Museum App Review: Oklahoma History Center

While exploring how museum apps are being used by state historical societies, I came across the Oklahoma History Center’s Explore History application. While it is admittedly one of the least glamorous museum apps available for mobile devices, it intrigued me both as one that appears to be fairly inexpensive in design but that also reflects a good deal of creative effort. As someone who has never visited the Oklahoma History Center, I immediately searched the mobile app for a description of the purpose, location, and holdings of the organization. Luckily, I found this right at the top of the home screen under “General Information & Space Hallway”. It provided not only a description of the Oklahoma Historical Society but also details for its galleries, research center, hours & admission, and a whole page of contact information. One button brings users to a summary of the preservational work of the state historic society and another to an extensive and easily searchable collections webpage.

Going back to the homepage, one can click on any of the six permanent exhibitions. With each the app gives a short summary of the content in each gallery, suggestions of ways to move through the space, and a map of how the collections are organized. Some of these galleries lead to additional buttons that unlock “extra content” when you “visit the zone on the museum grounds”. This locked feature adds an element of excitement to an app that otherwise is totally accessible before one reaches the museum.

One unique feature through the app is the ability to earn badges as you answer questions in different parts of the museum. This allows visitors to track their progress and to feel accomplished as they complete each gallery. I do wonder, however, how often visitors will really use this feature. If the app included other activities to complete in each gallery, I could understand users being more inclined to click on the trivia feature as they leave. But since the app serves better as an orientation to each gallery and would not be used in the space besides maybe the map feature, it would be inconvenient to keep opening up your phone in each room just for a virtual badge. Yet still this could be a good way to engage younger visitors.

Having never previously heard of the Oklahoma Historical Society, I was concerned when first approaching the app that it would not be an actively developing application. To my surprise, after double-checking the content, Explore History does reflect an updated account of the museum’s exhibits and visitor information. Most helpfully, it prominently displays notes about closed sections of the site. Therefore, this app is a useful resource not only as an added resource within the museum but also as preparation for a visit.

The clear visual organization of the app (with each section labeled and each gallery assigned a relevant icon) makes Explore History a convenient resource that provides useful historical content and institutional information. Most importantly it communicates its purpose first-thing on the homepage, so that visitors do not have to waste time asking questions to the staff about using the application or orienting to its functions. Overall, Explore History strikes a good balance between providing enough information to encourage and orient visitation and being simple enough to also use on-site. While it does not offer any activities too novel or exciting, the application is impressive for a small, regional history museum. Its evidently up-to-date information also implies that the organization is continually changing the app and could presumably add more interactive features in the future.

Website Analysis

This list is coming out of a search through similar sites that all aim to provide resources on local New Jersey history. The majority of these sites have been created with very little monetary investment. This is true almost regardless of organizational and institutional affiliations, as some of the most difficult sites to use are ones that are supported by Rutgers University and the New Jersey Historical Commission.  Yet, despite this challenge there is a wide diversity among these sites in terms of how easy they are to navigate through, how clearly they communicate their purpose and usefulness, and how extensive are their information and materials. One major take-away from this assignment is that older websites that are never created anew are usually more confusing and less well-organized than those that are entirely reconstructed from time to time. I have picked out a few here that fit pretty plainly into the categories “the good”, “the bad”, and “the ugly” to understand why some are more friendly for web users than others.

The Good

Trenton Historical Society:  http://trentonhistory.org

The Trenton Historical Society has a surprisingly impressive website for an organization without a physical presence in the city at all. Because of this, the historical society has rightly recognized that it’s virtual presence is central to its work and success as a body and resource for local history. The site links easily to additional pages for historic sites in the area, even making it possible for visitors to buy tickets online. The detailed descriptions of historical neighborhoods and streets as well as transcribed materials including industrial and genealogical records available on the website represent another key strength of the Trenton History website. One major drawback of the site is its oversight of almost any history post 1920s, which is troubling for a city that has changed so drastically since that period. However, the site is partnered with several scholars who work on the history of late twentieth century, so presumably the digitization of those sources may be forthcoming. One particular feature of the website that makes it stand out from other similar sites is its visible inclusion of a tab to transport internet users to the old website for the Trenton Historical Society. The aesthetically pleasing and well-organized appearance of the site is largely a result of a recent effort to upgrade and expand the previous site, but by linking to the website in its older version, long-term users of the site have the option to continue to access it as they have previously done.

The Bad

New Jersey Digital Highway: https://njdigitalhighway.org

In contrast to the one described above, the New Jersey Digital Highway project offers a website that feels much less up to date. Although it appears to have changed minimally over the last few years, the documents and links are still functionally available to users of the site. Begun as a project in 1997 by faculty from New Jersey secondary schools in collaboration with The Alexander Library at Rutgers University, the site offers an incredible range of primary sources, relevant historical information, and teaching materials (including several critical analysis document sheets as guidance). Twenty-three lessons total  ranging from the “American Revolution” to “Social Protest of the 1960s and 1970s” each lead to a couple dozen other links. While these resources are extremely extensive the site can be very difficult to navigate as you often have to click through multiple pages to find a single document. Almost equally as useful, the New Jersey Digital Highway offers a clickable map of the state that lists hundreds of cultural organizations by county and category. Such a list is not easily available anywhere else on the internet, so its important contribution to local history outweighs the inconvenience and static content of the site.

The Ugly

Old Newark: http://oldnewark.com/mainindex.php

Old Newark began as a genealogical resource in 1998, when an experienced researcher of his family history began sharing transcriptions of documents and guides to locating these sources online. By the early 2000s it became more of a community space for people sharing their memories from the city. This can be seen in the way the site is divided into an “Old Newark” section (which offers mostly digitized images, transcribed materials, and interpretations of these sources) and a “Memories” section (which allows visitors of the page to add to the over 1,000 posts about the city, share photos, and add to a trivia board.) The home page links to a Facebook that has almost 5,000 followers and updates daily. While extremely valuable as a virtual center for discussing local history and genealogy, the site is extremely difficult to navigate. While the creator of the site writes that it has changed much since the late 1990s, its layout has not yet been organized clearly. Finding a particular source or historical sketch often involves a process of clicking through many pages. There is a basic search option that takes users off of the page entirely and doesn’t allow for searching by geographic or thematic categories. For a website reliant on crowdsourcing and unaffiliated by any major cultural organizations, the site is a really incredible resource, but one that is very time-consuming and frustrating to sift through.