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and other nifty things that will make current wayside exhibits seem like 1950s TV (quaint and nostalgic, but clearly out of date).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).