Title:Employing Identification in Online Museums
Authors:Billie Jones
Publication:MW2000: Museums and the Web 2000

Historically, museums have been the place of rare and often valuable collections, preserved and displayed predominantly for their aesthetic value. These collecting museums did not intend to educate; however, after World War II, modern science museums and children's museums were created around the message they wished to espouse rather than a collection they wished to exhibit (Weinberg and Elieli. The Holocaust Museum in Washington. New York: Rizzoli, 1995: 50). Instead of the collection as a museum's commodity, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill concludes that "Knowledge is now well understood as the commodity that museums offer" (Museum, Message, Media. London: Routledge, 1995: 2). In discussing historical museums, Weinberg and Elieli state that in such a museum, the narrative arranges knowledge like "building blocks in a continuous story line [designed to] educate in the sense of changing and developing their visitors mentally, emotionally, or morally" (The Holocaust Museum in Washington. New York: Rizzoli, 1995: 49). Such education is rhetorical, and as such requires, according to social critic Kenneth Burke, the establishment of identification. He writes, "You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his" (Burke, The Rhetoric of Motives New York: Prentice-Hall, 1950: 55; original emphasis). In order for a museum exhibit to persuade and thereby educate its audience, it must establish identification with that audience. Turning first to the physical presence of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), I will show how the designers of the Permanent Exhibition of the USHMM have attempted to build identification throughout the museum through the display of personal artifacts, as ordinary and yet as intimate as shoes and toothbrushes; and photographs, which emphasize the individual humanity of the victims rather than massive dehumanization of entire cultural groups. After I have illustrated some of the ways in which a physical museum attempts to establish identification, I will turn my attention to the ways in which a museum's online presence can also establish identification by which to educate and persuade its audience. Demonstrating goodwill toward the audience of an online museum, a largely anonymous and widely diverse audience, is more difficult than establishing identification with visitors to a physical space. First of all, there are no physical beings with whom to identify; cyberspace breeds an impersonal environment. Furthermore, designers of online museum exhibits do not have the luxury of spinning knowledge with a single, narrative thread; cyberspace valorizes hypertextuality-not linearity. Nevertheless, online museum designers can still work to establish identification with their cyber visitors. Looking at the online presence of two Holocaust museums, the USHMM and Yad Vashem, I will attempt to show design components that help to establish identification, as well as to suggest other ways that identification could be utilized in these online museums-and others.