Exhibit Balance: Overview and Immersion

In planning my project on monuments and memorials at University of the Pacific, I have been examining some digital projects that do storytelling in a new or unique way.  This blog reviews two sites that creatively balance overview and immersion to effectively tell stories about the past.  This matters, Richard Rabinowitz writes, because “overviews create confidence, immersion offers comfort” for exhibit visitors. “The careful sequencing of overview and immersion is the most important element of exhibition development.” Although Rabinowitz is concerned with physical spaces, his statement is no less relevant to virtual exhibitions.[i]

The Raid on Deerfield, from the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) / Memorial Hall Museum, tells the story of the French and Indian attack on the British settlement at Deerfield, Massachusetts in 1704. What is most interesting about this site is that it is carefully designed to tell the story of the conflict simultaneously from five perspectives: English, French, Kanienkehaka (Mohawk), Wendat (Huron), Wôbanaki (Abenaki and others). The landing page introduces the learner to the contested nature of the event and the scholarship, asking visitors to consider if the attack was a massacre, a justified military campaign, or something else. From an aerial perspective, a model of the village provides a glimpse at the changing land claims. Visitors entering the site are presented with an effective balance of overview and immersive elements. A video provides the general story, and text and a map introduce the five cultures. The truly creative part of the website is the story section. Here an interactive timeline allows the user to move through the timeline and read about the important milestones. When the learner clicks on dates, five tabs appear (corresponding to the different cultural groups), allowing a comparison of the event from five different perspectives. This design enables the website creators to locate all the players as equals structurally. The user on this website is invited into multiple layers of detail. One can learn via the introductory video or dig deeper and learn about specific people and artifacts related to the raid.

The Raid on Deerfield website includes five tabs that enable the viewer to switch between different perspectives of the same event.

Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, a project of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, is another website that successfully balances the overview and immersive elements of public history. Its landing page provides a brief two-sentence overview of what the Gulag was and explains the website’s contents. When learners enter the website, they follow a particular person’s story through the material. Quotes from Lev Kopelev and his story personalize the Gulag as the visitor learns about his arrest; his labor, solidarity, and life in the camp; and his fate. Historical context via video and text help the visitor make sense of Kopelev’s experience. As with the Raid on Deerfield,” “Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives” invites visitors to engage with layers of detail, including an exploration of images and documents used in the films.

“Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives” offers broad overviews of events and allows the learner to see the story from a prisoner’s immersive perspective.

“The Raid on Deerfield” and “Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives” balance immersive and aerial perspectives. “The Raid on Deerfield” adds the element of sharing multiple perspectives at one time, using the digital medium effectively to decenter the British perspective. “The Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives” uses the stories of individual prisoners to propel the learner through the narrative. Although multiple perspectives on the Gulag are not presented, the viewer can see the “many lives” it devastated.

[i] Richard Rabinowicz, “Eavesdropping at the Well: Interpretive Media in the Slavery in New York Exhibition,” The Public Historian 35.3 (August 2013): 16.

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