CWPT Unveils Fredericksburg App.–and wireless digital media rattles the cage of traditional onsite interpretation

From John Hennessy:

With yesterday’s release of a new I-phone app for Fredericksburg Battlefield by the Civil War Trust, it seems like a good time to revisit a post we did way back when on the emergence wireless digital media.

We are rapidly moving toward a world where fixed, structural onsite interpretation (like the wayside exhibit at Jackson Shrine, above) will be obsolete. Someday not far off, visitors will come armed with wireless devices–think not cellphones and Blackberries, but I-Pad and its successors–that will deliver film, maps, audio, animation, and other nifty things that will make current wayside exhibits seem like 1950s TV (quaint and nostalgic, but clearly out of date).  This is not a bad thing. In fact, we ought to look forward to the possibilities of more dynamic presentation of media.  Our visitors deserve it.

(Apropos to this, and contrary to popular perceptions, between 80% and 85% of our visitors are completely reliant on media for their interpretive experience onsite.  Put another way, only 15%-20% of our visitors attend live programs by one of the park’s historians–this due to a combination of timing and inclination on the part of visitors. Media, obviously, shapes the quality of experience for most of our visitors.)

But the transition to digital media raises some very interesting issues.  As it has been, the NPS largely owns both the sites and whatever interpretation visitors receive on that site. The marketplace offers visitors a few choices in the form of guidebooks and CD-based tours, but these reflect a tiny slice of the market. Visitors generally get what the NPS gives them.

The release of the new app yesterday puts us on the threshold of a new era.  Five or ten or twenty years from now, visitors will be a able to stand in the Sunken Road (by then likely devoid of traditional wayside exhibits) and shop a marketplace of products for onsite interpretation–choosing a source of interpretive media from any number of suppliers for delivery to whatever portable device they have.  While no doubt many visitors may reflexively look to the NPS for their product, the fact remains that interpretation will be buffeted by market forces that simply do not exist today.  Visitors will inevitably (and should) gravitate toward products that offer the best experience for the best price, or the one that suits their particular interest or inclination (it’s easy to imagine, for example, that non-profits like the SCV or Civil War Preservation Trust could develop their own interpretive universes, or an aspiring tech firm might develop products strong on glitz).

The development of digital media isn’t cheap–which leads to the inevitable question of how to make such an effort profitable, or at least viable. But it does present a challenge to the NPS and anyone else managing a high-traffic historic site. We will be in the position of having to compete for our visitors’ attention, even when they are physically within spaces we manage. How many firms will clamor to become the dominant interpretive force at Gettysburg?

Where this will lead is anyone’s guess.  Might the NPS and other entities managing historic sites be put out of the business of creating onsite media, supplanted instead by private-sector firms or organizations with more technical muscle, imagination, and know-how (though perhaps far less historical understanding)?  Or will we who manage these sites simply have to get better at what we do–to better compete in a new marketplace?  Or, will the traditional role of the NPS as the nation’s primary practitioner of public history be enough to render it immune to challenges from outside organizations producing new interpretive products? Will visitors care enough to demand choices in interpretation–forcing a more diversified marketplace of ideas and interpretation? Is the Civil War Trust on the way to becoming a a miniature, private=sector NPS, devoted solely to Civil War sites?

To my mind these are all fascinating questions that will take years to answer (and perhaps the answer is not even apparent to us today).

14 thoughts on “CWPT Unveils Fredericksburg App.–and wireless digital media rattles the cage of traditional onsite interpretation

  1. The future of electronic media in these environments is promising, as it is in our personal lives. The devices will be owned and maintained by the users, and tailored to their needs and preferences.

    Some say the wayside exhibit is dead. I don’t believe that. The large image (24 x 36″) is powerful and will remain so. Waysides enable visitor experiences that promote interactions between people on site, in contrast to the image of the teenager plugged into an isolated iPod experience.

    New media will supplement—not replace—existing media. The museum and its artifacts cannot be replaced by anything else, but new media can improve the museum experience.

    Some thirty years ago I believed my new fiberglass wayside exhibits had made cast-iron historical markers obsolete, but I now think I was wrong. State-style highway markers—I’m discovering—provide a critical level of identification and interpretation when properly executed—sort of like the “lead” in a news story. Visitors cannot appreciate sites they cannot identify or locate, and these plaques provide voices that speak with some authority.

