Reshaping Intellectual Inquiry with Digital Media

9 Apr

This week we read Joshua Brown’s “History and the Web, From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace: Visual Technologies and Interaction in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries”. This covered the attempts and progress made to integrate visual media and scholarship in a way that successfully promotes intellectual inquiry and scholarly dialogue.  The first large attempt in this area was the implementation of CD-ROMs to produce interactive book/databases for learning history (ie. Who Built America? From the Centennial Celebration of 1876 to the Great War of 1914 or one of my favorites, Microsoft’s Encarta). This attempt was just starting to take a stab at Barbara Stafford’s statement that ‘the imagist of the twenty-first century will have to force homogeneous data to exhibit its heterogeneity’. How can we use digital media and the web to exploit the information within our own scholarship and on a larger scale, historical databases?

Joshua Brown presents the case of the ‘Lost Museum’ ( for an example of how Historians might tackle the aforementioned question. This website hosts a 3-D visualization of Barnum’s American Museum and an archive of documents and other resources. The 3-D visualization was done in a ‘whodunnit’ format; the spectator goes through the rooms of the Museum in a 3-D recreation, clicking on objects to gather clues about who might have burned down the museum. The goal was to keep the spectator engaged, providing an innovative path to intellectual inquiry that would provide some knowledge on antebellum America and New York City during this period. Was it successful?

Joshua Brown thinks it’s a great attempt, but that the 3-D visualization contained a  narrowed paths of inquiry, creating an environment for ‘passive spectatorship’. I agree with him. After testing out the website,  I was admittedly a ‘passive spectator’ for only a few minutes. I didn’t expect  to peruse the museum with the speed and the freedom I have in MarioKart on Nintendo Wii, but the navigation was awkward enough to be annoying. More annoying, and also mentioned by Lindsey, was that not all the objects were clickable. Therefore, after a few minutes of awkwardly exploring the space and finding what objects I could interact with, I gave up and went straight to the archives, which I thought were effectively organized. A larger problem also mentioned by Celeste, is that there was a disconnect between the large amount of information in the archive and what Brown called the ‘narrow’ display within the 3-D visualization. It would have been much more successful if the integration of the archive into the 3-D visualization was better.

Just some hits at the design (since that project is coming up next week): Since I looked at the ‘Lost Museum’ before reading Brown’s article, I had absolutely no idea as to what this website was about  by glancing at the homepage. I think that’s a problem.  I only clicked on the title “Lost Museum” because I was lost…

I thought the quality and the size of the videos could be larger, but I thought that the option to read the voice narrative was a nice feature, especially considering our discussions on accessibility.

At the end of the day, innovation like the ‘Lost Museum’ project deserves a lot of credit for giving historians and art historians an example of how we might use digital media to exploit the information within our own scholarship and what we can do to improve it.




One Response to “Reshaping Intellectual Inquiry with Digital Media”

  1. bethshook April 9, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    Having also started with the Lost Museum, I have to agree with your design qualms. Websites designed for an individual, company, organization, collection, etc. are usually self-evident, but when it comes to digital history projects, a certain amount of explanation is necessary if you want to hook the lay visitor. Then again, it was probably designed to be accessed from a syllabus.

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