David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Category: Museums (page 2 of 2)

Thinking about design… For those who haven’t needed to

This week’s readings for Clio I got into basic nuts and bolts of disseminating history on the Web, particularly planning and design of websites. For me, they were quite useful as I think about putting my own projects on the Web.

Some of the design principles discussed in the readings were familiar to me from taking an exhibition design class and working at an exhibition design firm–rules about contrast, length and width of text, etc., hold consistently true for both Web sites and exhibitions, since both are means of conveying content beyond the medium of black text on paper.

Others are quite different, owing to the different nature of the media. The information architecture of a museum exhibition differs from that of a Web site, and that of course influences how one goes about designing. In the museum world, one must plan for conveying content in a three-dimensional way, leading to a different user experience and different impact (as my classmate Claire points out in her insightful post).

Before going into the museum exhibition world, I had not thought much about design principles. Indeed, I probably would not have thought as much about design without that experience and without diving into digital history, as I am now. While reading this week’s selections from A List Apart and Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Digital History, it struck me how thinking of information architecture and design is, in some ways, a revolution for many historians.

Since the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press (and one could argue before that time, taking into account scribes), historians have relied upon others to design our means of knowledge dissemination. As Cohen and Rosenzweig correctly note, citing Mike O’Malley, the typically black written word, whether in article or book form, has been the traditional way of disseminating historical knowledge for centuries.

We submit the our text–using a general information architecture that has been relatively unchanged–and someone from the publisher lays it out on the page. If we’re lucky, we get to include images. From my time at the Alamo I remember the day the curator’s galleys for his latest book came back. The only revelatory part of that experience was the cover. The medium simply did not permit much variation in the text, and the information conveyed remained the same as when the curator had handed printed Word documents to reviewers and others.

Even in museum exhibitions, the design is often outsourced to specialty firms. While those working on the content side are taught to think about design (although others discourage such thinking, saying it’s not the content person’s job), the designers actually execute it. They think about color, font, the space, and even the the information architecture. The content person works with the designer–perhaps more closely than the author of a book–and perhaps suggests tweaks, but is in the end not the person responsible for the design.

In other words, traditionally historians have been responsible for the information architecture of their dissemination of knowledge, if even that. In this digital age, we also need to think about the design of that means of dissemination. Not only that, we are presented with more means of information architecture.

On top of that, we’re dealing with Metadata, traditionally the realm of museum collections managers, librarians, and archivists, more first-hand now. This is probably why, for me, this week’s readings on metadata were a greater challenge than those on design. Whenever we place primary sources on our sites–whether they be museum objects, archival documents, references to books–we are creating the metadata appropriate for our websites, or at least figuring out how to convey the standard metadata. Thus, knowledge about that realm is important as well.

I see all of this as both empowering and scary (update: I see I’m not the only one). Empowering because it gives historians full control–in some ways, more than a profession that has typically worked solo is used to.

It can also be scary. The responsibility for conveying the content in an attractive, logical way (barring a budget for outsourcing design) is now on the historian’s shoulders. The metadata is no longer the realm of the museum collections manager, archivist, or librarian. It is now our realm, at least for our own work.

Overall, I find this change positive. Knowing about design, information architecture, and metadata can only enhance our work, whether for the Web or not. So all in all, the turn toward the digital, and the attendant new skills historians must learn (and that I am grateful to learn), will facilitate our interactions with the professionals who are part of our work otherwise, whether librarians, archivists, museum collections managers, publishers, or designers of all stripes.

Remembering the Alamo… Education Department

During an unexpected trip to San Antonio this past week, I made a couple of pilgrimages to visit my former colleagues at the Alamo. I began my public history career there–indeed, discovered public history–when I was hired as a history interpreter during the summer of 2000. I repeated that role after I graduated from Pitt in 2002, and again after I left Peace Corps in late 2003.

When I worked there, those of us wearing red vests (pictured) were stationed at different points in the shrine and Long Barrack, answering questions. We also gave twice-daily history talks.

I went for the Alamo’s monthly First Saturday event, a new addition since I left in 2004. First Saturday is only one of many new things the Alamo Education Department has introduced. While being stationed at the various locations and giving history talks is still the bread and butter–as it should be for a site that often gets above 10,000 visitors per day–the Alamo has begun other programs, including an audio tour (originally outsourced, now produced by the Education Department), a new exhibition in the Long Barrack Museum, a summer camp, and a battlefield tour.

All of these programs have involved a great deal of personal interaction at the actual site, helping visitors understand the seminal, and often misunderstood, battle. Indeed, that is one of the site’s strengths–that visitors can have in-depth conversations with knowledgeable interpreters, not only read text panels.

Another of the site’s strengths–what drives the other strengths–is the fact that the Curator/Historian, Richard Bruce Winders, heads the Education Department. Wait, a curator, leading an education department in a museum? Indeed. The education department is merged with the curatorial staff. Dr. Winders himself is often out in full gear at living history programs, leading teacher workshops, and interacting with the public. In fact, until I came to Washington to begin my Museum Studies M.A., I didn’t realize that education departments and curatorial departments were often separate–and sometimes not collaborative.

This versatility does not make Dr. Winders any less of a scholar. He has published four books–his dissertation book on the U.S. Army during the U.S.-Mexican War, books for general audiences about the leadup to the U.S.-Mexican War and about the Battle of the Alamo, and a kids’ book on David Crockett.

From my time working with Dr. Winders and the other education staff, I learned that being a top-notch interpreter does not preclude being a top-notch scholar, and vice-versa.

Long and short, the Alamo Education Department is doing a lot of phenomenal programs. Having spent a bit more time in the museum field, I keep on returning to lessons I learned during my time at the Alamo. I learned that you can, and should, communicate the latest scholarly understanding–the key is not “dumbing down,” but rather communicating well.

As the Texas General Land Office prepares to assume control of the Alamo, it would be well-advised to remember how much the Education Department does for public understanding of a major event in North American history–and how that department touches visitors at the state’s most-visited site.

Newer posts »