Before reading the information about the Raid on Deerfield I examined their virtual exhibit (http://www.1704.deerfield.history.museum/). 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.