Review: The National Security Archive and Grumentum

So I have two separate website projects that I’m working on: https://peopleshistoryfallujah.org, using WordPress, and http://memoriaelinguagrumentina.org/neatline/show/g, using Omeka. The first is a pretty straight-forward digital archive, and the second is a mixed methods, public history and language documentation project focused on the Italian village of Grumento Nova. 

The National Security Archive has served as a model for my People’s History of Fallujah project. The biggest attraction to the website is, of course, the information. The staff of this site has created a fantastic public resource through their work with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Scholars and the general public alike can find valuable primary source material on a number of foreign policy issues, recent and past. 

Being a website built around content, often just text, the organization of the site and its searchability seem to me to be its most important features. The design itself is minimalist, even though the home page is quite busy. There is a simple header image, then a menu bar, followed by a scrolling window of the top stories in the media. Below this, there is a left side-bar with the latest blog posts, a right side-bar with news items that feature the work of the Archive, and the central body of the home page lists the most recent additions to the archive in chronological order. 

The homepage could at first leave visitors feeling overwhelmed with the amount of information and it’s many different sources (from the blog, archive postings, news media, or various projects). However, this is not a website built for casual browsing. If one has a clear idea of what they want to look for, searching the website is actually very simple and smooth. You can search by project—usually a country of interest or a topic, like torture—or you can do a search for specific documents. Searches can be refined by keywords and date of publication. 

I have found searching by country to be very helpful. Many of the “postings” offer a collection of documents on a specific topic with some background context explained by the editorial staff. I’ve found several new documents that I didn’t even know existed by looking through these postings, and I’d like to use a similar approach for my People’s History of Fallujah. 

My other project, Memoria e Lingua Grumentina (“Memory and Language in Grumento Nova”) is much more challenging, and I haven’t found any website to serve as a good model. However, http://www.grumentum.net/index.php is a useful resource focusing on the village’s “beni culturali”—(something like “cultural resources” but with legal and economic connotations). 

The graphic on the home page is simple, attractive, and intuitive. The vertical color bars stand for categories of “beni culturali,” and these colored bars appear again in the header image. I think it looks good, and when you click on either “nature,” “archeology,” “history and traditions,” or “food and accommodations,” some snapshots open up on a real of film. Overall, I like the design. And even though the graphic is redundant with the header menu, it’s a good portal into the website’s contents. 

However, after this neat homepage, all the info about this town is a bit scattered with an over-reliance on text. The website functions like an e-book with hyperlinks, and each category of beni culturali is like a chapter. But there is so much text and so much info that I don’t think the website is useful for casual visitors. In my opinion the site would work much better if they had some more engaging materials to begin each section with (like a video or some kind of graphic) and then offer links from there to more information. To have the information organized as it is will attract only the most interested visitors. Others will likely move on. 

American Museum of Natural History’s Explorer App

I chose the AMNH’s Explorer app because I wanted to see what kind of app a prominent museum with a large budget would produce. I’ve looked at a few apps from some smaller Italian museums that, in my opinion, are poorly designed and barely functional. It feels like some of these museums are creating apps as a kind of gimmick. So I was curious to see what the best kind of museum app looked like, and whether it could actually improve a visitor’s experience.

Perhaps the first thing to note abut the Explorer App is that right away it offers you a list of topics and exhibits for you to chose from, and then guides you from exhibit to exhibit with your phones GPS technology. Obviously I wasn’t able to test this out, but I have tried using paper maps in museums before, and they’re not always easy. If this app makes it easier for visitors to navigate the museum building, then this free app is already worth downloading.

Other features worth noting is the alerts when you get near an exhibit that you marked as being of interest. The app then offers a bunch of photos, fun facts, and audio clips related to the exhibit. This feature of the app works brilliantly. The photos are all very good quality, the windows pop up on the app without any lag, and it’s easy to navigate back to the home screen. However, I wonder if the photos and the extra info really add to the visitor’s experience at the exhibit. I can imagine the app being just as much of a distraction as an aid. I also wonder why these photos and the extra info in the app were not added to the exhibit in the first place.

