A smooth ride through Churchill's life

Best remembered as prime minister of Britain during World War II, Winston Churchill was also a soldier, a journalist, and a Nobel Prize-winning author. He is the only foreign national 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 - in that the success of a Library of Congress exhibition about the man was so great that an enhanced companion website was commissioned and then launched almost a year after the physical exhibit closed (in July 2004). Fortunately for those who didn't see Churchill and the Great Republic in person, the throngs of those who did contributed to the demand for this online version of the exercise.

Created in cooperation with the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, England, Churchill and the Great Republic looks at both the man's life and his relationship with his maternal homeland - primarily through physical relics from his life. (The collection ranges from childhood report cards to the Order of Service for his funeral in 1965.) While there was a basic Web presence in place during last year's exhibition, the more recent version is much more interactive, media-rich, and engaging. And while the new and improved website shares some basic design ingredients with any number of online histories and biographies, "Great Republic" puts the pieces together better than most. (So well in fact that you may not even notice how smoothly things are going.)

Upon launch, "Great Republic" moves the proceedings into a new browser window, and opens with a 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. This first page also employs an unusual 'self-play' feature that reappears throughout the presentation (alerting visitors to watch for more examples during their travels), and introduces curator Daun van Ee, the website's audio escort.

The first of the 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, seventy years to the day after the death of his father. While the Timeline has become almost a cliché - albeit a perfectly logical one - for online biographies, this one will still hold the visitor's attention with strong visuals and a clean layout. The top half of each section's page is dedicated to a high quality portrait, 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 links to the first of these, Themes, embedded as thumbnail images in the year-by-year sections of the display. 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, and include such milestones as his rise to the office of prime minister in 1939, and the "Iron Curtain" speech in Missouri in 1946. Each event is given a full page, multimedia treatment - with photographs, curatorial narration or period recordings, and even the occasional film clip.

But the main ingredient of the Themes pages actually comes from the third category of the site's content - an interactive 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 items reflecting either less dramatic (a silk top hat) or less well-known (a "Dead or Alive" poster for Churchill circulated during the Boer War) aspects of the man's life.

Each of the Objects opens 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 subcategories (Photographs, Telegrams, Paintings...) along with whatever chronological parameters they wish to define. Themes are also available through a dedicated interface - in this case grouping exhibits under various topics (Politician, Communicator, etc). 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.

Despite the multimedia content of the exhibit, "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 website can still be found here.

Given the nature of the exhibit, it won't be surprising that detailed information about the man can be lost in the attention given to the artifacts. (For example, the Theme exhibit on Winston's ascent 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, "Great Republic" stands alone. It may have arrived a little later than most online companions, but the time was well spent.

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

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