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Museum Online Exhibitions: Review of The Secret Annex Online

 

TheSecret Annex Online, winner of the Dutch History Online Award, is a 3D version of Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. Itis a part of the Virtual Museum, the online collection of the Anne Frank Museum. The Virtual Museum’s goal is to serve as the central source of knowledge and education about the hiding. The main feature of The Secret Annex is a virtual self-guided tour in which viewers explore the furnished rooms of Anne’s hiding place. The site educates and engages through a variety of mediums: photographs, historical videos, actor-narrated stories, floor plans, and text.

The Secret Annex contributes to the Museum’s mission to make Anne’s life story accessible to as large of an audience as possible. About a million people visit the house in Amsterdam, but the museum cannot accommodate more than that number. The online component removes geographic limitations and provides access to Anne Frank’s story to people across the globe.

The online tour has advantages compared to the physical house. The museum does not contain furniture or objects of daily use from the war years, whereas TheSecret Annex recreated the furnishings from photographs. Icons indicate hotspots where the visitor can activate the objects by reading and hearing the stories connected to the hiding. Comparably, this engagement goes beyond the Google Art Project digitization of the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam that merely shows the interior of the museum. The online viewer also has access to rooms that are private in the House Museum such as Otto’s office.

The website combines technology and content to create a vivid experience that is accurate and authoritative. The subject matter is researched from Anne’s diary and witness reports from the Anne Frank House Archives. The page titled “This Site” asserts the website’s credibility by providing the project description, interviews with the actors, links to additional information about Anne Frank, Frequently Asked Questions, and educational materials for teachers and students.

The website’s layout and depth of resources makes The Secret Annex valuable for teachers, students, and the general public interested in Anne Frank’s story. Since the site is narrative it is not completely suitable for scholars as a singular source. As a prototype of contemporary virtual tours like Julia Child’s Kitchen and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, it can educate museum professionals about the benefits of online visits.

The entry page before the virtual tour is instructive and useful. It introduces the exhibit through a brief history of the rise of Hitler and the consequent events in the Frank household. This is presented with overlaid media. A narrator’s voiceover with historical footage and photographs is the website’s display model that creates such a thorough and evocative experience. The viewer has the choice to enter the tour or further educate oneself by way of the pages explicitly labeled at the top of the homepage. For instance, more information about the house is presented through Google Street View, a brief narrated tour, and floor plans. And, the biographies of the eight in hiding are found in the “Who is Who” section. The “Outcome” page is a mixed bag with films about the discovery, arrests, and fates of those in the annex and their helpers. There is also an interview with Otto Frank and materials for learning more about his life after the war.

That being said the virtual tour itself has some limitations. Navigating with the click and drag feature creates an unwieldy experience not suitable for those without fine motor skills. Arrows that sensitively manage movement should be used instead. And, the page cannot zoom. The viewer is fixed at a central point, which limits the experience. Some might enjoy the discovery of hotspots while scrolling through the room, but it would be advantageous to include an informative box listing the activated objects. Lastly, there is a significant load time between entering and leaving a room creating a problem for impatient viewers.

How will the website maintain its tour so that it is up-to-date with society’s ever changing technology? For instance, the tour uses Adobe Flash, which is not compatible with Apple products like Ipads. TheSecret Annex is exemplary in its purpose and wealth of resources. However, if the virtual tour is supposed to provide a comparable visit to the actual museum, the creators of The Secret Annex must improve its tour technology, guaranteeing the captivation and engagement of its audience.

Questions: What is gained / lost from online exhibitions? How can you create the museum-experience in a website? Do you need to re-create this experience? What opportunities are available through the online medium? What are the limitations?

 

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