Historic sites are always looking for good models for online activities, such as websites and mobile applications, and one of the best places to look for inspiration is the annual Webby Awards, the leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet. Established in 1996 during the Web’s infancy, the Webbys are presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences.
The 2012 Webby Awards received nearly 10,000 entries from over 60 countries and all 50 states and awards were given in over a hundred categories for website, interactive advertising and media, online film and video, and mobile and apps. As a result, there is a lot to cull through but here are several that seem to be most related to historic sites (and hang on, this is a long list):
The Civil War: 150 Years has the form and content of websites that will be most familiar to historic sites, except that it commemorates “a defining event in our nation’s history and its legacy in the continuing fight for civil rights” rather than a specific place. I like their use of Twitter to create a virtual “Civil War Reporter” whose tweets report on events from the 1860s but the major innovation is the featured Then and Now Timeline that compares similar events during the Civil War and today (although I was only able to jump months, not years). Another way to compare the past and the present is demonstrated by Slavery Footprint, a website and mobile app that was launched on the 149th anniversary of the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s designed to raise awareness of modern-day slavery and can tell you approximately how many slaves have pitched in to make the goods you enjoy on a daily basis.
- Timelines appeared in several other forms in the winning entries and along with the Then and Now version is an interactive timeline that is part of A Pine Ridge Story (which places much more emphasis on images and emotions than text and facts) and Counterspill (a space-time map that combines with geography and chronology). Also of interest at Counterspill is its “living archive,” a series of revolving news feeds which might be useful for associations or advocacy organizations.
Breaking expectations is the World Chess Hall of Fame. If it weren’t for its name at the top of the page, you’d assume it was for an art museum or boutique hotel. But you’ll see that the signature chessboard is emphasized through the background grid, spare use of color, and drop-down menus (you’ll have to click on them to see what I mean). You can even “switch sides” by clicking on the chess piece in the upper left to change the background color from black to white. After you explore the website, you’ll agree its one of the best integrations of an organization’s mission with its website design.
- Several award-winning websites for tourists might provide inspiration for ways to better serve your visitors. Explore Canada Like a Local emphasizes, “real trip advice from locals and travelers who know Canada. Browse insider tips on where to stay, play, eat, drink and more.” This takes what often happens at the front desk (giving visitors suggestions on where to eat and what to do) and puts it on the web. Your website doesn’t have to be this fancy, but it could offer similar content and be a real service. On the other hand, Red Visitor suggests how information might be organized for visitors: a slideshow with big images with three basic categories below that are tied to a FAQs.
Along with Red Visitor, emphasizing images over text seems to be a growing trend, and may be quite appropriate if your site focuses on design or aesthetics. Sesame Street‘s home page shows a collage of images that highlight each of the Muppet characters with a short video. The Museum of Fine Arts Boston takes the big image to a new level with a revolving series of short movies that fill 90 percent of the home page and contains only fifty (50!) words total (and that includes the copyright notice). It may be hard for a historic site to de-emphasize text (we like those names and dates!) but you might want to test very different versions of your web site with your visitors to see what they prefer.
Some traditional museum methods are coming to the Internet. An award-winning example is I Went to MoMA and . . . It’s just like a traditional talk-back board where you’d leave a stack of cards in an exhibit and ask visitors to post their opinions on a nearby bulletin board but now they’ve been collected and posted on the Web. In addition, visitors can share their card (or one of the other 20,000 cards) via email, Facebook, or Twitter (click on any card to activate this feature). Another way to explore a place is by creating virtual tours and Google’s Art Project is perhaps the most sophisticated model for museum collections. Several US art museums participate (such as the Art Institute of Chicago and Denver Art Museum) but take a look at the historic sites, such as Royal Palace Amsterdam or the White House, which include decorative arts and room interiors that can be explored “on foot” (click on the yellow guy standing on the green circle).
Several organizations show how websites can be engaging experiences in themselves and not merely an electronic version of a brochure, newsletter, or exhibit. Wondermind is a special website for children aged 8-12 created to accompany the Tate Liverpool’s exhibition on Alice in Wonderland. It’s a interactive suite of games integrated with films designed to illustrate the neuroscience of the growing brain in simple, fun ways. Yup, art meets science. Remember Me?, uses a collection of photographs of children displaced by World War II and asks for the public’s help in identifying them. This extremely popular website has no physical counterpart on site at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, indeed, it is probably more effective online than as an exhibit or program–a good reminder of that every interpretive method has its own distinct advantages. The Facebook Connect application, Take This Lollipop, takes engagement into another direction in this Halloween-inspired experience. With the Facebook user’s permission, the application collects information from their account and assembles it into a creepy movie. Okay, you probably don’t want to freak out your visitors, but it may inspire you to consider new ways to engage your audience by incorporating them into the story of your site.
And just for fun (and an example of how something incredibly mundane yet strange, can be engaging and an award-winner):
- I Found Money Today, a “social experiment in anonymous giving” which follows the author’s efforts to leave a $5 bill in hidden places around New York City to give the finder a nice surprise.
- Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things, which is a blog posting an occasional photo of “the dear leader” looking at a canal, a nylon net, or squid.