Digital Culture

Exploring the role of new media in museums

Author: Amy Budge

Video, video, video.

The American Textile History Museum also features a wide range of video options for visitors. They are both historical and contemporary in nature and appeal to visitors in a variety of ways. For the sake of this critique, videos will be broken down into three categories: informational, maker, and historical. There are highs and lows of each category, but overall the videos successfully add to the visitor experience.


  1. Informational

One of the first rooms visitors can enter is a media room. A large screen is set up in the front of the room. Along the wall are several buttons and the opportunity for visitors to choose a video. The label clearly indicated which buttons correspond to a specific video. A short description is provided along with the length of the video. Here is where visitors will find most of their textile informational videos. Combining science, history, and engineering, each of the videos takes on a disciple and explains some aspect of the textile industry. From the fine silk of spiders to the complex workings of a knitting machine, the video breaks down how a certain textile comes to be. Some of the videos are narrated with captions. Others let the machinery do the talking. This room is a great way to explore the interdisciplinary nature of textiles. Not simply art or history, the videos appeal to a wide range of visitors. The videos also echo the nature of the museum. Although it is technically labeled a history museum, there are many avenues that can be explored. The videos are also appealing to a wide range of audiences. Kids could appreciate the spider video, while a college art student would find the Marimekko fabric printing video to be fascinating. Some videos tended to be on the longer side, but for the most part were engaging enough to hold the visitor’s attention.


  1. Maker

Maker videos – where artists showcase their craft – are some of the most interesting videos the museum has to offer. These videos are successful for two reasons. First, they pair a contemporary take on an historic craft. One exhibit takes visitors on a journey through historic advertisements. The exhibit walls are lined with adverts for various woolen, linen, and cotton products. In the center is an old machine that probably printed some of those exact advertisements. Just outside the exhibit space is a large television that features artist Kate Desforges demonstrating a stone lithography printing process. The video is wonderfully crafted and is fascinating to watch the artist explain the process while doing it. There are other media moments that could have accompanied this video wonderfully, such as a touch-screen that allows visitors to design their own prints. The one drawback to the video was the physical location. It would have been much more powerful if it was actually in the exhibit space, next to the historic machine. Less curious visitors might miss the video all together. Location is key.

  1. Historical

These videos are found throughout the main exhibit space. Typically used to showcase historic moments through narration and photographs, the screens blend nicely into the space. They are often in darker areas of the exhibit space, so primary focus remains on the objects and the video only comes to life if visitors decide to watch it. The historic images, such as photographs of endless mill complexes and the immigrants who worked in them, do a great job contextualizing objects and themes. They convey a different time period to the visitor well and do so quite in-depth. Like the endless mills, the videos often seem endless. What should be a short, informational snapshot of an historic event turns into a History Channel documentary. The videos are entirely too long and so many stories are told that it is easy for visitor to lose the message. They can be exhaustive and because so much information is given, it is hard for visitors to extract things that may interest them. Each of these historical videos could easily be broken down into two, perhaps three, separate videos. Most visitors walked away before the video ended. An easy solution to this problem would be to cut the videos and put additional videos on the website, making them accessible via QR code if visitors wanted more information during their visit.

There are definitely high and low aspects to using so many videos in a single museum. On one hand, they allow visitors to explore things that are impossible in the exhibit space. On the other, too much information can be overwhelming. Overall the American Textile maintains a good balance. A little refinement would transform this great media experience into an excellent one.

Teen Perspectives.

The American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts is a treasure trove of new media. In my experience, history museums tend to lack successful media moments. Whether the content is dry (please, let’s get creative!) or worse, there is no media in any format to be found, history museums can often miss the mark. American Textile, however, scatters media throughout the museum. It does not overpower the visitor but rather offers many opportunities for experience enhancement, if the visitor so desires. Media moments are never intrusive and are tastefully placed within exhibit spaces. In fact, American Textile has so much to offer that audio and video need to be broken down into two separate critiques. Here, we will address the main audio component: the cell-phone tour.

