PHYSICAL/DIGITAL SITE COMPARATIVE REVIEW
In this activity, you will analyze the representation of history in two, related environments: a physical exhibit or site, and on the web. The goal is to get a feel for the ways that interpretation and engagement vary in the two spaces.
- Do some research to select a public history site to visit that also has an online presence. This might be a history museum, a state or county historical society, an historic house museum, or historic site near you. Please stick to public history sites; art and natural history museums are great, but they are not really the focus here.
- Make a visit to the physical site. If it is a large institution, you may want to focus on a particular exhibition. Approach the site as a researcher, taking notes along the way:
Selected Museum: The Levine Museum of the New South with the focus on its permanent exhibit Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers
- Main argument
- What is the argument about history embodied in the site? The main argument or focus is on the city of Charlotte since the Civil War. Key topics include the industrialization of the city with the textile mills and the racial diversity of the area.
- How well does the physical design communicate that argument? The physical design communicates this argument because there is a clearly marked path to follow and it tracks Charlotte’s history with chronological displays.
- What is the interpretive point of view? The point of view presented by exhibit is that the city of Charlotte has benefited from diversity, including diverse races, ethnicities, gender, and social classes.
- Who is the primary audience for this work? The primary audience appears to be the general Charlotte community with an emphasis on students in K-12. It looks like the museum is anticipating these students may visit with their classes or their families. The lack of complexity in the labels shows that historians and other scholars are not their primary audience.
- What types of visitors are actually in the space? There was a range of ages visiting the museum. There were some families with young children. There was also an elderly couple. There was also a small group of older teenagers/early twenty-somethings. The visitors were racially diverse, but the majority of visitors were caucasian.
- Primary items/Materials
- What are the primary items used to communicate the interpretation? The museum uses a variety of materials: re-produced photographs, photocopies of newspapers, historical artifacts from the time period, videos, re-created spaces like a one-room tenant farmers house.
- What supports are used to frame and contextualize the materials? To an extent, it seems like the materials and the supports overlap. For example, the re-created spaces like the two water fountains, one labeled for White and one labeled for Colored, hanging on the wall provided a context for interpreting the historically accurate water fountains.
- Lay out
- How is the site laid out? They have laid out the exhibit chronologically. The goal is to move through time by walking through the exhibit.
- Is it easy to navigate? The exhibit is easy to navigate and has a very clear physical path to follow. The flow of the exhibit moves the visitors from one display to another. This set-up also includes audio and video recordings and hands-on activities.
- Does it encourage a single flow of traffic? There is one clear path to follow through the exhibit, but there is still enough space for visitors to spend time at the different stations.
- Interactive elements
- Are there any interactive elements in the physical space? Yes, there are several interactive elements.
- What are they and how effective are they? There are several screens for showing videos. There is also a small theater will a film about the history of race in Charlotte. In addition, the museum has re-created storefront and room from an early Belk department store. In this space, visitors can try on hats. However, some of the most effective displays deal with race. One display lets you see cotton before processing and run your hand through a pile of seed cotton. The display gives visitors a glimmer of what it was like to pick cotton. You can feel how rough it is and how touching it repeatedly could make fingers bleed. They have also built a lunch counter typical of the 1960s where you can listen to the words of local sit-in leaders.
- Are their curators/interpreters/docents in the space? How are they interacting with the public? No, it is a self-guided walk through the exhibit. However, there is an option for a guided tour.
- How would you change the physical exhibit to make it more effective? Because there is a clear path to follow, it led to some traffic congestion. Some of the re-created spaces, like a room in an early Belk department store, alleviated this congestion to a certain extent. More opportunities to “step to the side” could help. I could also see the permanent exhibit becoming boring over multiple visits. The rotating exhibits help with this, but I think they could still benefit from adding some new displays from time to time.
- Special Note: Although the review of the physical space focused on the permanent exhibit Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers, they currently have two temporary exhibits entitled Nowhere, Now Here and Looking at Appalachia. Both of these exhibits focus on marginalized groups with the former exhibit examines Hispanic immigrants in small town North Carolina and the latter exhibit inhabitants of the Appalachian Mountains as part of the 1960s War on Poverty project.
- Visit the digital presence for the public history site or exhibition that you analyzed. Do a similar review of the website:
- Main argument
- What is the argument about history that is embodied in the digital representation? The website reflects the museum’s focus on Charlotte and the surrounding Carolina Piedmont region. They are focused on the history of the area post-Civil War, but there is a clear emphasis on diversity.
