“Interfaces to History”

The timeline paper posted on this blog a few weeks back is part of a longer paper I’m working on, “Interfaces to History.” Here’s an abstract:

The organization and classification of artifacts, words, and images to tell stories is the essence of exhibitions, whether in museums or on the web. The 1898 Report of the National Museum called this “the all-important question” and tried to determine the form of presentation that would allow “the great truths of human history may be told in the briefest and clearest way.” That is still our challenge, though perhaps our aims are not quite so high. My paper will consider some of the organizing principles museum curators use in real and virtual space– among them chronologies, genealogies, synoptic series, geographies, themes, topics, and the newest, the search – and the assumptions that underline them. The museum or website is a narrative space that demands thoughtful interfaces, and we should be clear about both the meaning of the choices we make, and the criteria by which we judge them.

Any advice or suggestions appreciated – the abstract is aspirational, not yet descriptive.

5 thoughts on ““Interfaces to History”

  1. I like it, but I wonder how many of the programmers and other technical colleagues with whom many of us digital historians work are thinking in large, somewhat theoretical/humanistic terms about the “narrative space” ey are creating? If they are not, should they be? Just as we humanists need to better understand the technical side of what we are trying to do?

  2. Good question. One reason for us for digital humanists to think in these terms is to get clear in our own heads what our alternatives are, and what philosophical or political implications they might have. That will help us explain to our technical colleague why the choices we make matter.

  3. Anne, I think that actually a lot of people doing UX and design are thinking about narrative space, but in terms of a vague concept of “story.” The problem with “story” is that it tends to mean “chronological narrative” and exclude other rhetorical modes. Our colleague Thomas Soderqvist has been nicely contrarian about the rise of “story” in museological contexts.

  4. Look forward to reading the Soderqvist piece. We had terrible problems in a consulting project I once worked on with the whole notion of “story,” which was pretty ill-defined at best, and stifling of analysis at worst.

  5. Good points. This discussion helps me see how much I have been influenced by the trend towards telling people’s stories–[particularly true in Public History, where it is been an important methodology for empowering some formerly marginalized members of the public] The “contrarian” view presented by Soderqvist opens up other possibilities for fruitful discussion and consideration. However, I am not sure what he means by the “descriptive” mode–seems to me that in the presence of an object (in museum actual or in virtual digitized high res, even 360 degree, on the web, which is extending first-person access way beyond what many of us in museums could ever have imagined would be possible) a great deal of descriptive labeling and classifying could fall away as we endeavor to present objects as primary experience with less and less mediation by curators and scholars. Or not?

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