Monica M. Smith, Head of Exhibitions and Interpretation, Lemelson Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian

Proposal Type


  • Seeking Additional Presenters
  • Seeking General Feedback and Interest
Related Topics
  • Civic Engagement
  • Museums/Exhibits

User or visitor-generated content has been a hot topic of discussion in many fields, including in history museums where we, “the experts,” often have concerns about sharing historical authority with members of the “general public” who come through our doors and visit our websites. This roundtable session will provide a forum for public historians, including but not limited to history museum professionals, to share lessons learned – the good, the bad, and the ugly – from user-generated content initiatives, and then to compile a set of best practices that could help move the public history field forward in this area.


For this roundtable session proposal, I would like to gauge interest in general and also solicit specific questions and issues about user-generated historical content that my peers want to explore. In addition, l am seeking presenters who would be interested in joining me to share stories about the successes and challenges of user-generated content at their organizations, and also who would enjoy encouraging dialogue among session attendees to help come up with a set of best practices based on our collective experiences.

My interest in user-generated historical content stems directly from serving as the project director and co-curator of the “Places of Invention” (POI) exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In 2015, as part of the museum’s newly renovated first floor Innovation Wing, the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation debuted POI, which features a large interactive touchscreen map in the center of the gallery. Nearby kiosks encourage visitors not only to explore places of invention around the world but also to contribute invention-related stories of their own. This visitor-created content is shared in real time between the map in the gallery and the version mirrored on the Center’s POI website <>. Now approaching the 2nd anniversary of the POI exhibition, we have received (and reviewed) about 17,000 stories from national and international visitors, of which we’ve published approximately 6%―often accompanied by editors’ notes researched and written by me and my POI colleagues. Along the way, we have learned a lot about the highs and lows of visitor-generated content regarding history, inventors, and inventions that I would be happy to share, and compare, during this session.

In addition to session presenters briefly sharing highlights, lowlights, and lessons learned from their projects, this would be a great opportunity to hear from other attendees who have undertaken user-generated history initiatives, large and small. We would also encourage questions and concerns from audience members who may want to experiment in this arena for the first time. Let’s talk about how we could build upon our professional experiences to directly engage the public in public history by fostering user-generated historical content in deeper and more meaningful ways across the field.

If you have a direct offer of assistance, sensitive criticism, or wish to pass along someone’s contact information confidentially, please get in contact directly: Monica M. Smith, [email protected]

If you have general ideas or feedback to share, please feel free to use the comments feature below.

All feedback and offers of assistance should be submitted by July 2, 2017.


1 comment
  1. Benjamin Filene says:

    I like the idea of sharing specific experiences, particularly if you can keep the focus on transferable “lessons learned,” as you suggest in your example (as opposed to introducing one’s entire project in detail–always tempting!). I also think it would be helpful to note that, again as in your example, the _entire_ exhibition needn’t be user-generated for it to be relevant. I find that museums sometimes get stuck in thinking that it’s all or nothing in terms of visitor input/co-creation. I also like your willingness to address both highs & lows!

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