Churchill and his ties to the US

Best remembered as British prime minister during World War II, Winston Churchill was also a soldier, journalist, and Nobel Prize-winning author. He also is the only non-American to have his name on an active-duty US Navy ship, and is one of only six Honorary Citizens of the United States.

The ex-P.M. also holds a somewhat more obscure, Web-specific distinction: the success of the Library of Congress exhibition, Churchill and the Great Republic, was so great that an enhanced 'companion' website was commissioned and then launched almost a year after the physical exhibit closed (in July of 2004).

Created in cooperation with the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge (UK, not Mass.), Churchill and the Great Republic looks at both the man's life and his relationship with his mother's homeland (his mother was from Brooklyn), primarily through physical relics from his life (from childhood report cards to the Order of Service for his funeral in 1965). While there was a basic Web presence for last year's exhibition, the newly launched version is much more interactive, media-rich, and engaging. And while the new and improved presentation shares some basic design ingredients with other online histories and biographies, Great Republic puts the pieces together better than most. (And does it so skillfully that you may not even notice how smoothly things are going.)

Opening into a new window, the presentation launches with an audio sample of Churchill's unmistakable voice, a few famous photographs, and an interactive introduction to the three paths that visitors can follow through the exhibition.

The first of the three navigational options is the Timeline - which begins with the 1873 meeting of Churchill's parents at a sailing regatta on the Isle of Wight, and continues decade by decade until his death, 70 years to the day after the death of his father. While the Timeline has become almost a cliche -albeit a perfectly logical one- for online biographies, this one will still hold the surfer's attention with strong visuals (the top half of each section's page is dedicated to a high-quality portrait and appropriate Churchillian quotation), and clean layout (with the lower sections tracking both Winston's life and concurrent world events).

The Timeline also permits seamless access to the other two avenues of exploration, with the first of these, Themes, embedded as thumbnail images in the year-by-year sections of the Timeline itself. With anywhere from two to five of these extra features seeded through each decade, the Themes take a closer look at pivotal events in Churchill's life and career. (Such milestones include his rise to the office of Prime Minister in 1939 and the "Iron Curtain" speech in Missouri in 1946, and are all given full-page treatments, with photographs, curatorial narration or period recordings, and even the odd film clip.)

But the main ingredient of the Themes pages comes from the third category of the site's content - a collection of more than 200 Objects (including newspaper clippings, maps and personal letters). These artifacts range from such historic documents as a draft of the P.M.'s "Finest Hour" speech, to examples which deal with either less dramatic (an engagements calendar for September, 1940) or less well-known (a 25 Pounds Sterling, "Wanted Dead or Alive" poster for Churchill from the Boer War) aspects of the man's life.

Each of the Objects open into its own page and can be examined in impressively minute detail through a drag and zoom interface, with background notes and transcripts of handwritten documents filling in any blanks. On occasions when there are too many Objects to fit into a specific Theme page, thumbnail images of the remaining artifacts are located at the bottom of the window. (Descriptions of the smaller images appear on Rollover, so you won't have to launch each Object in order to decide whether it's worth viewing.)

The entire collection of Objects can also be viewed through an interface that allows visitors to specify sub-categories (Photographs, Telegrams, Paintings...) along with whatever chronological parameters they wish to define. Themes are also available through their own interface - in this case grouping exhibits under nine topics (Politician, Communicator, etc., as well as a 'Highlights' tour) rather than by timeline.

In any case, movement between the three options is so transparent and intuitive that you'll probably be jumping from one track to another and back again without even thinking about it. Considering the multimedia impact of the contents, Great Republic loads its pages with surprising speed, but if things are still taking too much time for your taste, the original, low-tech version of the exhibit can be found here.

Not surprisingly, given the nature of the exhibit, detailed information about the man can be lost in the attention given to the artifacts. (For example, the Theme on Winston's ascendancy to prime minister has a pair of documents from the period, but doesn't make it clear -for those who don't already know- that Churchill was appointed, rather than elected, to the office.) Seekers of more complete biographies will have to look elsewhere, but for physical artifacts and minutiae, the Great Republic stands alone. It may have arrived a little later than most online companions, but your time here is well-spent.

Churchill and the Great Republic can be found at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/churchill/interactive/.

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