Popular and Public History Online

Before I dive into this week’s assignment, I’d like to revisit our discussion from last week, because I found a very interesting digital mapping project. Amnesty International’s Strike Tracker project uses sequences of aerial photos of Mosul to identify when and where airstrikes took place. And they’re actually crowd sourcing labor through a module they built that lets volunteers look through a series of photos in sequential order to identify when buildings took damage. In theory, and with enough volunteers, they could potentially learn the time, location, and consequence of every bomb dropped on Mosul. It’s such an original and important application of the tools we discussed in class, I had to share it.

Now on to Steve Dietz essay, “Telling Stories: Procedural Authorship and Extracting Meaning from Museum Databases.” I would like to touch on his ideas about storytelling before moving on to discuss the websites we were asked to look at. But first I should admit my suspicion towards storytelling, which I suspect to be a kind of snake oil, even though all of the humanities seems so confident in its ability to engage audiences, encourage empathy, and convey information. It strikes me as a kind of magical thinking. And before I join the crowd in assuming that storytelling is a preferable way to convey information, I would like it explained to me in concrete, scientific terms the magic that allegedly happens when people hear stories. Are stories really more effective at conveying information than analysis? Or are stories more effective at conveying information to certain audiences because the simplify complex phenomena and focalize our attention on only the most relevant information? Is story telling by itself more effective than placing stories within an analytical framework? Is storytelling believed to be more effective because stories render information perspectival? Are there built in cognitive structures in our brains that process stories more easily? These are just a few of the curiosities I have about how story telling works and what it can and can’t do.

So, when Dietz moves very quickly from wanting to find ways to make museum databases available and engaging for the public to discussing storytelling as a solution, a flag went up in my mind. I don’t even know how to begin assessing his arguments without knowing the details of specific collections, the audiences that might be interested in using them, their level of motivation to learn, and how they might use this information. For example, moving from an object-centered collection to one that gives stories more prominence makes sense, I suppose, whether you’re using “predetermined narratives” or “multi-vocal” or “hyper-linear” ones. But how could we possibly evaluate such a claim? And how can I evaluate the effectiveness of websites in a way more objective than just relying on my gut instinct?

The best I think I can do is come up with some criteria and try to justify that criteria. So, I think a website that is effective at conveying the past should do all these things:

  1. The home page should immediately convey the topic, scope, and goals of the website. If there is any confusion in a visitors mind as to what a website is about after viewing the homepage for 30 seconds, then that website has failed.
  2. The site should utilize multiple rhetorical means to convey information in a coherent, engaging, and accessible manner, such as narrative, analysis, description, explanation, images, graphs, charts, maps, video, and timelines.
  3. Information should be organized in an intuitive manner and should be easily navigable.

I don’t know how to get more specific than this, unless I have a specific audience in mind. And of course, the big flaw in this criteria is that it doesn’t measure anything about the audience’s experience with a digital exhibit/database/whatever, and it can’t tell us whether or not a website has been effective.

So I’ve said all this just to express my anxiety with deciding which website is effective based on rhetorical factors that I’m only guessing are effective. And the winner is . . . the Raid on Deerfield. At first look, the subject of the website is clear enough: the raid on Deerfield in 1704. But its scope and goals aren’t. Otherwise the site is easily navigable and it does a good job of using multiple rhetorical tools to convey the past. The website could certainly be updated. The voice-over introduction sounds robotic and the images are very low resolution. But the conception and organization of the website are excellent. I have a good feeling that it could be a useful learning tool. If there is time in class, I’d be happy to discuss where I felt the other websites fell short.

3 thoughts on “Popular and Public History Online”

  1. You raised a lot of great questions concerning the role of storytelling in history. I think that many popular history websites need to find a better balance between presenting history as a serious subject that needs to be learned from, and as a form of interesting entertainment. I think that storytelling certainly has a place in history and the humanities but it cannot be used in place of analytical analysis. I also liked the Raid on Deerfield website but I agree that it needs a lot of updating.

  2. I love your distrust of storytelling. I think I’ve mostly bought into it, but there’s so many parts or history and humanities, particularly the part that tries to appeal to the public. The best example I can think of is the now mostly derided concept of making everything “interactive.”

  3. Your decision to brainstorm a list of the characteristics that make popular history websites effective is a great way to ensure that your assessment is being judged on common criteria and going beyond a cursory glance of a site. The three components that you identified are especially important aspects of popular history sites that should be evaluated regardless of the purpose, audience, and content. One other characteristic I would add (although certainly less important than the ones you named) is a clear introductory path. I agree that by the criteria you have created Raid on Deerfield appears the best, but its greatest fault appears to be the confusion created once you enter the site and must choose between several introductions to the content. Maybe making each window a connected series of text/multimedia (such as with connecting links) could improve this.

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