Digital Media in Museums: Print Project Proposal

For my print project, I am interested in analyzing how different types of museums use digital media to interact with varying audiences. For example, how do the web sites of larger museums with substantial budgets, compare to the sites of small house museums? In order to further examine this question, I would like to compare and contrast the use of digital media in three museums. While I do my research, I am interested in examining the information each web site contains and see how they use online exhibits, digitized collections, or other forms of interactive media on their site. I am particularly interested in examining the web sites of the National Museum of American History, The Sewall Belmont House, and the Historical Society of Washington DC.  I have chosen these three sites because of their varying sizes and type of museum. By analyzing digital media in a large-scale federal museum, a smaller house museum, and a regional historical society, I hope to gain a better understanding of how museums overall currently use digital media.

Throughout my project, I plan on using the three museum sites as my primary source material. The National Museum of American History site makes use of digital media by offering features such as digitized collections, online exhibits, and a blog. The smaller Sewall Belmont House has a more limited site that predominately focuses on the museum’s events and the history of the National Woman’s Party. Lastly, the Historical Society of Washington DC offers online exhibits and some digitized collections but still maintains a more modest site than that of the American History museum. Analyzing these three sources will allow me to examine how differences in factors such as funding, size, and scope of the institution help to determine how the museum uses digital media to connect to their public audience. In addition to these sources, I will also examine the web sites of other large museums, small house museums, and historical societies, to see if the institutions I am examining have sites comparable to other museums within their field.

During the research process, I also plan to examine articles and books regarding digital media and public history. I plan to first use David Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, as a starting point for a grounding in the history of digital media. I am also interested in revisiting the online discussion article, “The Promise of Digital History,” posted by the Journal of American History to examine how leading historians and public historians view the revolutionizing force of digital media in their own professions. For sources that regard public history more broadly, I hope to examine some of the relevant public history literature to analyze how they discuss digital media and museums. I am interested in using Interpretive Planning: The 5-M Model for Successful Planning Projects, by Lisa Brochu to analyze how these museums use online tools to expand their institutions interpretive efforts and how digital media as a whole has changed these museum’s strategic plans and goals. I would also like to examine Freedman Tilden’s seminal work, Interpreting Our Heritage, to see if any of his insight into interpretation can still apply to museum’s digital interpretations of history. While this set of sources serve as only a preliminary bibliography, throughout my research I plan to consult a wide array of sources regarding digital media, public history, and museum studies, to help me better analyze each of my web sites and to help me reach a better understanding of influence of digital media in the museum profession as a whole.


While exhibits can travel, museums are, for the most part, stationary.  The internet is quickly changing this concept, allowing museums to educate people thousands of miles away by reaching them via their computers.  We’ve experienced this in HistoryWired; the National American History Museum’s website.  Social media like facebook, yelp, and twitter provide free advertising for these museums but also invite reviews, reactions, and even criticisms.  The power the internet holds for museums is no longer just advertising but educating.  An example of this is the USS Constitution Museum and ship, in Boston, Massachusetts.

USS CONSTITUTION has a long and storied history; named by George Washington and launched in 1797, the ship served in multiple battles.  The most famous battles took place during the War of 1812.  ‘Old Ironsides’ was decommissioned and recommissioned multiple times before she began service as a museum ship in 1907.  The ship is both a memorial and a national symbol of both the US Navy and the US Marine Corp who have served on the ship for almost 200 years.

The Naval History and Heritage Command is still in charge of everything to do with the USS Constitution Museum.   The museum’s mission statement can be found on their website.  It reads “The USS Constitution Museum ensures that the stories of USS CONSTITUTION and those who shaped her history are never forgotten, always remain relevant, and inspire as many people as possible.”  In order to accomplish this task, the museum uses social media like facebook, twitter, yelp, and their own website to promote their events and advertise their museum.

The Bicentennial Celebration of the War of 1812 is fast approaching.  Thanks to the important role USS CONSTITUTION played in the war, the USS Constitution Museum will front and center in the quest to engage people and educate them about the history of the war.  I propose to explore how the museum uses social media and their own website to entice people to the celebration and educate them in their own homes.  I would like to compare the ways USS CONSTITUTION portrays itself on the internet with the kinds of reviews it receives on sites like Yelp.

