Natalie M. Underberg

Ethnographic Storytelling on the Internet:  Exploring and the East Mims Oral History Project Web site

Nathalie M. Underberg1

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In recent years ethnographically based interactive Web design projects have
focused on the intersection of expressive culture and new technology. This paper
will examine two folklore-based Web site projects, Folkvine and the East Mims
Oral History Project Web site, as experiments in the combination of the
distinctive features of digital technologies and environments with the reflexive
and narrative turn in anthropology. Telling ethnographic stories employs
storytelling techniques common to narrators in other genres. Using these
techniques in a digital environment involves making the most of the characteristic
features of hypermedia, including immersion, imitation, non-linearity and
interactivity.  In addition, transferring the lessons of reflexive ethnography to Web
design involves developing an ongoing process of listening and negotiation
unlike traditional Web site paradigms.


This paper1 examines the use of new media to tell the stories of Florida artists
and communities on the Web.  Folkvine and the East Mims Oral History Project
Web site, both part of the Cultural Heritage Alliance Web site at the University of
Central Florida School of Film and Digital Media (UCF Cultural Heritage Alliance
n.d.), each seek new ways to not only show fieldwork materials, but to allow
users to experience them as well.  The field of Digital Media provides an
intriguing arena for addressing contemporary concerns in the area of
ethnographic storytelling.  The goal of these folklore-oriented Web sites is to
develop a model for experiencing and interpreting folklife materials in ways that
more actively involve the audience—where the research process is enacted
more than presented in words.  Beyond providing context for the understanding
of cultural stories, these projects attempt to build into the design and navigation
structure of the Web sites themselves the experiential dimension of ethnography
and interpretations of meaning.  The creation of the and Mims Web
sites are experiments in ways to use the characteristics of digital environments
(see, for example, Sherry Turkle 1984, 1995 and Marshall McLuhan 1994) and to
reflect the narrative turn in folklore and anthropology (inaugurated by James
Clifford and George Marcus 1986).
The Web site began two years ago as a joint project between
the UCF Texts and Technology program and the Cultural Heritage Alliance in the
School of Film and Digital Media and funded by the Florida Humanities Council.
This project seeks to find new ways to present the stories of Florida folk artists
and their communities online.  The objective of each artist’s Web site is to
provide a visual analogy for their work—it should look, and moving through it
should “feel,” like the artwork of that particular artist.  Over time, the Web site and
Folkvine project team have grown, and to date seven artist Web sites have been
completed.  Each is shown at a public premiere to the artist and members of
his/her community at which feedback on the site is solicited and subsequently
incorporated into the revised site.  This year, with the addition of virtual tour
guides that link all seven sites according to humanities themes including re-
creative identity, place-making imagination, and social economy (and the
animated “bobble-head” versions of Folkvine team members commenting at
different points on the site within the tour guides), the Web site has become even
more complex as an experiment in new ways of presenting art, culture, and
scholarship online.
The East Mims Oral History Project Web site, another project of the UCF
Cultural Heritage Alliance, grew out of folklife survey work conducted as part of a
National Endowment for the Humanities grant.  The Web site is an effort to
create a lasting record of the history and culture of East Mims, an historically
African-American section of north Brevard County in Central Florida.  Community
elders are sharing their memories and knowledge of the region’s citrus and other
industries as well as the contributions to the community of local churches and
local Civil Rights leaders Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore.  Working with East
Mims residents, the Brevard County Historical Commission and the Moore Park
in East Mims, faculty and students at the UCF Cultural Heritage Alliance created
an interactive exhibit to share the story of this community on the Internet.  The
site is designed as a virtual map of Mims, with sections for churches, citrus
groves, a historic Black school, and a river where baptisms took place. As the
visitor moves around the map, the history—and contemporary—cultural
landscape of the community is revealed through a combination of myriad
techniques and materials, including:  oral history clips, 3D modeling of building
interiors, and Flash animation to recreate scenes narrated in interviews.  For
example, in the section on churches, the visitor can enter St. James Missionary
Baptist Church to learn about hymn-lining (call and response) through leafing
through a multimedia hymnal embedded with the sounds and sights of deacons
and churchgoers.  The project resulted from continued consultation with
community leaders and interested members to determine key themes, and the
site was premiered a public event in Mims at which feedback was solicited and
incorporated into the final site.  The project has become the model for a future
oral history-digital media based project set in nearby Winter Garden, FL, where a
historical theater is being renovated and community members have stories to tell
about its history and connection to daily life and the history of Black-White
relations in the area.


