Inside a Chinese house in Salem, Mass.

When, after eight generations in the same location, the Huang family of Anhui Province, China, decided to move, they settled upon a unique mission for their ancestral estate - as an exhibit in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

Yin Yu Tang, A Chinese Home tells the story of how this 200-year-old house found a new home, some 7,000 miles away.

And before you think that we're talking about relocating a one-room bedsitter here, Yin Yu Tang (the family's name for the home) measures 47-feet by 52-feet, is two stories high, and includes a courtyard, two fish pools, 16 bedrooms, and a reception hall on each floor. Although the move began in 1997, the house won't be open to visitors until June of 2003. In the meantime, this virtual visit can provide an even more thorough "dissection" than would be possible by standing inside the real thing.

The story of Yin Yu Tang is told in five sections, using a 3-D representation of the building to serve as an anchor point for every step of exploration. What the 3-D image reveals changes with the content of each page, but by the time you've finished with the site, you'll be as familiar with this home as your own.

A succession of progressively larger scale maps help orientate visitors both in geographic and cultural terms. A detailed mapping of the house itself includes an animated "fly through," and a three-axis "deconstruction," which peels the building away, slice by slice, to reveal its layout. Additional steps detail each section of the house, and introduce some of the family members.

"Construction" examines the spiritual side of Yin Yu Tang's architecture (feng shui was used to dictate the building's location and orientation, and the placement of "Spirit Walls"), as well as such conventional subjects as the home's timber frame construction. "Ornamentation" details everything from the home's intricate carved stonework to the use of newspapers as wallpaper. "Belongings" catalogs everything from luxury goods (bed, hairpin) to everyday items (candles, wardrobe, and contents), and includes personal documents, such as letters and a family account book. "Preservation" recounts the dismantling, transport, restoration, and reconstruction of the building. In addition, a FAQ offers links to Historical and Project Timelines. Genealogy tracks the Huang family from 1857 to the present day.

The site is a visual treat throughout, from the colors and layout of the pages to the constant, but never excessive, use of slide shows, QuickTime movies, and animated magnifying glasses (which reveal the finer details of an object without needing to load an image so large that it would spill out of frame). Exploration is also enhanced with quotes and audio interviews.

But what most struck me after touring the site was that I didn't miss the ingredient I had most expected to see when entering. Thinking that this was an obvious case for some QuickTime panoramas, if not a complete QT virtual tour, I assumed the first few 3-D diagrams were merely a warmup for the main feature. But as I became more involved with those diagrams and the other tools available, I quickly forgot about the QuickTimes - and while some QTVRs may still be added to the site after the reconstruction is complete, the exhibit as it exists offers a more comprehensive picture of Yin Yu Tang than mere photographic representation could hope to provide.

Yin Yu Tang, A Chinese Home can be found at http://www.pem.org/yinyutang/.

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