Site Comparison: Thomas Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, NJ

The Physical Site

  • What is the argument about history embodied in the site? How well does the physical design communicate that argument? What is the interpretive point of view?

The Thomas Edison National Historic Park is run by the US National Park Service.  As its mission statement, it states that it hopes “to promote an … understanding and appreciation of [Edison’s] life and extraordinary achievements…”  It consists of two physical sites: the remaining buildings of Edison’s West Orange laboratories and his family home located nearby.  Both sites promotes the idea of Edison as a singular genius who originated many of the 20th centuries greatest innovations, from electric light to sound recording and motion pictures. At the lab site, there is scant mention of any of the scientists who worked with Edison in creating these wonders, so that the “great man” theory is the overriding theme.  Although original workspaces are shown, who worked there and the working conditions that they endured are not mentioned.  The house tour looks at Edison’s home life, with the narrative again focusing on his “singular genius.”

  • Who is the primary audience for this work? What types of visitors are actually in the space?

On weekdays, K-12 school groups predominate, with students mostly from lower grades attending as part of a field trip to enhance their studies of science and history.  On weekends, those interested in the history of sound recording, film making, and Edison’s life in general are most common, many of whom are retired or older people.

  • What are the primary items used to communicate the interpretation? What supports are used to frame and contextualize the materials?

Visitors purchase tickets for entry in the visitors center; it houses a small gift shop and theater where a short film that tells Edison’s story is on a regular loop. In the lab buildings, Edison’s original library, a room from the original manufacturing plant, and display cases with various items that Edison invented or made are on display. Narrative cards are placed in each room that give a brief overview of the room’s contents and use; individual items are labeled with brief “museum tags.”  A Park Ranger is stationed in the library, which begins the tour of the main lab building, to give a brief overview of the site.  Regular demonstrations of Edison phonographs are given in the restored recording lab.  A restoration of Edison’s first film studio, The Black Maria, is on site with a small descriptive plaque but is not operational.  The house is only accessible by guided tour.  Besides the tour narration, there are tour cards in each room that point out key furnishings.

  • How is the site laid out? Is it easy to navigate? Does it encourage a single flow of traffic?

The lab building tour is clearly laid out.  Visitors enter a small hallway that leads to Edison’s library where the tour begins.  They then can tour the two floors of the factory building.  A small bus takes visitors from the lab site to Edison’s home where they can take a guided tour of the house tour.

  • Are there any interactive elements in the physical space? What are they and how effective are they?

None of the equipment can be operated by visitors; the books in the library are roped off and can’t be examined; while there are on-site demonstrations of the recording equipment, visitors can’t interact with the machinery.

  • Are their curators/interpreters/docents in the space? How are they interacting with the public?

There is a Park Ranger at the beginning of the tour.  Although there is a small out building on the factory site that is labeled the “archives,” not much material is housed there (most is off site) and there are no research facilities.  The house tour is guided by a Ranger who gives a scripted narration but also answers visitor’s questions.

  • How would you change the physical exhibit to make it more effective?

I would add more interactive materials.  Because the site services young students, they might find it engaging to have the opportunity to conduct their own experiments, or participate in hands-on activities such as making their own sound recordings.  Having videos demonstrating the manufacture and use of Edison’s various inventions would also enhance the visitor’s experience.


The Digital Site:

  • What is the argument about history that is embodied in the digital representation? How well does the design communicate that argument? What is the interpretive point of view of the site?

The site’s landing page is headlined “Where Modern America Was Invented,” again emphasizing that Edison was the singular creator of modern life; photos of Edison are prominent on every page of the site. Two large focus boxes direct the user to two topics: “The Origins of Sound Recording” and “Are You the Next Thomas Edison?”  Four smaller boxes focus on planning a visit; permits for on-site filming; becoming a “junior ranger” for the site, and how to write a school report.  All of these emphasize the use of the site by school children, a key audience for the site.

  • Who is the primary audience for this work? How well does it succeed in delivering materials that are appropriate for that audience? What assumptions does it make about the audience?

The primary audience is clearly visitors to the park, with an emphasis on how to visit, hours, location, etc.  The secondary audience is school children, with some interactive features, historical readings, and some pedagogic material.

  • How is the site laid out? Is it easy to navigate? Does it encourage a single flow of traffic?

The opening page, with its two feature boxes and four smaller ones, is relatively clearly laid out, but it obscures the fact that the site offers far more material beyond just information for school children and visitors.  To get to the heart of the historical material on the site, you have to use a small pull down menu labeled “Learn About the Park”; some might miss seeing this on first visit to the page.  The logic of how topics are presented is not easy to follow; the only way to take a guided tour of the site is through the “Junior Ranger” link, and it is not embedded into the site but requires exiting to a Google interactive display.

  • What kinds of content does the site offer? How does this differ from the content that resides in the physical space?

The site primarily presents “linked documents” that are similar to the information plaques and cards offered on the physical site, although they offer deeper information.  Interesting audio material—including early Edison recordings—are embedded in the discussion of the history of sound recording, but many more are available as playlists, which are not immediately discoverable.  There are documentary videos but they are not embedded in the site; instead the reader is referred to a YouTube playlist, which links to the site’s YouTube channel.  It takes at least three “clicks” to get to an actual video to watch.  There is no onsite video capability (beyond the introductory film in the visitor’s site) and audio is limited to the daily demonstrations of Edison’s phonographs.

  • Does the site have participatory or interactive elements? What are they? What does the user take away from these experiences?

The interactive element (“Are You the Next Thomas Edison?”) for school children was built in Flash so it is no longer viewable.  A downloadable Junior Ranger Booklet includes printed activities and links out to a Google interactive map of the site itself where students are invited to identify different items on display.

  • Are there opportunities to interact with the site’s creators? If so, how? Is this interaction central to the success of the site?

Buried in the “How to Write A Paper” section of the site is the ability to ask a question of a Ranger that opens a pop-up email form.  Interaction is certainly not central to this site.

  • How would you change the digital experience to make it more effective?

I’d redo the landing page to emphasize three main areas:  For Visitors; For Students; and For Research/Scholars.  This would more clearly break down the content of the site and make it easier to navigate.  Obviously, the Flash-based student experience should be updated into HTML5 so it functions, and more interactive activities should be added.  Videos should be embedded in the site itself rather than being housed separately on YouTube.  A link to the database of archival material held at the site should be included, with the ability to search for items and access to digitized materials.  More opportunities for feedback to the Rangers and archivists should be provided.  Links by type of material—documents; photographs; maps and diagrams; audio; video; interactive activities should be offered at the bottom of the landing page for quick access.

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