Museums and the Web 1999

Best of the Web

Archives & Museum Informatics
2008 Murray Ave.,
Suite D
Pittsburgh, PA
15217 USA

Join our Mailing List.

Published: March 1999.


Once Upon a Time: Using New Narratives in Educational Web Sites

Bart Marable, Terra Incognita Interactive Media, USA

Storytelling - our civilization's oldest art form for sharing ideas - continues to offer effective techniques for reaching audiences through the Web. Museums developing online content can leverage the power of storytelling to create educational experiences that are both more cohesive and more engaging to the user. Just as the cinema and the television developed their own unique approaches to storytelling, the Web offers new techniques for extending this most ancient of art forms.

Living at a time when technology is transforming the ways in which we communicate is both exciting and confusing. Such confusion begs for the authority of an author or director. Writing in 1989, Ted Nelson opined that "interactive software needs the talents of a Disney, a Griffith, a Welles, a Hitchcock, a Capra, a Bob Abel" in order to truly come into its own as an art form. Nearly a decade later, in his popular manifesto Interface Culture, Steven Johnson continued to point out this gulf in our creative sensibilities when it comes to the human-computer interface and digital content.

In her influential book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, author Janet Murray offers an excellent examination of the ways that digital technology is reshaping the role and form of narrative environments in our society, especially as a literary vehicle. In her analysis Murray outlines four properties that she considers essential in defining the unique qualities of digital narrative environments. "Digital environments," Murray writes, "are procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic. The first two properties make up most of what we mean by the vaguely used word interactive; the remaining two properties help to make digital creations seem as explorable and extensive as the actual world, making up much of what we mean when we say that cyberspace is immersive.."

In this paper, we will examine the ways that these interactive and immersive characteristics of digital environments can be used to create effective stories for educational audiences. While many of the characteristics of fictional or non-educational stories are similar (if not identical) to educational ones, for the purposes of this paper, we will limit our focus to the ways that educational content developers can utilize interactive narratives.

Interactive spaces

During the early days of June 1942, the course of the Second World War was changed just north of a tiny atoll in the North Pacific called Midway. The story of how the United States won its first major naval victory in the war against Japan is one of the most compelling and tragic of the war. In the ensuing battle, Japan lost four aircraft carriers, a major blow to their war machine. But America was not without its casualties as well. The hardest blow came when, at the height of its victory, the valiant USS Yorktown succumbed to enemy fire and sank.

Some fifty-six years after the Yorktown vanished beneath the waves, in an expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society, Dr. Robert Ballard led a team to locate and document the final resting places of the Yorktown and the four Japanese carriers lost during the battle. Ballard, who a decade earlier had led the team that discovered the Titanic, faced several unique challenges on this particular expedition, not the least of which was the fact that this time the world was watching over his shoulder, via the Internet.

  "Return to Midway" (, the Web site produced by National Geographic to document Ballard's expedition, demonstrates some of the values and the potential risks of real-time interactive narratives. With real-time stories, it is important to develop a foundation on which the story can draw, in order to give the story context and direction. For "Return to Midway," we built a solid core of content that could stand on its own even if the expedition was cancelled. A history of the battle, schematics of the ships, biographies of key individuals, and interviews with team members, all greeted the user as soon as the site went live. To this "fixed" side of the story's content, we added a "live" element: dispatches and photos sent from real-time expedition. The fixed content not only gave us a safety net in the event that expedition failed, but it also helped to set the tone and voice of the site. The live elements simply built on top of this fixed core.

Interactive narratives also have the potential to revolutionize the traditional roles of both storyteller and audience, blurring the distinction between the two. In their traditional relationship, such as in a dramatic performance, the audience is privy to the action of the storytellers through an imaginary fourth wall. This one-way broadcast model of storytelling has worked very effectively for millennia: oral narratives around the tribal fire, plays on the stage, radio dramas, films on the screen, and televisions shows on the set. By and large, audiences are the passive observers of the action on the stage, watching as the story unfolds as if they were not present.

Digital storytelling offers new opportunities for involving the audience. Consider the way that the story was extended for one reader in the online forum of "Return to Midway." Vince Fitzgibbon wrote:
My father was not on the Yorktown but on the USS HAMMOND, the destroyer that went down beside it while they were pulling it back to Pearl. When I heard the news this morning that they had found where the Yorktown was, I immediately called him in Florida. My father spent his whole life in the Navy (30 years), but never shared with me very many stories about it. Perhaps because by the time I was old enough to listen, he had long since retired. Even during and after I spent 6 years in the Navy myself(Nuclear Submarine Force), he still never really discussed his experiences. However this morning when I called him and told him the news about the Yorktown, it was if I opened his heart. He recanted and painted pictures of the day the Hammond sank as if it happened only yesterday. I'm 37 years old now but the way I am crying while I write this story, you would think I was still stitting [sic] on his lap as a kid no more than 37 months old. To everyone involved with the Yorktown expedition, I just have to say thank you for a special memory I got to share with my dad today. They just don't come around like that very often. I just wish he wasn't so damn scared of computers, I'm sure you could write the sequel to Titanic if he got to see and read some of this stuff.
The important thing to notice is not the extremely moving scenario between Fitzgibbon and his father. After all, a documentary or magazine article could have just as easily opened this doorway. What is distinctive of this interactive narrative is the fact that Fitzgibbon was able to add his own piece to the story, making the narrative richer for the next reader. In this way, he was actually helping to tell the story.