The cell tour is standard – dial the number and enter the stop number. For those of us who prefer to use our own device, this is perfect. This format also makes the tour easy to access on any phone model. The audio tour was developed in collaboration with the United Teen Equality Center and features teens from the city reading the stop script, as well as offering their own opinion of objects. This in itself shows visitors a commitment to working with all members of the community, and it provides teens the opportunity to develop something for a cultural institution. In the future, I would love to see more collaborations between these two organizations. Additionally, I would love to see teens work on refining the cell tour and perhaps work on an app-based tour.

Dialing the number at every stop can get tedious because the same introductory message greets users every time. The audio quality itself is not the best (perhaps the local university could contribute to this collaboration and offer studio time and professional recording devices). It can be difficult to understand some of the stops because the audio is too low or the sound levels fluctuate. The content varies stop-to-stop. Most of the time it is interesting and provides facts beyond the label text, as a good audio stop should. Other times it rehashes label information but depending on what type of museum visitor you are, that could be good or bad.

While additional information is good, the most engaging content is the teen opinions of objects. They often say what most visitors are probably thinking about an object, but would never say to museum staff or the person they are visiting the museum with. Most opinions make the user chuckle, but more importantly they make the user stop and reevaluate the object they are looking at. It gives adults users a different perspective. For younger audiences the audio tour commentary is a good conversation starter for those who might not otherwise be engaged in museum content. In fact, I would almost rather have a teen audio tour with only their observations and interactions with the object rather than a snippet of opinion and a good chuck of museum-written content. For example, stop #11 features a teen observing a historic bathing suit. He accurately observes: “It looks more like a nun’s outfit than a bathing suit.” The comment was followed by an explanation not of the historic piece of clothing, but of a contemporary swim suit that Olympic swimmers use. I tuned out after that. The teen’s comment, however, make me look at the bathing suit more closely and numerous questions popped into my head concerning the piece of clothing. I wanted to know more about it, about the evolution of swim wear, and what that says about society. It was not museum-written content that sparked that line of questioning but a teen’s keen observation.

Museums and teen collaborations should happen more often, and new media is a good bridge between the two. Often times teens feel unwelcome in museums because there does not seem to be much there for them. Marketing this tour as something by teens for teens, as well as offering other opportunities for museum engagement, would be a step in the right direction. Teens can probably teach museum professionals one or two things about new media, and it is time that museums start opening their doors more frequently to this audience. An online article states:

“Ensuring children of all ages feel valued and welcomed at museums and other cultural venues is crucial. These teenagers will be the next generation to be elected into office – if we don’t make them appreciate museums now, it might be too late when they are running the country.”

New media can foster that appreciation and hopefully more museums will take note from the American Textile and begin to include teens in their programming process.


“Why have museums forgotten the teens?”, Accessed Nov. 25, 2013



Concord Explorations.

Concord, Massachusetts is a sanctum for lovers of colonial history and literary figures. With an abundance of historic homes and museums, it is rather easy to get lost inside a world of objects and labels. That is all well and fine, but Concord’s history extends far beyond the walls of any one structure. Walden pond and the surrounding woods shaped the philosophical and political history of the area; secrets of a different time period are imbedded in the landscape of the historic town. So how do museums get their visitors outside the institution and exploring the surrounding area? This past spring, the Concord Museum came up with a creative and practical solution. The Thoreau Trail is an app that connects visitors to all the historic and natural sites in the Concord area. Easier to manipulate than several Concord tourism websites, the app lays out for visitors what the area has to offer along with interactive elements that help enhance, not dominate, the experience.

Not wanting to spend a beautiful autumn afternoon cooped up indoors, I tested the app while visiting the Walden Pond State Reservation. Navigation throughout the app is simple. The main features are easy to find and each place of importance contains its own labyrinth of tidbits. Important information, such as a brief description of the site, is kept to a minimum and is easy to scan. Site pages link to websites for more information but most of what visitors need to know, such as operation times and addresses, are available right through the app. One drawback is that the app has no graphic map or link to a navigational app, making finding these sites a bit more difficult for visitors who are not familiar with the area. Options for each site page vary, which is both interesting and potentially distracting. I could have easily spent my visit to Concord exploring every nook of the app, but that would not have made for a very enjoyable experience. Once visitors decide which sites they will visit, the app proves to be a valuable addition.


