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Forest, Fields, and the Falls: Connecting Minnesota
Steve Boyd-Smith, Minnesota Historical Society, curator and project manager; Invioni: Web Strategy & Design.
Visited June 29-July 10, 2003.

At the turn of the last century, the products of Minnesota’s expansive lumber industry and farm economy converged at the sawmills and flour mills of St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis. The exhibit Forest, Fields, and the Falls follows the paths of “four real people” whose memoirs and letters connect these far-flung activities. We follow Joseph DeLaittre from Minneapolis to the lumber camp. Melvin Frank picks up the story in the Minneapolis sawmilling district. Mary Carpenter wrote letters of farm life, its hazards and isolation, on the prairie. The flour mill story is by E. V. Smalley, who reported on the people and industries of Minneapolis. These stories knit together Minnesota history in an exhibit that engages families, students, and the general public.

A bird’s-eye view of the saw milling area which stretched along both sides of the river around St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.

The Flash version of Forests, Fields, and the Falls launches with a colorful animation linking the four activities on a map of the state. Turn-of-the-century graphics frame the navigation options: Lumber, Sawmills, Farming, and Flour Mills. Following the first option, Lumber, a cartoon image of a young man on a train is first sketched in outline on my screen and then filled with color. This frame is a good introduction to the look of the exhibit. The sequential cartoon art shows the train leaving the crowded buildings of the city and then pulling into a rural town, the train engine, the passengers on the platform, and our guide, Joseph DeLaittre, on his way off to the lumber camp. The cartoon montages are dense with information about historical landscapes, buildings, and people, while vertical views often plunge the visitor into the physical details of industrial processes.

The designers understand the Web and have made elegant use of its potential. A click on the scroll icon opens a new window and brings up a photograph of a Northern Pacific passenger train crossing the Mississippi River as it leaves Minneapolis in 1900. Clicks on subsequent icons, with the content announced by the rollover, replace the first image with images of the lumber camp buildings along with quotes from DeLaittre and explanatory texts about women in lumber camps and other aspects of the story. In the sawmilling section, we can click for information about sledding, marbles, Minneapolis neighborhoods, and descriptions of mill yard workers' jobs, among many options. The layering of information allows for digressions, depth, and documentation without losing track of the central narrative.

On the down side, the cartoons loaded in a herky-jerky fashion on a 56K connection, and on both the 56K and high-speed connections photographs did not always load on the first try.

The non-Flash version addresses accessibility while it brings up the same content enhanced by new primary source material, including the original personal narratives and letters—complete with digitized images—content that will be useful in the classroom. While families may want to hold the comic book, this exhibit demonstrates how good design, engaging graphics, historical depth, and the Web can offer viewers a whole lot more.

Marjorie Mclellan
Wright State University
Dayton, Ohio