HistoryWired

By , csmonitor.com

Question: Which of the Smithsonian Institution's buildings houses the largest number of artifacts?

Answer: The warehouse.

Actually, it's a safe assumption that the Smithsonian makes use of more than one warehouse, but whatever the number, the fact is that like most major museums, the vast majority of the Smithsonian's collections (95% by its own estimate) is in storage and completely inaccessible to the public. It's not that surprising when you consider the open-space-to-exhibit-space ratio that exists in most museums, but it does raise the question of just what else is filed away on those warehouse shelves. HistoryWired: A few of our favorite things brings the museum concept of 'visible storage' to the Web - sharing a collection of 450 of the Smithsonian's seldom-seen objects, and using an interface that you may have never seen at all.

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Featuring artifacts from the National Museum of American History, and selected by curators throughout the museum, HistoryWired is free of the thematic restrictions of most public exhibits, and uses that freedom to offer a truly eclectic collection. Examples include the first Apple computer, the world's most expensive five-cent coin, Kermit the Frog, the first Technicolor camera, and a 19th century used chewing gum container. The varied nature of the selection not only ensures that you won't get bored during your visit, it also increases the chances of revealing something you never knew. (Personally, I'd never heard of a Solar Compass, and had no idea that the first 'blue jeans' were brown.)

Almost as fascinating as the collection is the site's interface, designed -in an unusual example of corporate cross-pollination- by SmartMoney.com (and if you've ever used SmartMoney's Map of the Market, you'll quickly recognize the similarities). For the rest of us, the Museum's Object Map (Java required) is most simply explained as a collection of rectangular boxes of various sizes occupying the browser window - with each box representing an object in the collection. But there is oh, so much more to the map than a simple collection of boxes.

The boxes themselves are grouped into categories (Computers, Military, Photography, etc), and assigned screen real estate in accordance with popularity. (Visitors are encouraged to rate artifacts, and these ratings affect each box's size for subsequent visitors.) Move your pointer over a box and things get very active.

Immediately above the area, a label appears with a description of the artifact, and an invitation to "click for more options" (more later). From the label, lines extend to a category list at the top of the page, indicating which theme -or themes- the chosen item relates into, while a timeline displays the object's chronological context. Finally, to the left of the map, a thumbnail image and text summary is displayed - and all this before a single click of the mouse.

Which brings us to "click for more options." The first listed option (or double clicking on any box) will take the visitor to the display page for the selected item - which opens in a new window to avoid having to reload the map. Each page offers a detailed description of the featured object, thumbnail and full scale images, the viewer ratings scale, and links to related information and exhibits. (At least one display even featured RealAudio clips from the Smithsonian's Folkways recording label.) Other options available allow the visitor to 'zoom in' on specific areas of the map, which makes individual boxes large enough to display their labels full-time. (Visitors can scroll around the enlarged document by simply clicking and dragging while holding the shift key down.) Once an artifact has been viewed, a checkmark appears in its map location to cut down on accidental backtracking.

In addition to all this interactivity, the category and timeline bar at the top of the map page allow surfers with specific interests to narrow their search. Drag the Timeline sliders, and objects outside the chosen years are grayed out. Click on a category, and every related box is instantly colored in. (Click on more than one category and objects that relate to more categories are given darker colors.) Use a drop-down menu to the left of the screen, and the category bar becomes more specific. (For example, choosing "Leisure" from the pull-down, reduces the category bar to Dolls, Sports, Television, and Toys and Games.) Finally, if you have no sense of serendipity, HistoryWired also offers a keyword search.

But serendipity is what this site is all about. And the object map is the perfect interface to encourage random poking around. (An approach which might also be popular if the public could get inside those secret storage areas.) The interactive bells and whistles have taken up the majority of this review, but they don't detract from the content - the interface actually encourages exploration, and the artifacts reward it. Gripes? An occasional desire for more detail (I wish that the page for Groucho Marx's Home Movies actually offered home movies, and not just a pair of selected stills), but even so, it's the most fun I've ever had in a warehouse.

HistoryWired: A few of our favorite things can be found at http://historywired.si.edu/.

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