Analysis of The Lost Museum

I recently spent some time investigating the interactive website called The Lost Museum.  My reason for picking this site as opposed to the myriad of other options on the web was simple enough: the title intrigued me.  The lost museum?  That was enough for me to click on the link (http://www.lostmuseum.cuny.edu/home.html) and check it out.  What I found was an older website, created over the years 1996-2004, that made an attempt to utilize technology in a fun, game-like way while having an underlying educational purpose.  The lost museum refers to PT Barnum’s American Museum that was burned down on July 13, 1865.  Not knowing much about Barnum, but being very interested in American history during the 19th century, I decided to go all in and see what the site had to offer.

Before diving into the site itself, it’s helpful to get an understanding of who made the site and why it was created in the first place.  The answer to these questions are readily supplied on the site in the section “How to Use the Site” (http://www.lostmuseum.cuny.edu/how-to.html) located on the home page.  This section gives thorough information on who made the website.  It was created by the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning which is part of The Graduate Center at City University of New York (CUNY).  The Lost Museum is not the only site that has been developed by this program.  Upon researching the American Social History Project, I discovered that they have numerous other web projects, documentaries, and teaching tools that are similar to The Lost Museum.  The Lost Museum was created in collaboration with the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which as a student at GMU, it was exciting to see something that professors here have worked on (including Professor O’Malley).  From the home page you can also click on the “About Us” link at the bottom which lists everyone who participated in the creation of this site.  Among the people listed are the three executive directors (I have included some background information about each director below):

  1. Andrea Ades Vasquez: Associate Director of American Social History Project at CUNY (also artist/designer for the History Matters website at the Center for History and New Media).
  2. Joshua Brown: Executive Director of American Social History Project at CUNY since its inception in 1981.
  3. Roy Rosenzweig: Founder and Director of the Center for History and New Media

These are just three of the many people listed on the site who contributed to the production of The Lost Museum.  As far as the funding for the site is concerned, the sponsors are listed in this same section.  The site is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Old York Foundation, and The Graduate Center at CUNY.  This page also lists the numerous awards the site has won, as well as the publicity it has received over the years.

Within the “How to Use the Site” section, the creators specifically list the purpose and goals for the site.  Most notable is the statement that the purpose of the site is the “re-creation of PT Barnum’s American Museum as a lens into mid-19th century New York City and antebellum America.”  This gives you a broad understanding of what the main purpose of the site is; however it does much more than simply serve as a lens into the past.  The site gives viewers a visual and spatial understanding of the museum itself, as well as significant insight into the many pressing issues of that time period.  It provides an interactive and archival interpretation of the museum and culture of antebellum America.

This website presents itself as both an archival database and a narrative.  On the home page you have the option to either follow the narrative presented by the site or you can go straight to the archives and search the primary and secondary sources available.  The narrative is presented in two ways, you can either solve the mystery of who burned down the museum (requires creating a user ID and you have access to a notepad and clues), or you can explore the museum without the mystery (no notepad or clues, but you don’t have to sign in).  I decided to try to solve the mystery so I followed the clues presented and rather enjoyed learning about the museum and theories of who had the motive to burn it down.  The site is intended to be used by teachers and students and I thought that by presenting the mystery as a type of game was an innovative way to get students to interact with the sources.  The site does an excellent job of interspersing the archival documents while you virtually walk through the museum (I found myself constantly clicking on the archive links to different exhibits).

First and foremost, this site is intended for teachers to use it as an educational tool.  There is a section titled “Visit the Classroom,” and within this section there are background essays about the time period as well as activities that the teacher can use in the classroom.  These activities present different questions that students seek for the answers by exploring the site.  They are essentially built-in lesson plans that are there to help the teacher.  Although I’ve never been a teacher, I can see how this would be very helpful.  An entire class period could be centered around one of the questions prepared by the site.  These questions get the students thinking about the issues surrounding antebellum America and how the American Museum reflects these issues.  Given that I’ve been a student for many years, it is easier for me to analyze the site from a student’s perspective.  To that point, I can see the benefits of creating an interactive website to present historical information.  A site like this is especially beneficial when considering most students’ familiarity and comfort with using the web.

Some major drawbacks to this site are directly related to the visual presentation.  It’s clearly dated having been created during the years 1996-2004.  My review is coming in 2013 and the web has come a long way in the past nine years.  While this site may have been impressive at the time, when comparing it to other professional sites or video games that students are used to, this site comes up short.  The graphics make it difficult to read everything (this is easily resolved because you can always click on the archive to get the text) which can be a turn off for a student who may not be too interested in learning in the first place.  The site tries to present information in the context of a PC game, but the issue with that is it does not graphically compare to an actual PC game.  At times, specifically when the narrative begins and Barnum is speaking to the viewer, the presentation is awkward and a bit hokey.  Again, for a student who is not interested in the educational aspect of the site, the graphics and presentation can send them away in a click.  The idea and purpose of the site is excellent, but at this time the design of the site needs serious renovation.

Overall, the site is structurally consistent, with the exception of the difference between the archives and the 3D museum.  The archives and classroom section are well-organized and easy to follow.  These sections present the information in a bland, but easily understood way.  It’s not very aesthetically pleasing going from the 3D museum exhibits to the bright white text of the archives.  However, this makes a clear differentiation between the museum and the archives, which enhances the organization of material.  Most of the creativity is reserved for exploring the museum, which at the time of its creation was more impressive than it is now.  The various levels of the site are coherent.  It’s very easy to follow the narrative presented in the museum (you simply move the mouse around until a question mark pops up).  You are able to access different levels of information by clicking on the appropriately labeled text boxes.  Searching the archive is self-explanatory as you simply type in what you are looking for or click on the themes presented by the site.  The site is very user-friendly which is necessary for it to be a viable educational tool.

Presentation and graphics aside, this is an excellent site.  There is a great amount of information that can be accessed in different ways.  While you can go through the museum and click on different images that then lead into the archives, you also have the option to go straight to the archival materials.  When searching the archive, you can either create your own searches or follow the metadate created by the site.  This works well for a viewer who doesn’t know exactly what he or she is looking for, but is interested in slavery, PT Barnum, or the Civil War for example.  By having several different ways to search the archive, the site makes it easier to perform research.  Within the archive, there is a good mix of primary and secondary sources.  Among the primary documents are photos, letters, and artifacts that help present an idea of what society was like during that time.  These sources are effectively cataloged because each document is described and you can easily find what exhibit it is located in.  However, one disadvantage is that this is a “dead” archive.  While it has a good amount of information, it cannot be added to which is somewhat limiting.   With it being created nearly ten years ago, it could benefit from an influx of new information.

While there are some drawbacks within the site, it is overwhelmingly effective as an educational tool.  It presents information in a clear format, while also having the allure of being an interactive game.  I walked away with a better understanding of how Barnum’s American Museum was viewed by its contemporaries.  The American Museum is an excellent narrative tool that allows viewers to explore and understand the prevalent issues in 19th century antebellum America, which is one of the major goals of the site.  This site piqued my interest in a piece of history I was not familiar with, and with some updates it can continue to be a worthwhile aid for teachers to connect historical information with students in this digital age.

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