Designing visitor engagement for online museum exhibitions

Date

2012-08

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Abstract

For many museum professionals, particularly those who work in American history museums, designing exhibitions that engage a broad audience can be a difficult, but necessary, matter. As these professionals try to compete in new markets, broad engagement becomes more important. Even when they compete to tell familiar stories, such as those of the American Indian Wars, this type of design can still prove challenging. For over 20 years museums have continued to seek means for broad audience engagement in physical exhibitions, but little critical inquiry has occurred regarding neither online exhibitions nor the American Indian Wars. To fill this niche, this study offers a new method of designing, critiquing, and re-designing the narratives used currently in online museum exhibitions of the American Indian Wars. By advocating a means of argument built in communication theory that is capable of providing analytical tools for developmental work of online exhibitions, this study seeks to expand the disciplinary capacity of Museum Science. By applying Altman’s Theory of Narrative to three specifically chosen case studies this study produced two results. One that the current works of exhibition designed online by history museums seems to offer limited character constructions to the audience thereby limiting user choice and ultimately audience engagement. Secondly, that the narratives currently produced also limit engagement potential by returning a singular message from the museum as an authority figure. These results demonstrate how the tool advocated here, a combination of two aspects of communication theory can better inform the design of online museum exhibitions and by extension the exhibitions of the American Indian Wars as they occur online. The recognition that narratives are currently formed in ways that limit the engagement of a digital audience produces the ability to begin to break down these forms and re-design them focusing on expanded characters and narratives built to foster discussion and inquiry by the audience.

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Keywords

Multiculturalism, Museum, Interpretation, Story, Narrative, Visitor interaction, Audience engagement, Exhibitions

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