History Wired: A Few of Our Favorite Things
Created and maintained by the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Reviewed July 2002.
Launched in August 2001, the Smithsonian’s innovative Web site History Wired is designed to provide a virtual “private tour through the . . . storage areas” of the National Museum of American History (NMAH). Four-fifths of the 450 objects featured are not on display in the museum. Selected by NMAH curators, who one imagines must have agonized over the choice of their “favorite things,” the objects represent the breadth and depth of the Smithsonian’s unparalleled holdings. Here are George Washington’s tent and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, the first Singer sewing machine and the ENIAC computer, Mary Todd Lincoln’s silver service and Shirley Chisholm’s campaign buttons. The site aims to present information “conversationally,” and the explanatory text is indeed written in an accessible and engaging style. The curatorial information is minimal (but adequate); the site concentrates on providing context for the objects. Every object is explained in at least one paragraph, and most pages give users the option to click and “Learn More.”
The interface and primary navigation tool for History Wired is an “object map” developed by Martin Wattenberg at SmartMoney, based on SmartMoney’s Map of the Market. There are twelve categories across the top (Accomplishment, Art, Commerce, Events, Home, Leisure, Medicine, Military, People, Politics, Science, and Tech). Those categories and more appear in a pull-down menu on the left side of the screen. The map is divided into eleven “sectors”: Print/Communications, Home, Business, Science/Medicine, Clothing, Arts/Entertainment, Transportation, Photography, Computers, Military, Sports. Revisions were made to make the map “relevant to museum objects”; some (the thumbnails, for example) are beneficial, while others (the addition of a timeline, keywords, and pointer lines) tend to make the interface overly complex and confusing. (There is a text-only index of all the featured objects for computer users who cannot use the Java-reliant map.)
An interactive feature on each page asks, “Would you like to see more objects like this on the site? Tell others by casting your vote.” The size of the squares on the map are constantly adjusted to reflect the objects’ average ratings. “This,” we are told, “is meant to reflect the social cues and atmosphere found in a physical museum, and helps shape the exhibit.” Some users will enjoy this feature; others will find it annoying. One of the advantages of a Web site over a real museum exhibition is that one is free to ignore the “social cues.” Do we really want the shape of the exhibit determined by popular preference? More welcome are the links to other Smithsonian resources (such as the National Portrait Gallery, Folkways Records, and Smithsonian Magazine).
While History Wired is rich in content and fun to explore, it may have limited usefulness to educators and scholars. The “sectors” of the map lend themselves to study, but students will find it difficult to make meaningful connections among 450 disparate objects. As its developers intended, the site appeals to the same audience that visits the museum: people interested in seeing the “stuff” of American history and learning something-but not too much-about what it all means.
Ellen K. Rothman
Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities