In history, perspective is everything.
In H. E. Marshall’s classic Our Island Story, Oliver Cromwell is very much the Civil War hero, with King Charles I portrayed as a most unlikeable character. In Children of the New Forest, however, you’ll find four orphaned children whose house is burned down by Cromwell’s Roundheads, meaning they have to live in the forest in constant fear of being caught by the more extremist of Cromwell’s men. The author? Frederick Marryat. A staunch Royalist.
History is written by the victors – but contemporary historians are constantly delving into previously forgotten diaries or recently discovered letters to unearth the personal stories behind historical events.
Digital placemakers for the heritage sector face the same challenge as historians: uncovering the truth, and telling the right story in an ethical way. Heritage organisations are duty bound to work with the full history of a place. Their responsibility is to offer up interpretations that are fair and balanced, engaging visitors in a variety of ways to bring history to life. But how can we use heritage apps to challenge existing perceptions, and can it be done in a fair and unbiased way?
Splitting the narrative
In digital placemaking, as in history books, it’s rare to find one single account that tells you everything – even a “complete history” isn’t an exhaustive account – but while books are static and unable to be changed, placemaking apps are agile and interactive.
A static museum exhibit can present a factual account of a time in history, but an app can add colour, challenging perceptions by allowing the visitor to explore personal accounts of the event from multiple sides of the story. A factual exhibit about the rise of the British Empire, for example, may set the scene and tell the basics about what happened – but the colonial, “civilising” viewpoint of the British contrasted with the horrors faced under the British Raj can make it powerful and real, showing things from a viewpoint visitors may never have considered before.
Some museums are already taking this approach.
One museum, multiple angles
The new Detroit 67: Perspectives exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum focuses on the civil disturbance of 1967. The event means many different things to many different people. To reinforce this, the exhibit begins with a display of all the different names the event is known by – revolution, insurrection, riot, crisis and disorder, among others – showing how something as simple as the choice of a word can shape our perceptions of a historical happening.
Detroit 67 was created in collaboration with the Detroit Police Department, historians and experts in race relations. Curators also encouraged members of the public to share their own views on the events that unfolded that summer. Following this opening display, the exhibition takes a look at the local issues in the run up to the civil disturbance, including segregation in housing, labour and schooling, and a police department that was unwilling to embrace change.
What follows is a simulated living room from the era, complete with TV screens showing coverage from the week in question, and wall boards reminding visitors they won’t see minority law enforcement officers, non-white journalists, female reporters or footage of white residents being imprisoned or looting.
Elsewhere, you’ll find drawings that express oral histories collected for the exhibition, and boards detailing how those people who had previously been shut out began to be heard.
The questions of bias and fairness are still difficult to ratify, however. While individual and personal stories can give visitor’s insights into different points of view, they are still not without bias. In fact, it could be argued that bias in unavoidable in any historical retelling. There is no one history, there are always multiple ones – ours, yours, the ‘truth’.
Fairness comes down to curating a broad range of stories presenting as full a picture as possible, and it’s in this context that apps come into their own. They are flexible by their nature, the content is accessible and variable, and they give visitors the control over which narratives they access – one of the most effective delivery methods to present multiple histories and narratives.
The benefits of a split narrative…
A split narrative approach is a thought-provoking one. By presenting multiple different stories about the same event or time in history – as with the stories from Holocaust survivors in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum app – visitors are able to engage with, and critique, more challenging content. A variety of perspectives allows for a more holistic account, with split narratives giving visitors multiple ways to step into a subject.
They can also encourage us to question what we see, hear and read in the media today, and remind us there is more than one side to every story. Much press coverage of asylum seekers, for example, is negative – see stories of sexual assaults by asylum seekers and officials wasting £2m on flights home for asylum seekers that were never used. But how many will stop to look at things from individual asylum seekers’ points of view, as in the Guardian’s latest VR project, Limbo?
Split narrative heritage experience can encourage visitors to question the status quo, and to change their way of thinking about events and stories covered in the mainstream media.
…and the problems
While it has the clear potential to enrich a heritage experience, a split narrative approach can also be problematic if not crafted in the right way. Without a well thought-out strategy and clear signposting, an approach such as this has the potential to confuse audiences, rather than achieving the desired aim.
Solutions could be found in the approaches used by Trinity Mirror’s news app Perspecs. For each news story featured, Perspecs offers three different articles, generally with left-wing, right-wing and neutral political perspectives. Users are shown one article, asked a related question (“Should Britain stay in the EU?”, for example) and then taken to a different article which most accurately reflects their views.
Such an approach could work well with heritage sites too. Going back to our earlier example, a question such as “Was Charles I or Oliver Cromwell the bad guy?” could allow visitors to follow a story that matches their beliefs, as well as choosing the alternative or seeing a balanced view if they’re unsure.
Museums and heritage sites have an obligation to present their offering in a way that is balanced and fair: the Code of Ethics for Museums exists for a reason. How can balanced and fair be achieved without approaching the topic from all possible angles? If you’re looking to challenge perceptions and offer your visitors something new, a split narrative approach may be the way to go – providing editorial integrity is provided in every single interpretation.