Virtual Museums

This week’s readings focused on using digital technologies to enhance web-based museums. This is one area where I knew very little about the theory and practice behind museum studies and digital curation. Some of the most interesting articles described how users are engaging with public history “in the wild.”

In Mark Tebeau’s description of Cleveland Historical, 20% of people accessed the web via a mobile device (but Tabeau cited to 2010 and 2013 articles). It seems that number might be as high as 55% now, though statistics I found vary.  With the movement towards mobile, the impact of Cleveland Historical grows. And it’s already a very powerful site in my opinion.  The intersection of thoughtful digital technology, local oral histories, an intuitive map-based arrangement of stories, and useful features like “tours” make Cleveland Historical stand out. It could be that I just love local history and oral history (having worked on this oral history project), but it seems very effective as a public history tool. Students can learn about their city and tourists or local residents can delve more deeply into its neighborhood histories. The focus on the aural and the spatial also set it apart from many digital history projects which prioritize the visual.

Another success for Cleveland Historical was its SEO outreach. For any digital endeavor, historical or not, being found in a search result is paramount to a project’s success.  If the public can’t find your work, then it won’t impact the public. I did some Google searches on using various “stories” or Cleveland areas as search terms. Cleveland Historical generally popped up at the top of the results. This has long been a strength of Wikipedia, and a requirement for successful digital projects.

Cleveland Historical did have one drawback, and this is slightly unfair because it is somewhat outside of CH’s scope, but the stories are generally not very academic. Each “story” provides interesting narratives about local areas with engaging oral histories, but they don’t seem to add up to any overarching argument. As Wyman and others point out, most digital projects either delve into many topics shallowly or few topics deeply. Cleveland Historical chooses breadth, which is not to say it isn’t “serious history.”

It’s unclear whether Carl Smith would place Cleveland Historical into the category of “serious history” but he argues that his project on the Great Chicago Fire would certainly qualify. The project had grand ambitions, and might have been unique in the early days of the web, but the curation  of its content did not impress me. The essays, galleries, and libraries seemed more of a chore to wade through. I do acknowledge that when I focused on the actual content, the prose and photos were interesting and enjoyable to read or view. It simply did not succeed as a web project in either the 1996 or 2011 versions.

For me, Melissa Terras and Tim Sherratt had the most interesting articles. The Cleveland and Chicago local history projects were either good or bad in expected ways based on Wyman, etc’s Best Practices and as Lindsay’s “Virtual Tourists” might engage in the content. How historical content on Sherratt’s Trove or the variety of most accessed objects that Terras describes were far more unexpected.

In some ways, Sherratt rehashes the long standing good actor/bad actor uses of history that have always existed in digital or analog formats. But by using trackback link technology, he can truly suss out every use of Trove on the web. Unfortunately the bad uses of history- climate change deniers, threatened to outshine the positive uses. Yet, I think Sherratt is correct that institutions need to trust in the overall “good will” of the audience. His powerful “Faces of White Australia” flows from the Australian National Archive’s open content use restrictions. The popular digital objects described by Terras also flow from similar generally open policies. Though her article is more of a catalogue of popular cultural heritage sites, it is ultimately the sharing web that underlies many of the most popular uses. Without the social web, I never would have known about Wales’ most wanted dog.

Dog with a pipe in its mouth

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