Blog Post

Changing Minds through Changing Interactions


My individual research project focuses on historical representations in museums, and the ways that dominant ideas about race, gender and sexuality get reproduced in these representations.  One of the exciting possibilities of digital spaces is to create new forms of interactive historical representations, forms that could introduce new ideas, or at least create space to question existing ideas.

In my work, I think about how this might be created.  Linearity or chronological progressions are an extremely common form of representation in history presentations, in museums and online.  Visitors seem used to be led along a path, guided progressively from one historical presentation to another.

So, if we disrupt this progressive path in hopes of disrupting normalizing temporalities, is there a way we can engage visitors AND invite them to choose their own path?  To create their own connections between different historical presentations?  Perhaps this could allow us to create new narratives, and new social ideas.  For example,visitors could be led to recognize what has been left out of historical archives, as Fred Wilson did in his 1992-1993 installation "Mining the Museum" at the Maryland Historical Society.  Or could we introduce visitors to an entirely different cosmological framework, as they intended in the design of the Smithsonian's newest National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) (see "The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations" edited by Amy Lonetree and Amanda J. Cobb-Greetham)?

The trouble with these intentions is whether audience members can engage with them.  As discussed in the above collections of essays about NMAI, many visitors didn't understand what they were seeing or how to engage with the historical representations because they were not organized in a clear, progressive format.

One of the things I love about Sharon Daniels "Public Secrets" is that she and Erik Loyer particularly created this site to engage visitors along individual unique pathways, so that each audience member would find their own connections between the narratives included on this site.  This seems like an excellent use of the digital space to disrupt normative interactions, and give visitors the opportunity to make up their own minds--in this case about prisons.  As Daniels said repeatedly at her recent University of Washington (UW) presentations, the site was created to win over individual hearts and minds.

Yet, at these same presentations, several audience members commented that they got a lot more out of the site when led through it by Daniels herself, or by the videos that guide viewers through the various interactive possibilities.  We in the UW Digital Feminist Praxis shared our own experiences of engaging with this site individually, and found that we had all struggled with the interactive tools at first, and that truly engaging the space required a significant time investment.  People with less motivation to push through those initial challenges are likely to leave the site before discovering its narrative possibilities.

So this leads me to wonder, how possible is it to disrupt the ways that dominant ideas get represented, without alienating our audiences?  And what new possibilities do we find in online spaces to be able to do this?


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