21st: Pictures from an exhibition

With the Smithsonian's new Web site, getting around is half the fun.

By Scott Rosenberg

Published March 25, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Museums and the people responsible for them have never known whether to embrace new technologies like the Web -- or run from them in terror. In moving onto the Web -- as in earlier forays into the CD-ROM publishing game -- many museums expressed this ambivalence by clinging to physical-world metaphors even as they left behind the spatial limits of brick-and-mortar reality.

Exhibitions might have been labeled "virtual," but they were nonetheless laid out in "rooms" with "walls" and connecting "hallways." You'd have to click your way laboriously through such mock spaces, when a simple list of options might have taken you where you wanted to go more easily.

From its choice of name to its adventurous design, Smithsonian Without Walls -- a new online project from the Smithsonian Institution -- makes a clean break from this tradition. Like many smaller, more experimental Web-based art sites and galleries, Smithsonian Without Walls is presenting material that could never be exhibited in quite the same way offline. And it's doing so with the help of some innovative navigation technology that the geekiest of webmasters would be proud to host.

Yet it's no cyber-techno-blowout: You're not going to find strobing digital animations or interactive 3-D walk-throughs of exotic locales here. Instead, the first exhibition from Smithsonian Without Walls, "Revealing Things" (now open in "demonstration prototype" form), is devoted to material objects from everyday life -- old bellbottom jeans, Bering Sea Eskimo charms, wooden puppets, kid's chemistry sets.

In the normal run of things, these quotidian household items from the "nation's attic," as the Smithsonian is sometimes called, would never make it into a public exhibit. The Smithsonian Without Walls site gamely hoists them into view -- but it doesn't just abandon them there. For each item exhibited, in addition to the usual reference-style notes typically found mounted on museum walls, there's a brief tale of some sort: an anecdote about the original owner or a quotation from the object's era gives the thing a kind of life on the screen.

The exhibits are piquant rather than exhaustive. "Revealing Things" is not an encyclopedia or a database -- it's a true collection, each facet of which sheds an odd angle of light on the way people used to live. The 19th century items bear the most revelations: Who knew, for instance, that celery was once a highly prized status symbol that families would proudly serve up in pressed-glass vases exclusively dedicated to this one crunchy vegetable?

Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Without Walls' director, cites the 1880s celery vase in "Revealing Things" as an example of how an online exhibition can work differently from an in-the-flesh museum show. "I've worked on enough physical exhibitions to know that you never have enough space to put everything you want to show. And American pressed glass is generally not a big draw -- people usually pass it by with a glance. But once you find out that this vase was designed for Victorian families to put celery out to impress somebody, it's a different story."

That kind of understanding, she says, is the exhibition's purpose: "Most people will be using this program in their own homes and offices. If we have done our job right, they'll start looking at their own possessions with new eyes."

Anecdotal stories are one strategy "Revealing Things" uses to give the inanimate world some life on the screen. The other is an impressive bit of site-navigation technology called Thinkmap -- which presents a directory of the individual objects in the exhibition as a kind of 3-D star map, with words dancing against a black background, linked together in constellational array and pulsing with an invitation to explore. Thinkmap lets you chart your own path through the "Revealing Things" displays by era, theme or your own whimsy. It's an enthralling experiment in database-visualization design; you may want to stop and play with its pure abstraction for a while before returning to the material objects for which it serves as a gateway.

Like the whole "Revealing Things" exhibit, Thinkmap relies on Java -- which means you will want a good amount of memory and a faster processor for best performance. (The exhibit will run on PowerPC- based Macs, but less reliably, thanks to problems with Mac browsers' version of Java.) The design -- by Razorfish and the Thinkmap creators at Plumb Design -- is reasonably responsive over a modem, but shows off best on a faster Net connection.

The exhibit that's up today is a prototype with about 50 objects in its collection. Gradwohl says the final version of "Revealing Things" -- likely to be ready early next year -- will include around 200 displays, ultimately incorporating some objects offered by visitors themselves. Gradwohl also expects to add streaming audio (right now the narration and music is still in click-and-wait form) and more extensive interactive features, like separate comment books for each object and a chat system for visitors.

Already, even with just a simple "mailto" button for public response, "Revealing Things" is generating a flood of comment. "I thought I'd be disappointed without the smell of wet paint or an opening party," Gradwohl says. "But we're getting far more intimate feedback from people over the Web."

Smithsonian Without Walls started its work on "Revealing Things" almost two years ago, meeting with small groups around the country to plot its approach. (I sat in on one in San Francisco.) In Web terms that gestation period is almost unimaginably slow: Whole technologies have been born and died, fortunes made and lost, sites spawned and orphaned in the same time span. The unique appeal of the "Revealing Things" prototype -- its combination of the inventive with the mundane -- suggests the value in taking a longer, slower view. The Web could use more such deliberation.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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