Discovering the Civil War


of an Exhibition

by Gwen Fernandez

Published on March 01, 2011

  • Description:

    For those who last visited the National Archives during an obligatory eighth grade DC pilgrimage, things have changed. Sure, you can still stand in line to view the Charters of Freedom (that’s Archives speak for the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights), but beyond the rotunda’s sanctuary visitors can explore gallery after gallery of other national treasures with the aid of technology.

    The new look and feel is called “The National Archives Experience” and is supported by an independent foundation, which explains how they can have big name corporate sponsors like Boeing and AT&T at a government institution. The main objective is to expand opportunities for the public to interact and engage with the vast holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and thus gain a better appreciation for the role it plays in preserving and recording American history. This aim is accomplished through an ambitious menu of public programs, an expansive website, one large multi-media enhanced permanent exhibition sure to please those school groups, and a smaller gallery for temporary exhibits that often get a second life as traveling exhibitions.

    The entire experience is certainly worth checking out the next time you are in DC, but for the sake of brevity and continuity this review will focus on the smaller gallery and specifically examine use and integration of technology in the current temporary exhibition called Discovering the Civil War. Over the next four years, museum-going audiences will have a chance to explore many sides of the Civil War, and at the National Archives the emphasis is on uncovering the smaller pieces of the historical puzzle.

    A “preview” of the exhibit is available online but the physical show has been broken into two installments, which will be rejoined as the show travels to points across the U.S. In Part 2: Consequences, documents of all kinds (some real and some facsimiles) help visitors explore several broad themes including Emancipation, Spies and Conspiracies, Invention and Enterprise, Prisoners and Casualties, and Endings and Beginnings.

    A life-size, video-enabled introductory panel greets visitors at the entrance. It shows a long corridor of shelving creating a window into the actual storage spaces at the Archives. A young and energetic archivist emerges from the stacks, approaches the visitor, and invites them to hear a story about a civil war document. As an immersive technique, this video is an intriguing and effective way to quickly and visually convey the purpose of the exhibit and introduce visitors both to the kinds of records they will see in the exhibit and the way records are stored at a facility like NARA. Its interactive dialogue encourages visitors to examine the evidence (the records) to see what answers they can find, but the overly staged presentation seems to detract some from its authenticity.

    Moving into the first section on Spies and Conspiracies, you see one of two wall-mounted touch screen panels in the exhibit. The second is located near the end of the exhibit and both are placed at a height that is comfortable for the average teenager or adult but is out of reach of young children. This choice seems consistent with the target audience of the exhibition. Some accommodations are made for physically disabled visitors but visually impaired visitors will have a hard time finding much to engage with. A scrolling series of documents, called a “crawl,” easily catches the eye and with the lightest of touches the documents are activated for further exploration. A zoom bar on the right side of the screen allows the visitor to take a closer look and allows for easy exploration of every corner with a simple gesture. The image quality is impeccable thus with this technology, a visitor can have a richly enhanced experience viewing various kinds of historic records.

    It’s easy to remain here for a while even though you are standing. With a simple touch of the “return” button, you are taken back to the main screen and its streaming documents. Before you have time to turn away, a document outlined in yellow flows by with an eye-catching message that invites you to launch a more in-depth interactive. The first is a game that teaches the visitor how to decode Confederate messages. The interactive takes a lengthy five minutes to complete, but my group and I were sufficiently entertained to stay and figure it out together. The second interactive is a multi-layered map of the Freedman’s Village where you can learn about the lives of different citizens through their bank records and other documents (all with the same enhanced capacity for exploration). One interesting feature of this “game” was that the interactive marked items viewed with a check silently encouraging you to view all five modules.

    Throughout the exhibit, Twitter icons with the exhibit handle (@discovercivwar) are affixed to rails and panels encouraging wired visitors to react to the exhibition in real time (and possibly extend their visit by following from their personal account). Visitors without mobile access or a Twitter account may share their thoughts at one of two kiosks near the exit. A video monitor is mounted between the stations running a feed of tweets, some from the main handle and some from visitors. Like many social media projects, there are still some kinks to work out and a few missed opportunities. A quick check of the feed on the Twitter site shows that of topic tweets are not uncommon, but these have been filtered for the in-gallery feed costing staff resources and slowing down the “real time” effect. I tweeted from my own account after discovering that the phrase “shoddy goods” actually refers to a civil war era corruption scheme. Although it seems that effort is made to respond to tweets from the in-gallery stations (where the visitor who left the message is unlikely to see it), I never received a tweet back. Here the Archives misses an opportunity to make those instant and personal connections that are possible with social media. As more and more museums incorporate social media, it becomes important that we as a community perform evaluations to understand what impact these technologies have on visitors and how they engage with it.

    While Discovering the Civil War also makes use of traditional interactives, it is with the digital platform that the Archives has made their mark. I almost wish there were more tech driven opportunities to engage with the records in this exhibit. I felt a little lost in the five themes with their extremely visual presentation where deciphering nineteenth century penmanship is a necessary skill. With the considerable resources at their disposal (both primary source and financial), the National Archives has transformed the visitor experience opening many new avenues for focused discovery through digital technology. As this show travels around the nation, audiences who may not have visited the rest of the National Archives Experience are sure to gain a new perspective on how our national history is being preserved and made available for research.

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