Taking Timelines Beyond Two Dimensions


Innovative example of an interactive timeline done for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (www.freedommosaic.com)

Museum exhibits have long used timelines to communicate events and trends. Sprawling across museum walls, these time-tested graphics pack in details and provide context to a general audience.

However, history is not two dimensional. As demand for online history increases, new and innovative virtual exhibits have become available. These more engaging experiences take advantage of Web technologies and ultimately appeal to a wider audience. Like history, timelines are now multidimensional.

Content can be layered with tiers of facts and themes. Dropdown or expanding content allows users to choose their own level of immersion for a less static experience. Digital platforms can seamlessly weave in images, audio recordings, videos, and interactive maps. The result is a more engaging, more educational, and ultimately more memorable display.

This more interactive presentation has become increasingly expected for an online presence. It can engage visitors for a longer period of time, provide a gateway to additional information on a website, and inspire repeat visitors. Various open source and proprietary timeline generators can facilitate a display tailored to an organization, museum, or subject. Yet no matter how interactive or customized a site may be, an invariable truth is that the actual content of the timeline must be appealing, accessible, and accurate. There is an art to creating a timeline that draws an audience and provides a coherent story. If you are creating a timeline, here are some thoughts to consider:

Choose milestones to highlight

Think of a timeline as if it were the outline to a story. The milestones you include should help tie together the narrative. If you start with a unifying theme or story line, you may find it easier to determine what events you should emphasize.

Craft thematic eras

Years or decades might be an obvious unit of measurement, but don’t feel constrained to segment your company history into decades. For example, if your company experienced an era of turmoil from 1972 until 1983, it might make sense to highlight this “era of turmoil” on your timeline. Periodizing time into segments is analogous to dividing a book into chapters, and it helps the reader follow your history as a coherent story rather than a series of events.

Create layered content

A major benefit of online content is that you can provide visitors with a great deal of information in a variety of formats. Since this allows readers to determine their own level of immersion, build your timeline in tiers. Make the headlines the most visible, with the option for readers to see more by rolling over or clicking on an entry. Another tip is to make the headlines fit together so they tell the story at a high level. If your company has a complex history with multiple story lines, you can consider overlapping timelines, each with different themes.

History Associates has years of experience condensing complex narratives into brief, engaging presentations. We have also grappled with issues of content and exposition in historical products ranging from Web exhibits to smartphone apps. While the vehicles for presenting information are changing in new and exciting ways, enduring questions and considerations remain about concepts and content, periodization and organization, sourcing and accuracy, and style and presentation. Ideally, virtual timelines must carefully consider content, exposition, and interactivity.

Check out these links to explore and interact with timeline content developed by History Associates:


Originally published in our HAIpoints newsletter. View newsletter page.

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