Telling compelling ethnographic stories employs storytelling techniques that
translate from medium to medium.  Richard Mitchell and Kathy Charmaz (1998)
discuss five strategies for effective ethnographic storytelling:  “(a) pulling the
reader into the story, (b) re-creating experiential moods within the writing, (c)
adding elements of surprise, (d) reconstructing the experience through written
images, and (e) creating closure on the story while simultaneously recognizing it
as part of an ongoing process” (Mitchell and Charmaz 1998:  228-229).  Using
these techniques in Web design requires making targeted use of hypermedia’s
characteristics, including its capacity for immersion, imitation, non-linearity, and
The ethnographic storytelling technique of pulling the reader into the story can
be accomplished by supplying context and suggesting what will occur next.  This
means the presentation needs to establish a clear point of view and to set a
mood.  Brenda Danet (2001), citing Janet Murray’s 1997 influential work on
digital narrative, points out that the concept of immersion is central to Murray’s
ideas about digital environments.  This sense of immersion into an “elaborately
simulated place” is a key feature of both the Folkvine and Mims Web site projects
(Murray 1997:  71).
On the splash page introduction the viewer is literally invited to
come inside.  The experience of taking a tour—here represented initially as a
road trip—through Florida becomes the organizing analogy that draws the visitor
in.  Visitors are told—much like motorists driving along Florida toll roads:

Explorin’ Florida
Without a guide?
To see great art
Just come inside.