  2. Thanks Dave. By way of background, Dave Guiney was one of the original wayside exhibit planners at the NPS design center in Harpers Ferry. His work resides in dozens of national parks. Indeed, he has probably developed as many wayside exhibits as anyone on earth.

  3. John,
    With my “hobby” with the historical markers, I’ve seen some “apps” offering interpretation roll out. Several individuals have, and others are building, apps that reference the HMDB repository. Typically these use the location data from the phone to fetch a list of nearby markers for the visitor. And I’ve already had three groups inquire about using the data to “script” tours of the battlefield for visitors to use. Sounds useful, but frankly, I don’t see much advantage so long as the physical markers stand on site. And as you say, the cost of digital media is still prohibitive.

    The “high ground” as this plays out in the future is the data repository. As you point out, anyone can craft an “app” that suits a particular audience. The “app” itself is often the least costly component. But the time and resources spent recording and packaging the information will always prove cost prohibitive for most potential developers. So the “app” developers will ingest what is “free” or at least of moderate cost (not trying to pitch HMDB, but just saying the market seems to be going that way).

    Perhaps the role of the NPS, and other entities involved with the sites, will also evolve techniques with the technology. Perhaps a repository of audio clips, photos, maps, etc., from which an “app” developer pulls for his/her project.


    • Thanks Craig. From a purely personal level, I hope the NPS doesn’t descend into being simply a supplier of content for others to develop in vivid form. But it may come that (I will be happily long gone by then). Someone recently sent along to me a link for an app to accompany a new book on Capone sites in Chiciago. I could easily foresee the day that developing an app becomes standard part of writing a site-oriented book (if I were doing Second Manassas now, I’d look to make it an e-book and develop and app for it). This will be very interesting to watch develop–and it’s developing fast. Thanks for your input to the blog….

  4. John, greetings. In thinking of the intersections between historical sites and digital media, I would say that an experience that relies on and exploits such an intersection is not only imminent, but is already here. At Encyclopedia Virginia we have been geotagging event locations and incorporating that geospatial data in longer narratives that provide background and context to what users are seeing around them. You can see some proofs-of-concept that we have developed here where we export historical points of interest to smart phones applications (on the iPhone and Android platforms) which, in turn, make those devices into dynamic museum guides of the entire Virginia landscape (at least that is the possibility). We definitely aren’t the only ones exploring the field of what many call “augmented reality” but I do think there are right now a multitude of possibilities to develop and build what you are suggesting as the future in this blog entry. This is definitely an exciting field, thanks for your post!

    • Thanks Matthew. The marriage of books and digital media is happening fast, and I think portends the evolution of interpretive media as well. What you are doing is terrific (both in its traditional form and in your digital enhancements). Thanks for sharing….

  5. Great point. The digital / mobile age has no boundaries and the expectations of the visitor to connect, interact will increase rapidly. The uses of mobile technology in Europe and Asia demonstrate ways in which the visitor experience can be enhanced in ways that we have not imagined. Two points to consider: 1) the pace of change is likely to be faster than 10 – 20 years because of the rapid rise of smart phone uses and 2) places of national and natural significance are unique and can benefit from the monetization of the digital visitor thus contributing to the future maintenance and stewardship of the sites.

  6. Great article, John – Sorry for the late comment – just found your blog after Emmanuel Dabney posted the Aquia article link on Facebook.

    I agree with other that apps / content for personal digital media will replace, not supplant, the wayside sign and in-person live interpretation. As pointed out by others, the expensive part is the content itself & getting it right, not the app, so this is a market that the site owner is the best placed to fill (NPS or foundation) by commissioning “authorized” material in the same way that visitor center films & multimedia presentations are now commissioned. The technology to do all of this has been around for a while — and when it comes to historical re-creations for camera, Heritage House Productions is of course eager to help, whether it’s for the big screen or the tiny iPod/iPhone/Droid/Kindle/ whatever screen in the visitors pocket

    Kathryn Coombs
    Heritage House Productions
    King George VA

  7. And I should have added that the podcasts / vodcasts that you’re already doing are excellent!

    Expanding this sort of material into a walking tour is in someways just a modernization & improvement of the headset thingies with audio walking tours that have been around for 40 years

    Kathryn Coombs
    Heritage House Productions
    King George VA

  8. I don’t believe new media will replace traditional media. Rather, I see an expansion of media options and an evolution of traditional media. As we become ever more sophisticated in our understanding of, and willingness to serve many diverse audiences, I think the wayside exhibit will continue to play a role. I also think wayside exhibits are rapidly evolving and I’m pleased with the direction of things. The expansion of new technologies and new media is having a positive impact on wayside exhibits.

