Narrating Culture on the Web: Assisting Audience Participation through Reading Rhetoric and Innovating Online Forum Design
New Zealand’s Puke Ariki Museum, Library and Visitor Center in New Plymouth recently used two different formats for collecting and displaying visitor comments in recent (2010-2011) exhibits. Both formats challenge online visitors to weigh multiple perspectives on history and the future of New Zealand. Read together, these comment areas offer insight into visitor interaction with exhibition material. In addition, the comment areas—one unconventionally designed but not interactive between users, one conventional and interactive between users—point toward new possibilities for designing and hosting audience-generated material that builds on and interrogates museum exhibits.
The first, “Te Ahi Kā Roa, Te Ahi Kātoro: Taranaki War 1860–2010,” which described the war between the indigenous Māori and European settlers, retains an online presence through a non-interactive online comment area created from a broad variety of visitor reactions to the exhibit. The comments are displayed with attractive graphics that refuse to privilege one point of view over others; the comments page gives voice to the current state of the cultural conflict over colonial and indigenous versions of history examined in the exhibit while it creates a new narrative, one that tells a multi-voiced story of New Zealanders’ interaction with the past and the museum itself. The online comment presentation reveals visitors’ desire to join, contest, and parallel the trajectories of the narrative presented by the exhibit and current New Zealand historical scholarship.
The second, “What If? The Future of Taranaki,” presented on-site exhibitions and events designed to stimulate conversations on regional identity and environmental sustainability as well as an online forum space to facilitate those conversations. Subject headings included “Sea Levels,” “Energy,” “Economy,” and “Communities,” and separate threads within them asked questions such as “What kind of Taranki do you want to see in the future?”, “How are the changing patterns of agriculture affecting our region?”, and “What do you think or feel about Taranaki continuing to lose its native plants and wildlife?” The forum, which is now closed but archived, was built using traditional message board software; comments were moderated by an outside organization.
In a paper presented at the International Digital Media and Arts Association Conference in Vancouver, 4 November, 2010 (and currently under review at the New Zealand Journal of Media Studies), I argued that a close rhetorical analysis of the curated comments reveals an audience-generated chronological narrative of engagement and identity with the exhibit. I plan to analyze the second exhibit’s interactive forum in much the same way; I also will suggest that the graphic design of the first comment area offers a much more appropriate foundation for an interactive discussion of cultural matters than the traditional linear message board forum used as part of the second exhibit. While the second exhibit’s forum allowed visitor interaction with other visitors, it isolated comments within particular threads. Inspired by the nonlinear “stage” design of the first comment area, I envision a hyperlinked, easily tagged and nonlinear experience that combines interactivity with a more aesthetically and culturally satisfying user experience.