Ben is absolutely correct in his assessment of The Lost Museum Web site’s “Achilles Heel”: Interactivity should enhance and not limit the historical experience. In making a major facet of the site a game designed to figure out who torched the museum, the overarching cultural and historical importance of the site seems to take a back seat. As I mentioned in my own blog, I watched my son grow up playing many historically themed games and thinking he was getting at the underlying meaning behind the event or period in question. Not so. Defeating the game’s algorithm became the primary objective to the exclusion of all other factors. And, as Ben rightly points out, users of The Lost Museum can become quickly mired in following the “algorithmic bread crumbs” while ignoring the purpose and meaning behind Barnum’s artifacts and underlying thematic message.
Further, I think Ben is onto something by likening the site to a copy of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper that, although rife with wonderful engravings and imagery, would be meaningless without the necessary textual explications and the context attending such explications. In other words, visualization is great if it serves to clarify – not obfuscate — the historical argument. Granted, The Lost Museum offers some of that textual context up front; but, once the game begins, it’s off to the races. The dominant theme becomes finding the guy with the pack of matches and not necessarily the reason why he (or she) may have torched the building. Could the arsonist have been a Confederate sympathizer who, in a fit of pique over a display of Jefferson Davis disguised as a woman, decided to light up Barnum’s building as a show of unity with the recently defunct Confederate States of America? Hard to say. I’m sure the users who view only the textual descriptions of each attraction will get some meaning from the site while others will simply enjoy the cutting-edge visualizations of the virtual tour — all enhanced by Flash Player but sans descriptions. Ultimately, and as Ben rightly argues, interactivity has to serve the overarching argument. The Lost Museum falls short here. Granted, the site represents a great effort; but, as historians, we must be careful that our Web sites have more “bang” and less “flash” — or at least a good balance of both.