The future of digital history

This is an exciting time to be a museum Web practitioner. Since its inception, the Web has been a great way for us and other museums to reach out beyond our walls. We posted information to our sites and hoped that online visitors would come. And come they did—long ago the number of “virtual” visitors surpassed the number of visitors to our physical museum, and the gap continues to widen each year.

But online interactions often felt a little less personal than face-to-face contact with visitors—even somewhat mysterious. It has been difficult to know exactly who is visiting our Web site, why they come, and what their reactions are. Museums have tried a number of methods to overcome this disconnect over the years, but with limited success.

Now, the proliferation of simple tools for online expression and interaction are changing the ways that we relate to our audiences and vice versa. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and the like are new venues where you are sharing your thoughts on the museum, its collections and exhibitions, and the visitor experience. We are using some of these same methods to reach out and engage the public in new ways.

Things move so fast in the world of technology, it’s easy sometimes to forget how new these more participatory and instantaneous modes of communication are. As with any new medium, it takes time to figure out the real impact on society at large as well as specific business practices at, say, a museum (and other traditional types of knowledge repositories). Some worry that our stature as an institution will be diminished in this brave new world, while others predict that our role will become all the more vital.

As “your” national history museum, we’d love to have your help as we continue to adapt to the digital age. Please participate in the survey below, which we hope will be the first of a series that facilitate an ongoing dialogue on our blog about these issues. If you have additional thoughts, please add a comment!

(Don't see the poll? Go here.)

Matthew MacArthur is Director of New Media at the National Museum of American History