Exhibit of Physical Objects Transcends Physical World
by Matthew Mirapaul
March 5, 1998
At the Smithsonian Institution, things aren't where they used to be. As a result, things won't ever be the same on the World Wide Web.
On Wednesday, the Smithsonian Without Walls program launched its prototype site for Revealing Things, an online exhibition that examines the cultural significance of everyday objects through onscreen text, audio remembrances and music clips of the period.
"It's actually the best thing I've seen any museum working on for a while," said David Green, executive director of the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage, a coalition based in Washington, D.C.
Specifically created for the Web, the show contains 54 common but distinctive household items that range from an intricately stitched 19th-century quilt to a steaming cup of environmentally correct coffee.
"Very few of these things are on exhibit," Judith Gradwohl, director of the technology-driven Smithsonian Without Walls program, explained. "Most are from the backs of drawers. We actually went around and asked curators, 'What do you have in your collection that's really terrific but you haven't been able to show?'"
Although many of the objects were retrieved from the dusty cabinets, the exhibit itself is hardly stuffy. Each artifact is accompanied by a personal story, often by its original owner, and an innovative 3-D control panel enables a kind of individualized exploration that could never occur inside the walls of a marble-encrusted structure.
Indeed, it is unlikely that the online Revealing Things exhibition will ever have a real-world counterpart, Gradwohl said during a recent telephone conversation from her Washington office.
"I hope that we developed something that can't be translated into the physical world that easily. If we can do it better in our halls, we shouldn't be attempting it on the Web," Gradwohl asserted.
This outlook is a substantial improvement on the approach taken to date by most museums as they establish a presence on the Web. Citing budget constraints and copyright issues, cultural institutions rarely offer more than a list of exhibits, illustrated with a handful of thumbnail-size reproductions.
"Most (museum sites) are put up in fear and trembling and ignorance, because people are very worried about what they think can be done to their images," Green said.
There are a few noteworthy exceptions. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco offers an online database of half its holdings -- 65,000 images -- searchable by keywords such as "Rembrandt" or "boats." The National Gallery of Art in Washington builds virtual versions of select shows so that online visitors can take digital tours of their byte-sized corridors.
Some progressive institutions, including the Dia Center for the Arts in Manhattan and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, are even commissioning Web-based works to hang online.
Of course, there also are thousands of Internet pages and dozens of CD-ROMs that stage exhibitions viewable only on a computer, from amateur artists' vanity sites to high-quality locales like the ZoneZero photography gallery and the soon-to-close ada'web venue.
But Revealing Things is more than a stockpile of digitized images; it is a professionally curated collection of diverse cultural artifacts. Even though taken from the real world, they are best presented in cyberspace, where the Web's interactive capabilities can enhance their meaning by drawing connections between them.
Better yet, visitors to Revealing Things can completely customize the museum-going experience based on their own interests, instead of following a linear, predetermined path dictated by an invisible authority. The onscreen entry for an electric guitar might lead to another on a pair of jeans from the 1950's, which in turn might lead to a Mexican-American recipe for rice soup.
"We wanted to give visitors a tremendous amount of latitude and control over the material. At the same time, we wanted to make sure it wasn't a random walk-through, and that they were getting some kind of underlying message," Gradwohl explained.
The exhibit's command center is a Java-based program called Thinkmap, developed by Plumb Design Inc. in Manhattan. This clever navigation device, located to the left of the main window, displays 68 different information categories.
It is an appealing presentation of the complex relationships between categories, one that encourages exploration. Words like "Toys" and "1960s" float in a 3-D space like stars in a constellation. Clicking on a peripheral category sends it to the center, and tiny pictures of relevant objects shuffle into place in a vertical array nearby, ready to be selected.
"It's just about the sexiest portrayal of a database that I've ever seen," Green said. "I hope it's a harbinger for interfaces that excite the viewer rather than completely baffle them."
Once an item is picked and its entry loads in the main window, visitors are greeted by a personal tale, perhaps a recollection about dining on an ironing board in the 1930's. Successive pages provide more traditional curatorial commentary and, in the future, research sources.
"Good exhibits try to personalize the material, to strike a chord in visitors," Gradwohl opined. "It's one of these things you can't do very well with physical exhibits, but you can do much more easily on the Web."
Most of the objects in Revealing Things have been culled from the Smithsonian's own collections, a mere 140 million artifacts and specimens. But several have also been drawn from outside sources, including the relatives of colleagues.
"The idea is to get our visitors to think about what makes a museum, and to recognize that we all have interesting and valuable material culture, not just what we see in museums," Gradwohl said.
She also would like visitors to become more aware of their own surroundings as they visit the exhibit from their computers. "They'll be wearing jeans or drinking coffee out of a special mug. We want the technology to pull people out of their machines and cause them to think about their possessions with new eyes," she said.
Because Revealing Things is a prototype for a larger exhibition planned for 1999, only two-thirds of the objects have been annotated. Except for some blank pages, the site betrays no signs of its beta status. The design by Razorfish Inc. of Manhattan is elegant and consistent, and the advanced features function reliably.
When the site is relaunched next year, there will be some changes. The number of objects will be expanded to 150 or 200, including public submissions, Gradwohl said. Sound clips of music and narration that currently require download times of a minute or three will be replaced by the more-immediate streaming audio. At present, only the entry for a pair of patched bell-bottom jeans gets the full multimedia treatment.
The most revelatory aspect of Revealing Things is that it was generated by a 151-year-old institution, a far-flung empire of 16 museums and galleries, 11 research centers and the National Zoo. Venerable entities are rarely responsible for this degree of innovation.
Green praised the Smithsonian's willingness "to think differently, which is always such a big challenge. It's so difficult to make the leap from something you know too well to something that's not constrained by all those physical factors."
Gradwohl is well aware that not all experiments are accepted. One entry in the Revealing Things site is the Fleetwood scroll saw, a foot-powered jigsaw dating from 1875 that was a commercial failure.
"They actually produced some, but they didn't last very long," Gradwohl related. "Right after sewing machines made it into every house in the country, somebody decided we should have parlor woodworking. I think they didn't deal with the sawdust issue."
As museums continue to carve out their niche on the Web, it will be interesting to watch the fallout from Revealing Things.