The Digital and the Physical: A Comparative Review of the Nez Perce National Historical Park

Our digital world has caused many significant changes with the way historical projects are constructed. Many of the early digital projects centered on the creation of online collections, using the Web as a means to host the analog for depiction. This proved to be useful for scholars and the occasional observer. But it didn’t allow for novel interpretation by said scholars or greater public engagement for educational entertainment. Thus, we have the challenge: how can digital projects better translate the physical materials and content they represent into an online format that is informative, interpretive, and engaging?

The development of online exhibits and focus on higher degrees of interactivity helped in this regard. As time advanced, digital scholars and their projects made use of new technologies to present their content while also cultivating more comprehensive frameworks to situate their relationship with the public to the works being produced. Yet, this analog-to-digital translation work is still complicated. There are many challenges to consider when trying replicating, for example, a physical site via an online exhibit.

To demonstrate, this post will cover a comparative review of the physical historical visitor center and collection of the Nez Perce National Historical Park (NHP) located in Lapwai, Idaho (where I made a recent trek to) and its digital counterpart.

Physical Exhibit of the Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitor Center

In Lapwai, Idaho along US Highway 95 is located the Nez Perce NHP Visitor Center, the main exhibit site and collection site for the Nez Perce NHP. This center is dedicated to the preservation of Nez Perce history and culture with the purpose of educating the general public about the people who continue to live among the surrounding lands. The physical space of the center is laid out in an open fashion that allows for the display of artifacts and cultural objects, as well as exhibit pieces. This makes a powerful statement that centers the objects as the focus of attention, drawing interest into the history of the items. It also allows observers to take their time to study the objects without feeling overly crowded.

There is a range of items in the exhibit: traditional cultural clothing, guns from the Nez Perce War of 1877, Bibles and tools, and ceremonial pieces like drums and bells. The presented items have descriptions and captions associated with them, relating both historical and contemporary information. This is key because while the site and the National Park Service are working to preserve cultural and historical elements, it is make an more present argument that the Nez Perce people are not being interpreted as anachronistic. This is further emphasized with the diverse array of objects in the collection. Clothing and tools, for example, are present from far after the time we Nez Perce would have come into contact with Euro-Americans. Yet, the overwhelming presence of items that are clearly of our traditions lets visitors infer the deep connections we maintain to our ways of life.

The Visitor Center is primarily for non-Native members of the public traveling through our lands. Many workshops, resources, and events are meant to educate the public on our history and knowledge of the surrounding area. However, the secondary audience is definitely the Nez Perce Tribe, as the research center hosts many archival documents we would find beneficial for genealogical and/or historical research. Furthermore, it provides a direct point of contact for Tribal members to interact with the non-Native public in a “neutral” setting where cultural exchanges and teachings are facilitated in an appropriate way. This is important to the purpose of the park, which states that this park “is about a people, for all people.” Additionally, working with local cultural experts and Nez Perce persons is highly important for both the public history component of this project–involving collaboration of the public/audiences participating in the history being portrayed–and the ethical component of the history that involves those being spoken about, the Nez Perce.

Regarding facilitation, Park Rangers and resident cultural experts are present on site to answer questions and maintain the decorum of the space. For the most part, they do not interact with the visitors unless more or less come into contact with them. When it comes to outreach, however, they are responsible for hosting the events and catering to the public participating in the event or workshop. This would be the primary area I would suggest for improvement. Unless one has questions or is prompted to interact with the experts at the site, there could be missed opportunities to foster more interest in the site and its purpose. Therefore, it would be good if the park developed interactive portions of the site that brought visitors into contact with experts.

Digital Exhibit of the Nez Perce National Historical Park

The digital site and exhibit of the Nez Perce NHP collection lacks the full contemporary experience of the physical site, but does present the objects in a very informative way, providing more background on the items and the history of the Nez Perce associated with the objects. The digital counterpart comprises a virtual tour of the collection and relates many resources to other digital mediums such as audio clips, language materials, and even lesson plans for educators.

While the main argument of the physical site would have been the continued existence the Nez Perce, the digital site pushes more for the preservation aspect, cataloging the items and detailing the changes among the culture over time through a narrative of each object. The interface and layout of the digital exhibit, unfortunately, is dated. While it accomplishes the job of hosting and presenting the material, it is largely an image gallery with narrative explanations of the items through history. This could potentially portray the Nez Perce and our items as relics of the past, so to speak, and frames us in a less complex manner, visually speaking. With little outside attraction to the virtual museum, the audience of the digital site would likely be those conducting research at a distance about the items in the collection or who are looking for more background information about the Nez Perce. With the addition of many resources, educators are another likely audience.

The site is easy somewhat simply being laid out in a linear fashion and readily identifiable clickable sections to parts of the exhibit. There is little interactivity for visitors of the digital exhibit, but there does appear to be a greater degree of items presented. As most are hosted simply as images rather than physical objects, many more objects of the 1,000,000+ collection can be displayed. Smaller objects stone tools or more delicate items like older documents can be shown, items that were not prevalent in the physical exhibit.

As the Nez Perce NHP are the creators of the digital exhibit, they can be contacted via the same methods one would use to engage with the National Park Service headquarters of this site. Email and phoning the site would be the best way to contact them as no direct information for contact is related through the digital exhibit. It does not appear that interaction with the creators or high interactivity with the exhibit overall is necessary to sustain the project. However, this is what I would change: in order to prevent us, the Nez Perce, from being perceived as being relegated to the past, it is vital that more interactive portions of the digital exhibit are created so as to make it a more useful site for not only conducting observational research, but interacting with the material for more novel interpretation and engaging for laypeople of the public. Like the physical site, more contemporary representation is beneficial to combating marginalization. Changing this aspect would certainly make the engagement and the mission of the Nez Perce NHP more effective.

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