I was born in 1984 and I resisted making technology part of my life until like 2006. I still don’t like it when people fidget with their phone during dinner or during a conversation. So I think that I’m of a demographic that would be more content with the exhibit by itself. The photos, audio clips, and games that come with the app feel gimmicky to me. All I really want is the GPS navigator.

That said, I can also see the app being useful for a parent who is forcing their child to visit the museum. At least the kid can pretend like he’s experiencing the museum by playing with the app while mom and dad look at the exhibit. Maybe the tree of life game or the guided tour with the cartoon bear could be fun for a kid. But if I have to strain my brain for a scenario in which all the functions of the app are useful, than maybe most of it is just for show.

As visually appealing and intuitive as the app is, I think it’s best feature is the GPS navigator. Everything else that comes with the app will likely not add anything significant to a visitor’s experience. This could well be my prejudice against technology speaking; however, I think people visit museums because they want an unmediated encounter with the past. An app could help, but it could also get in the way.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Good

I’m in love with the look and usability of New Roots/Nuevas Raíces, which is mostly an oral history project with Latin American immigrants in North Carolina. The conceptual organization of the website and the graphic design are excellent. It makes the site visual appealing and intuitive. I found this website through www.omeka.org as one of their “showcase” websites. I was originally interested in the multilingual feature of the site. I’ve been trying to do something similar with my own website, but it’s not easy to do with Omeka. If you click on either the English or Spanish links, the path is either https://newroots.lib.unc.edu/explore or https://newroots.lib.unc.edu/explora. So I think that means they just English and Spanish copies of each page within a single directory? . . . rather than having a sub-directory with the translated pages. I want to know how they did this, because I think it works great.

Bad

The Veterans History Project is OK, but I’m calling it bad in comparison with New Roots/Nuevas Raíces. Aesthetically, the website is very plain. However, I don’t find the design to be ideologically neutral. The flags and the smiling veterans feel a bit celebratory to me, and that raises questions for me about the intentions of this archive. Browsing through some of the interviews, I feel a real lack of critical investigation into the experiences of these veterans. Most of the interviewers seem very unprepared, and their questions are meatballs that allow these vets to respond with canned narratives. I also find the search function to be off putting to the casual user. With an advanced search tool like this one, I think you have to know what you’re looking for. With my oral history archive, I want to make more of an effort to highlight the interesting themes in my collection, rather than letting visitors sift through fields of metadata.

Ugly

While the Veterans History Project is visually uglier, History is a Weapon is in many ways worse. The first and biggest problem is that it’s not clear at all what this website is about. It has the look and feel of a left-wing activist website; but apart from it’s radical tone, there doesn’t appear to be much coherence to the many essays and links on the sidebar. There is no “About” or “Who We Are” page. And the Home page links to a “Starter Page,” which says, “If this is your first time at the site, it can look a little daunting. To help you navigate . . .” with instructions following. Assuming a visitor made it this far, the instructions are then a bit helpful. However, I think it is a bad strategy to have a long list of materials with no apparent organization on the homepage. The site describes itself as a reader; however, the chapter titles are incredibly vague. For example, the chapter titled “Learning to Surrender,” links to a collection of essays by authors such as Malcolm X and Noam Chomsky on education and indoctrination. It’s unclear how what one should expect to find in each chapter, let alone how one should use this material. In my opinion, this website completely fails to contextualize the materials it makes available.

Hello world

Hi everyone, I’m looking for a good digital map plugin. I don’t like Neatline (the Omeka mapping plugin) because when you create records and insert waypoints, to draw attention to certain spots on the map, it shows all kinds of metadata fields, which makes these windows ugly and difficult to use for readers. So I’m looking for a mapping plugin for WordPress that can use high resolution files (rather than a google map) and allows you to place points on the map which open windows that could contain videos, photos, or text. Let me know if you have suggestions.