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Imagining a House Museum: Spaced-Based Digital Storytelling and Exhibit Design

Published onFeb 28, 2023
Imagining a House Museum: Spaced-Based Digital Storytelling and Exhibit Design

Author(s) & Project Role(s)

Author(s): Mary Mahoney, Ph.D., Digital Scholarship Strategist,  Trinity College

Role(s): Instructor

Assignment URLs and/or Files

Assignment prompt:

Process Paper prompt:

Sample exhibit (shared with permission): ]

Learning Objectives

What did you want students to be able to do by completing this assignment?

  • Evaluate current scholarship on house museums in public history, and explore and evaluate house museums as an interpretive form of public history by making.

  • Apply narrative approaches from the course to the curation and interpretation of a space using design thinking and considerations of the audience.

  • Analyze the criteria used to identify and preserve historic spaces by evaluating college campus spaces. Reflect on those criteria and student design processes to understand key elements of space-based storytelling in public history.

Technology-Dependent Learning Outcomes

Was there anything this assignment taught students that you felt they wouldn't have been able to learn through other types of class assignments?

A core idea of this course is that there can be no public history without community. This means that we cannot make public work unless we know the public to whom we’re speaking, directing our interpretation, and with whom we’re trying to be in conversation. This not only helped us define an audience for our digital projects over the course of the semester, in this case, their peers and the campus community, but it also defined the role of technology in the course. Any digital tool or software I might ask students to use was selected for its capacity to allow students to reach their audience with little to no previous experience. The technology also had to support interpretive projects focusing on exhibiting objects, exploring the college’s history, and in the case of this assignment, presenting space-based historical narratives.

Our class studied different approaches in public history and did a unit on house museums. We traveled to a local house museum for a tour, read scholarly articles on the form by experts in the field, and explored digital house museum tours. By asking students to create a tour of a campus space with meaning for them, students could demonstrate their understanding of debates in the field and of key elements of the form through a design and making process. Creating a digital house exhibit asked them to experiment with digital tools to produce space-based storytelling. During the assignment, students could select Padlet, Timeline JS, or StoryMap JS for their exhibit. The process paper they were asked to write to accompany their work allowed them to capture challenges they faced and resolved in the process of creating their exhibits that were not often apparent in the final product.

Skill Level

What is the course title and level?

This assignment was originally designed for an upper-level history course entitled “History 361: Public History and Public Memory.” However, I have adapted it when working with faculty teaching courses with space-based learning or subject matter that would support digital exhibit design. It has also been helpful in creating digital exhibits using the same format in a Global Health first-year seminar.  Interested makers can explore a sample use of Padlet to create a digital exhibit in this adapted style here:  

Note: This assignment can be modified to accommodate undergraduate and graduate students of all levels of expertise and is suitable across disciplines. 

What kinds of prior knowledge is necessary to complete this assignment? How do students gain this knowledge?

Students are not expected to have any prior digital skills prior to enrollment in the course. The course, though listed as an upper-level class, attracted students across class years and majors. Students came in with little to no knowledge of digital design or public history. Students learned about the subject matter through weekly lectures, class discussions, and readings. We also held in-class workshops on digital tools necessary to complete coursework. Students could also get support for their digital design work from library staff who supported the class and from office hours designed to offer technical support in addition to overall support for course readings and content. 

Assignment Description

This assignment was scaffolded over one month of the course. It followed a unit on exhibit design that invited students to become familiar with some digital tools and with the practice of curating objects into exhibits and writing exhibit labels. This assignment broke down into four main parts:  

Part 1: Students read articles on house museums and explored digital house museum exhibits that drew on different approaches. Some utilized video, audio, and virtual reality to interpret the history of historic homes, for example. A selection of class favorites included the Mark Twain House, the Louis Armstrong House, and the poet John Ashbery’s Hudson home.1 As a class, we also visited a local house museum.  

Part 2: We discussed the readings in class and used our experience of visiting a house museum and exploring digital exhibits to identify key elements of the form. 

Part 3: An in-class workshop on digital tools students could use to create their digital exhibit. (They could choose from Padlet, Timeline JS, or StoryMap JS).  

Part 4: Students created their own digital house museum exhibits drawing on a space on campus that was meaningful to them. Out of a respect for privacy, students could focus on a public or private space like their dorm room based on their own preferences. The house museum exhibit had to meet core criteria identified in a rubric students received in advance. These elements demonstrated a knowledge of the form, of different styles, and built on previous course readings that offered instruction on writing exhibit labels and copy. In addition to the digital exhibit, students produced a process paper. 

Time Needed

How much time did you allot to this project?

The students had over one month from the introduction of the assignment in class to the due date. We had two weeks of reading, project reviews, and class discussion (Parts 1-2). Students had 2-3 weeks for parts 3-4. During this window, we did a 30-minute in-class workshop on Padlet. (Students had already had a workshop on StoryMap JS and Timeline JS for a previous assignment.) Students workshopped rough draft exhibits in class to get feedback from their peers. 

Support & Training

What kinds of support or training did you provide to help students learn to use new techniques or specialized tools?

Over the course of the semester, students completed readings on public history design practices and created digital exhibits using tools available to them for this assignment. They could also explore several sample projects to inspire the design of their own exhibit. I created extra office hours to offer both technical support and support for their design and interpretive work. Our digital learning & scholarship staff in the library also offered key technical assistance throughout the semester.


Did you need any specialized equipment, tools, or human resources to make this assignment feasible? If so, please describe.

All the digital tools used by students are freely available online. In-class workshops proved essential in introducing students to digital tools and inviting them to play and experiment in making prior to working with this technology independently. 


How did you assess or grade this project?

Students received a rubric with the assignment information, so they knew exactly what was expected and how each element would be assessed. The process paper is also a key element of the assignment to capture challenges or issues students faced in the design process that may not be evident in the final product. In digital scholarship, the process is as important as the product and I think it’s important to evaluate and assess their process as well. This has proven especially helpful for assignments in which the measure of student work and complexity of thought isn’t always apparent in the final product.

Challenges & Opportunities

If you assigned this project again, would you change anything? If so, what?

The exhibits resulting from this assignment demonstrated an understanding of the form and proficiency with the digital tool chosen by each student. In further instances of this class, I would ask all students to use the same digital tool to simplify the technical support required. Most of the students chose Padlet, but I would likely make that the only option as it seemed to afford the most options for students. Padlet is a cloud-based collaborative web platform that lets students create virtual bulletin boards, or “padlets.” As a flexible platform, a padlet can incorporate multiple forms of media including audio, video, images, links, drawings, etc. Compared to Knight Lab tools like Timeline JS or Storymap JS, it is more malleable for students who may want to incorporate maps and timelines into an exhibit with other elements without committing to just a map or timeline. Padlets are also intuitive to create and can be used by students independently or in collaborative projects. As an example of the flexibility of this form, some students chose to upload audio files embedded over an image of their room or the baseball field to guide their audience through the space. Other students used posts to guide their audience through a narrative of their chosen space.

In terms of the content of the assignment itself, I would require students to address the limitations of the form within the tour or process paper. In our classroom discussions, students had very insightful critiques of the form and of the limitations they discovered in the making process that I wish had been made more explicit in their tour or process paper.  

Lastly, I think students have more investment in digital work that will be public and can be something they cite in a portfolio of demonstrated digital skills, no matter what their major or intended professional path. With that in mind, I would like to explore partnering with admissions, student life, or the college archives to create tours of campus spaces that these offices would use, crediting students as makers contributing to both campus life and creating artifacts of campus history. 

Describe any trouble spots or complications someone else might want to be aware of before trying a similar assignment in a course of their own.

I wanted to be flexible in offering students the opportunity to work with digital tools they’d learned all semester in addition to Padlet, which they learned for this assignment. In the future, I would limit the students to the same digital tool to streamline technical support and assessment.

Banner Image Credit: Trinity College dorm room ca. 1875:  William Mather (right, 1877) & Joseph Buffington (left, 1875).  Trinity College Archival Photos.

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