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