On the review and advice site, Yelp, USS CONSTITUTION has received many positive reviews from people who were touched by the way the museum has the power to make history come alive.  The ship seems to garner praise from civilians and military personnel of all ages.  These reviews are from people who have physically visited the ship and have felt the history around them.  I would like to compare these reviews with the activities USS CONSTITUTION’s twitter advertises and the ways in which the ship has the power to touch the lives of people who have not yet visited it.

USS CONSTITUTION is unique in the sense that it is truly living history.  It is still an operational ship, complete with a crew.  The ship will sail again during the Bicentennial Celebrations.  USS CONSTITUTION is still a place where international treaties can be officially signed.  It will be interesting to see how the USS Constitution Museum balances the past with current events that will soon be a part of their history through the different outlets provided by social media and the power of the web.

The primary sources for the print project will be the USS Constitution Museum’s twitter, yelp, facebook, and website.  The secondary sources will come from books and articles about the museum and ship, many available online through the Naval History and Heritage Command website.  Other secondary sources will come from class discussions and readings.

Critical Praise for was voted one of the “The Top 100 Web Sites of 2010” by, and rightly so.  The site boasts a total of 57,409 viewable clips and 7 million photos “in one of the world’s largest collections of royalty-free archival stock footage” and offers “immediate downloads in more than 10 SD and HD formats, including screeners in all formats.” As the site reviewer at accurately remarked, “If it got captured for the news in the early part of the 20th century, there’s a good chance the footage you seek is here.” was founded in 2007, by the brother team of Jim and Andy Erickson, along with a supporting group of archival research, film, and Internet professionals, to create “one of the largest privately held online archival footage sources in the world.” The collection is “drawn largely from U.S. government agency sources, the clips and images in the collection are available for license without the clearance concerns encountered when ordering from typical stock footage providers.”  So, this impressive video collection is free to browse and view on site (although, not surprisingly, you do have to pay for use off site) and the still photos are even “available for download as JPEG files, or you may take advantage of our professional photo printing services and have prints delivered right to your door.”

Finally, an archive that is sophisticated, professional, and plentifully sourced. is an impressive example of a modern digital archive. The site is attractive and easy to navigate, browse, and search.  The “browse by decade” visual aid is especially useful, allowing users to browse videos from 1890 to 1990, and take a quick inventory of the available stock.  The decade of the 1940’s is, by far, the largest collection with 23, 188 viewable clips (and growing).  This is, in my opinion, a fantastic and exciting resource for historians interested in twentieth century and contemporary history.

Happy browsing!

Project Proposal: Bringing the Webquest into Higher Education

Over the past 20 years secondary and primary education have made a number of forays into the digital world with webquests.  A webquest is a structured project designed to produce a term paper or major assignment using guides to help students conduct research independently.  As an adjunct instructor, and a teaching assistant, one of the problems I have consistently encountered is that despite being web savvy, students have no experience doing formal research, or sifting good data from bad.  Most have never read an academic article, or a book review.  Thus, I spend a great deal of time trying to find novel ways of teaching methodology as well as content.  By removing some of the structure from webquests, I believe they can be adapted for an undergraduate audience, and provide a teaching experience that not only fosters knowledge of content but research method as well.

Webquests are an increasingly popular tool in secondary and primary schools around the country, and increasingly adult education and ESL as well.  First and foremost, they are easy to share among faculty, and are excellent for collaborative projects in team teaching environments.  They allow students to use digital resources in constructive ways, and can be part of valuable lessons about determining bias and sifting through information on the web.  They also provide the teacher with accountability and transparency, since every step of the project is laid out for the students in a format that can be easily accessed.

The webquest, has unfortunately, not made much headway in higher education.  This is likely for several reasons.  Higher education does not foster team teaching where resources like this are shared.  Often it falls solely on the professor in question to develop their own coursework, and professors rarely receive training about resources available to them.  Professors tend to view highly structured assignments such as webquests as too simple for college students, or have never been introduced to the concept.  Webquests, however, are adaptable enough to service any grade level.

Webquests taught at the gradeschool level all follow a specific format.  They focus on a specific topic, such as McCarthyism, which is briefly explained in an introduction.  They then have a Process Page which lays out the project requirements in a level of detail appropriate to the grade the project is designed for.  The webquest then provides resources that students are required to examine.  These usually include specific books, articles and websites vetted by the teacher for the students to read and examine.  Finally the webquest generally contains an evaluation section with a rubric explaining how the papers should be submitted and graded.

