This is how digital history should be done: The Raid on Deerfield

Before reading the information about the Raid on Deerfield  I examined their virtual exhibit (  I wanted to browse without any preconceived notions or knowledge from the reading.  I was very impressed by what I saw.  This is an excellent example of digital history.  The site is interactive, visually pleasing, interesting (dare I say even exciting in some of the narratives and art?!) and at the same time it adheres to academic standards of research and interpretation.

I applaud the interpretation of five different viewpoints in the exhibit.  Taken as a whole it gives a much more robust interpretation and understanding of the history of the Deerfield raid and the interaction of Native Americans, French, and English settlers and traders in the area.  However, half-way through the article I began to wonder if this type of exhibit would be possible in a brick-and-mortar museum.  An abundance of information is what the web is all about and for this digital museum exhibit I think the creators did an excellent job of presenting the various interpretations while at the same time keeping the narrative progressing and interrelated with all the participant groups.  Due to budgetary and physical space constraints it would be difficult for a museum to display as much information and tell as many perspectives as this virtual exhibit.

Public historians and curators in physical museums have a difficult job to do.  They must look at a proposed exhibit such as the Raid on Deerfield and make choices.  If there are five distinct groups involved, sacrifices happen order to make the exhibit viable.  Judgments often come down to an educated decision that some of the groups will be less represented in the final product.  Of course this is what historical interpretation is all about.  Rarely is any exhibit/paper/monograph the “complete” story.  We all answer to a higher master, be it the professor who only wants papers of 25 pages or less, the publisher who won’t print a 600 page tome, or a chief curator who only has 1500 square feet of exhibit space for multiple projects.  I know in my own graduate school career most of my research papers (in draft form) have far exceeded the required pages.  I spend most of my editing time painfully cutting out portions of my writing and always feel that while my main argument and rationale remain, part of the “whole” story is left on the cutting room floor.

 Side note – I remember back in my undergraduate days stretching to create a 10 page paper – increasing the font and margins to get there.  Now I wish I could write everything in 8 pt. font just because “that extra part is really interesting!”

Getting back to Deerfield, I think physical museums and virtual museums can create a great partnership.  Creating physical exhibits with more streamlined interpretations and then perhaps encouraging visitors to check out the companion online exhibit to get a more robust historical understanding.  It would be great if every physical exhibit had an online exhibit as in-depth as Raid on Deerfield.  This would ensure that museum space and budgetary constraints would not prohibit the full interpretation of history.  Of course looking at the grant money that required to create Raid on Deerfield maybe this is wishful thinking.  Hopefully with the growth of historians knowledgable in the capabilities of new media we are getting closer to this ideal.


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7 responses to “This is how digital history should be done: The Raid on Deerfield

  1. Pingback: The Deerfield Raid, in Multiple Forms « David Patrick McKenzie

  2. What do you think of embedding the website in the exhibit? Have a computer set up with only those files loaded, so that people could explore multiple narratives in the exhibit space? I’m ambivalent myself – the idea seems helpful, but so often I’ve come across broken machines in museums exhibits.

    I’ve read your post twice now, and have been trying to think if there was any way to do the sort of multi-viewpoint exhibit in a physical location. I think you’d have to have a very limited event, maybe only a day or hour, in order to fit so many perspectives into a small space.

    • I think that would be a great idea but like you, have been to too many museums where the interactive machines are broken more often than not!

    • I agree. Trying to incorporate the physical and digital exhibits presents a challenge. You can only put some many computers/interactive stations in an exhibit, and generally speaking eventually the amount of use they are subjected to causes them to break down (as you’ve already pointed out). One possible way to remedy this situation is expand the use of mobile apps in museums.I know that Acoustiguide has already started several projects aimed at phasing out their older black-telephone-listening device and replacing it with a mobile app (you have to download the apps from Acoustiguide’s website using a QR code and they aren’t available for Android based phones). While these aren’t digital exhibits, they speak to the direction museums should move toward. Perhaps some day if patrons want to know more about something in an exhibits they can use a smartphone app or search the digital exhibit from the comfort of their own home.

  3. Pingback: public history for the web | Making History Digital

  4. agraygmu

    The way the economy is going these days, I get the sense that lots of museums are having to create “partnership” websites just to help keep their “visitation numbers” up, if you will. At least that’s what I’ve seen at Monticello. Only so many people are going to visit a museum or site, but you can reach thousands more with a good digital presence.

  5. Building off on Andi’s point, partnering with companies that use digital marketing can increase both website visitation and site visitation. I know that the Lincoln Cottage has used Living Social and Groupon deals to add about 5,000 visitors to the site this past year. Hopefully, these visitors will increase our good old fashion word of mouth traffic, but so far it has been a resounding success…

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