 In one of his many journals Thoreau writes, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” (Journal, 5 August 1851). This thought highlights the educational goal of the app. In the museum experience, it does not matter what visitors are looking at on an app but what they will be able to see because the app pointed them in the right direction. What observations and connections visitors are able to make through new media in museums is key in the creation of the app, and key in creating a positive visitor experience. The Walden Pond State Reservation page contained a “To Think About…” section: two questions prompting visitors to absorb their surroundings and question what it is they are seeing or hearing. This can spark dialogue between visitors, and and internal dialogue between a person and nature. Rather than bringing visitors to a place where they will quickly look at some trees and water and move on, the app indirectly asks visitors to stop and consider the natural world. Thoreau would be pleased and no doubt gladly taken part in the conversation.

Visitors can choose to leave the app here, or dive deeper in the Thoreau-inspired conversation. An option to explore Thoreau’s Walden brings users to a new page with four excerpts from Walden. The brief audio stops include a reading from Walden that pertains to some aspect of the collision between humans and nature. Interestingly, in the audio stop “Railroad,” Thoreau is both impressed by the modern technology but laments its intrusion on nature. This concept itself has the potential to create a conversation around using an app to explore an nature reservation. This is really where the app excels, not in its design or interactivity, but in its ability to create those important conversations and develop the inquisitive mind of the visitor.


Museums and Facebook.

After spending some time browsing Facebook posts by different Boston museums, I reaffirmed the fact that most museums do not effectively use social media. Updates typically include reminders about upcoming events and exhibitions and photos of said events and exhibitions. Rarely does one every find a post that is engaging, inquisitive, or a positive experience for the potential visitor, however, one exception in local area museums is the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum (ISGM). Posts by the ISGM invite internet users to be part of the learning process even though they are not in the physical space itself. These posts, even when advertising, ask questions that encourage user to create a dialogue with the museum and each other. Not every post is successful in this, but the attempt the ISGM is making by bringing education to social media platforms is worth taking a look at.

The particular post that I would like to bring attention to is the October 4, 2013 post pertaining to the stolen artworks in relation to the new Sophie Calle exhibition. Of course, this is a sensitive and intriguing topic to begin with. I find that the specific questions asked of the audience allows for interesting and well-thought out responses. The ISGM asks audiences for memories concerning Vermeer’s The Concert. Since the new Calle exhibition centers around memory and loss, this is an ideal posting to get audiences not only excited about the new show but to think about how they choose to remember the stolen paintings. Those who chose to respond wrote out thoughtful answers – both personal and art historical.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 10.15.15 AM

 Kristina Fong – the former Marketing and Audience Research Coordinator of the Walker Art Center – writes in her tips for museums who want to use social media:

Talk to people. There’s a lot to strive for on social media: engagement numbers, responses, participation, qualitative data. But overall, they’re the exact same goals as our general mission statement and our website/blogs. Engage, ask questions, be a catalyst for critical thinking, connect. Be available. Build intrigue & trust—if those two things are possible simultaneously. I strive to make our audience feel like they can approach us and that in turn builds a positive relationship with us. (Think how much more you like a person you meet if they simply ask you a question, say your name, or turn to say something directly to you.) So that can be through direct conversations, yes, but also just by sharing knowledge (you get the exclusive) and giving people the opportunity to make a comment (you feel knowledgeable).

 The ISGM does just this. By asking audiences what they think and prompting them to start a conversation is a good relationship-builder. These days, most people check out a museum’s website or Facebook page before coming to the physical institution. Seeing that the museum welcomes dialogue, questions, and participation creates a positive learning environment even before the visitor steps foot in the museum. The willingness for ISGM to share knowledge makes it an approachable institution, not a daunting tasks that visitors must complete. Visitors are also given the opportunity to share their expertise, whether it is formal or informal.

It is important to note, however, that not every posts accomplishes this. Is the ISGM not asking the right questions? Are they posting at times that people are not normally checking their news feeds? It is hard to say and it is true that not every post will spark dialogue between users. So how do museums get the social media game right? A quick google search does not give many results in terms of social media and creating online communities. There are plenty of how-to’s and whys museums should be using social media but little about substance. Perhaps museums are still in trial mode, but until museums find that sweet spot they will have to keep trying.

Keeping it Simple in the Exhibit.

“…I’m of two minds about museum apps. On the one hand, they’re great for enhancing a visit with all those flashy gadgets that kids love so much. It’s yet another way of beating museum fatigue while actually learning something. On the other hand, it’s a grand distraction. A good museum can spark the imagination without needing extra technology.” – Sean McLachlan, “Going to the Museum? There’s An App for That!”

McLachlan’s quote essentially sums up my visit to Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. In conjunction with the temporary exhibit Time & Time Again, How Science & Culture Shape the Past, Present, & Future, the Harvard Museums launched the Time Trails app. Partially a wayfinder application, the primary function of this tool is to better connect visitors to specific objects in the collection. It definitely made finding the museum easier. More than once I have found myself wandering around the campus looking for the Harvard Museum of Natural History despite my numerous visits, so I was rather pleased to not have to go searching for a museum I had never been to before. A+ for destination-finding, however, the functionality of the app goes little beyond that. Honestly, I am beginning to wonder if any exciting museum apps exist or if I just have incredibly bad luck with choosing them. As the quote above states, using the app during the visit turned out to be a giant distraction and completely took away from the museum experience. I was so focused on trying to use the app to enhance my experience that I became disinterested in the collection and felt like my time had been wasted (no pun intended). There are several aspects of why this app was a failure that I would like to discuss.

There are two floors to the museum. The first floor contains the permanent collection of scientific instruments and gadgets. The cabinets are packed and can be a bit overwhelming. There are not a lot of labels, so I was often left wondering what the purpose of a particular instrument was. This is where the app should have swooped in to save the day. The app is laid out section-by-section, giving an image of each cabinet or large object, however, there is not a whole lot the user can do with it. Users are able to tap on one or two objects within each section, only to bring up a lengthy description and history from the collections database. The text is small and uninteresting; what is the user supposed to engage with? QR codes are littered throughout the first floor that keep prompting visitors to download the app to learn more about how specific instruments in the collection related to keeping time. That would be a very interesting concept to explore if that app actually had the capabilities to do so. There was no interaction between the app and the collection to be had. At one particularly irritating point in the visit, the app prompted me to “come closer to learn more” (see image below). As I stepped closer to the glass, waiting for some interactive element to pop up on the screen, nothing happened. I was simply being directed to a standard object label. Frustrated, I headed upstairs to the temporary exhibit.


Since the app was created to compliment the exhibit, I assumed that there would be more features to tap into. No such luck. The temporary exhibit was not even featured in the application. I began to wonder if Harvard Museums created the app just for the sake of doing so, since there seemed to be no purpose to this whatsoever. The museum also has a collections app and online database where all the objects that are highlighted can be found, so the purpose of this particular app is lost on me.

I gave up trying to have a positive media moment in the museum. The phone went away and I breezed through the exhibit, still frustrated and not truly paying attention to what I was reading or looking at. That is, until I reached the last segment in the exhibit: Time Out. After that exasperating experience I was more than in need of a time out, a quiet moment to myself away from technology. That is when I finally achieved a positive, and simplistic, media moment. The segment emphasized the importance of taking a break and embracing relaxation. Time is valuable but everyone needs a moment to sit back and relax. A comfortable chair and small table were set up, with a notebook and pen waiting for the next visitor to use. A set of noise-canceling headphones were plugged into the wall and a playlist was posted next to it. Ranging from Mozart to Metallica, the list of song emphasized that fact that everyone achieves relaxation in different ways. I sat and listened to a few songs, not paying attention to the time and taking a minute to look around the exhibit space again. Time is truly a wondrous thing to conceptualize and reflect on. There is not always a need for new technology in an exhibit. Museums need to think about what their visitors will really connect to, rather than just trying to impress them with a multitude of apps. Sometimes, keeping it simple is best.



Source: Sean McLachlan. “Going to the Museum? There’s An App for That!.” Gadling. Accessed October 8, 2013.

Virtual v. Physical

In the wake of government shutdown, museums and National Parks closed their doors to the public. All National Park websites are down but museum websites such as the Smithsonian’s various institutions remain available. An online experience cannot replace a museum experience but it is a small comfort to know that online resources are still available through the national museums for the public to utilize. I would like to take this opportunity to explore a virtual tour offered by the National Postal Museum, in hopes to highlight the critical need for institutions to remain open to the public despite being deemed “non-essential” by authorities in power.

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 3.37.37 PM

The virtual tour is easily accessible from the museum’s about page, bringing users to a separate screen filled with postal memorabilia, an old postal truck, a museum map, and navigation bars. The space is completely navigable. Users can manipulate the space in any direction, doing a complete 360 of the gallery spaces. Users can zoom in and out to their heart’s content, getting glimpses of label text and objects – and that is just it, glimpses. The tour is more of a 3-dimensional map of the museum space. There is not opportunity for deeper exploration, no ability to click on the labels to read them or to explore stamps up-close. Perhaps those features exist in another app or online feature but they are nowhere to be found in this tour. I have to wonder what exactly the point of a virtual tour is if there is no opportunity for connection or experience. The tour interface is easy to use and the graphics are of exceptionally high quality but really, what is the point if all the user can do it essentially “walk” around the museum without stopping to dig deeper?

Interestingly, I found an article on a real estate blog concerning the use of virtual tours in the act of selling homes. It stated: “The second, and perhaps more important, reason to use virtual tours for each and every property that an agent brings to market can be summed up rather quickly: virtual tours add significant “stickiness” to real estate Web sites.” The virtual tour makes websites seem sophisticated and the agency seem trustworthy because they are willing to show potential owners everything the house entails. It is possible that museums are following the same trend. In order to get potential visitors into the institution, they offer a virtual tour that highlights the magnificence of the collection. It may only take a few clicks around the tour to make visitors interested enough to come to the institution. Take away the ability gather information, use interactives, and view the collection in any detailed capacity, the institution is essentially forcing the potential visitor to come to the museum just as the agency is forcing potential buyers to come to the house by essentially creating an attractive ad. While there does not seem to be anything inherently wrong with this, there are times when it is impossible to visit the physical museum. Be it locality issues or instances of government shutdown, there are times when museum will be completely inaccessible to people.

Museums should reconsider their approach to virtual tours. To a degree, it is understandable as to why they do not want to put everything online for the fear that visitors will simply look online rather than pass through museum doors. Yet in comparing virtual to physical visits it is the physical experience that trumps all: “Be it small or large, seeing the real thing is unambiguous. There is often an emotional reaction that accompanies the perception of true size.” Museums should not fear that their physical space will be abandoned for a virtual one because the allure of viewing the actual object will be more powerful than settling for an online representation. The virtual tour can still be that informative teaser but there is no reason to exclude information or interactivity. If virtual tours continue to be museum samples then museums and those running them must find ways to keep the door open, no matter the cost.



National Postal Museum. “Virtual Tour.” Accessed September 30, 2013.

Reality Times. “The Point of Virtual Tours.” Accessed October 1, 2013.

McDonald, Marcy. “Comparing the Virtual and the Physical Visits.” Master’s Thesis, University of Virginia, 2005.


The Space Experience

There is a tendency for online history interactives to be linear, wordy, and often times just plain boring. They perpetuate the misconception that history cannot be exciting and that learning about history is a tedious task best left to college professors. This is why I was happy to stumble across the the John F. Kennedy (JFK) Presidential Library and Museum’s interactive exhibits page, where they offer a fresh look into some of history’s most pivotal moments. I intended to sample a few, but one in particular intrigued me so much that I spent a good portion of my time exploring it interactive in-depth, from start to finish.

We Choose the Moon is a fun, informational, and visually-pleasing look at the Apollo 11 moon launch. The interactive was truly well-thought out, both in design and content. Accessible for people of all ages the interactive is set up stage-by-stage, highlighting the most important moments of the mission. Within each stage there are several layers of photographs, audio, and video. Each stage also features a “mission status” and “mission transmission” sidebars that display a countdown and actual mission transmissions. A particularly intriguing aspect of the mission transmissions is that they are displayed in a Twitter-like format, providing younger audiences a familiar platform and bringing the transmissions into the 21st century.

The audio version of the transmission is being played at the same time that the transmission feed is being updated, making it accessible for hearing-impaired users. A “mission tracker” status bar on the bottom of the screen allows audiences to track the exact location of the lunar module throughout each stage. The overall design is clean and appropriate to the content. Some may be overwhelmed by all the status bars, but that can be easily remedied by a click of the button. Not only is the platform highly interactive but customizable in that sense that users can choose to display as little or as much content as they like.

As the interactive moves from one stage to the next, the status bars disappear and a computer simulation of what was happening during that particular stage fills the screen. I have a new computer and good internet connection, but for a user with older equipment or a slower internet connection this may not run as smoothly as it did on my machine. Despite that possibility, the simulation is clear and exciting to watch. The photographs and video available to watch within the interactive are equally interesting. The best part? Minimal text. Each photo and video has a small caption, but the images, video, audio, and simulation really hold their own in telling the story; proof that not all history narratives have to be read. The use of music in the final photo montage is exceptional and really helps to convey the importance of the mission. The photographs do tend to get pixelated but does not detract too much from the overall theme of the final stage. At the end of it all, users get to print out a certificate stating that they completed the mission and can check off all the various aspects they participated in.

Misson complete!


Visual storytelling is a great way to engage younger audiences, and this could be a fun interactive for families to participate in. The excitement audiences get from using it can put into perspective how people must have felt watching the first moon launch. Older audiences can benefit from this interactive by reliving this exhilarating point in history. Previous visits to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum have indicated to me that it is not the best institution for family learning. There are a lot of objects and reading, and the lack of interactives within the museum itself* can make the museum experience a trial for families with younger children. Minda Borun in her article “Why Family Learning in Museums?” writes: “It is important for the museum to be a facilitator and not an obstacle to family exchange.” Although the museum itself may be an obstacle, an interactive of this nature is definitely a facilitator. The lack of text allows children to ask questions and explore through images what it must have been like to be the first astronauts to go to the moon. Parents and grandparents can contribute to the conversation by sharing their experiences. Multi-generations can make use of this interactive and it is a gateway for exploring other historical events or other aspects of space and travel. The JFK Presidential Library and Museum certainly did an outstanding job with this interactive. In the future, I hope to see this creativity extended into the physical museum.


*My last visit to the museum was in September 2012. I hope to return in the near future to see what interactive or media elements, if any, have been added to the museum. Critique to follow!


Minda Borun, “Why Family Learning in Museums,” Exhibitionist Spring 2008: 9, accessed September 23, 2013,



(Audio) Visual Dispatches

Translating a painful history into a meaningful exhibition is no easy task. There are many things to take into consideration; the emotions of visitors being one of the main aspects. How does a museum effectively tell the story it wants to without being emotionally devastating? On top of that, how does a museum reach visitors in a way that goes beyond images and label texts? The Currier Museum of Art tells a story through the assistance of media in the special exhibition Visual Dispatches from the Vietnam War. The exhibition features iconic photographs of soldiers and civilians in the midst of a brutal war. Even for someone too young to have experienced the Vietnam War, the images were difficult to digest because they bring to light the harsh reality that is so often left out of history textbooks.

This exhibition contained two media components. The first is part of the Currier’s initiative to increase accessibility in which they recently released a mobile tour of the collection that can be accessed for free with museum admission. The mobile tour provides visitors with captions for audio and written descriptions of the collection. Visitors access the tour through the museum’s website and have the option of downloading it directly if they have an iPhone. The application itself can be a little difficult to find on the museum’s mobile site (it is listed under “Things To Do”). It is best to try and locate the mobile tour in the lobby so that you don’t have to play around on your phone in the gallery space.


Visual Dispatches is available right on the home screen of the application. Clicking on it brings you to another page with an image from the exhibition, a description, and four audio interviews to choose from. I chose the first audio interview, hoping to find a transcription below it since I did not bring any headphones with me. However, the transcription was nowhere to be found. I decided to listen to the audio interviews in the museum cafe once I had finished touring the gallery without the assistance of the application.


The second media component is three small screens placed in the gallery next to specific images. Each screen features an in-depth look of the photograph it is placed next to. One in particular tells the story of the monk who committed suicide as a means of protest. Though graphic, it helps convey the idea that war is a brutal and unnecessary act.

With the images of wounded soldiers and crying children still fresh in my mind, I listened to the four short interviews in the cafe. In one sense, I was glad that I was separated from the photographs when listening to audio. I was able to focus on the words and emotions that could be felt through a tiny set of speakers. Most of the audio was heartbreaking. Two soldiers told the story of when they returned home. There was no welcome for them; they felt shamed and isolated. The combination of hearing their voices crack while looking at the photograph of a shell-shocked soldier would have proved to be too much of an emotional experience for me. After listening to the audio, I went back through the gallery space in a different mindset. The words of photographer Larry Burrows—the first interview available for listening—echoed in my head:

 “And so often I wonder whether it is my right to capitalize, as I feel so often, on the grief of others but then I justify my own particular thoughts by feeling that if I can contribute a little to the understanding of what others are going through then there is reason for doing it.”

The purpose of the audio was not to capitalize on the “iconic” aspect of the photographs or on the emotions of the visitors. In the big scheme of the exhibition, it did not matter that the audio could not be played without a set of headphones in the gallery space. Rather, the audio was there to supplement the understanding of a confusing and terrible war, to bring about compassion rather that ambivalence. Although there were a few issues with the in-gallery screens such as volume and size, they add to the experience by placing the photographs in the context of human emotions. Many still remember serving in Vietnam or had friends and family who served. For them, these images can be a raw reminder of a not-so-distant-past. For those of us who are too young to fathom living during that time period are able to sympathize and come to an understanding of what previous generations have gone through.

A Lack of Interaction: Hawthorne’s Early Years

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 12.09.04 PM

As we move into the second week of September, the realization that autumn is right around the corner hits and the desire to partake in fall-related activities fills the spirit. With Salem, Massachusetts only a short drive away I decided to investigate online what local museums had to offer for exhibitions and programming during the fall season. As I explored the Peabody Essex Museum’s website, I stumbled across an array of online exhibitions dating far back as 2000. What finally caught my eye, and perhaps this was due to the hint of autumn in the air, was the online interactive “Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Early Years.” Hawthorne became known for his dark romantic style comprised of rich symbolism and psychological themes. But where did it all being? I was hoping that this online exhibition would answer my question.

 In 2004, an exhibition commemorating Hawthorne’s bicentennial birth date took place in the Philips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum. Since the physical exhibition is no longer on view the online interactive takes the place of it by digitizing his early works as well as other objects and artworks related to the time period.

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 1.49.33 PM

 The interactive is primarily a digitization of Hawthorne’s first work The Spectator. At the age of 16 he began the paper to report on daily happenings of the community. There are seven issues to choose from, all from the year 1820. By simply clicking a number on the top of the screen users are brought to a specific issue. Each page follows the same format: an auditory component thatreads a short excerpt from the issue, a section that highlights what is in the issue, and a related objects section. The layout is simple and straightforward and users do not have to click around to find content, what little of it there is.

 When a new issue is opened and the reading begins, it is difficult at first to understand what is being read. At first I did not know if was an interpretation of the text being read or a direct quote. There is a sound on/off button towards the bottom of the window that does allow the audio to be played again. The issue itself can be clicked on and enlarged in another window, allowing the user to locate the quote being read in the text. Luckily Hawthorne printed his letters and wrote exceptionally neat by today’s standards so readability is not an issue. However, the user has to zoom in rather close to be able to see the faint words easily, making reading the whole issue tedious. I was hoping that the “in this issue” feature would bring me to the specific article mentioned so that I would not have to keep zooming and moving the page around, but instead the entire issue was presented in the window just as it was before. The option to have the entire issue read would have been a good feature and a better use of an audio option.

 The related objects section was not all that interesting. A combination of letters, personal object, and art, there was nothing interactive about them. By clicking on the item the user is simply presented an image. Letters can be zoomed and manipulated but they are in traditional script, making them almost impossible to read. Again, here is where audio would have been a nice option. Objects had the potential to be interesting but since the user cannot actually do anything with them other than look at them on the screen, the feature seems a little pointless. Even paintings of Salem had no context in relation to what was being discussed in the issue of The Spectator.

 In The House of the Seven Gables Hawthorne writes: “I find nothing so singular to life as that everything appears to lose its substance the instant one actually grapples with it (p.31).” Initially, I had high hopes for this interactive. I even thought that it would make a good resource for teachers to use when studying this literary movement or historic time period. The interactive was nothing short of disappointing. Not only did it lack engagement completely, I can honestly say that I did not learn anything about Hawthorne’s early writing style. Perhaps the Peabody Essex Museum will revisit this online exhibition because there is potential for a dynamic and engaging interactive. Until then, I will keep my literary explorations confined to the pages of a book.


Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

© 2018 Digital Culture

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