- How well does the design communicate that argument? The design competently communicates this argument.
- What is the interpretive point of view of the site? Like the physical museum space, the website celebrates the diversity of the Charlotte population following the Civil War.
- Who is the primary audience for this work? The primary audience seems to be K-12 students and those working with them. The bulk of the material on the site is labeled for groups, students, and teachers. The Media Center section includes several videos (e.g. visitor reaction, interviews), photos from museum events, and relevant blogs.
- How well does it succeed in delivering materials that are appropriate for that audience? The website is primarily successful in preparing visitors for their time in the museum. It is especially successful in helping teachers prepare for visits to the museum. However, I think the website would benefit from adding a digital counterpart to their exhibits.
- What assumptions does it make about the audience? The assumption is that most visitors are local. Most of the pages provide information about programs and events at the museum as well as information for when people visit the museum.
- How is the site laid out? The main navigation tabs/headings include Visit, Exhibits, Learn, Calendar, Support, and Media Center. The main tabs or headings are near the top of the page. When you hover over one of the tabs the subpages appear, and when you click on one of the tabs the subpages also appear on the left side of the page.
- Main argument
Black is the predominate color of the site. Each tab or heading is assigned a color that remains its assigned color even after you click on it. Is it easy to navigate? It is easy to navigate the site since the subpages appear when you hover over a tab and then appear again (on the left side of the page) when you click on a tab. This layout makes it easy to find and examine the different categories.
In addition, a significant portion of the website has a black background with white text. This color choice can be distracting.
- Does it encourage a single flow of traffic? There is not one clear flow of traffic like there is with the physical space.
- What kinds of content does the site offer?
- Information about current and past exhibits, including text and images. The Majority of the exhibit information is on the permanent exhibit and the current exhibits.
- There is practical information about visiting the museum.
- There is information on donating to the museum
- Materials specifically for Groups, Students, and Educators for educational purposes (e.g. lesson plans, camps, self-guided tours)
- The section marked Media Center includes a variety of content, such as interviews with artists and local community members and video reactions of museum visitors.
- There are also links for people to find out more information about the history of Charlotte, including links to local archives.
- How does this differ from the content that resides in the physical space? Despite the videos listed under Media Center, the majority of the content is intended to lead people to the museum’s physical space. Unlike the physical space, the emphasis is not on objects or experiences. Instead, the main purpose of the website is to lead visitors to the museum.
- Participatory/interactive elements
- Does the site have participatory or interactive elements? The website is not as interactive as the physical space. Most of the material points users back to the museum and the community.
- What are they? Even though there are not as many interactive elements on the website, it includes videos of museum visitors reflecting on their experiences. Other videos are interviews with artists, community leaders, and everyday people in the community. Many of the videos are presented in both English and Spanish.
- What does the user take away from these experiences? The main take away is that the museum is intended to be a place of inclusiveness. Unlike some museums (such as fine arts museums), this museum is meant to be approachable-the space and history.
- Are there opportunities to interact with the site’s creators? They have embedded a form to contact them. Users are required to choose what “type of information” they would like to receive from the pre-selected choices.
- If so, how? Is this interaction central to the success of the site? Normally, I would say that a Contact Us option is required but not necessarily critical to success. However, much of the information on the website directs users to museum events and physical exhibits so a Contact Us option is critical in this case.
- How would you change the digital experience to make it more effective? The website and the museum skirt around what the phrase New South means. We can interpret that this means the South after the Civil War. However, it also means a greater focus on groups that have not received as much attention, such as African Americans, the working class, and Hispanic immigrants. I would also like to see them translate the interactive exhibits, such as the diner and department store, into an online counterpart. Most of the information simply directs users to the physical museum.
Write a comparative review of the two sites. The review essay should be no longer than 1,500 words. Include a clear header that identifies both the physical and the digital sites and their producers. Post the review essay to your blog.
The Museum of the New South, Charlotte, NC
- Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers exhibit
Exhibit Director: Jean Johnson
Panel of historians: Dr. David Carlton of Vanderbilt University, Dr. David Goldfield of UNC-Charlotte, Dr. Lu Ann Jones of East Carolina University, and Dr. Tom Hanchett, then of Emory University
Funded by an NEH grant
Credited to the Museum
The Levine Museum of the New South focuses is on the city of Charlotte and the surrounding Carolina Piedmont region since the Civil War. The primary focus of both the museum and its website is on the diversity in the Charlotte-area population. Key topics include the industrialization of the city with the textile mills and the Civil Rights Movement. A key difference in focus between the physical and online spaces is that the website has a more noticeable focus on the Latino community with its inclusion of the Latino New South Project. However, the overarching messages of both the museum and the website are the same. The message is that Charlotte has benefited from its diverse population. This focus on diversity address race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and social class.
