No 'one truth': history through a Web lens
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — "In the pre-dawn hours of February 29, 1704, a force of about 300 French and Native allies launched a daring raid on the Engish settlement of Deerfield, Massachusetts, situated in the Pocumtuck homeland." So begins the introduction to a website dedicated to what is, in essence, a footnote in history - an incident that most of us have never heard of, or quickly forgot.
But the innovative approach of this online commemoration will almost certainly give the raid a higher profile than it has ever had before.
Rather than follow the tradition of history being written by the eventual victors (in this case, endorsing the English position of an unprovoked attack made on a village of innocent settlers), the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association chose to examine the attack from multiple angles, and demonstrate that there is no 'one truth' about any historical event. Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704 allows the visitor to hear from diverse witnesses before reaching their own verdict.
Launched on the 300th anniversary of the event, Raid on Deerfield set out to do with a virtual exhibit that which would be almost impossible in a conventional museum setting - specifically, to simultaneously communicate five different cultural perspectives of the same historical event in a comprehensible manner. (In fact, as the site's title suggests, there are many more than five stories related here. The narratives of twenty-three individuals involved in the raid are also included in the production.)
From the splash page, with its concise visual summation of the raid's legacy, Deerfield takes visitors to an interactive Index of the site's four main features. First up, Play the introduction to 1704 provides a five-minute Flash overview of the circumstances leading up to the attack, and the website's goals in relating the stories of those involved. The style of the presentation also serves to put the surfer in a 'museum' frame of mind - as the video feels exactly like something you'd see in a museum kiosk or A.V. room before proceeding to the main exhibits.
Next, Meet the Five Cultures presents the main groups connected to the event - Kanienkehaka (Mohawk), Wôbanaki (Abenaki), Wendats (Huron), French, and English. With brief summaries that link to much more thorough examinations, a set of "Lifeways" essays include such factors as history, food and clothing, social structure, government, and even attitudes about war, for each community - giving visitors the background they need to intelligently consider each participant's actions.
In addition to the Lifeways pages, related sections include: Artifacts, Timeline, Maps (which are interactive), audio files of period songs and stories, and the narratives and biographies of individuals on all sides of the raid. (While biographies are compiled from the historical record, narratives fill in gaps with reasonable assumptions and extrapolations about real participants, and the creation of 'composite characters.')
All this material serves to add a human context to the historic, and as with the general histories, narratives relate their subjects' background and experiences prior to the raid as well as after.
The Story Menu brings everything together into a single inclusive interface which follows the saga from the 16th century to the present day. And while there's nothing to prevent the visitor from diving straight into this feature, it's a good idea to at least skim the other sections - to have a better idea of the material available. Once you have a grasp of the site's various resources, though, Story Menu is an exceptionally coherent and comprehensive tool to bring all the disparate elements together into an integrated exhibition.
Especially effective are the artist's renderings of specific events in the Deerfield record. In these cases, an interactive painting links to specific narratives as the mouse pointer rolls over various characters. To the right of the screen, the scene is described in a general context and then from the point of view of each of the five cultures by way of a tabbed interface. (As you choose a specific tab, characters from that group are spotlighted in the artwork.)
Below the paintings are popup menus of related People, Artifacts, Explanations (essays by historians) and Maps, and just in case you think you might be missing something, a "How to Use This Page" link stands by to remind you of all the options available. All of the additional features on these pages open into their own windows -as do the many links embedded in the site's text- so there's no fear of losing your place as you veer off on various tangents.
The last of the four features highlighted on the 1704 Home page, Enter the Conflict is actually one of the ten stages of the Story Menu - so if you've explored the latter, you won't need to revisit the former. On the other hand, if you're not sure whether you want to take the time for a thorough visit, "Conflict" will provide an engaging sample (and probably hook you into exploring deeper into the site).
Apart from its 'edu-tainment' value, this site is an effective reminder that the Web can be used as more than just another place to park existing museum exhibits. (For those interested, a report on the creation of the site is online at Telling an Old Story in a New Way: Raid on Deerfield.) In addition, Raid on Deerfield reminds us that there are as many sides to any story as there are people involved - something worth remembering on a daily basis.
Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704 can be found at http://www.1704.deerfield.history.museum/.