When "Return to Midway" went live, we had included a single first-person account in the site. Very quickly, other veterans and their children began to contribute their accounts and photos. Before long the site was posting new content both about the live expedition in the field, and about the experiences of the veterans who served at Midway. For this site, at least, the audience became the author.


Some interactive stories offer participants the ability to assume multiple perspectives of the same event, in turn adding richness and complexity to the narrative. Although interactive environments offer the best medium for multiple perspectives, other media have already experimented with the approach. In Hamlet on the Holodeck, Murray examines multiform stories in media such as the cinema and literature, and how these stories foreshadowed the multiple-perspective stories of interactive media. According to Murray, multiform stories are written or dramatic narratives that present "a single situation or plotline in multiple versions, versions that would be mutually exclusive in our ordinary experience." In well-known movies such as It's a Wonderful Life, Back to the Future, and Groundhog Day, the plots revolve around seeing the outcome of the same stories change through the inclusion of an alternate set of events.

Interactive stories carry these multiple perspectives further by allowing the user to choose which version to follow or which events to avoid. Non-fictional stories offer interactive storytellers particular challenges when using parallel perspectives, but the model is nonetheless a powerful one to use to increase awareness of the impact of point of view and multiple truths.

In a Web site called "At the Tomb of Tutankhamen" ( we worked with National Geographic to provide multiple perspectives on an event that happened over seventy years ago. The event was the official opening of the tomb of the pharoah Tutankhamen in 1923. National Geographic had sent correspondent Maynard Owen Williams to Egypt to report on the ceremony, and later that year the Magazine published his written account and photographs he took on the scene.

In the interactive revival of this classic story, National Geographic decided to give the user two "sides" of the same story, both of which came, ironically, from Maynard Owen Williams. One perspective of the story was the official account printed in the Magazine. For this side of the story, the article and its corresponding photos were presented as if they had been sent as "live" dispatches from the field. It was an interesting twist to make the printed account more engaging.

But beneath the official story, National Geographic also included an important subplot in the interactive version. The content for this subplot came from letters that Williams sent back to National Geographic's editors as he was working in the field. It reveals interesting insights into Williams' experience unseen in the official story: his disappointment in what he saw in the tomb, his effort to establish the young National Geographic Society as a reputable scientific organization, and his professional conflicts with Lord Carnarvon, the underwriter of Howard Carter's expedition. Through the Web both of these stories are told simultaneously. The user is free to interpret the "real" story for himself.

Immersive spaces

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC is one of the world's most compelling educational storyspaces, both because of its subject-matter and because of its structured narrative experience. In the museum's hauntingly appropriate building, the visitor follows a chronological story of the origins, events, and impact of the Holocaust. The experience begins with a slow elevator ride from the ground floor of the museum to the top floor. As the darkened elevator creeps slowly upward, a carefully-timed video clip and chilling first person oral account of what it was like to first encounter the indescribable horrors of the concentration camps plays above the visitors' heads. Combined with the motion of the elevator, the presentation gives visitors the feeling that the elevator is somehow moving them backward through time. The clip describes scenes from 1945, but this is not their final destination. As the ride concludes, visitors disembark into exhibitions detailing life in pre-Nazi Germany. With a 30-second elevator ride, the museum has transported visitors back 70 years in history.

Interstitial experiences such as the one the Holocaust museum handles so masterfully can also find appropriate and effective use on the Web. These often overlooked entry spaces into sites have become useful ingredients for building interest in the online narrative. With attention rates on the Web so low, the first several screens of a site are crucial in "selling" the visitor on the worth of the narrative to follow, just as a film may use a gripping prologue scene to hook the viewer.

Most sites on the Web today dispense with all notions of an entryway, choosing instead to place the user directly in the middle of the action, with the site's top-level sections apparent from the start. Forgoing the entryway is sometimes the correct decision, especially with often-used reference sites. For instance, Yahoo!'s directory of Web sites would be poorly served with such an interstitial section.