In many ways, the website is a placeholder for the physical space of the museum. The exhibit Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers is an interactive environment that recreates specific spaces relevant to the history of Charlotte and the surrounding area. The exhibit is filled with interactive spaces like a Belk Department store where visitors can try on hats, a lunch counter at a diner similar to ones used for sits-ins during Civil Rights demonstrations, and even a reconstruction of a one-room house used by tenant farmers. Each installation is enhanced with explanatory text, photographs, photocopies of newspapers, historical artifacts from the time periods, and short videos.
In contrast, the website is much less interactive. Much of the information refers visitors back to the physical space. The assumption is that they are visiting the website in preparation for visiting the museum. Under the tab heading of Learn, there is a link for groups who would like to visit the museum and how to prepare for the visit. There is a notable amount of information directed to K-12 teachers, but again the emphasis is on visiting the museum. The lessons are based on teachers bring their students to the museum. The only extensive lesson plan available through the website is the ¡NUEVOlution! Curriculum which is based on a past exhibition. This PDF document lesson plans was crafted to meet NC Essential Standards and Common Core objectives. The information marked for students is about how to get involved in the museum’s camp and internship program. There are even links to history resources which direct users to local libraries and archives for additional research. Additional information like the calendar feature directs website visitors to museum events and programs.
The one area in which the website matches the interactive nature of the physical space is the section labeled Media Center. This section includes videos recorded by visitors to the museum. They share their experiences about visiting the museum and discuss what stood out to them and how they feel about what they learned during their visit. Additional videos include interviews with artists and others involved in temporary exhibits and museum programming. There are also several videos interviewing members of the community. Some of these community members are people involved in diversity-related issues in the Charlotte area. However, other interviewees are meant to represent the average Charlotte resident to get their take on the city. Many of these videos center around issues of diversity and culture. To increase access, the videos are offered in both English and Spanish. I was intrigued by the categories of the videos: Contribute to Impact!, Changing Places, History Archive, Latino New South, and ¡NUEVOlution! The photo gallery is limited to photos of events at the museum and in the community. They do offer some information through links to relevant blogs and links to news and announcements going back to 2010.
The primary audiences for the museum are local community members (possibility visiting with family) and school-aged groups (also including non-school groups like girl scouts and church groups). The website provides a vehicle for that visit. There is a great deal of information specifically aimed at K-12 teachers and related educators. The website serves as a vehicle for achieving the educational goals of the museum.
In terms of navigation, the physical space of the museum and the exhibit has a very clear path to follow that is largely chronological. In contrast, you can find yourself continually jumping the information offered by the website jumps around. There are clear categories like Exhibits, Learn, Media Center, and Visit. The menu is also repeated on the left side of the page. This helps users move through the website by keeping track of where they are. The physical space is more inviting than the website as well. The interactive and highly visual displays draw in visitors whereas the website colors can be off-putting. Most of the text is black on white, but there are several pages with white on black. Black is also the prominent color of the website. Each section category has its own color. For example, Exhibits are orange and the Calendar is blue. This combination can be jarring.
However, the overall narrative is strong in both the museum and the website. While tracking the history of the Charlotte area after the Civil War, the clear message is that the area has benefit from its diverse population. The mission of both is to show the historical contributions of groups that have not received as much attention. The main exhibit highlights themes like the civil rights struggles of African Americans and the poverty of people in the Appalachian Mountains. The temporary exhibits and the website supplement this focus by including other groups like the Latino and LGBTQ communities. Like the permanent exhibit, these exhibits incorporate hands-on activities. Both platforms encourage activism to support these diverse groups.
When examining ways to improve these platforms, the website could be improved in terms of usability and information provided. The color combination could be adjusted, the amount of black could be reduced, and the black on white text could be increased. In addition, the website could be more than just a vehicle for encouraging and preparing the museum’s foot traffic. If this is the main function of the website, then it is fulfilling this task. However, it would be interesting and educational if they could incorporate digital exhibits as well.