Digital exhibits come in all forms. Sometimes they are entirely online (born digital) while at the other end of the spectrum, they may inhabit a wholly physical space with a simple digital component like a slideshow or a touchscreen. Wyman et al. in “Digital Storytelling in Museums: Observations and Best Practices” suggest that no matter the purpose or type of digital components of an exhibit, the technology should be tightly focused on specific goals. This gives the digital component more meaning because it has been finely honed, fits the project/exhibit more integrally, and presents something specific and unique.
The benefits of such usage became clear in my search for a digital exhibit to examine for this week. Many that appeared in my searches were clumsily put together, without the specialized technological know-how or careful forethought, like a fashion exhibit on the website of the Historical Society of Pennslyvania were the photos – the main element – were added at the bottom of a sidebar and were only thumbnail size. Others, like the Library of Congress’ exhibit “Out of the Ashes: A New Library for Congress and the Nation,” were single pages with blocks of text and a single embedded photo with each. Wyman et al.’s tactics and strategies would have been quite useful in these cases.
In the end, I chose to focus on “Two Plantations: Enslaved Families in Virginia and Jamaica.” The site was curated and researched by Dr. Richard Dunn in conjunction with History Design Studio, a website producer. Although not put together by a museum or similar organization, the exhibit highlights Dunn’s credentials as a scholar at the bottom of every page, noting this site as a natural outgrowth of his research.
“Two Plantations” is quite simple in format but feels very interactive as there are many ways to arrange and move through the limited amount of information and pages. The site opens with an introduction stating that “This website displays research into the lives of 431 enslaved people in seven multi-generational families at Mesopotamia plantation in Jamaica and Mount Airy plantation in Virginia.” The purpose of the project to raise questions and present ideas rather than finished stories is quite clear. From there, the slideshow of the introduction introduces the two plantations and their differences in language and ideas readily accessible to the general map. The middle part of the site rotates between three different styles of looking at the families and their histories. The first is an image of a five foot family tree constructed by Dunn that can be explored by zooming in, out, and across. The second is a digitally constructed family tree that can be changed between the seven families on the two plantations. Available information on the family or an individual appears when they are selected. Lastly, there is a list of the people Dunn researched that can be filtered by year range, location, 1870 census, date, and family. The final elements are Dunn’s biography and credits as well as a short three-paragraph analysis that largely outlines the questions generated by this research.
This exhibit is largely more of an interactive exploration of ongoing research than a finished, polished, and narrative segment of history. However, it clearly acknowledges the limits of digital tools for research; the site is more of a presentation and uses technology to configure data rather than to create it. Despite this abnormal nature of the exhibit, I think it embodies Wyman et al.’s points about the need to fit technology to projects in focused and limited ways to gain the most value from resources and usage. The simple content and design was made intriguing by its immersive and relatively varied experiences. However, it was not easily found because it isn’t attached to a large university, museum, or collection. It has a rather different project but completes it well by using many of the ideas and strategies promoted by the people at “Second Story.”