    In the past, there were fewer media choices, and most major media products were on a 25-30-year replacement cycle. When new projects were launched, there was tremendous pressure to tell all stories, push all agendas, and cover all park themes. The result was, in my opinion, too many waysides that did not play to the strengths of the medium. Today, with more options, and shorter replacement cycles, there is less pressure to do it all on the wayside exhibit – or any other medium for that matter. We can more carefully and appropriately design the right media to fit the message and the audiences. The evolution I see happening is a shift toward the strengths of each medium. In my opinion, waysides work best when they are strategically located at overlooks and other natural resting/pondering points on the landscape and they communicate a very succinct message primarily through large-format graphical information. Those conditions have not changed much over the years, but we can now meet them more successfully with new technology and more focused media planning. Without a comfortable spot for the visitor to rest, or a compelling graphic that relates directly to the landscape, waysides are not the best choice. With more choices at hand, perhaps a place like the sunken road will be without waysides in the future.

    My recent observations of visitors in parks has been that, in some places, waysides are wildly popular and stimulate social interaction among strangers. Several times in the last few years I witnessed visitors waiting their turn amidst a crowd gathered around a wayside. I watched young children lean on them and read through complex diagrams and illustrations, then call their parents over to share their new knowledge. I’ve seen lots of people take pictures of them. But my favorite moment was the couple that returned to a mountaintop overlook to see one of four waysides. Apparently, the woman told her husband what she had learned from the wayside as they hiked down. He insisted on hiking back up hill to see it for himself. Successful waysides also generate social interaction among strangers brought together randomly through space and time. Shoulder to shoulder, strangers will chat, ask eachother questions, ponder ideas, and openly share their “ah ha” moments at a wayside. If all visitors were using personal devices, I doubt you’d see the same social connections.

    How much time does a visitor have to dig into searchable databases and web content while outdoors with a group of family and friends? Unless park visits get much longer, time is still limited. Waysides serve the purpose of providing very quick relevant answers to a wide variety of visitors including small children who can “read” the pictures. Want more? Some parks are adding QR codes to waysides. If the succinct ideas trigger deeper questions and you have a device in hand, scan the QR code for more. Someone in the group with a visual impairment? Listen to the audio description of the landscape and the wayside content on your portable device. Modern waysides can be enhanced with other media to address the weaknesses of both. The wayside offers a large-format visual presentation of a succinct message. The hand-held device offers small scale, indepth information. They are compatible and complementary.

    Modern technology is also improving the visual storytelling quality of the wayside panel. Older waysides were limited by the design and printing technologies. Today, we can develop a more visually immediate approach. We enhance images to draw emphasis, highlight ideas, and connect to the landscape. Visual storytelling can be more effective for non-english language visitors, visitors with some cognitive disabilities, and small children who don’t yet read. For these visitors, and all those others who gather in unlikely alliances, I remain a strong believer in the compelling large-format display that is the wayside exhibit.

    • Really good points, Betsy. I hope everyone who plans waysides reads your words. Readers out there should know that Betsy is probably the best designer of wayside exhibits on earth. The park was lucky to have her do the first 75% of our ongoing project to replace waysides on all four battlefields. John Hennessy

  9. I am an interpretive specialist at Nez Perce NHP and am currently serving as the chair of the Interpretive Media Section of the National Association of Interpretation. I’d like to thank Betsy for sending this link. Media is something that I have been living and breathing for the last eight years and I find these discussions thought provoking and a vital tool in thinking about how media is used in the field.

    I often think that if have to define what interpretation is all about, we have to reduce this complex theory of interpersonal communication to its nucleus – interpretation is about facilitating connections to the meanings of the resources that we manage and protect. One of the considerations for facilitating these connections is choosing appropriate techniques. In terms of media, then, waysides are one technique that as Betsy so eloquently stated, are still effective and relevant.

