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Back to the future
multiple perspectives on historical exhibits

By Lisa Neal, Lynne Spichiger / March 2008

TYPE: OPINION, NONFORMAL/INFORMAL LEARNING
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It seems like the more time we spend online, the more we value real experiences, be it dinner with a friend, watching a movie, or going to a concert, sporting event, or museum. However, there are some things, such as history, that can only be replicated—not experienced. Fortunately, the digital medium is ideally suited to illuminating the endless complexities of the past.

Historical museum exhibits are carefully designed to provide maximum impact-the placements of objects, the path through an exhibit, even the wording on signs. Many historical museums are "living history" museums where a visitor can walk through a replication of an event and talk to "interpreters" who are essentially actors. Everyone going through a historical museum exhibit has a different experience, but they see the exhibit from their own perspective, as shaped by an exhibit design that tries to give visitors a sense of what it was like to live in the past.

As more historical museums provide educational sites, their staffs struggle with how to make the online experience even richer than the actual physical experience. One way to do this is by using media to shape a visitor's understanding of multiple perspectives, a common device in films and books.

In a physical exhibit it is difficult to convey the diverse roots of an event and its ensuing legacies in a way that is easily understandable to a visitor. To present diverse perspectives on a single event in a thorough way, it is necessary to include history leading up to the event as well as the legacies of the event. Creating a balanced presentation among these different groups' histories is a challenge; the medium of a physical museum exhibit often limits the degree to which diverse perspectives can be presented and easily compared by the viewer. The Raid on Deerfield: Telling an Old Story in a New Way and Plimoth Plantation's Online Learning Center were both designed to educate people about and depict multiple perspectives of historical events.

In the case of Deerfield, five cultural groups worked together to present each group's viewpoint on the 1704 raid on Deerfield, the events leading up to the raid, and its aftermath. Using a tab approach, visitors are able to switch among the various points of view for each historic scene, comparing and contrasting perspectives. Using a "magic lens," visitors can inspect the actual handwriting of important historical figures.

Plimoth Plantation's site was focused on helping children to understand the event that has come to be known as the "First Thanksgiving." It was designed to help them learn about the perspectives of the early colonists and the Wampanoags, both living in Plymouth for different reasons and with very different backgrounds, and viewing the other group's activities based on their own world view. Furthermore, the site is designed to help children gain an understanding of what historians are and what they do, and how history itself is not static but is open to interpretation and reinterpretation.

Although online experiences, no matter how well-designed, will never match the experiential aspects of historical museums, the greater reach of online sites to people who would never be able to visit the museum extends the boundaries of the physical edifices. Through scrutiny of primary source documents, a visitor can develop his or her own perspective on events of the past. But the magic that can be worked by technology facilitates an understanding of the multiple perspectives on the events of history in a way that would not otherwise be possible.

In a new feature for eLearn Magazine, Lynne Spichiger explores the issues associated with determining whether a site of this type is reaching audiences in the desired manner. After all, museum sites have to prove their worthiness just as well as purely commercial sites.



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ADDITIONAL READING

    Lisa Neal
  1. Degrees by mail
  2. The Value of Voice
  3. Predictions for 2006
  4. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  5. Five questions...
  6. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  7. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  8. Music lessons
  9. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  10. Advertising or education?
  11. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  12. Predictions for 2008
  13. Serious games for serious topics
  14. Predictions For 2003
  15. Q&A
  16. Storytelling at a distance
  17. Talk to me
  18. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  19. Online learning and fun
  20. Everything in moderation
  21. eLearning and fun
  22. The basics of e-learning
  23. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  24. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  25. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  26. My life as a Wikipedian
  27. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  28. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  29. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie
  30. Do it yourself
  31. Predictions for 2004
  32. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  33. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  34. "Deep" thoughts
  35. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  36. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  37. Learner on the Orient Express
  38. "Spot Learning"
  39. How to get students to show up and learn
  40. Blended conferences
  41. Predictions for 2002
  42. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  43. Learning from e-learning
  44. Q&A with Don Norman
  45. In search of simplicity
  46. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  47. Want better courses?
  48. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  49. Just "DO IT"
  50. Senior service
  51. Formative evaluation
  52. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  53. Predictions for 2007
  54. Not all the world's a stage
  55. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  56. Do distance and location matter in e-learning?
  57. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  58. Lynne Spichiger
  59. Measuring success
  60. Telling an old story in a new way