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Timeline as interface, in the museum and on the web For most public visitors to history, whether in school, in museums, or online, the timeline seems a natural, intuitive, way to present and understand the past. After all, what simpler metaphor for the past could there be than a timeline, with its suggestion of a direct connection between history and physical or virtual space? The motion of your body through an exhibition, or the motion of your eye across the page or down the screen, seems to recreates historical time. You move from the beginning of an exhibit to the end, from left to right across the page, from the top of a web page to the bottom, and you move in some roughly corresponding way from the beginning of the story to the end. One can understand why one historian describes the timeline as a bit of banal tedium. 1 The timeline may seem natural, or obvious, but, of course, it is learned. Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, authors of a recent book on the subject, point out that it is a fairly recent invention, based on a modern notion of history as linear, and an even more modern style of representation of that linear history. For many readers in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, they write of the time before timelines, time looked like a table preferably one subdivided into squares by horizontal axes. Joseph Priestley invented the first modern timelines in the mid 18th century, and by the mid-nineteenth century, it had become a symbol of historical understanding. 2 But abstractions, no matter how powerful or useful, should be applied with care. A timeline gives us power by lifting us above and outside history, and by calling our attention to what its designer thinks is important. It covers vast territory at a glance, but it does this by leaving out a great deal. The timeline carries with it assumptions about the narrative structure of history, and about the primacy of chronological understanding. More to the point, it hides those assumptions remarkably well; timelines seem natural.
Andrew Behrendt, Review of Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline | Essays in History, Essays in History, n.d., http://www.essaysinhistory.com/review/2011/37. 2 Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg, Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010) quotes from p. 76 and p. 178. For an online gallery of timelines from the 18th century to the present, including interactive timelines, see Gallery of Data Visualization - Timelines , n.d., http://www.datavis.ca/gallery/timelines.php. A brief history of timelines by Rosenberg is at http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/13/timelineIntro.php.
Timelines, historian of memory Maurice Halbwachs writes, are mnemonic schemes for immobilizing the past in fixed sequences. They are chronologies, the simplest form of narrative: narrative with the explanation stripped out. And of course, even sophisticated narrative is challenged today from all sides. Historians of memory want to put facts into their own mnemonic schemes; historians of the longue durée want to step outside of traditional narrative; postmodern historians want to do in narrative altogether.3 Narrative and its younger brother, the timeline from the begats of the Bible to lists of monarchs to the rise and fall of civilization are places where the appearance of inevitability serves political power. Beyond the philosophy of narrative history built into the timeline, there are other problems in what they suggest about historical change. We don t, in fact, walk through time; we stay in one place in the river of time, picking the direction we want to head in. That is, we make choices about what we should do next, and we make them without knowing what s coming down the river of time. This is, from the perspective of the teacher, the most important failing of the timeline; it argues for the inevitability of history. It eliminates the choices that were made. It suggests that there were no alternatives; timelines have no branches of paths not taken. The timeline makes us think that history is shaped with perfect foresight; that what happened had to have happened. It works well with a Whig history that suggests that the past must have led to the present, along the path that it did. The timeline seems like a pathway that we had to have followed, rather than a photograph of a well-worn path that we ve taken. The timeline is an abstraction, and the differences of our experiences of the timeline and actual historical time is worth considering, as a place to start thinking about the power and distortions of the timeline as interface. y At its most fundamental, the timeline is a kind of visualization, and like all such interface abstraction, it brings events or artifacts into groupings, unified sets of data,´ making them more than discreet, individual objects.´4 It connects bits in a structured way, and the creator of the timeline is the one who chooses that structure. The timeline is an edited version of the flow of time. We pick and choose what to include, and what goes where. The timeline lets us artificially alter our speed and focus. This is the brilliance of timeline, of course; it abstracts in useful ways. We can zoom in and out,
Jacques Le Goff, Is Politics Still the Backbone of History?, Daedalus 100, no. 1 (January 1, 1971): 1 19. Maurice Halbwachs, The Collective Memory, trans. Francis and Vida Ditter (1950; New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 78-106. ADD also Hayden White 4 Treveor Owens and Jefferson Bailey, From Records to Data with Viewshare: An Argument, An Interface, A Design , 2012, 2; More generally, see Martyn Jessop, Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity, Literary and Linguistic Computing 23, no. 3 (September 1, 2008): 281 293.
