David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Interactivity: Best Friend and Worst Foe

As the Clio Wired sequence draws to a close (except for those of us doing a minor field in digital history), and we move toward the sequence’s end product–a full digital history project–this week’s reading and web visit considered interactivity.

Ah yes, interactivity. The best friend and worst foe of exhibition developers, informal educators, and web developers alike. The hardest thing to accomplish in museum exhibitions, educational programs, and digital media–and one of the most pedagogically effective. How do we turn our audiences–whether in our physical spaces or in front of their screens of whatever size–from passive consumers of information to active and attentive learners?

In my past life as a content developer at an exhibit firm, how to make our exhibitions more interactive was the question with which the designers and I grappled most. When the firm’s design principal took his kids to a nature center we were contracted to redesign, he noticed they ran to the main interactive activity–a card catalog filled with specimens. Why? It gave them something to do. Even inelegant solutions like flip doors helped in many exhibitions. We often felt like we could do more–but what? Even flip doors–not to mention a pinball table explaining checks and balances–added greatly to the fabrication cost and complication.

The same conundra–cost, complication, and method–face developers and designers of digital media, as Joshua Brown’s 2004 article “History and the Web, From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace: Visual Technologies and Interaction in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries” discusses. Nearly eight years later–even after the advent of mobile technology–his article remains relevant, as the technology of the so-called 3-D Web has seemingly advanced little (for that matter, I had to use my laptop to access Lost Museum since it is Flash-based), and public historians and informal educators are increasingly discussing ways to “gamify” history learning, not just in a digital setting but physically in museums and historic sites as well.

Brown, who worked on some of the earliest digital history projects, assesses the faults and successes of those projects, from the HyperCard-based Who Built America? to the Flash-based, highly graphical Lost Museum. In particular, he focuses on the successes and failures of the Lost Museum site, saying that the game context overly limited the freeform learning that could take place (Lindsey offers a well-done critique of his critique). To increase that learning, the developers added a searchable database of extra information–in other words, they used the 2-D Web to make up for the education that the 3-D Web could not provide.

Looking at Brown’s article and at the Lost Museum site made me think about what I could do on my Omeka-based site, a draft of which is due in a mere two weeks. How do I engage my visitor to learn more about the 1837 visit of Antonio López de Santa Anna and Juan Almonte to Washington, an admittedly esoteric, yet I think (hope) important, topic?

As we’ve frequently discussed, a Web visitor, like a physical visitor to an exhibition or historic site, will not have the same tolerance for passive consumption as, say, a book reader sitting in his or her easy chair on a weekend afternoon. So how do I hook them and get them to learn not just about that trip, but what it reveals about perceptions of Mexicans in the United States a decade before the two countries fought a major war?

How to make this site more interactive–particularly within both the limits of the technology and, more relevantly, the limits of my own technological expertise–is daunting, to put it mildly. I’m having flashbacks to my exhibit firm days. Thus far, my solutions are limited. Is it enough to allow users to click through different levels of information–is that enough interactivity? I’m not so sure.

As Brown asked of the Lost Museum site, for mine, how do I “allow users to intervene in that narrative, to create their own pedagogical pathways and intellectual connections?” Since my site chronicles a journey, my thus far main–and far from original–idea is to allow the user to follow along the journey by including an interactive map. The user can click on different locations on the map to learn more about Santa Anna’s and Almonte’s stops in that place.

I also plan to include space for comments. The site will be structured in a nonlinear way, allowing users to access the images and text in which they are most interested. In some of this, I will take inspiration from 239 Days in America, which chronicles the visit to the United States of a man named ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1912 (and which I have eagerly followed on Twitter)–perhaps at the end of this year I will even tweet day-by-day accounts of Santa Anna and Almonte’s journey 176 years later (I missed the boat–no pun intended–on the 175th).

