Physical vs. Digital History: National Museum of the Marine Corps

For my comparative review, I chose to visit the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia, a few minutes away from the Quantico Marine Base.

Analysis of the Physical Site

The exhibit galleries are laid out along a curved hallway, and while visitors are free to enter any gallery they’d like, the pathway implied by the design, the visitor’s map, and museum staff is to view exhibits in chronological order. (Starting with the American Revolution Gallery, then moving on to the World War I Gallery, etc.) Exploring the museum in this way drives home the overarching message the organization is trying to instill into visitors: The Marines have been a vital part of United States history since before its founding and in every important era since.

It should go without saying that the museum’s target audience is members of the Marine Corps – present, past, and future, along with any individuals who are connected to a Marine. However, the exhibits do a good job of appealing to visitors who have little or no affiliation with the Corps. The balance between explanatory information and content meant to draw on nostalgia or previous experiences is well done. Additionally, attempts have been made throughout the museum to include elements that would appeal to children and visitors who appreciate hands-on engagement. (Unfortunately many of these elements have been modified or closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) As a result, the types of visitors in the space during my visit included adult couples, families with small children, and small groups of adult friends.

Disabled interactive exhibit – “D.I. ‘Guidance'”

The exhibits in the museum included a variety of objects (weapons, military vehicles, uniforms, etc.), photos, videos, and interpretative text. The NMMC also did a good job of communicating content to visitors in the form of experiential learning: outlines on the floor indicated where a visitor should stand to put themselves in the shoes of a new recruit about to be processed. Other engaging elements included a pull-up bar visitors could utilize to compare their physical strength against that of a new Marine and a “You’re the D.I.” (drill instructor) experience that allows users to evaluate a trainees uniform. I did come across one docent in the museum. He was a docent-in-training who had served in the Corps. He was sitting on a chair making conversation with visitors who had questions or simply wanted to make conversation. He also used an iPad to show visitors relevant photos.

“You’re the D.I.” interactive exhibit

Overall, the exhibits in the Museum were really well done. The only glaring issue I noticed was that of sound pollution from other exhibits. Atmospheric sounds bleeding from one room to the next sometimes made it difficult to focus on the content I was trying to consume.

Analysis of the Digital Site

The website for the Marine Corps is the first result in a general Google search for “Maine Corps museum.” The themes present in the museum’s website are closely aligned with the ones communicated at its physical location. The museum continues its interpretation of U.S. history through the perspective of the Marines. The bulk of the site’s “Exhibits” tab are pages that directly correspond to existing exhibits in the museum. (Ex: The World War I Gallery corresponds with the page titled “World War I.”) These matching pages offer a few paragraphs of text that explain what on-site visitors can expect when they visit the museum alongside some photos of the exhibit itself or featured in the exhibit. There is one “Walking Tour” video posted on the “Legacy Walk” exhibit page, but its placement on the page is off-center and its size is small — it’s as if it’s not meant to be an important element of the page. As stand-alone representations, these pages get the job done of communicating the main interpretative them, but not as elegantly as the physical exhibits.

Screenshot of the “In the Highest Tradition” Online Exhibit

The “Exhibits” tab does contain one page titled “Online Articles & Exhibits” that features five articles and two digital exhibits. The first online exhibit “In the Highest Tradition” is hosted on the Google Arts & Culture platform. It leans heavily on narrative techniques, moving the user through a story chronologically. The entirety of the exhibit is featured on one page. Users enter the exhibit at the top of the page then scroll down to reach the end. The exhibit features only text and images, there are no interactive elements. The other digital exhibit, “A Tribute in Silver”, takes a very different approach. Focused on objects made of silver that communicated concepts of respect and triumph in the Marine Corps culture, this exhibit has very little narrative thread connecting the different artifacts and is primarily focused on the objects. A brief introduction paragraph is featured on the exhibits home page, but every other webpage consists of a main object, an interpretative caption about the object, photos of the object, and some other images related to the object. The list of objects is featured in its entirety on the left side of the screen, so users can select what object they’d like to view.

Screenshot of the “A Tribute in Silver” Online Exhibit

With such different styles, the messages these two exhibits are communicating to users seem to be in direct conflict with each other. One seems to emphasize the importance of  objects, the other emphasizes the importance of moving through history chronologically. Neither does as good of a job of placing users into the Marine experience the way that the physical site did. Additionally, neither online exhibit offers users the chance to directly interact with representatives of the museum (unlike the docent who was present in the physical galleries). While it’s unrealistic to expect someone to be available for in-real-time online conversation at all times, it would have been nice to see a “Contact Us” or “Feedback” button within the exhibits. (These buttons did exist on the NMMC website, but both exhibits were hosted on separate platforms.)


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