Museum websites and the gallery effect

Reviewing each of the websites for this weeks class, and reflecting more broadly on the intersection of digital and public history, I found myself intrigued by the differences in the structure of several websites.  This is particularly fascinating issue to consider when it is museums who are creating these digital exhibits because of the tendency to simply transplant the exhibition onto a website.  Some museum based projects have dealt with this better then others, and for comparison, I will use the Raid on Deerfield, and the Price of Freedom websites as examples.  I found that the Raid on Deerfield website allowed much more freedom for the user in choosing how they navigated the sight.  Perhaps this is simply because the Deerfield website was much more interactive, I could choose whose story I wanted to follow, and having a wide range of historical actors to scroll over in the “Attack on Deerfield” section, it reinforced the websites multi-perspective approach and encouraged me to spend as much time as I wanted on that particular section of the website.

In contrast, the Price of Freedom website, created and maintained by the Smithsonian, felt much more rigidly structured because of the different layout.  Clicking on the collections photo’s on the bottom of the screen was endlessly fascinating because of the Smithsonian’s collection is tremendous, but laying out the collection photo’s right next to the “proceed to the next section” button was not conducive to taking a leisurely amount of time to consider everything the website had to offer.  Frankly, it felt like I was actually in a Smithsonian exhibition gallery on a crowded day with lots of people impatiently waiting for me to finish reading a text panel and observe the object on display. Whereas the layout of Deerfield site, with its multi-tabbed approach and navigation bar across the top encouraged jumping back and forth between sections (particularly useful in acclimating yourself to the geographic aspects of the raid–tracing the movements of various tribes and historical actors), the Price of Freedom website has each page chronologically numbered in the navigation bar, something that encourages linear navigation and does not facilitate deviation from their chronological narrative.    This was particularly problematic because on the whole, the website is so pristine, the objects so well chosen, and the website so easy to navigate that visitors would probably benefit from not feeling like they had to proceed through the website like soldiers on the march.

A few other unrelated interpretive words about the Smithsonian website: why do they start the Civil War section with John Brown’s raid and not the border war in Kansas?  I understand that a company of marines helped to capture Brown at Harper’s Ferry, but were the civilians in Kansas any less “at war” than those who were sent to capture Brown?  Additionally, the entire Union Army did not flee “helter-skelter” back to Washington, as the text for Bull Run would lead us to believe. Indeed, most modern scholars of the Union Army in general, and First Bull Run in particular, at least agree the retreat was not the pell mell dash passed down through history.  Although quibbling with interpretive points was not the objective of this reaction (and was duly relegated to a few sentences at the conclusion), it goes without saying that these points matter because accessible history is useless if it misleads through implication.

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