in the shoes of a tourist; and sometimes accompanied by a local who can give me the resident’s perspective
• Reading secondary sources spanning a variety of topics, from Helsinki history, to urban studies, to city museums, to audience research
• Writing this blog, and eventually an article or two to submit for publication in museum journals
There is a vast supply of rich information in this city. Indeed, to borrow from Alice in Wonderland, which I just saw at my local Finnkino, I have six city history ideas before breakfast. At this point it may be a little difficult for you to figure out exactly where I’m going with all of this. But be patient, dear reader, and all will be illuminated.