My idea involves creating a webquest for a survey to 300 level class on Modern American History.  This assignment would be valuable for a three reasons.  First, it provides a guided method that can introduce students to serious independent research.  Second, it provides an easily accessible digital means of presenting a rubric based term paper.  Finally, its methodology appeals to the digital learning techniques already discussed in the class.

The specific webquest I would create would be called Political Violence in the 20th Century.  Its brief introduction would spell out the definition and include several examples: Sedition Laws, Japanese Internment, McCarthyism, etc.  Under the task system, I would define a research question, requiring students to answer it in 5-8 pages, with a double spaced original research paper using Chicago style citation.  Resource pages would include links to JSTOR, a select library reading list from the library placed in reserve, as well as a more extensive list of outside resources.  Finally, I would provide a rubric and a link to the Turn It In page on Blackboard.

Because this assignment would be a test of students research methods they would be required to submit project proposals with bibliographies earlier in the semester.  This would require an extra page, explaining how such a thing should be written.  Another advantage of the webquest is that scanned examples of proper bibliographies can be uploaded as a .pdf for students to view.  I would likely include several examples of movies, webpages, books, and articles cited so that students would get a feel for how Chicago works.

The question of how to integrate digital resources in higher education continues to be a quandary for faculty.  Hours are spent in conferences, and buckets of ink written in journals and periodicals.  I propose a simple suggestion, that we use the tools already developed for us.

Picture This…

Close your eyes and imagine wandering around a city in a foreign country. You’re alone and you don’t know the language. All of a sudden it begins to pour. You run for shelter and find yourself in an art gallery. Disoriented and a bit soggy, you begin meandering through an exhibit. You see a series of abstract paintings, lined up along a wall. Each has similar brush strokes, form and symbolism. They are obviously in a series, but you can’t read the curator’s statement or the captions. All you can do is stare, wonder, react, and interpret. By the time the storm passes, you’ve failed to make sense of it all and take a fleeting mental note to Google the artist’s name.

David Staley, in his article “Sequential Art and Historical Narrative: A Visual History of Germany“, seeks to convince his audience that stringing together superficially connected images with little or no textual explanation is an under-utilized means of narrating history. His (painfully titled) ‘graphical article’ about Germany’s relationship with modern transportation during the 1940’s-1950’s, “explores the meaningful juxtaposition of visual primary sources as a serious form of historical narrative.”

Staley cites Michael Stanford’s 5 design principles for doing history as 1) asking questions, 2) seeking relevant primary source evidence, 3) weighing the value of these various sources, 4) Discerning patterns in the evidence and 5) Arranging evidence into a meaningful narrative strung together by words, sentences and paragraphs. The author believes that, by following this method, professional historians can as effectively convey information using deliberately ordered images as they can by using deliberately chosen words.

What Staley calls a ‘graphical article’ is persuaded by the conventions of design rather than prose, and seeks to ‘separate form from content.’  This concept is derived from the “sequential art” of Will Eisner, a celebrated comic book writer/illustrator and founder of the graphic novel. Sequential art, Staley reminds us, is perhaps the most ancient form of visual communication. Glyphs etched into pyramid walls, patterns stitched into tapestries, friezes painted in temples, are stories told through images. Thus using imagery to tell the story of history is in and of itself a historical practice.

The author relates that the job of the ‘sequential art’ designer is to close this conceptual space, aka ‘The Gutter’, between relatively situated images. “Closure in the gutter is a transitional realm that links two images, not unlike the way a transitional sentence links two paragraphs together in a logical sequence (just like this sentence has done).” To do so, designers must rely on “non-linear, conceptual and associative” interpretive powers of their audience.

This, in my opinion, is where Staley’s dialectic breaks down. Like our abstract art exhibit from before, there is usually significance to anything intentionally put into a series. But if the viewer doesn’t understand the question being answered, let alone being asked, then all that’s left is subjectivity on both sides. Staley should not assume that my “meaning of the Volkswagen is altered when an image of Hitler admiring an early prototype is placed in a sequence that includes displaced persons hauled by train.” That is his interpretation, which he has chosen not to spell out. All I can do is consider my own subjective reaction based on my potentially limited prior knowledge the image’s context.

Maybe there is no way around subjectivity in the field of history, using words, images or otherwise. I believe Staley’s argument evocative, but underdeveloped. And if I were a professional historian looking for images of VWs during WWII and came across David Staley’s graphical article… I would probably just go to Flickr.