    In terms of adopting and adapting digital media to our interpretive tool box, I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s too easy to be seduced by gee whiz factor that technology offers. Even though interpretive programming and services can be streamed through a smart phone and these capabilities are certainly compelling, they are still are just one tool in our interpretive tool box. While the pace of change is increasing, it is incumbent upon us as managers and interpretive specialists to carefully weigh all of these new capabilities, or techniques, for there appropriateness. I think it’s all too easy to be seduced by the dark side and adapt new techniques and gizmos without really thinking about how appropriate these are in providing services to the visitor.

    On a recent trip through the iconic national parks of the southwest, I was struck that to divine the meanings of these special places, at times all I needed was to engage my senses. Given that I can never completely disengage myself from my profession and how I interact with national park sites, as I soaked in the scenery of Bryce National Park, I was thinking if an audio tour would have added to my experience or detracted from it. I finally decided that it was the experience of physically descending into a slot canyon that provoked a raw emotional opportunity. Looking at the steep canyon walls that culminated in the sandstone spires known as hoodoos, created a sense of awe and majesty that sent chills down my spine. Would an audio tour from a smart phone magnified this experience for me? Probably not. Would digital media have provided further opportunities for another visitor? Perhaps. It seems all of these comments are suggesting that to be successful, we need to adopt a layered approach in terms of media. I think we still have to constantly ask ourselves the question, just because we can provide this service should we? As long as we weigh the considerations of what is appropriate and what is not, we can still guarantee a level of success with the ever changing needs of visitors.

    • Marc: thanks for your thoughtful comment. I suggest a distinction between what we might call prototypical NPS sites–places of beauty and granduer–and the sorts of sites that prompted my thinkinng in this post: battlefields and historic landscapes. To even the most casual visitor, the significance, or at least the grandeur, of a place like the Grand Canyon or even Mesa Verde is obvious. But our historic landscapes are usually NOT distinguished by their appearance–they look like any other woodlot or open field in the eastern US. We face a much greater challenge of according significance to these places. While I agree with you that at some sites media could be dispensed with or limited, I don’t believe that’s true when you’re standing at a place like Saunders Field at the Wilderness. The place means nothing until we marry it with information.

      I’m not disagreeing with your basic premise; just pointing out that it’s not universally applicable. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  10. John, you make an important distinction between parks with obvious “wow” features like a big lake, geyser, canyon, or famous monument. The job of doing outdoor, on-site interpretation for those places is to enhance the experience. Visitors will come to see and take photos of spectacular things. Our job is to help enrich their experience through orientation (get them there safely) and interpretation (help them understand the significance).

    In other parks, including civil war sites, the story is what makes the site meaningful as you said. But why even visit these places if the story is more conveniently told in other media like a Ken Burns film or a good book? Why, because while we don’t own the story, we do manage one of the few remaining tangible things a visitor can experience first-hand – the site.

    How do you facilitate a memorable, meaningful moment on an indistinct landscape? What will visitors write about on their facebook pages? What will they take pictures of? In a grassy field amidst subdivisions and shopping malls where young American boys fought their brethren and the course of US history turned, the visitor experience is less obvious, the focal point of the place is less clear. So the job of interpretation is less about enhancing the experience and more about creating one. We have to build the narrative. We do that by offering opportunities for visitors to piece together and experience the basic elements in any good story: character, setting and conflict.

    Waysides are all about the setting. Think about the choices a set designer makes when developing the stage for a play or musical. They recreate the most relevant aspects of a scene, and leave out unnecessary elements. In an indistinct landscape like a civil war battlefield, the relevant features of the setting are not so obvious. Waysides highlight the important aspects of the landscape that play a role in the story. Like a stage set, they are immediate (if they use a compelling graphic approach). The curtain opens and there it is. Audio and audio-visual media are linear, unfolding over the course of the program. User-driven devices reveal content based on a series of navigational choices. Complex character development, multiple viewpoints of conflict and resolution, and in-depth study is more successful in a linear or user-driven format making new media quite compatible with waysides.

    So I wonder, if the outdoor experience is enriched with new media that offer visitors a more complete first-hand experience, will they spend less time in visitor centers?

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