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Some of my favorite things September 5, 2006

Posted by McStorian in ClioWired, Uncategorized.
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This morning, the Museum of American History closed its doors, albeit just for a while (at least compared to the expanse of American history.)  Thankfully, some of the more popular artifacts will move to temporary quarters in the National Air and Space museum, but others will simply remain out of view.  Therefore, sites like the Smithsonian’s History Wired are useful for generally curious people to see what types of “things” the museum can offer.  In addition, the site also allows visitors to see objects that are not normally on display even when the museum is open. 

When users first visit the site, an instruction page appears as a pop-up, assuming that users allow pop-ups.  Otherwise, there’s a bit of a learning curve.  At first glance, I thought I was looking at a map of a Midwestern state; possibly Iowa?  After a few minutes, one realizes that this “map of Iowa” can actually do quite a few things other than be slightly confusing.  By utilizing a map-based browser, users can narrow topics, subjects, and time periods whilst still seeing all of their other options.  Therefore, one can instantly compare the expanse of their queries in comparison to the overall collection.  The categories also keep the objects in some sort of context, although very loosely.  I enjoy that the sizes of “Iowa’s counties” are based upon the popularity of those particular items.  It allows curators to possibly judge what items may later be put on display, and which ones may remain in the attic. 

Aside from a slight learning curve and an unlikely familiarity with the market map that this site was based on, HistoryWired suffers from a lack of explanation.  After selecting an item, users may view a larger version of an image or get about a paragraph of additional information.  In one way, this allows users to judge for themselves why certain items were selected to be on the site or their cultural significance.  On the other hand, it would be nice to have some narrative along with the objects because of the collection’s eclectic nature.  But maybe this is a problem for the museum community in general: what makes a top-hat a viable museum holding?  Because Abraham Lincoln wore it.  So what – it’s still just a top-hat?  Because it allows users to catch a glimpse of the humanity of Lincoln and it can tell us a little bit about the man who wore it or the time he lived in.  Yet, I don’t know if the average visitor asks those types of questions or simply says “cool!” because Lincoln has become such a demigod in our nation’s past.  Regardless, if such items get kids and adults to visit museums, to learn to appreciate their history, and hopefully retain something valuable, then the museums and their subsequent websites are certainly successful.  Although HistoryWired seems to be a bit on the antiquarian side and lacks that somewhat bizarre human desire to see something in person, the site still achieves something in the absence of an open American History museum.  It would be great for use in the classroom, especially for those who live too far from D.C. to visit regularly . . . like Iowa?

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