Other sites favor a single splash screen, preceding the core site, which begins to set the tone and character of the site before the user actually enters the heart of the site. Such screens become boundary markers that not only help the site establish its voice from the outset, but also serve to separate the site from the rest of the Web. Critics of splash screens argue that their creative impact is not worth the extra time the user must take to download them, and some repeat users find splash screens inhibit their return visits.

Sometimes, however, the impact of an online story can be enhanced by expanding the interstitial experience beyond a single screen in order to capture the user's interest and imagination. Instead of simply hinting at the narrative to follow, these screens can actually become central to the site's story, by distancing the visitor from the outside Web and turning his attention to the story at hand.

Interstitial spaces can be educational as well as dramatic. In "Return to Midway," we were looking for a way to explain the extreme depth at which Ballard's expedition team would be working to locate the remains of the aircraft carriers. At three miles deep, this expedition was the deepest yet conducted by Ballard. However, very few people could truly comprehend how incredibly deep three miles actually was, since our human sense of scale has no reference by which to understand it. To answer this problem, we introduced an interstitial space into the Web site that would accomplish this feat.

Visitors enter the site at a single splash screen that briefly explains the history and reason behind the expedition. This screen invites them to "dive" down to the ocean floor with Ballard. This "dive down" interstitial experience is in fact only a single scrolling page which reproduces in exact scale the depth at which the expedition was working. At the top, the visitor sees the ocean surface and sky with instructions on diving down. Scrolling down the page, the ocean water darkens as the visitor dives deeper and deeper. Along the way, the visitor meets facts and figures that give the depths understandable meaning: the height of the Empire State Building, and the depth at which the Titanic was found, for example. The actual HTML page is about six feet in length, which is long for any document of text. But by the time user gets to the end of the page, he feels like he has dived down three miles below the ocean. Appropriately, at the bottom of the dive down, the visitor finds the main menu of the Web site, and for the rest of his stay he feels far enough removed from the rest of the Web to focus on the site's story. The interstitial space has connected the visitor to the narrative.

Other interstitial spaces accomplish this effect in different fashions. In "At the Tomb of Tutankhamen," the space draws conventions from cinematic narratives to transport the visitor back in time to 1923. As the visitor enters the site, the space is completely dark, much like the darkened cinema. Then as a mysterious Egyptian chord plays, the site's title fades in and then out again. From the black appears the year - 1923 - and then the location - Luxor, Egypt - to place the user in space and time. These fade, and then appears a more traditional prologue introducing the rest of the site's story. This interstitial has served to move the user in time as well as space.

The spatial quality of Web sites is certainly not limited to the entryway. Some sites use a spatial approach to make the story more engaging. Early efforts of this approach have the user wandering around a three-dimensional museum, moving from exhibit to exhibit, or painting to painting. This approach carries over the conceptual baggage of physical spaces, requiring the visitor to walk hallways or ride elevators to see content as he would have to do if he was visiting the physical museum.

However, three-dimensional immersive experiences can be interwoven with two-dimensional spaces for easier user navigation or even as a surprise experience to make the story more memorable. For example in "At the Tomb of Tutankhamen," most of the site is modeled on the two-dimensional metaphor of the National Geographic Magazine, allowing the user to navigate from "page" to "page." However, when the user follows the author into the burial chamber, a strikingly different navigation approach greets the user. A photo of the tomb's entrance invites the user to "enter" the tomb. Doing so takes the user into a spatial mockup of the tomb's layout. Choosing points of interest in the space brings photos to life, as if the user were standing inside the tomb. At the end of the section, the user is led out of the three-dimensional tomb, and back into two-dimensional space. For the user, the climax of the story is associated with a radical change in navigation.

Other sites can package the three-dimensional experience as the "E ticket attraction" of the site. In an upcoming site, National Geographic invites the user to explore the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The centerpiece of the site is a three-dimensional kelp forest that visitors can dive through using the DeepWorker submarine. As the visitor descends through the kelp forest, he is told the story of the forest's ecosystem. Additionally, the user is able to select fish as they swim by for more information about how they fit into the story of the kelp forest. Even as the marvelous Monterey Bay Aquarium seeks to bring the outside inside, such an experience as the immersive kelp forest take the story of the ocean's ecosystem to the next level by removing the distinctions between inside and outside.

In conclusion, while storytelling on the Web has a rich heritage on which to draw, as an artform it's still very much in its infancy. Just as in the early days of the cinema, when close-ups and dissolves were leading edge innovations, today's Web designers are now discovering new techniques, devices, and conventions for telling stories. Some of the techniques are being used by interactive storytellers, while many others have yet to be discovered. Fortunately, even in its current low-bandwidth incarnation, the interactive story space of the Web is still very much a terra incognita for the next generation of Disneys, Lucases, and Spielbergs.