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Lost in the Virtual Museum: The Smithsonian Online Exhibitions
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Reviewed Dec. 2008.

If the Smithsonian is the nation’s attic, its collection of online exhibits is more like the national equivalent of Fibber McGee’s closet. In virtually every episode of the long-running radio comedy (1935—1956), when McGee would open the closet aural chaos would ensue as his treasured possessions tumbled down. There were some marvelous things in the closet, but they were not in any discernible order. McGee never quite knew what he would find when he opened the door. Visitors to the Smithsonian’s online exhibits are in a similar situation. There are wonderful resources, but visitors are going to have to stumble upon them and only after rummaging through some not-so-wonderful resources.

At http://americanhistory.si.edu/exhibitions/category.cfm?category=online, one encounters a list of titles of online exhibits, fifty in all. They range from ˇAzúcar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz to America on the Move to Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops, 1820—Present through Within These Walls. . .. As the last title shows, the subject of the exhibits are not always clear from the titles. One should not have to click on a link to discover that this exhibit’s object is to “view 200 years of American history as seen from the doorstep of one house that stood from Colonial days through the mid-1960s in Ipswich, Mass.”

After figuring out the subject, visitors must next puzzle out how to navigate each exhibit. Because the Smithsonian has been putting its exhibits online for many years, and because the topics vary so widely, each Web site has its own layout. There are clues as to what leads to what, but they are only partially helpful. In ˇAzúcar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz, for example, visitors first choose between the Spanish and English versions, and then among “Her Life,” "Her Music,“ and ”Her Dressing Room.“ Choosing the last reveals a brief and uninformative label and eight images, five of them of shoes. Cruz had all of her shoes specially made; check out the heels. In ”Her Music,“ one finds ”Songs.“ How many are there? What are the titles? Visitors must click to find out. Are the performances complete? Alas, this is something visitors can only learn by playing them. If you click on ”Videos," will some prove to be slide shows? Again, visitors must click to find out.

This sort of discovery learning is fine, if one is wandering through a museum with a full morning to spend. The assumption that the museum visitor and Web site visitor have the same needs and expectations carries over into the exhibit’s use of labels. In “The Disability Rights Movement” exhibit visitors are frequently invited to “touch the picture for more details.” After clicking, one finds a somewhat larger image, a description of its contents for the visually impaired, and an audio link, which opens a new window that plays a voice reading the description. This is fine, except that it replaces the usual curatorial information. “Touch,” we read,

is especially crucial for people who are blind, have low vision, or tactile learning styles. This exhibit includes a tactile, or touchable, object. It is a handcuff that was cut by police in the arrest of an activist who had intentionally handcuffed herself in protest.

Clicking on the image leads to a larger image and a detailed description of the object, which does not tell of its provenance, its dimensions, where and when the arrest took place, or anything about the demonstration.

It is a rule of museum curators that labels must be brief. Those of us who have acted as guest curators have wrestled with, and sometimes cursed, this restriction. It does not, however, apply online. One can write the label one really wants and link it to the shorter version with an invitation to visitors to click the link to learn even more. The online Smithsonian exhibits do not take advantage of those layering possibilities. This is unfortunate because seeing an object in a museum, such as the locomotive Jupiter in the America on the Move exhibit, is a far different experience than looking at an image online of a "figure oiling Jupiter.“ Visitors to the museum can see the dimensions of the locomotive for themselves. Online visitors will find this information only by clicking on the ”Related Objects" link.

Ultimately, the value of the collection rests on the quality of the original museum exhibits. While this quality varies, the Smithsonian earns very high marks overall. America on the Move is an especially rich and fascinating site. In addition to games for children, it offers three “interconnected routes to explore how transportation shaped our lives, landscapes, culture, and communities,” namely through the exhibit itself, artifacts from the Smithsonian and other museums that may or may not be used in the exhibition, and special exhibits on transportation. This exhibit is divided into eighteen segments, organized in rough chronological order. Most focus on the impact of transportation on specific places at specific times, such as the railroad coming to Santa Cruz, California, the impact of trolley cars on Washington, D.C., in 1900, or the emergence of the suburban strip mall in Portland, Oregon, in 1949. Each topic is explored in depth. The examples are well chosen and the artifacts are fascinating. The “Artifacts” section demonstrates the museum’s great strength in the subject. The visitor can choose among twenty-seven categories, eight chronological eras, and nine geographic regions. Checking “passenger,” "streetcar/rapid transit, 1900—1930,“ and ”Middle Atlantic" yielded fifty-nine hits ranging from popular songs to souvenirs from the ocean liner Leviathan. What went wrong? Instead of narrowing the search, the choice of both passenger and streetcar widened it. Streetcar + 1900—1930 + Middle Atlantic produced six hits, all relevant; passenger + 1900—1930 + Middle Atlantic brought the original fifty-nine, but this time they fit the query.

The special exhibits are organized (I use the word charitably) by theme. As is the Smithsonian’s style, visitors can never be sure what lies beyond the next click. Under “Arts and Leisure,” for example, one finds exhibits on transatlantic souvenirs, American auto racing, “Music and Mobility,” and on “Exhibiting Transportation at the Smithsonian.” Here is the story behind the exhibit, carefully tucked away where few would think to look. “About America on the Move,” also in this part of the site, is not nearly so informative.

It is not possible to review all or even most of the exhibits, and a list of my personal favorites would serve no useful purpose. Allow me instead to propose several rules of thumb for using this site. First, give yourself plenty of time. You will find the navigation variable, frequently confusing, and occasionally maddening. Yet there are treasures here.

Second, do not count on your “Back” button. Usually what you expect to happen does but not always. Instead of taking you to the opening page of an exhibit, for example, it will sometimes take you to the table of contents pages for all fifty exhibits. On the other hand, often there is no way to get back to the general table of contents from a specific exhibit. Even if the back button works, you do not want to click it scores of times. Resign yourself to scrolling through your browser’s “history” to find the original address. Or, click on the link to the Smithsonian home page, then click on “Exhibits,” and then on “Virtual Exhibits.”

Finally, trust your luck. Serendipity does happen. The Olomana in the Kingdom of Hawaii exhibit in America on the Move, for example, is about work on sugar cane plantations. The Olomana was a small locomotive, often run on temporary tracks laid in the fields. At the exhibit’s end is a related link to A More Perfect Union, which details the Japanese American experience with special emphasis on their often vain efforts to find legal protection in the U.S. Constitution. The link is not to the top page of this wonderful exhibit, that is not the Smithsonian way. Instead it is to the “Immigration” page because that is where Hawaii is most prominently mentioned. The sections on “Removal,” "Internment,“ "Loyalty,” and military “Service” focus on World War II and are the heart of the exhibit. A final section, “Justice,” takes the story through the report of the Federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1982 and the paying of reparations to survivors of the internment camps, a process completed in 1999. On the last page you will find a “Postscript from the Smithsonian” giving a brief history of the exhibit (the initial version dates from 1987) and invites you to “share your own memories, reflections and responses to the issues explored in the site and read those of other visitors.” This invitation is also on the first page of the exhibit, as are links to classroom activities, a bibliography (that includes fiction, nonfiction, and works for younger readers), and Web links. A More Perfect Union is the sort of superb resource we expect from the Smithsonian.

Enjoy the riches. After all, you had to work to find them.

John McClymer
Assumption College
Worcester, Massachusetts