Removing Narratives from a Narrative Based Profession

The articles this week dealt with the issue of visual learning. In the Josh Brown article “History and the Web” he argues that in order to promote visitor interaction and creativity we must work to remove pre-set narratives in our educational sites.

To make this point he analyzes some of the digital history projects created over the course of a decade. These projects included the “Who Built America?” CD-ROM, the “History Matters” site, and the 3-D PT Barnum “Lost Museum” project. While each of these projects had varying levels of success, Brown feels that the “Lost Museum” site is the most flawed.

Painting showing the Burning of Barnum's Museum in 1865. From the Lost Museum archive.

First imagined in the 1990’s during the rise in popularity of games like “Myst” and “Doom,” “The Lost Museum”  allows visitors to browse the museum as it appeared in 1865 in order to help solve the real life mystery of who burned it down.  Aimed at students, the site opens with an animated photo of Barnum (similar to those that Claire blogged about last week) telling his visitors that he fears his museum will be the victim of arson because of the many enemies he has made in his rise to the top of the entertainment industry. The visitor is allowed to explore the museum in order to obtain clues which they compile in their notebook, clue page, and suspect report to build a case against their suspect. These clues are made up of primary source documents which the visitors must read and then assign to one of five groups of suspects: copper heads, scientists, abolitionists, Bowery boys, or animal reformers.

Portrait of PT Barnum. From the Lost Museum archive.

It is this pre-assignment of suspects which Brown seems to take the most issue with. This is because it prevents the visitor from coming to their own conclusions, making the visitor a passive explorer rather than an active one. He believes this forces a reading of the primary source evidence with only one point of view in mind. To solve this problem Brown recommends digital historians take a cue from 19th Century newspaper men who included woodcut illustrations in their newspapers which included multiple perspectives on the same issue in order to appeal to a wide audience. Instead of flattening out the information, Brown feels that we should give the visitor multiple perspectives.

Woodcut from 1877 newspaper showing one interpretation of vagrancy. Other more favorable depictions of poverty were also shown in the paper.

Personally, I do not think that this was the main problem of “The Lost Museum” site. I think that multiple perspectives were indeed included, most notably with the reality that Barnum’s political stance made him an enemy of both abolitionism and copper heads. Instead, I think that the greatest weaknesses of the site involved the design and the choices available. The design was problematic because it seemed more dated than it actually is. The idea of the site is good, but it seemed more like something from the mid-1990’s than something which launched in the new millennium. This was mostly because of the limited mobility of your first person point of view and because of the site’s oddly centered, and square display.  Both of these elements kept the 3-D world from feeling real.

The other great limitation was that the interface prevented you from exploring all clues. Instead you were only allowed to look at certain elements of the museum. I found myself constantly clicking on things which I found interesting only to find that apparently they were not part of the tour and I could not read/ explore them further.

Though the site did have issues, I think that Brown was too hard on “The Lost Museum.” It was pretty fun. And as a site designed to engage students to have them solve a historical mystery through the use of primary documents, I think being fun is half the battle. I agree that improvements do need to be made, but I think that were I to design an educational site similar to this one day I would be satisfied.

Blog Comments for this Week:

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10 Responses to Removing Narratives from a Narrative Based Profession

  1. Pingback: Professor Plum in the ballroom with the candlestick (or interactivity for historians) « piece by piece

  2. Celeste says:

    I agree that the design and interface are the weaknesses of “The Lost Museum” and not the narrowing of perspectives. The Flash aspects and Myst/Doom influences are clunky and choppy, and I found the interactive window much too small. I too started randomly clicking on interesting looking items outside of the ones with the question mark hoping that information would pop up. Do you think Brown et al succeeded in removing pre-set narratives, or did they present them in a less-direct or overt way?

  3. gwcohrs says:

    I think you’re correct in that the site feels dated because it’s based off games designed in the early nineties… just to be clear the original Myst and Doom were both released in 1993… 1993, almost twenty years ago. Think about that for a moment. But in all seriousness should digital history even be trying to eliminate narrative? I’m not really convinced that that’s a worthwhile goal. Humanity has been described as the “storytelling animal.” We thrive on the stories. They help us to understand ourselves and our worlds as well as give meaning to existence. I think the idea of shaping narrative is different from that of eliminating it. My big issue with “The Lost Museum” was that the whole goal of the game was undermined once you accused someone. Really? You just had me try to find clues and build a case only then to turn around a tell me that what I did was pointless because it could have been any number of those groups?! Really?! That’s the worst type of narrative ever! If you want someone to come along on a journey with you, you have to make it worth their while. Not a waste of their time. I’m disconcerted that the designers of the game about P.T. Barnum would do such a thing. A major lesson of show business – give the audience what they want (or at least don’t piss them off by wasting their time).

  4. mbarkovi says:

    I completely agree that the navigation for the 3-D experience was frustrating. After the awkward exploration of the first room (1990s CD-ROM experience? yes.) for the items that could actually be clicked, I admittedly closed out of it and went straight to the archive—and thank goodness, because if I had kept going, I would feel like Geoff. Despite this, I thought it was a good effort at attempting to create an interactive path for ‘intellectual inquiry’.

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  7. johngarnett100 says:

    I wonder if part of the failure is the fact that the creators of the site used Doom/Myst as a model, but didn’t have the technical expertise in creating interactive video games to pull off an engaging video/history game. In other words, was the project ill conceived from the start, or was it a disconnect between theory/idea and ability to translate that into a game. I sometimes feel the problem is in my head I know what I want, but on paper(or in this class in CSS) I cannot achieve the effect. The end result is I may have to settle on things. The resources available to the makers of Doom/Myst were probably significantly higher, and they could focus almost entirely on gameplay and graphics. Historians making the site had to concentrate on the content and then all the same things the game developers did. That seems like a near impossible task.

  8. Pingback: Digital Failure « To Luddite or Not to Luddite

  9. Megan says:

    I agree that the interface was clunky at best, and ill-planned at worst. I found that the area for an active object was often larger than the object, so you thought you were zooming in on one thing and got another. More recent games/interfaces I’ve seen have objects glow or change saturation slightly when moused-over, which helps with click-confusion.

    Making every object active would take a fair amount of coding, but I think it would be worth it in the end.

  10. Pingback: » H697 Less Myst, More Clarity Megan R. Brett

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