It's been several years since I've checked out the Drexel Legacy Center's Doctor or Doctress? online exhibit. I decided to re-visit it with fresh eyes and dig deeper on issues like design and content – how they influence one another. The site serves as a general example of how we go about using websites as exhibits – how we engage (non)linearity of information and narrative, attempt to control or contort audience engagement, and use multimedia to account for both the materiality of our primary sources and how we go about interpreting them.
Doctor or Doctress? serves as a rich repository of primary source documents and historical interpretation that examine the experiences of female doctors in the twentieth-century United States. The site’s design and layout make it relatively accessible and user-friendly to a wide variety of audiences. Exploring themes of gender, race, class and politics, the exhibit effectively enriches “canonical” secondary sources, such as textbooks, wherein conclusions have been drawn through unseen research.
"Study breaks (photograph), circa 1896." Doctor or Doctress.
Accessed November 14, 2017. http://doctordoctress.org/
Each section establishes a thematic bent for discussion. Some (but not all) of these topics emphasize historical context, comparing and contrasting contemporary facts with the past: “Today, about one-third of doctors are women. Over 150 years ago this was not the case.” (“Eliza Grier and Matilda Evans”). Video narration over primary source images and text clarifies the points being discussed (e.g., short definitions of the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Amendments in “Early African-American Woman Physicians”). While use of both text and video benefit different types of learners, their intermittent informational overlaps are repetitive, but still effective in reinforcing recurrent points. For example, both the text and video in “Women’s Hospitals in World War I France” state that “Women physicians were not permitted by the Allied countries” — stressing the prejudices women faced. Little elaboration is offered, however, leaving the audience with unanswered questions: What were the reasons behind these rules? Why weren’t exceptions made for wartime? One might argue that physical exhibits, with the benefit of docents and tour guides, allow for more user interaction and explanation. Conversely, online exhibits encourage online follow-up research, and might even include direct access to good primary and secondary source materials (i.e., portals).
Each section also includes questions for reflection that outline the information (making it digestible and useful for educators and students), while social media tools encourage viewers to actively engage with the resources (especially younger audiences). The exhibit successfully illustrates contextual relationships; the timeline places each topic in its temporal setting, while maps provide geographic setting for the sites discussed in each story. “Essential Evidence” acts as a catalog of historical documents relevant to the discussion, providing background for each item and a discussion of its significance within a larger thematic scheme. This analysis is accompanied by high quality scans of sources, their transcriptions, and audio recordings that resolve issues of accessibility. Additionally, document details hyperlink out to specific, cited sources; the transparency of the evidence lends credibility to the historical perspectives offered.
“Related Primary Sources” furnish additional points of interest that, while relevant to the overall topic, aren’t necessary to its understanding. However, the selection of what is most pertinent to each topic seems variable. For example, an article from The Medical Woman’s Journal describing refugee conditions is used as “Essential Evidence” in “WWI France,” yet another article from the Journal describing both race and gender discrimination in school and the workplace is a “Related Primary Source” in “Grier and Evans.” Additionally, the scans of both these journals are bulky, containing the entirety of the publications, potentially making it difficult to scroll through and find the articles being discussed. Luckily, there are bookmarks within the scans that block off specific segments that the curators likely found most significant.
Questions for a panel of public history professionals:
- When curating, how do you determine what counts as significant information versus nonessential? What does the audience need to know? How do these decisions change depending on the audience?
- How do you incorporate new technologies and media into your work? Is there pressure to do so in your field? How does it help and hinder collections management, curation, and exhibit design? Do you find yourself or your colleagues using tech for tech's sake, just to appeal to your audience's (or your own) interest in novelty?
- Are there emerging paradigms in your fields that disrupt how you conceptualize the work you do or reorient your methodologies?
- How do you do outreach and inreach? What have you done to make your collections, exhibits, and designs more inclusive? What do you think you could do better?