Municipal archives made entertaining

You probably wouldn't think of a city's municipal archive as an entertaining place to spend an afternoon. (After all, unless you own the land, how interesting can a deed possibly be?) As it turns out though, some civic attics are more interesting than others, and the city of Amsterdam has found no fewer than 300 artifacts and documents that it considered worth putting on public display. (And by and large, they were right.) Three Hundred Treasures demonstrates that there's much more to some city halls than tax assessments and leash laws.

The meritorious winners of the VGI (Vereniging voor Geschiedenis en Informatica) Innovation Prize (I'm sorry, I have no idea), the creators of Three Hundred Treasures sifted through some six centuries of material in order to create their final selection. Some examples were chosen for their historic significance, others for their aesthetic appeal or moving content, and still others were deemed special, "simply because they were commonplace."

The site which houses the exhibit appeals to the eye, lays its content out in an easily accessible design, and most important, presents itself in a manner that will actually draw visitors into what is essentially a 'greatest hits' collection of government records, (If you happen to be in Amsterdam, all the featured documents are also on permanent display - with handheld computers guiding visitors around the exhibits.)

Upon loading the website (enable JavaScript, or you'll be faced with a fragmented layout), visitors are presented with a brief introduction, a series of buttons that represents the exhibit's 24 "Themes" (Love, Death, Foreigners, Second World War, Vanished Amsterdam, etc...and of course, the Canals), and a rotating preview of captioned and Themed topics and images. This latter feature is especially helpful in pulling surfers past the 'city hall' mental roadblock with such enticements as a 1794 map of land for sale in New York (which wealthy Amsterdammers were buying up for later subdivision and resale), a 17th century 'registry of beggars' (recording those who were given permission to beg within the city), and even a 1930s film clip of activities along the city's waterfront.

Of course, there are also the kind of documents one might normally expect in a municipal records room - such as a 1970 anti-littering campaign video (more likely to encourage than deter its target demographic), a letter from an unhappy citizen which opens with the sincere if not original sentiment, "To the rats in the city council," and a few interesting by-laws. A statute dating to 1413 prohibits "a woman of easy virtue to be in either the church or the cemetery in the company of any man other than her husband for the purpose of eating, drinking or love-making." (Which leads one to wonder if sex in the cemetery was permitted as long as you were married.)

If you choose to explore by Theme, each topic opens with a collection of five preview images arranged around the Themes navigation buttons. For larger collections, navigation to subsequent exhibits is available at the bottom of each page, as is a link to display the entire Theme's contents on a single page. Individual exhibits include 100 or so words of text, images (some of which link to larger copies) and in many cases, an audio file about the display.

Unfortunately these commentaries aren't available in English unless it was the language of the original document (as with a letter from Charles Darwin to the Natura Artis Magistra), so you'll probably be hitting the "Pauze" button fairly frequently to stop the automatic playback. (But you will have learned something about the roots of the English word, "spiel.")

Hierarchical navigation options are placed at the top of each page, so that by the time you've reached an individual exhibit, you'll find Previous and Next links, the current Theme's button (to instantly reload all the options for that topic), and direct access to the site's home page. You can also choose to have the site automatically move from one exhibit to the next, and stop the progress when you find something of interest.

And while all the navigational options will make exploring the site straightforward, Treasures will draw most visitors in with its visuals. Warm tones are used throughout the design and the previews' thumbnails are large enough to see the quality of the images within - which in many cases are masterpieces. With centuries of works to choose from, and being situated in an artistic hub for most of that time, Treasures can, for example, open an article about filling in canals that have become too polluted for human safety with a beautiful 19th century drawing by W. Hekking.

And beyond the use of art as visual aid, even 'simple' documents, like a letter recording a loan to Emperor Charles VI of Austria, can be works of art in their own right. (But while some images do link to larger versions, too many are only available in a single size, and more of these works could benefit from a closer look.)

Other random excerpts from the archive range from an audio file of a 1950s pop hit about Amsterdam's canals, to a 17th century family chronicle, to a September 2000 portrait of Surinamese immigrants. There are letters from Oliver Cromwell and Charlie Chaplin, a 1942 report of the theft of Anne Frank's bicycle, and a 1970s film, from which you won't even need to understand the language to deduce that it's touting the 'good life' of the new high density highrise 'residential district' over life in the city.

(Another film clip, ostensibly of firefighters "practicing a rescue" from a car that has driven into a canal, shows the empty car entering the water and submerging, but no apparent rescue efforts. Perhaps that was for a later lesson.)

All the audio and film clips are embedded in Treasure's pages and loaded without a single hiccup. The only suggestion I would make to prospective visitors is that since individual exhibits open in the main window instead of dedicated popup frames, you'll avoid a lot of time spent backtracking and reloading content if you manually open the exhibits into new tabs or windows.

While it's true that few city halls will have the kind of history available to Amsterdam at their disposal (unless they manufacture it), the concept is still one that could be adapted around the world for local governments that want to boost civic pride and/or entice a few potential visitors. The business of running a city notwithstanding, exhibits like Treasures would make nice additions to the more conventional collections of zoning by-laws, council agendas, and garbage pickup schedules.

300 Treasures can be found at http://gemeentearchief.amsterdam.nl/schatkamer/300_schatten/index.en.html.

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