On June 9th, Britain's National Museums of Science and Industry officially launched not one, but two sites examining the interaction between science and culture. While distinctly different in their approach and target audiences, Ingenious and Making The Modern World both provide engaging examinations of science, invention and technology in a social context.
The first of these new projects, Ingenious, has been created with contributions from the Science Museum, the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, the National Railway Museum, the Science & Society Picture Library and the Science Museum Library. Operating under the tagline of "Seeing things differently," the site uses text and some 30,000 still images to explore "new perspectives on human ingenuity."
With content divided into four sections (Read, Debate, See, and Create), accessible through navigational Tabs at the top of each page, Ingenious opens with a very active homepage, which also includes two scrolling bars (one with images, another with keywords) - combining to offer visitors three different methods for diving into the site. (Though the scrolls will take you to the same preliminary destinations as the See and Read tabs.)
Read offers illustrated articles of a few hundred words on subjects ranging from the environment and communication, to war and the impact of technology on how we see ourselves, with stories that are accessible through an unusual hierarchical directory.
As an example of the navigation method, visitors might be guided from the Read index page (with its 12 available Subjects), through the "Seeing" subject page (with 5 related Topics), to the "Image Manipulation" topic page, to - in this case - a choice of three articles on the chosen topic ("Images of Ourselves,"Images in Advertising," and "Images as Evidence").
While that explanation may not sound much more entertaining than digging through a Yahoo directory, concise overviews and choice-specific introductions help to draw the visitor from one level to the next. Interim stages and final destinations are also abundantly illustrated, and accompanied by links to related images and reference materials.
In addition, a Discover link opens a pop-up window with access to relevant collections of sidebars, "Unusual Takes" (covering such unconventional subjects as attempts to measure the 'speed of thought'), and "Voices" - quotes from people in the selected field. At any point, surfers can backtrack through a hierarchical 'you are here' listing just below the main navigational tabs.
See is a straightforward catalog of the images available onsite - available through a keyword listing (with category and sub-category pull-downs), or through browsing by Subject. Each image links to a full screen copy, information about the artifact, and for those who wish to register, the option to save individual pictures to a personal gallery.
Debate prompts discussions related to subjects in the Read section. (Examples include, "Do human races exist?" and "Should science be censored?") Finally, Create serves as the home base for See's personal image collections, and allows visitors to generate their own e-cards.
(Though the articles are brief, they're probably enough for most visitors, while those who want more can move from Ingenious to their favorite search engine. Think of this as Time magazine, as opposed to Scientific American.)
While Ingenious' overall design is fairly conventional, Making The Modern World makes a point of using more 'rich media' options (and as such, is better suited to the broadband-connected -or patient- surfer). Still dedicated to science and invention, Modern World is a more narrowly focused online companion to a specific Science Museum gallery of the same name, and is targeted more towards teachers and students.
A Stories Timeline explores technology from 1750 to the year 2000, and inventions from Stephenson's "Rocket" locomotive to the Apollo 10 space capsule. Examples of Icons of Invention include the V2 rocket and Apple home computer. Everyday Life features such common objects as toothbrushes and Rubik's Cubes. Guided Tours follow specific themes through history (such as technology's impact on the movement of people), while Learning Modules are designed to complement Britain's 'A-Level' (exams required for university admission and some careers) curriculum.
The site's 82 "Rich Media Scenes" are composed of fairly basic Flash-based slide shows, so curious dial-up users won't be taking as big a hit as at some broadband sites. Still for those who'd rather not wait for the download, text-only versions of the content are also available.
As with Ingenious, there is a good deal of cross-referencing to other relevant material within the site. A rich media feature about Josiah Wedgwood (of Wedgwood china fame) includes links to articles (including a profile of Wedgwood's partner, Thomas Bentley), images, and other animated features, such as a presentation about "Industrial Psychology in Britain."
There are also links to directly search for related pictures from the image collection at Ingenious - though, judging by the fact that each attempt to use this feature resulted in 'no images found,' I'm guessing that the cross-linking between sites has not yet been completed.
The sites are literally only days old, and on occasion, show it. Not in the form of bugs or broken design (at least not that I encountered) but with as-yet undebated debates, and sparsely populated Discover windows. Oddly enough, of the two choices, I preferred the more basic Ingenious site - though that may simply be a personal taste reaction against the visual design of Modern World (your tastes may vary).
And while the details of much of the material here may be specific to Britain (there was, after all, only one Stephenson's Rocket) the territory covered as to the interaction between of technology and society is a universal one - and as such, Ingenious and Making the Modern World can be of interest to anyone curious about this unique and inescapable relationship.