Print Project: Exploring User Interfaces Using the Wayback Machine

As someone who has done a lot of work in communications and marketing at historical organizations, I am very interested in how institutions present themselves to the world at large. One of the most accessible ways organizations can create a public presence is through the internet and their website.

A friend in my capstone class is using the Wayback Machine to do some really interesting research on how conspiracy theories spread via the internet. This has introduced me to how useful this tool could be to people in the humanities, and I assume that as we move further into the future and more things on the internet become “historical” (whatever that means), the Wayback Machine will become just as synonymous in the historian’s toolkit as searching in a physical database. That all being said, I want to use this fascinating tool to learn more about my own personal interests–historic organizations’ digital presence.

I want to know how these institutions’ webpages and digital content has changed over time, and compare their effectiveness against readings we’ve done about successful user interfaces, while also engaging with the historiography about various institutions and changes in museum technology (some of which I am already familiar with because of what I am researching for my own capstone project).

As the Smithsonian has an extensive institutional archive, as well as a lot written about it from a historiographical perspective, I will certainly include that in my organizations that I research. I also want to look at the White House Historical Association, as I currently intern there and part of my duties are putting up digital content, so I very familiar with its current website–and am interested in how it has changed over the years. Both of these institutions have internet presences starting in the late 90s, according to the Wayback Machine. I also want to look at one more, smaller institution, as I want to see the role funding plays in how an organization is represented digitally. I’m not sure yet which I will use, I am open to suggestions! Do smaller organizations with presumably less funding have a more stagnant, less user friendly website? I also want to look at how much content each site is offering. The internet is a way to expand an organizations reach, and make their content more accessible. I want to see how these various institutions have taken advantage of this since they first created their websites in the 90s.

This project will serve to shed light on how effectively historical organizations, big and small, are using the internet to promote themselves and their content. It is important to study how these various institutions present themselves to the public, and I would be interested to add their digital personas to that understanding.   

One Reply to “Print Project: Exploring User Interfaces Using the Wayback Machine”

  1. This is a super interesting topic! Sean’s post about the old HistoryWired site surprised me because of how bad the UI was, considering that it was a digital exhibit created for the Smithsonian, which, institutionally, is basically as prestigious as it gets. At the risk of taking a bit of a presentist view of things, I feel like a lot of digital interfaces that now seem astonishingly unfriendly and completely perplexing were once at the vanguard of good web design.

    For your question of a small house museum—which I think has the potential to be a really illuminating source for comparison—I went ahead and checked out old versions of the site for the Heurich House Museum, where I work. The oldest snapshot on the Wayback Machine is 15 years old, and it’s really interesting to compare it to the modern site. I’m not sure that it’s the best example for your purposes, but that’s one you can check out, if you’re looking!

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