by Kate Flatley
May 15, 1998
If you have ever surfed through museums' Web sites, you know that most on-line exhibits are almost exclusively electronic reproductions either of current physical exhibits at a museum or of a museum's collection. The Smithsonian Institution's Smithsonian Without Walls project is aiming to turn that convention on its head.
The goal of SWW, which falls under the umbrella of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, is to create exhibitions that exist only on-line, not as companion pieces to a physical show in an actual museum. That goal has been achieved.
Currently up on the WSS site, which was launched March 5, is an exhibition prototype titles "Revealing Things" (www.si.edu/revealingthings). The exhibit is designed to show how the everyday objects we have in our homes reveal things about each of us and how they relate to our culture.
These items are interesting in the own right, but the real innovation on the SWW site is the process by which visitors see them. Traditional museum shows are linear; the Web is decidedly flexible. Guests to the site, co-designed by Plumb Designs, Inc. and Razorfish, Inc., can view the exhibition pieces in any order they deem suitable by using a fluid arrangement of linked titles called a Maplet and thumbnail images of the items to navigate around. There is no "right" way to view the show.
Judith Gradwohl, director of SWW, said that this presentation is designed to move away from the typical method of building an exhibit. "Most museums use the metaphor of a book when putting together an exhibition. A storyline is developed and each of the galleries is a chapter. What we wanted to do with 'Revealing Things' is to develop it more like a landscape; develop trails through the exhibit and help visitors find the trails that are relevant to them."
The goal is to make the exhibit a more personalized and educational experience than one would get at a traditional museum show. "We want visitors to have a choice in the information they receive and how they receive it. However, we want them to still receive the educational message, not just go on a random walk," Ms. Gradwohl said.
Each of the items exhibited will be accompanied by the traditional "voice of authority" third-person narrative similar to what you'd see on a wall label next to a painting in a conventional museum, as well as information you wouldn't normally find there: scholarly details, such as a bibliography and where to find more information about a certain subject; personal stories from the people who donated the pieces; and, for some of the objects, audio and video clips.
For example, if you click on the picture of the Gilbert 1937 Chemistry Set, you'll find a story from William C. Lassell Jr., who contributed the piece. He tells of an experiment run amok that ruined his mother's rug. Why, you may ask, is this important enough to be housed in the Smithsonian? When you read on you see that Mr. Lassell's mother's rug was in their home in Greenbelt, Md., one of three "green towns" built by the Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression to provide low-income housing. So that rug was probably the first real rug Mrs. Lassell had ever owned. And the chemistry set turns out to be not just a child?s toy but a window in Depression-era life.
From this image, you can link to other areas of the site with related information. For example, there are paths to a collection of articles on toys, to historical background information about the Depression and to information about the science of chemistry. From each of these links you can go on to still more areas. There are seemingly thousands of layers and levels of information. I spent much of one afternoon just linking from page to page and was fascinated at how all of the items are interconnected and tell now only the tale of the personal artifact, but the tale of the American experience.
A child's toy toolbox hammers home the rigidity of turn-of-the-century gender roles. Dinner dishes convey one family's experience on the night Pearl Harbor was bombed. A Fender Stratocaster guitar bespeaks rock 'n' roll. Bellbottoms are a window on 1960s counterculture. Vietnam War Memorial offerings tell the stories of the soldiers who fought, those who came back and those who didn't, and their families.
After spending some time with the site, I started looking at the things in my apartment and thinking how they related to my generation, my culture, and what they reveal about me. I'm sad to say I'm not sure any of them are ready to be enshrined in the Smithsonian, but perhaps after a few years' distance they'll turn out to be culturally significant.
If they do, I can donate them. One of the remarkable things about this project is that every average Joan who has access to a photo scanner and e-mail can donate to the most prestigious museum of American history.
Hopefully, by the time the finished exhibit opens in the spring of 1999, most people will have access to the technology necessary to view the site to its full potential. It's a very technology-intensive site, and if you have a slow modem viewing the site could be an all-day project. You need a Java-enabled browser and the capability to play audio and video.
SWW is accepting submissions right now of items and stories relating to three categories: hats, sporting goods and communications equipment. "This is a chance for people to submit items to the Smithsonian and still keep possession of the," Ms. Gradwohl said. "We want to get people to look at their possessions with new eyes."
This approach is new for everyone. "This project is an experiment," she continued. "We rarely experiment in our physical exhibit halls because it is so expensive. This is the beauty of the Web. If it works, we can keep it going. If not we can take it down."