Gregg Mitchell, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst
I had the opportunity to explore this question over the summer, during an internship at Monadnock Media in Hatfield, Massachusetts. During my internship, I learned that many institutions need programming companies that understand the design and implementation of user-friendly interactive web applications. For instance, we created a timeline program focusing on the first days of the Pacific Theater during World War II for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Users can scroll through the first days of the Japanese offensive across the Pacific Ocean, watching as more and more battle points pop up to show where and when conflicts were happening. If users are interested in learning more about one of those events, they can click on the individual battle point to view expanded text and see multimedia content, such as images/videos. I had the opportunity to visit the FDR Presidential Library and Museum as a part of Monadnock’s installation team. Being able to watch individuals interact with the exhibit was quite useful; we could see how they interpreted the navigation and what difficulties they encountered while using the program.
One aspect which stood out was the amount of time individuals spent using the application. Some walked away within ten seconds of touching the screen if the interface seemed too confusing to them or they simply were not interested. If these self-guided tours are to work, they need to draw in the users’ interest right away or all of the work put into them will be for nothing. Another shortcoming was the navigation of the timeline itself. Several users attempted to touch a spot on the timeline to jump to a specific time but the program only allows you to scroll the slider to a new point. This observation about the UI will hopefully be used to improve future projects and allow users to have that additional control over the self-guided tour. If public historians want to relinquish more authority to their museum goers then they will need to design these exhibits to be appealing on their own and be intuitive enough to not cause frustration for the user. Matthew MacArthur addresses these issues in his article, ‘Get Real! The Role of Objects in the Digital Age.’ MacArthur describes new technologies as having the capability to “provide a retrieval mechanism that is sophisticated enough to take the data in…and add meaning through automation.” He goes on to explain how allowing “users to frame their own questions and interpret the answers using their own frames of reference are likely to encourage users to stay longer.” By allowing the users to ask their own questions within a digital exhibit they should hopefully spend more time exploring the exhibit in its entirety. One of the biggest challenges when designing any digital medium is trying to get users to want to use the software.
The push towards more dynamic content aids historians in their quest to put individuals into the psyches of people who lived during other time periods. By giving the user agency over how to interact with the content a more personal connection with the material is formed. When individuals connect with the content, they understand the human aspect of history. These individuals are not just text on a screen; they were living and breathing people just like them. They had to make choices and because of those choices, they have been remembered. This connection to other people across time and place gives the content a personal meaning and makes the individuals more likely to remember it.
While many organizations believe that giving visitors agency in accessing their exhibits is a good thing, there is debate over exactly how much agency should be relinquished. Digital exhibits can be wide and far-reaching, but if the navigation through the exhibit is too ‘open,’ users can get lost in extraneous content. Can the user use the exhibit wrong? If the goal is to allow museum-goers to explore content as they wish in a nonlinear fashion, then there is no need to guide them through what they should see.
This struggle over agency and narrative is at the forefront of many discussions over the creation and implementation of dynamic content in museums. If the goal is to create more dynamic content for the users, in the future everyone who goes to the same exhibit (with no narrative to guide them) may have completely different experiences. As the world becomes more digital, this debate about the degree of agency within museums will only grow.