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).



42 thoughts to “History screams for less screens”

  1. Wise elders have been known to admonish younger minds to be careful what they wish for, because it may just come to fruition. i – Tunes will automatically
    recognize your i – Pod, and it should appear in the left hand
    sidebar. There is no need to impose your music on another person if
    they are not particularly interested in your taste of

  2. Furthermore, i believe that mesothelioma cancer is a rare form of most cancers that is generally found in those previously subjected to asbestos. Cancerous tissues form inside the mesothelium, which is a protective lining which covers many of the body’s body organs. These cells ordinarily form inside the lining of the lungs, tummy, or the sac which actually encircles the heart. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  3. I have seen plenty of useful items on your internet site about pc’s. However, I’ve the thoughts and opinions that lap tops are still not quite powerful more than enough to be a good choice if you typically do things that require loads of power, just like video croping and editing. But for net surfing, statement processing, and a lot other prevalent computer functions they are just fine, provided you can’t mind the little screen size. Many thanks sharing your notions.

  4. What a resourceful piece of information thank you for sharing. When it becomes hard to manage your resources, you can check this. I am very happy to read your post. I’m also sharing my nice stuff to you guys please go through it and take a review.

  5. Great engaging information. Thank you for sharing. I found this post engaging and meaningful, which has added value to my understanding. Keep sharing good information. Thanks

  6. Many casinos even have sportsbooks, bingo and poker rooms attached. Funds can easily be transferred from one tab to another, giving real-money players in the game even more choice.
    Online gambling sites offer superior entertainment to playing in a land-based casino. 바둑이사이트넷

  7. You can be playing online slots, online blackjack and roulette at your level of stakes in minutes with our easy to use casino finder tool.
    Thousands of players trust these real money online casino sites to provide a secure, enjoyable gaming experience, with valuable casino bonuses relevant to the games they prefer. You can also expect fast payouts on your winnings, with funds reaching your account within days or hours. 슬롯머신777사이트

  8. Good day! I could have sworn I’ve been to your blog before but after going through many
    of the articles I realized it’s new to me. Anyways, I’m definitely happy I discovered it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back frequently! 릴게임

  9. Thank you so much for the post you do. I like your post and all you share with us is up to date and quite informative, i would like to bookmark the page so i can come here again to read you, as you have done a wonderful job.온라인카지노

  10. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon. Big thanks for the useful info. 먹튀검증

  11. Nice post. I was checking constantly this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely useful info specially the last part I care for such information a lot. I was seeking this certain info for a long time. Thank you and good luck. 우리카지노

  12. I’ve been surfing online more than three hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It’s pretty worth enough for me. In my opinion, if all webmasters and bloggers made good content as you did, the web will be a lot more useful than ever before. 토토사이트

  13. I am happy to find this post very useful for me, as it contains lot of information. I always prefer to read the quality content and this thing I found in you post. Thanks for sharing. 바카라사이트

  14. I found this is an informative and interesting post so i think so it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. 토토사이트

  15. If more people that write articles really concerned themselves with writing great content like you, more readers would be interested in their writings. Thank you for caring about your content. 먹튀검증

  16. You have a real talent for writing unique content. I like how you think and the way you express your views in this article. I am impressed by your writing style a lot. Thanks for making my experience more beautiful. 안전놀이터

  17. I really loved reading your blog. It was very well authored and easy to undertand. Unlike additional blogs I have read which are really not tht good. I also found your posts very interesting. In fact after reading, I had to go show it to my friend and he ejoyed it as well! 먹튀폴리스

  18. That’s a great post. I am so happy to see this article. I would like to share this article on my website. Would you like to visit my website? 먹튀검증 This place will surely delight you and your friends!

  19. This is an informational article written very efficiently. It seems to be very helpful to others including me. Thank you. Here is some news you might be interested in on my website. Would you like to come to 사설토토 to play? There are many things to do.

  20. Thanks For this great content. Really Enjoyed.Keep It up.We are a group of content writing services and running a community in the same niche.If anyone want content writing services then hire content writer and increase conversions for your online store.You have done a extraordinary job! 파워볼 하는법

  21. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon. Big thanks for the useful info.


  22. I am always searching online for articles that can help me. There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also. Keep working, great job


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.