Wireless digital media: rattling the cage of traditional onsite interpretation

From John Hennessy (this was originally posted over at Fredericksburg Remembered last summer):

We are rapidly moving toward a world where fixed, structural onsite interpretation (like the wayside exhibit at Jackson Shrine, above) will be obsolete. Someday not far off, visitors will come armed with wireless devices–think not cellphones and Blackberries, but I-Pad and its successors–that will deliver film, maps, audio, animation, and other nifty things that will make current wayside exhibits seem like 1950s TV (quaint and nostalgic, but clearly out of date).  This is not a bad thing. In fact, we ought to look forward to the possibilities of more dynamic presentation of media.  Our visitors deserve it.

(Apropos to this, and contrary to popular perceptions, between 80% and 85% of our visitors are completely reliant on media for their interpretive experience onsite.  Put another way, only 15%-20% of our visitors attend live programs by one of the park’s historians–this due to a combination of timing and inclination on the part of visitors. Media, obviously, shapes the quality of experience for most of our visitors.)

But the transition to digital media raises some very interesting issues.  As it is now, the NPS largely owns both the sites and whatever interpretation visitors receive on that site. The marketplace offers visitors a few choices in the form of guidebooks and CD-based tours, but these reflect a tiny slice of the market. Visitors generally get what the NPS gives them.

But ten or twenty years from now, visitors will be a able to stand in the Sunken Road (by then likely devoid of traditional wayside exhibits) and shop a marketplace of products for onsite interpretation–choosing a source of interpretive media from any number of suppliers for delivery to whatever portable device they have.  While no doubt many visitors may reflexively look to the NPS for their product, the fact remains that interpretation will be buffeted by market forces that simply do not exist today.  Visitors will inevitably (and should) gravitate toward products that offer the best experience for the best price, or the one that suits their particular interest or inclination (it’s easy to imagine, for example, that non-profits like the SCV or Civil War Preservation Trust could develop their own interpretive universes, or an aspiring tech firm might develop products strong on glitz).

None of this is imminent, and the development of digital media isn’t cheap–which leads to the inevitable question of how to make such an effort profitable, or at least viable. But it does present a challenge to the NPS and anyone else managing a high-traffic historic site. We will be in the position of having to compete for our visitors’ attention, even when they are physically within spaces we manage. How many firms will clamor to become the dominant interpretive force at Gettysburg?

Where this will lead is anyone’s guess.  Might the NPS and other entities managing historic sites be put out of the business of creating onsite media, supplanted instead by private-sector firms or organizations with more technical muscle, imagination, and know-how (though perhaps far less historical understanding)?  Or will we who manage these sites simply have to get better at what we do–to better compete in a new marketplace?  Or, will the traditional role of the NPS as the nation’s primary practitioner of public history be enough to render it immune to challenges from outside organizations producing new interpretive products? Will visitors care enough to demand choices in interpretation–forcing a more diversified marketplace of ideas and interpretation?

To my mind these are all fascinating questions that will take years to answer (and perhaps the answer is not even apparent to us today).

10 thoughts on “Wireless digital media: rattling the cage of traditional onsite interpretation

  1. The Newseum, where I volunteer, has already added it’s first “QR” exhibit in which a barcode which can be read by a cellphone or other device will link the visitor to an additional online material related to the subject of the exhibit. In settings such as battlefields I can see real advantages to this technology!

  2. It’s a fascinating subject indeed. Think of location-specific interpretation based on the GPS lat/long of the device when then could present material especially relevant to that location.

    But my question would be – why could not the park service be the provider and sell such things itself to help offset the costs of the parks – much like they do right now with concessionaires ?

    probably exposing some of my ignorance overall on the subject but I always considered NPS Historians to be significant custodians of “history” and in general the content associated with the cultural, national and historic significance of the NPS parks, monuments, etc.

    but some provocative thoughts from Hennessey!

