A recent issue of The Public Historian contained an interesting article, “#VirtualTourist: Embracing Our Audience through Public History Web Experience” by Anne Lindsay. The article highlighted the ongoing challenges that cultural heritage sites in engage new and diverse audiences. Lindsay focused on the potential of institutional web presence in the development of audience and donor relationships.
On a basic level the article highlights the fact that digital content has become an essential and expected part of any guest interface. Lindsay also argues that websites have the potential to create spaces of engagement and promote different types of educational interaction.
However, Lindsay does indicate the online tools should be used as “a gateway to a more encompassing educational environment” . Essentially the narratives of online content and physical content should be interconnected. Historical narratives of particular groups (eg. women, slaves, farmers etc) should not be relegated to purely online content. Rather, traditional interpretation should be expanded on online and there should be clear linkages between digital and physical experiences. The two platforms can have different content but the essential mission of the heritage site should be reflected in both the online and physical presence.
Lindsay’s focus on virtual narrative and the potential of virtual spaces for education and outreach is reflexive of a general feeling in the cultural heritage field. Many smaller organizations are struggling to develop digital content and platforms that appeal to changing audience needs. The technical knowledge and staff time commitment to create a changing web presence (something more than a digital version of a brochure) can be daunting. The cost vs benefit of any new initiative is always in the forefront of heritage institutions who are facing an uncertain fiscal future, especially when it includes venturing into uncharted territory.
However, increasingly cultural heritage organizations are realizing the importance of digital content and digital engagement. Countless number of articles, professionals, and organizations are talking up the potential of digital engagement. There is a whole realm of potential donors and potential “virtual tourists” for organizations to engage on a purely digital platform. Additionally, digital content has the potential to enrich visitor experience, provide additional educational material, and create learning opportunities that sometimes aren’t feasible onsite. For example, a seasonal site that closes during the winter can still interact with potential visitors and donors online during the off-season, opening up expanded programming and outreach possibilities.
The path to digital engagement doesn’t happen over night. But low cost options and documentation surrounding planning are becoming increasingly accessible to organizations of all shapes and sizes.
 Anne Lindsay, “#VirtualTourist: Embracing Our Audience through Public History Web Experience” The Public Historian 35, no.1 (Winter, 2013) , 77.