A few months ago, I came across the Secret Annex Online on the Anne Frank House website. It has all the ingredients of great interpretation: it tells a story using different media, there is a hierarchy of information that you can access depending on your interests, and you can quite literally choose where to go within the annex. It’s not lifeless either; there is an audio track of background voices, which makes it feel as if you had quite literally stepped into the house, and the audio narration and video options liven up the content further. Most importantly, however, it feels as if someone has really thought this through. The different media hold together, each exploring an aspect of the story according to its own strengths. The interpretation is not simply delivered digitally, it is digital, from the ground up. It gives a real sense of place for those that are not onsite. For some, this may be their only opportunity to explore Anne Frank’s hiding place, and it does the job really well. For others like me, it may make them doubly determined to see the place first hand.
I’d like to see more online interpretation like this: stuff that makes the best use of the medium’s strength and that responds to what off-site visitors may want and need, either before or after a visit, or indeed instead of a visit altogether. Too many projects seem to view ‘online’ as merely a repository of digitised collections, or whole collections management databases. These have a place, of course; participants in recent focus groups we did asked for just that. But these were the (art, in this case) experts. Other people have different needs. And for them, just as with other interpretive audiences, it is not enough to simply provide the raw stuff, the bare-bones catalogue information.
Sometimes, even where interpretation is the intended goal, the online medium seems to get treated as just another 2D platform. The impression is of reproduced panels or worse, of guidebook text that is split into clickable chapters, more or less graphically worked up into separate webpages. Whatever may be the original thematic link immediately disintegrates into separated fragments. The use of images as links becomes almost cliché, and just as meaningless.
Hyperlinks, intended no doubt to take the online visitor from one thematically linked piece to the next, also often do little more than string separate interventions together. Rather than weave a story they are like bubbles floating through the ether: the sum is definitely not greater than its parts.
I am no expert in online interpretation. But it seems to me that just as with any other form of interpretation, the key is to understand the medium and its strengths, and be clear how these can support what it is that you’re trying to facilitate. Online offers a wealth of unique communication opportunities that go far beyond hyperlinked text or the provision of digital images, video, or audio. It’s the intelligent interplay of these that make online exciting. And then, of course, there is the unique context of the visitor. Surveys that I’ve done in my work and my own research bear out other data, for example from the British Household Surveys, that suggests that people do a lot of research online. They appreciate stories that put something into context, while offering access to material that they wouldn’t otherwise see, and which they would not want to engage with while onsite. That’s all important, and I hope that there are studies about this out there that I’m just not familiar with – if you know of them, please drop me a line.