covering now years, new decades, now millennia. We can break out categories of interest, and include details where they seem important. We might sum this up in this way: to live history is to be immersed in the flow of time. To represent and even more, to understand, history, we need to see it from outside. The timeline allows us not merely to see history from outside, but even more powerfully, from above. It s a map, and maps have power. Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton give us a detailed history of timeline in their book. They don t consider it beyond print, though, and it is as a dynamic interface that it is perhaps most interesting. So let us consider how this map of time is used in three types of dynamic presentations: in the classroom, in the physical space of museums, and in the virtual space of the web. Classrooms K-12 history teachers are enamored of timelines. Timelines decorate the bulletin boards of many a social science classroom, and are a staple of homework projects even though there seems to be only limited evidence of their utility in learning history. The debate over their use is related to the long history of debate over the role of memorization of dates in history teaching, a debate that in the past few years has been tied to conservative critiques of the decline of traditional history. 5 It s also tied to changing understandings of the way that children understand the nature of time, and the past. 6 The most recent research suggests that timelines are useful in teaching if they are interactive, constructed by the students over time, by adding images and descriptions; if they connect to moments in history, not to history as an abstraction; and if they suggest that students are part of history, not separate from it: With interactive timelines as the stimulus for detailed descriptions supported with visual aids, children come to realize the how and why of change . . .. By including richer content and by embedding it within such a context, the teacher helps the students construct a richer network of understandings than they would develop if they limited themselves to the content in textbooks and to skills exercises designed only to determine if they can sequence a series of events correctly.7 P. Harnett, Heroes & Heroines; Exploring a Nation s Past. The History Curriculum in State Primary Schools in the Twentieth Century, History of Education Society Bulletin 62 (1998): 98. 6 For more on the history and the debate over their utility in learning, see William Stow and Terry Haydny, "Issues in the teaching of chronology," Chapter 7 in James Arthur and Robert Phillips, Issues in History Teaching (Psychology Press, 2000).pp. 83-84. 7 Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman, History Is Alive: Teaching Young Children About Changes over Time, Social Studies 94, no. 3 (January 1, 2003): 110.
And so teachers have come up with a panoply of ways to make timelines interactive in the classroom; the web is full of suggestions. Students can wear images of events, or objects, and have to find their right place in the timeline; they can add images, or connections; they can connect timelines with other materials. The potential for interactivity of the classroom timeline might inspire the creators of timelines in museums and on the web. Museums The timeline is probably the most common way of representing history in museums. It s the default exhibit style for history exhibitions, for good reason. You can t go wrong arranging things in chronological order. It plays to what visitors know and expect. History s about time, and the timeline highlights time, and represents time in a simple way. (When the Minnesota Historical Society went alphabetical, rather than chronological, with its 1992 Minnesota A-Z, it was considered quite a breakthrough!8) And it has a visceral appeal. Museum timelines are first created by their curators, and then recreated by the visitor as he or she walks through the exhibit, and through time. The visitor s body recreating society s movement through history. The metaphor gains power and the appearance of truth from its physical reality. Timeline-based exhibitions seem to be most common in museums with an interest in representing the present as the natural outgrowth of the past. Technology museums want to represent progress, and a timeline seems a natural way to show improvement over time. National museums want to suggest the inevitability of the nation-state, and so they too turn to timelines. And so, the German National Museum lets you walk through centuries of German history, with each section label literally a piece of a timeline. The Smithsonian s National Museum of American History has tried for decades to create a timeline of American history to make the museum easier for the public to understand. 9 Historical museums without an interest in progress, or with an ideology that suggests the value of the good old days resist timelines: house museums tend to focus on a moment in time, and often fight the suggestion that, say, each room of a house be from a different era. Memorials, too, are about moments in time, not about change over time. The few visitor studies I ve found suggest that in general, visitors seem to like the straightforwardness of the timeline approach. They like the structure.10 But just because the structure is there doesn t mean that it s used. Visitors pick and choose their topics in an exhibition, independent of the hopes and wishes of the Barbara Franco, What s New in Exhibits?, CRM 5 (2000): 46. See chapter ? of W. Walker, A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian, Folklife, and the Making of the Modern Museum (Brandeis University, 2007). 10 Add OPANDA reports on AOTM and POF.
curator; just because there s a timeline doesn t mean that visitors choose their topics in chronological order!11 Exhibition curators obsess over ways tweak the timeline. How might they take advantage of the power of the visceral experience of walking through history, but still suggest that choices were made, that it might have been different? Some alternatives I ve heard discussed: y Timelines punctuated by decision points. Stop at key moments presidential elections, battles, inventions and suggest that history took a certain direction for a reason, because certain decisions were made. Overlapping, or intersecting, timelines. Might an exhibit suggest the complexity of history, suggest that different groups saw things differently, through more than one timeline? Mixing place and time. Geography can trump chronology, and using place, rather than time, on occasion, can help to complicate the simplicity suggested by the timeline.
In classrooms, the building of the timeline is more important than its viewing, how about museums? Might there be a way to have visitors co-construct the timeline, adding their own stories, perhaps, into this easy-to-understand framework? I don t know of any examples. Might a timeline undermine itself, somehow, with missing pieces, paths not taken, gaps for the visitor to fill in: how did we get from here to there, from this moment to that? These might be hard to do in the museum. But in the virtual world. . . .
The Virtual TImeline Moving from the physical to the virtual seems, always, to have the potential to solve our problems. Online, it seems, everything is possible. Or so it seems at first. The virtual timeline goes back to the earliest days of teaching on the PC, and then on the web. (As with much of early virtual history, though, it seems impossible to recreate.) Early on, much of this was shovelware : material from books or exhibits put into a scrolling format for the screen. But the flexibility of the screen soon added power to the timeline. y Zooming. Timelines can zoom to cover a day or a millennium at detail, connecting time at many scales. Related to this: a zoomed timeline can also allow for endless detail, solving the graphic design challenges that led to the
Jay Rounds, Strategies for the Curiosity-Driven Museum Visitor, Curator: The Museum Journal 47, no. 4 (October 1, 2004): 389 412.
some of the most remarkable printed timelines but providing choices about where to look, and in what detail. New connections. A well-designed timeline might allow one to jump around, making new connections that would be impossible to make in a less dynamic format. Interchange. Perhaps timelines could be connected together, across the web. The key metadata for a timeline is, after all, a pretty standard format: it s a date. Linked open timelines!12
Future combinations Perhaps the most exciting work comes at the intersection of the online and the physical, timeline projects that lie between exhibits and the web. A 1996 project at the MIT Media Lab combined visual techniques such as infinite zoom, translucency, and animation in a display of the history of photography. It took advantage of the three dimensionality of projection to allow seamless micro and macro readings of information at several levels of detail and from multiple points of view. The visitor flew over the display, zooming in for detail, zooming out for contextual information.13 But that project was to be seen from one place; it lost the visceral power of movement through time. Augmented reality might provide a timeline that exists in both physical and virtual space. One might walk through time in a timeline, seeing the facts and stories, images and objects that you choose at their appropriate places, perhaps adding stories for others to find. The timeline has survived as long as it has because of the easy story it tells in so direct a way. We need to find ways to trouble it, and complicate it, while still taking advantage of its power.
Built on the analysis at http://www.chronozoomproject.org/ See also http://www.simile-widgets.org/timeline/ for an example of the way that virtual timelines can change time scales. For an explanation of how the change of timescales, combined with linking across them, might lead to a semantic timeline, see Matt Jensen, Visualizing Complex Semantic Timelines (Newsblip, 2003), http://www.newsblip.com/tr/nbtr2003001.pdf. 13 Robin L. Kullberg, Dynamic Timelines: Visualizing the History of Photography, in Conference Companion on Human Factors in Computing Systems: Common Ground, CHI 96 (New York, NY, USA: ACM, 1996), 386 387, http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/257089.257388.