A virtual exhibit 'On the Move'

The largest permanent exhibition in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (NMAH) occupies nearly 26,000 square feet of floor space, features 340 objects (including a 189-ton railway locomotive and a 40-foot stretch of Route 66), and recreates 19 historic settings while telling the story of how transportation has changed the nation. The online version of America on the Move provides access to more than 1,500 artifacts and photographs, adds a selection of games and exclusive essays by curatorial staff to the mix, and still fits nicely onto your desktop. The benefits of 'being there' notwithstanding, technology certainly has its advantages.

Considering the size of the collection and the degree of interactivity within America On the Move online, the surfer's first exposure to the site is almost an anticlimax. Rather than opening with animations, a splash page, or any other form of eye-catching introduction, "On the Move" gets straight to business with immediate access to the exhibit's three main sections and a handful of related features. (For those who prefer surfing with JavaScript turned off, the Smithsonian's servers will automatically load a lower-tech mirror of the site.)

Of the main sections, the Exhibition most closely recreates an actual visit to the museum. Using an 18-stage interactive timeline, "On the Move" reviews more than a century of intersections of transportation, history, and culture - from steamboats and railroads before 1876, to jet travel and the global community's impact on present-day Los Angeles. Within those chronological confines, exhibits touch on such subjects as the effect that advances in transportation have had on agriculture (as produce has become available to wider markets), the changes that mass transit and private cars brought to cities and suburbs, the role of the school bus in the demise of the traditional one-room schoolhouse, and even the impact of global travel on bluefin tuna stocks.

The Collection holds the site's database - cataloguing the 1,500 or so photographs and artifacts (from or related to the exhibition) through an exceptionally flexible interface. In addition to keyword and advanced search options, the Collection also allows visitors to simply browse the displays after specifying such parameters as vehicle type, region, and time frame. Once an artifact is chosen, On the Move loads a new page with additional images, descriptions and histories of the selections, details on the items' role within the larger exhibition, and links to related artifacts.

Finally, Themes complements the permanent exhibition with curatorial essays about selected artifacts, and "behind the scenes" stories about the creation of certain displays. (Examples of the latter include the efforts involved in moving a 189-ton locomotive into the museum, and the recreation of an 1890s apple orchard for an indoor exhibit in 2003.) A collection of Learning Resources and online Games round out the site's offerings.

With more than 300 objects on physical display at the NMAH, the artifacts represented here naturally cover a great deal of territory, and range from the first car that drove across the United States (in 1903), to a complete ship's engine room from the US Lighthouse Service tender, "Oak," to the sheet music for that catchy 1913 ditty, "He'd Have To Get Under - Get Out and Get Under (To Fix Up His Automobile)." Examples from the image collection include a New York City 'Traffic Tower' (imagine an air traffic control tower in the middle of an intersection), and a satellite view of Los Angeles. There are also a handful of video clips, featuring such pieces of transportation history as a 1920s Ford assembly line in action.

Fortunately, given the size of the collection, site navigation is simple and explicit. (Highways should have it this good.) Everything you need to know about where you are, and everything you need to get somewhere else, is located in a collection of horizontal bars at the top of every page. Tabs move the visitor among the three main sections, a series of circles locate you within each 'subdivision,' and a variation on roadside arrow signs take the place of 'Back,' 'Search,' and 'Home' links. The three main sections are also thoroughly interlinked - click on an image in the Exhibition or Themes sections, and the site will load details and access to a larger copy of the image from the Collection database. And as mentioned above, each entry in the Collection lists the artifact's location(s) in other parts of the exhibition, as well as any thematically related objects.

With so much to view, it's also worth noting that context plays as important a role as content in the website's presentations. As one example, a 1959 Chicago Transit Authority "L" Train on display in the museum finds online representation in both an Exhibition segment on the growth of the suburbs in the 1950s, and in a Themes essay on the history, acquisition, and restoration of CTA Car 6719 - another of the exhibit's larger artifacts. Add offsite links to such resources as a history of the "L"system and the Illinois Railway Museum, and we have an effective illustration of why "On The Move" online is worth visiting even for those with easy access to "On the Move" on the Mall.

While it won't surprise anyone that advances in transportation have changed the fabric of the nation (and the world for that matter), many may not be not aware of just how extensive those changes are, or even recognize some of the more obscure associations. From transcontinental highways to one-room schoolhouses, America on the Move presents both the big picture and the finer details of that relationship in a package that's both entertaining and educational.

And there's no charge for parking.

America on the Move can be found at http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthemove/index.html.

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