Thursday, October 31, 2013

Got lots of history to communicate? Be an exploratorium, not a museum

In Homicide and Treme writer David Simon's keynote at the recent Communications Network annual conference in New Orleans, he spoke with feeling about his adopted city's sense of history and culture--but was quick to say that, while New Orleans holds on to its past, it isn't a museum, but a city worth exploring.
An enticing alley cafe in New Orleans
After a few days' worth of roaming around New Orleans, I understood what he meant. It's not full of glass-encased precious objects like a traditional museum. It's more like an exploratorium, one that encourages you to get your feet moving and your hands on different experiences, from stomping and clapping to zydeco and Dixieland jazz to drinking cocktails in the same bars frequented by Hemingway and Faulkner to eating food cooked from time-honored recipes. As a tourist, I'm much more intent on having experiences than buying up souvenirs, and those who can offer me experiences to explore are more likely to draw me in. It's part of the inspiration for Simon's book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, an effort to show the drama and characters that can be found on a New Orleans street corner.

That's true, too, on social media, where history shines when it's done well. When you're sharing your history on social media, is it more like a museum or an exploratorium? People of Color in European Art History is a Tumblr that shares images of non-whites in western European art, a lens that shows just how common the uncommon images were. The Rikjsstudio site from the Netherlands' Rijksmuseum makes its collection of art available to you in high-res images that you can remix, print,'s opening up a trove of 125,000 art masterpieces. By letting you not only explore but share, these two sites are making it easy for users to draw others into these "exploratoriums." There's a built-in, user-based incentive for exploring here.

Another favorite example of mine uses the diary entries of George Orwell in blog form, posting his domestic and political thoughts 70 years to the day later. If you started at the beginning, you can see the history of World War II unfold, and it's magical because you know the end of the story, but initially, he does not. Things we notice in hindsight were not as clear in real time. Here, the exploratorium slows you down to make you a contemporary of Orwell, seeing things through his eyes but in the modern format of a blog, day after day after day. I'd love to see someone do this with other archival collections of letters and diaries.

If you're not making use of your historic information on social media, you're missing a ready-made source of content with a built-in set of audiences, from historians and history buffs to students, tourists and more. (They're all good traffic builders, those audiences.) What kind of historic content could you use to make an online exploratorium?

No comments: