Capturing a vanished time

In the 1830s, native Americans from the eastern half of the United States were being "relocated" to the West, while those already in the West were having their last experience with living in a land that was actually under their own control. At the same time, George Catlin, an ex-lawyer from Philadelphia decided to "gain fame" by recording Indian lives and cultures before they were permanently altered by European influences. Campfire Stories with George Catlin offers both historical and contemporary perspectives on the meetings and conflicts between native and European worlds.

Online for about two years, this multi-award winning site (significant awards) from the Smithsonian's American Art Museum uses a Flash interface to showcase its collection of Catlin's paintings. Catlin spent six years following the trails of Lewis and Clark, while painting native Americans, their lives and their landscapes as they existed in the 1830s. His work eventually grew to more than 500 portraits and landscapes. Campfire Stories, though it does not include all the artist's worsk, does number in the hundreds.

The paintings are presented with historical documents as well as commentary from modern experts on art, culture and anthropology. To avoid a purely academic presentation of the materials, the site delivers its content through the device of narratives told around a virtual campfire.

The choice of a campfire motif is interesting, though the interface for the site's four themes feels inharmonious. While the art itself is obviously more than a century old, and the chosen fiction of the presentation is a presumably low-tech pile of burning logs, participants are presented with an interactive circle that seems like something between a lazy susan and Star Trek transporter pad. That said, the content being presented is interesting, varied, and sufficiently comprehensive for most visitors' interest levels, and the generous use of bandwidth-friendly multi-media keeps things rolling along nicely.

In the first of the four themes, Ancestral Lands, narrators include website host Peter Matthiessen, a virtual Catlin, an anthropologist addressing the subject of Sacred Geography, an art historian discussing Catlin's work, and the first woman to hold the position of native American chief on the subject of land claims. Commentaries are accompanied by embedded QuickTime slide shows (which scan over Catlin's paintings as the audio plays), as well as background information about the speaker, printable transcripts of each segment, and occasionally, such extras as panoramic QTVRs of archaeological sites. Slideshows can be paused at any time, and a 'Back to Campfire' link returns the surfer to the other speakers.

In addition to the illustrated narratives, each topic also includes a scrollable gallery of paintings relevant to the theme (each with its own background information, comments from Catlin's notes, and links to fullscreen images). Each section also has a large collection of audio-only files with additional observations by the site's living and dead contributors, images and transcripts from one of Catlin's sketchbooks, and a densely populated interactive timeline - which is itself largely illustrated by more of Catlin's works. An interactive Map displays such details as Catlin's routes through the Plains, and the dispersal of the native Americans during various points in history.

A For Teachers section (yes, it's getting to be that time again) offers some theme-specific lesson plans, and transcripts for the audio-only files are available through the Interviews page.

The use of slideshows rather than full motion video keeps the download times well within reasonable limits, and the quality of the images is crisp and clean. A Keyword Search seemed to be inoperative during my visits (perhaps a victim of the site's 'advanced' years), though I felt no pressing need for the feature during my time at this particular site.

In terms of design, websites can age very quickly - especially if they are in the vicinity of the cutting edge when they were created. When you first encounter Campfire's splash page and its signature navigation, you're certainly aware that this production wasn't launched in the last few weeks, but the further in you delve, the less obvious the age becomes, and it never detracts from the entertainment and educational value of the site's contents. As for the "stories" component - with the exception of Catlin's own notes, "Campfire Analysis" might have been a title closer to the mark. But you would have been less likely to drop by to listen to Campfire Analyses - and that omission would have left you a little poorer.

Campfire Stories with George Catlin can be found at http://catlinclassroom.si.edu/index.html.

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