  3. While I think this is a legitimate idea, shouldn’t visitors come to the parks to be shown and learn about the world of the past? Visiting, say the Jackson Shrine (as I did this summer) you want to learn what it was like for Jackson and his staff and family. I think you would be almost not be able to expeirence or learn fully all that there is at the respective site because of your focus on the particular media outlet. If you know what I mean.

  4. Electronic media is very exciting, but not universally applicable. It works well in museums and can work for tours of specific locations such as the Slaughter Pen Farm, but it looks to be very limited in giving anyone the full context of a battlefield. The basic tool to orient someone to terrain and to show them the relationship of their location to other locations on the battlefield is a good map. It is important to look at new media, but sometimes a simple map will provide more insight than anything else. NPS interpretation is typically excellent, but sometimes the focus on specific sites can overwhelm the larger context. I don’t see basic maps being replaced by hand held media.

  5. Map with GPS that actually puts you on the battlefield as you walk it?

    that helps you get yourself oriented no matter where you are on the battlefield?

    How about a battlefield map for the GPS in your car that “guides” you to not only the physical infrastructure but shows you – for instance, the site of a particularly important cannon emplacement – not physically gone or the exact place where a scout party crossed the road , etc?

    Such “live” maps … I think …have enormous potential to bring the battlefield context into much better focus for the average person.

    They could actually – if done right -cause visitors to the battlefields to stay longer… rather than right now – however long it takes to see the “stops”.

    The point Henessey made – perhaps not explicitly – was the kind of computer and media production talent necessary to put together such a GPS “tour” probably is not in house at NPS but what is in house is the historic and cultural content… so like many fields now days – it takes a dual team of context specialists working with the computer folks to produce – a game-changing product.

    • That is all good stuff, but what about someone in the Sunken Road being able to see that action in relation to the Slaughter Pen Farm, several miles away. We can pinpoint sites very nicely, but a visitor still needs an overall context.

    • I think a potential danger could be great pressure to produce a product without utilizing the context specialists in order to produce the product as economically as possible. It would seem a recent example of this danger is the Virginia history text book debacle – texts rife with error because they did not utilize the appropriate expertise.

  6. You can do that Erik. you could bring up on the screen the battlefield where you are and zoom out to show slaughter pen – as well as the troop movements etc…

    Anything you can put on a paper map – you can put on a digital map and make it interactive AND add GIS layers to it.

    If you had something like an IPAD – you could literally walk the battlefield with the
    IPAD showing you what it looked like back then…

    Of course – it would be quite a shock to be looking at your IPAD and then realizing
    you’re walking into the side of a building or a creek long missing it’s civil war bridge!

  7. Great post John and something that we have been discussing at our AMH film screenings for quite some time (iPad utilization that is). People are raving about the 3D segments in our film and especially the one where we modeled the battlefield and flew the viewer from a 2D map, down into a 3D map, and ultimately around the battlefield. Our animation and motion graphics specialists was able to take period photos and recreate the scene. This was the ONLY way we felt that we could how deadly and doomed the Federal assault was. I see this kind of technology as a HUGE benefit, especially at a field like Fredericksburg that is ultimately chopped up. By using a combination of maps, photos and 3D imagery that would be GPS-based, a visitor could literally use the iPad like a window to the past. It’s also not that difficult to create. The key is using a variety of sources including photography, topography and of course historical interpretation for accuracy. I look forward to this new frontier of battlefield presentation and I am very glad that our little film shows what is possible.

  8. I believe an impartial observer should entertain all the available information and interpret it from many viewpoints. How will the liberal view things, how will the wounded military man/women view the situation. How will the relatives of men affected by wounds or death view it. How will Conservatives view it. What about those from foreign countries? What is their knowledge of the American revolution. Differences of time and space from lrearning about the victories and mistakes made. How do casualty figures measure up to the incidents which caused them. What freedoms have been damaged in the process of dealing with the enemy. There are many vagaries in such an undertaking! Will our people sgree with the majority, or would they want to fight one another over differences arrived at; or how much might they cooperate and what are the factors which would encourage such courses of action. Heavy stuff.

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