Visitors are then led to an “Old Florida”-style visitors’ center much like the ones
Florida travelers pass and occasionally stop in to explore.  The interior of the
visitors’ center draws the audience into the story by supplying context and
suggesting what occurs next.
In the visitors’ center on the site, then, immersion and imitation are
used to establish a kind of story world where visitors can navigate aspects of this
so-called “script” in a fun and interactive way.  Visitors are encouraged to pick up
a postcard—with each one representing a link to each artists’ Web site.  While
the splash page is perhaps particularly immersive, the interior of each of the
individual Web sites are designed with imitation as a primary vehicle for
conveying the story of each artist and his/her community.
Each artist’s Web site, in different ways and to differing degrees, establishes a
point of view, encourages emotional involvement, and establishes a mood.  Lilly
Carrasquillo, for example, an artist and educator from Puerto Rico who works
primarily in acrylics and papier mache, is introduced to the visitor through the
visual metaphor of a Mexican-inspired mask animated (using Flash software)
with pop-up navigation cues incorporating shapes inspired by designs in Taino
petroglyphs (Tainos are the original inhabitants of Puerto Rico).  Navigating
Lilly’s site enacts—a key term here—the process of learning about Puerto Rican
and a variety of other cultures and using those lessons as a springboard to
create new art.  This process mirrors the story of the role art has played in Lilly’s
own life story—as a student and teacher of world cultures through art.  In the
section called “Sala de clase/classroom” the visitor is invited to be a student of
world cultures, for example, through the interactive (again using Flash animation)
activity of building a traditional Puerto Rican vejigante mask.
Similarly, in Ruby C. Williams’ site in the Web site, the splash page
is designed using meaningful materials from her world (her brightly painted signs)
arranged around her produce stand situated in her yard.  The use of bright, bold
colors and asymmetrical placement of images reflects her aesthetic—and
resonates with a larger African-American community taste.  By transforming her
produce stand into an art gallery, the story of Ruby’s evolving identity as an artist
who ministers through the “pulpit” of her produce stand and Walk-in Gallery is
effectively conveyed.
In the Mims Web site, the sense of immersion is literally conveyed in baptism
section of the virtual map.  Murray (1997), in fact, characterizes immersion as
“derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water” (Murray
1997:  71).   Here visitors can elect to “enter the water” while viewing an archive
photograph of an actual Indian River baptism.  At the same time they hear the
sound of water splashing and the words of a community elder narrating her
memory of the experience.  Immersion as a technique for ethnographic
storytelling is the basis for other sections of the Mims Web site as well, including
the presentation of hymn lining as part of the navigation of historic St. James
Missionary Baptist Church.  Visitors to this section of the Web site imitate the act
of opening a hymn book to begin lining a hymn, and thereby learn about the
tradition while experiencing it.
Other elements of effective ethnographic storytelling include:  re-creating
experiential moods, adding elements of surprise, reconstructing the experience
through images, and providing closure. Reconstructing the mood of the
experience can be particularly effective in folklore-oriented Web site design
because it involves “showing rather than telling” what is happening, succinctly
crystallizing experience, and giving the overall sense of the story or experience
rather than rehashing the entire experience.
These aspects of ethnographic storytelling can be conveyed on the Internet
through experimenting with the interactive and nonlinear characteristics of
hypermedia (Richard Lanham 1993, Jeff Titon 1995).  In particular Titon’s
assertion that “In hypertext, the reader is always offered multiple pathways
through the information” (Titon 1995:  441), and Lanham’s characterization of the
personal computer as “a device of intrinsic dramaticality” (Lanham 1993:  6)
provide designers of culturally-based Web sites with a fascinating opportunity to
experiment with ideas regarding non-linear and interactive presentation styles as
vehicles for conveying cultural information.
In, this can be seen at the level of the individual artist sites and the
splash page/visitors’ center.  Ginger LaVoie, a Polynesian quilt artist (although
not biologically Polynesian), has a Web site where one is invited to “smooth and
caress the quilt to navigate.”  The analogy of caressing becomes an organizing
principle for her site.  This, perhaps more effectively than any textual explanation,
conveys the mood of Ginger’s Polynesian quilt making.
In addition, at different points in the artists’ Web sites visitors are also taken
behind the scenes in an attempt to demonstrate what is happening and thereby
re-create the ethnographic process.  For example, in the Wayne and Marty Scott
site (clown shoe makers from Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida), visitors can enter the
Scott’s workshop and see Folkvine team members (functioning as
ethnographers/folklorists in this context) documenting the experience.
At the level of the site as a whole, the interactive tour guides (available in the
virtual visitors’ center) function as stand-in ethnographic guides to the material.
By navigating Web sites through the tour guides (and the accompanying bobble-
head commentary wherein members of the team can comment on
the site), visitors experience a virtually embedded folklore “script” that tells the
story of folk artists and their communities according to interpretive themes such
as re-creative identity.  Reflections on the evolving nature of tradition are
presented in a way that maintains visitors’ interest and conveys abstract ideas
concretely through succinct tour guide text, links to specific points in the
individual Web sites to illustrate and “bobble-head commentary” (us talking)
written and spoken in each of our “voices.”
In addition, navigating “Lilly’s house” within Lilly Carrasquillo’s site on the Web site offers a non-linear way to learn about the story of Lilly and
the traditions on which her art draws through immersion.  Exploring Lilly’s house
becomes a highly interactive and engaging way for the visitor to learn about the
history, adaptation, and role of traditions such as Puerto Rican vejigante mask
and Mexican ofrenda-making.
In the Mims Web site, non-linear storytelling is key to communicating the “story”
of the citrus industry and Black education in this area.  The orange grove section
is designed as a spatial rather than temporal interface where visitors can learn
about the history of the citrus industry in Mims by navigating the orange grove.
Sweeping the mouse over different areas of an archive photo of grove workers,
visitors can hear veteran citrus worker Buddy Wilson telling about shipping the
fruit, see a recreation of the process of “firing the grove” to prevent a citrus freeze
during cold nights, or learn how citrus workers “budded” a tree to increase its
A non-linear approach to storytelling was also the inspiration for creating the
section about the “Clifton Colored School” on the Mims Web site.  Through a
recreation of the interior of the historic Black school built by early residents of
Merritt Island in order to provide an education for their children, visitors can
navigate the school house (including a painstaking recreation of the original bead
board wood and location and placement of windows) and piece together the story
of the school by visiting each desk to pick up another clue to the school’s history.
Visitors can read historic newspaper articles about life at Clifton School, peruse a
deed and historic map, and a family geneaology.
Mitchell and Charmaz (1998) also argue that effective ethnographic storytelling
somehow involves providing closure (e above).  There must be a sense of
resolution, while also acknowledging that in certain ways the story is ongoing.  In
this area the digital environment reveals its uniqueness in relation to other
mediums.  As Titon (1995) argues:  “hypertexts are unlike conventional books in
important ways.  They do not have the same kind of closure” (Titon 1995:  443).
Similarly, Sarah Pink (2001) characterizes electronic texts as “permanently
unfinished.”  Translating this characteristic into folklore-oriented Web design
means using it to communicating the dynamic and ever-changing nature of
On Folkine, artists’ “community pages” are periodically updated based on
feedback received at public events and other celebrations connected to the life
and work of the artists and their communities, such as Ruby C. Williams’ annual
Walk-in Gallery opening when she invites members of the community to a
celebration of art, food, and good company.  As these are posted and feedback
is received and incorporated, the Web site develops further potential to
meaningfully reflect the community taste and worldview of the artists and their
In the Mims site, this concept of “permanent unfinishedness” provided the
inspiration for the creation of the section on local Civil Rights leaders Harry and
Harriette Moore.  On the virtual map, visitors can click on an image of the Moore
Park and learn about the Moores who once lived on that property.  The story
about the Moores that is known to the outside world is largely about their tragic
murder on Christmas Eve in 1951 when their house was bombed.  But focusing
solely on that story fails to re-affirm the community’s view of itself as dedicated to
education and a strong Christian faith.  Instead, this story is contextualized by
having the Christian-themed “Ballad of Harry T. Moore” as the soundtrack and
ending with the erection of the Moore Park on the same ground where their home
once stood.  The community, like the story, continues.


Designers of folklore-based Web sites have incredible potential to explore the
use of digital media in conveying ethnographic experience and stories online in
ways that move beyond a text-and-image model which privileges words as final
arbiters of interpretation and meaning.  The Folkvine and Mims Web sites are
projects designed to utilize these new developments in ways that involve
collaboration with artists and communities to more effectively tell their stories to a
wider audience.

Bibliography and Works cited

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UCF Cultural Heritage Alliance Web site (n.d.)

Assistant Professor of Film and Digital MediaSchool of Film and Digital Media University of
Central Florida,

This paper, in part, draws on ideas to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of
American Folklore.