History screams for less screens

Author: José Boon

In ‘Technology becomes the object’, the American anthropologist Gwyneira Isaac discusses the role of electronic media at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The main question is to what extent new technology can help in transferring a message. Besides the fact that the history of American Indians is a sensitive topic, it is a history which can be showed by a lot of real objects like bowls and clothing. The NMAI chose for a different approach, namely by using ‘Windows for Collections’, digital screens placed between the visitors and the historical objects, with additional information, movies and pictures of comparable objects. In doing so, the museum told the story of media technology instead of American Indians, Isaac argues. In my opinion, this is the trap of technological innovations in digital public history. Media should exist to deliver messages, not to create new ones.

The director and curators of the NMAI faced a dilemma in how to tell the story of American Indian people and not just the story of their objects. Their solution was to add modern ‘storytellers’ to the exhibition, like movies. By not even placing traditional textboards next to the historical objects, the museum put too much emphasis on modern media. This is a loss of meaning, as objects can function as ‘vehicles for engaging with the past’.[1] By giving them the right amount of attention, it would not have been a story about objects, but about the stories behind them.

Besides the lack of hardcopy texts, there was something else going on with the textboards. While the media technology was completely up to date, the messages conveyed were still the same as in 1960. The amount of technology was not proportional to the content, a risk for every digital public historian. The New York Times noticed that ‘history and scholarship were left behind. Sentimentality reigned.’ The Washington Post went further, pointing out that ‘it was, in many ways, the ultimate postmodern museum experience, with no central narrative, no omniscent voice and no absolute appeals to the voice of science and history’.[2] Is that, except for the proud historian, a bad thing?

In defence of the NMAI, kids loved the exhibition and showed a lot of enthusiasm by moving directly to the screens, that displayed more items than would physically be possible. Also, on Facebook, the NMAI received great reviews with an average grade of 4.6 out of 5. That could be attributed to the fact that museum visitors were no longer just observers, but also participant consumers.[3] Museums and historians are starting to emphasize this new role of their public.

American historian @Claudio Saunt uses new media to reach a bigger public and involve the public in making history, for example with a time-lapse video of the dispossession of land in 18th century America. It has over 180.000 hits. Besides, in the context of American Indians, he launched ‘Facebook for the dead’, where people can add their story instead of only listening to the historian, like the interactive ‘Web 2.0’ is supposed to be.[4] ‘What we wanted to do was to give people stuff to do that’s a little bit more engaging,’ Saunt says, ‘to make them historians themselves’. (Are you still concentrated on the topic of this article, or is it more tempting to click on the hyperlinks of this paragraph?)

This all sounds like a great addition to the traditional history writing and museums. But to prevent an exhibition turning in a technological playground, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, who is your public? Of course children like to get entertained by modern technology, but what about elderly visitors? In the case of the NMAI, what about the American Indian? One Native American visitor felt ‘a little insulted’ after being confronted with the ‘seriously lacking (…) educational aspect’. Education is the second point of attention. Making the visual collections bigger by displaying items on screens, does not mean people learn more. Museum objects, digital or not, need context, while an exhibition is not a database.

Third, when the visitor becomes a consumer, to what extent is a museum democratic? Consumers are allowed to buy what they want, but media technologies are able to manipulate their audience. A simpler and more neutral exhibition gives more space for one’s own opinion and  interpretation.

I agree with Gwyneira Isaac that the NMAI used too many digital media technologies in an effort to tell the story. The risks are a lack of scholarship and education, a bigger distance to parts of the audience, manipulation and a loss of meaning of the objects. No matter how tempting the use of technology is, new media should be used unobtrusively so that visitors can fully absorb the message behind it.



[1] Carl Hogsden and Emma K. Poulter, ‘The real other? Museum objects in digital contact networks’ Journal of material culture (2012) 265 – 286, 266.

[2] The date of Isaac’s article differs six years from the New York Times and Washington Post articles about the NMAI, so they probably covered an adjusted exhibition. Still, it is relevant to notice that the NMAI’s choice for technology over scholarship is critized and picked up in the public debate.

[3] Gwyneira Isaac, ‘Technology becomes the object. The use of electronic media at the National Museum of the American Indian’ Journal of material culture (2008) 287 – 310, 302.

[4] Marc Parry, ‘Digital history center strives to connect with the public’ The chronicle of higher education (08-09-2014).