I would, however, like to move beyond these baby steps. It is far beyond my technical capability (not to mention budget!) to do anything with the 3-D web (whatever is coming of that), so no following the journey in one’s own virtual steamboat or carriage, but I do wonder what else I can do. Quizzes? Polls? How can I transform my passive consumer of information into an active learner? And how much do I need to? That remains to be seen, and suggestions are most welcome!


This week I commented on Richard’s and Celeste’s posts.


  1. David, I really liked hearing your ideas/questions/frustrations regarding interactivity, particularly from your experience as a developer. I think your question of how much is enough is especially true because we are all facing limited technical knowledge and resources. I like your idea of the interactive map and area for comments; maybe it is less important to utilize the shiniest tools, but to implement what you do choose in the most effective way? At least that’s what I’m hoping.

    • Celeste,

      I think you’re correct. It’s less about packing a website with shiny new Web 2.0 technology and more about using less more effectively. In theater they always say “less is more,” and I believe that can apply to website as well. It can be so easy to get overwhelmed when something is filled to capacity and you can very easily loose your audience. Yet using a few tools really effectively, even if they’re simple and “old”, can have a profound effect engaging the user.

  2. Good post overall David. I was also pleasantly surprised to find a shout out to my blog while reading your comments! Happy connections.

    I think that your idea for using the map is an interesting one which sounds like it will be successful based on your topic. But I’m not completely sure that a map will keep your site from being non-linear. Though a visitor can move along the map anyway they please, they will likely follow the journey as Santa Anna did. That is at least the impulse I had with the Lost Museum site. I tended to move from the first floor, going from room to room and not jumping around. But with keeping that in mind, how will you orient your map on the screen and how will that influence how it is used?

    UNRELATED QUESTION: i know you caught some flack for your use of decorations and embellishments on your Type project but to create the feel of a Revolutionary era pamphlet for my Design Project I would like to use a few. I took a look at your code, but how did you add those? Did you have to download them? Are they just images? Any help would be great. Thanks David!

    • David McKenzie

      April 8, 2012 at 7:36 pm

      Thanks for the comments!
      To answer the one on this post–good question re: orienting the map. I suppose I’ll be figuring that out in the next two weeks. 🙂 You raise a good question re: linearity, too. Would it be a problem for my users to navigate in a linear way? I’d say no. But do I want to force them? Hm. Tough question.

      To answer the question on the decorations–I had some scanned documents, so zoomed in and took screen grabs of the particular ornaments. Then I opened them in Photoshop and removed the backgrounds–in this case, I used the verboten magic wand. Then to put them into the document, I created div classes for each type, giving each its own characteristics. Hope that helps–glad to show you more!

  3. Would it be possible for you to encourage your visitors to become journalists, joining Antonio López de Santa Anna and Juan Almonte on their trip to Washington? Here, your visitors will have an opportunity to listen to Santa Anna and Almonte talk about their perceptions of the United States, a year after Texas won independence. Yet, by being journalists, your visitors could have an opportunity to speak to prominent American officials at the time, thereby gaining their views of Mexico. This would be important because you could incorporate the Panic of 1837 into the discussion, which, according to Thomas Hietala, increased a national anxiety that could only be solved by more land.

    Throughout the journalistic process, you can give your visitors notepads where they can take down important notes from what they have heard, and, at the end, they could write their story which can be featured on your website in the format of a traditional nineteenth century newspaper.

    This may be a bit pie in the sky, but I think in this way you could invite your visitors to become part of the process and allow them to see the importance of this trip within the larger narrative of nineteenth century U.S.-Mexico relations.

  4. Sometimes I wonder if we push interactivity too much. I think it’s wonderful when done well, but I’ve been at museum exhibits where there was an interactive element just stuck in, as thought someone had said “We need an interactive!” and they just did something without really working on integrating it into the whole exhibit.

    Not to say that adding interactive elements to your site isn’t a good idea. Just that one some big, funded projects, both in cyberspace and the physical world, people tend to dive into “interactivity” without thinking about what it adds to the overall learning/historical experience.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: