HIST 698

JAH Guidelines notes:

“Reviewers dont need to know about workings of websites any more than they need to know how books are made.”

While clever and lightly posited, I think we have learned this idea to be untrue. Reviewers of historical websites, I think, ought to have a mind for the possibilities of those sites and digital media in general. Books have a universal acceptance as accessible things, and a reviewer who comments on the size of font or the acid content of the pages is simply wasting time. When reviewing a website, however, things like the organization of content and the use of space becomes important. I think in order to review a history website, then, historians ought to have some familiarity with web design. Not only does that allow the reviewer to better express their criticisms in a constructive way, it also gives them the vision to suggest improvements or acknowledge limitations and difficulties the website’s authors may have encountered, and to better analyze how those challenges were handled.

One of my favorite museum experiences (maybe the only one I enjoyed, without much complaint) had no objects at all. The National Socialism museum in Nuremberg, Germany. Every visitor was given a pair of headphones with a numerical input attachment. As they wander the museum, they can read large print, short essays on different aspects of the topic, and they can input a code written nearby to have the essay read to them in their preferred language, at their own pausable pace, while they watch historical footage on nearby televisions. It was fun for me, like watching a collection of short documentaries.

That said, I don’t think an object-less museum like that would work so well in the United States. Part of the design choice for the NatSoc museum, I think, was that by having no objects it prevents them from being revered in any way. It makes sense given the topic; do you want people coming to a museum so they can see Heinrich Himmler’s favorite dagger or one of Herman Goering’s obscene uniforms, etc.? Indeed, the lack of objects is actually a fitting design choice for a museum built next to the ruins of the Nazi’s favorite parade grounds. Walking through the museum and seeing the black and white footage, the large posterized essays of black on grey.. It’s like walking through a graveyard. A great design choice for a nation of people who feel “the responsibility of the past,” but I don’t think American museums would benefit from being that dour.

A museum needs objects, I think, if the museum-going public want objects. But perhaps the older ideas of public instruction and the feeling of belonging can return alongside.


4 thoughts on “HIST 698

  1. You make great points in comparing books to websites. I would argue that Historians also need to understand how to construct or critique a well-organized historic site for the sake of public engagement. This cold be the dividing factor between books and websites.

    • Thank you for your comment, Stephanie. Web design and content management are definitely important things to learn if historians want to engage the public successfully. I think websites will prove themselves much more conducive to learning than books as more non-experts (that’s us in this case) appreciate the importance of organization and aesthetics when designing and critiquing websites.

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