Creating an Online Exhibit: History for the General Public

Morgan Hubbard

This guest post comes to us from Morgan Hubbard, a talented masters student in Public History at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Hubbard reflects on his creation of an on-line exhibit, which he launched “to explain the explosion of science fiction on the American literary scene in the first two decades of the cold war era.” He describes some of the challenges of doing history on the web and explains what worked best.

Presenting history can be as hard as all the research that comes before it. This seems to be especially true for web exhibits. How do we give readers enough structure so they won't get lost, but not so much that we overpower the web's ability to render history vividly and dynamically?

I recently did some research on American science fiction readers from 1945-1965, for a class Heather Cox Richardson taught last semester at UMass-Amherst called “Writing History for Popular Audiences.” The research was a breeze. The hard part, it turns out, was trying to present my findings in a web exhibit aimed at a non-specialist audience. The result is Uncertain Futures: Americans and Science Fiction in the Early Cold War Era; you can judge its worth for yourself. But I thought it would be worthwhile to write briefly about some of the ways I think we, as historians, can put the web to good use.

First, a web exhibit allows for layered content—think footnotes, but better. Text can link to other sites, or it can serve as a kind of inline footnote for extra content. I tried both with this exhibit. Good use of images, too, can give an exhibit a layered feel—I think the images in Uncertain Futures are crucial to the story, so I used a script to activate an optional slideshow of each page's images when a reader clicks on one of them. And, finally, sound makes history dramatic. I conducted an interview, a sort of oral history, with the founder of the UMass Science Fiction Society; that interview is embedded in the “Fans and Fandom” page, with a simple player.

Second, and more importantly, it seems intuitive that readers will interact differently—maybe in a nonlinear fashion—with web exhibits than with the traditional media of historical scholarship. Books have introductions, arguments that build sequentially, and tie-it-all-together conclusions . . . but the chances seem vanishingly small that readers of my exhibit will start at the beginning and then work methodically to the end. How to deal with this? I tried to provide as many “signposts” as I could, in the form of chapter subtitles. At the time I was going for cleverness, but in retrospect I should have made these subtitles much clearer. Ideally, subtitles—and the navigation panes at the top of every page—can provide readers with a map of the exhibit's narrative arc, from intro to conclusion, visible from anywhere in the exhibit.

There are some great resources available for researchers thinking about how to present history online. George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media has a suite of tools and publishing platforms, available for free. And the University of Maryland’s Public History Resource Center has some good criteria for evaluating history websites, and a lot of helpful website reviews. These are only two—there are plenty more. Whether the web will change traditional historical scholarship remains to be seen, but it seems clear that public history has already been altered—and for the better!—by the online world.