Tim Roberts Public history & historical thinking,Website user experience Review of the Western Illinois Museum physical and digital sites

Review of the Western Illinois Museum physical and digital sites

The Western Illinois Museum physical site, 201 South Lafayette Street, Macomb, Illinois

The Western Illinois Museum takes its title from an area that historically was termed the Military Tract, comprised of fourteen counties bounded by the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers and a fixed distance north of the Fourth Principal Meridian baseline, according to an 1812 Act of Congress to award land to military veterans. Today the museum seeks regular participation by more nearby residents from McDonough County, Illinois, and adjacent counties, though it of course welcomes visits by tourists and college students in Macomb from more distant origins. Most of the museum’s visitors and patrons are middle-aged and elderly residents of Macomb and the surrounding McDonough County, although, occasionally, racially or ethnically diverse visitors, as well as organized school groups, also patronize the Museum. The Museum seeks to provide space and activities for the community that include but are not only historical in nature: it hosts musical performances, dances, public lectures, town hall meetings, schoolchildren’s art activities, and film screenings. Occasionally, the Museum organizes history-themed walking tours in an historic downtown area near it.

The museum has roughly four functional spaces. It has a meeting room directly behind its director’s reception area (the director is the only paid employee, and acts as a docent for visitors). A visitor reaches this area after passing the reception area, where there is a notebook that visitors may sign or give their contact information. Circling the reception area are glass exhibit cases. Currently the three exhibits show a sword and other artifacts connected with a local Civil War soldier, artifacts about a local baseball team early in the sport’s history, and several antique radios and phonographs. Behind this area is the museum’s largest exhibit space, which is currently taken up with various large and small pieces of early farm equipment. These items tie to a current community program that highlights area farms that have remained under the same family ownership for at least one hundred years (“Century Farms”). This exhibit space also has a large antique chalk board mounted on a wall, on which the museum indicates upcoming events information. This space also has room for musicians to perform as well as space for historical re-enactments, lectures, and film screenings.

If a visitor checks with the director, s/he may open doors to move to the museum’s third and fourth spaces, in the “back” of the museum, which does not have central air, and has not been renovated largely from its original purpose as a high-ceiling car repair garage. The museum uses the third space as a social club-like area, hosting live musical performances in spring, summer, and fall.  This area actually is reachable by a backdoor, so visitors for musical events do not need to go through the front of the museum. The space has some of the museum’s largest antique furniture pieces, including a bar, in place as its boundaries, as well as tables and chairs. The museum’s fourth space, really just the other half of the “back” of the museum, is used for storage of artifacts, which are kept on rows of shelves, organized by catalog number. In short, the museum’s four spaces serve quite different purposes, though all contribute to the museum’s message about the importance of preserving and celebrating local history and culture.

The museum director, volunteers, and college student interns, in addition to developing the physical exhibits, research, write, print out, and mount on walls interpretive placards to provide context for exhibits. There is little interactivity involved with the museum’s historical exhibits; its interactive programs focus on cultural activities, as well as making a growing collection of oral histories of local military veterans and other notable local individuals available for visitors to listen to.

The current physical exhibits could possibly be made more effective in several ways. Information placards on the Civil War exhibit could pose questions that ask visitors to compare the story of the local Civil War soldier and some aspects of modern service in the U.S. military or the Illinois National Guard. The baseball exhibit could have some accompanying replicas of early baseball uniforms and equipment that visitors could don for fun photographs. The phonograph and radio exhibit could offer visitors the chance to select segments of early radio programs to listen to, as well as ask questions that compare early and modern electronics, not only in terms of different technology but in social function – families gathered around radios, but often splinter when absorbed with modern social media devices. The exhibit area for farm equipment could conceivably have farm produce growing in a raised space or outdoor areas around the museum’s perimeter, which, again, could show similarities and differences in planting corn before World War II, and planting corn today.  

The Western Illinois Museum digital website, https://www.westernillinoismuseum.org/

The museum website proclaims the Museum’s mission to “nurture our history and culture.” This motto, probably intentionally, leaves the meaning of “our” indefinite, to encourage inclusion of and outreach to all residents of the region. The website offers a menu of choices that link to images of objects in the museum’s collection, images of significant individuals in the museum’s history like founders and major supporters, some of which have imbedded links to oral histories recorded my museum staff, and images of historic places in the region. It is not clear if some of the images are digitized copies of museum artifacts, or are simply photographs made for the website’s display. The website also shows a museum calendar of events and space to become a “member” by joining a mailing list, to make a financial contribution, to sign up to become a volunteer, or to contact the museum electronically, which is a message function that presumably goes to the director’s email and is the means by which visitors contact the website’s administrator. These latter functions, along with a keyword search function that retrieves website posts using the keyword – “artifact of the month,” past events, etc. – constitute the extent of the website’s interactivity.

The website is less directive than the museum’s physical space, and does encourage a single flow of traffic. The top page offers eleven menu choices that take the virtual visitor to other website presentations and functions: About, Exhibits, Events, Visit, Support, Volunteer, Contact, Collection, People, Places, and Tours. The message about history of this first impression is that a visitor’s interest in the region’s history and culture can fit with and even enhance the museum’s diverse artifacts and activities.

The primary audience for this work appears to be adults who are seeking more information about the museum’s participatory programs, and regular visitors to the website who keep up on its “artifacts of the month” images and commentaries. There does not seem to be special appeal to groups like military veterans, people of racially or ethnically diverse backgrounds, or children.

The website content offers greater access to more of the museum’s collection, or at least virtual images of them; almost all of the museum’s artifacts are in its storage area most of the time.

The museum could consider a few changes to its website. It could add a function to allow visitors to make collection-specific searches, including searches among the museum’s oral histories and historic maps, if they could be digitized.  A function to solicit virtual visitors’ feedback on the website’s functionality could also be added. Finally, the museum might consider developing a fully online exhibit on a topic with “galleries,” similar to a project, for example, developed by the New-York Historical Society in 2005-2006 involving artifacts expressive of the city’s early albeit centuries-long history of slavery.

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