U-boating through history

When you consider that there are only four museums worldwide that can count an intact World War II German U-boat among their collections, it only makes sense to do everything possible to ensure the long-term survival of such rare artifacts. And when the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago recently took the step of removing its U-boat from the great outdoors and relocating it in a custom-made, underground exhibit hall, it also made sense to revamp and expand the entire exhibition related to this national memorial. Fortunately for those of us who can't get to the museum in person, that revamped exhibition also includes an online companion, and the U-505 Submarine website is, as they say, the next best thing to being there.

Opening with an image depicting the submarine's capture by US Naval forces (U-505 was the first enemy ship captured by American forces since the War of 1812), the site is basic in its technical design, but delivers its content in a digestible, visually rich presentation that uses images as much as menus to move from one part of the production to the next. (Text-based aids are also present, just in case you find yourself in a navigational dead-end.) Photographs are given as much screen space as text in the various segments of the virtual visit, and while they don't link to high-resolution mirrors, they are large enough in their posted form to serve their purpose.

As with the physical exhibit, the U-505 website first guides visitors through a bit of historical context related to the main attraction - with brief introductions to the various "beginnings" of World War II, the U-Boat Menace in the Atlantic Ocean, the US Navy's response in the form of Hunter-Killer Task Groups, and the role of Intelligence and code breaking in the war against the subs. A six-part series on Capturing the U-505 follows, and then surfers are introduced to the sub's postwar history - first as a touring war bonds advertisement, and then in its original installation as an outdoor exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in 1954.

While this early material is delivered in a straightforward text and photos format, some of the latter exhibits also use more dynamic media to impressive effect. First, Restoration and Relocation uses a series of time-lapse QuickTime movies to record the U-505's move from its outdoor location of roughly half a century to the pit that - when finished and enclosed - would become its new indoor home. Much more effectively than still images or technical specifications, these video clips give a tangible sense of scale to the submarine, as well as an appreciation of just how mammoth an undertaking it was to move the boat out of the elements and into climate-controlled comfort.

Then, after the viewer gets a sense of how large an artifact the sub is, a QuickTime panoramic Virtual Tour (QTVR) of the interior powerfully demonstrates just how small a home it made for the crew. You may have thought things looked cramped in "Das Boot," but these QTVR files are extraordinary in their claustrophobic impact. Even the ability to pan up and down, and see the hatches above and below you as you "stand" in the conning tower, do nothing to make the space feel larger, and when combined with the chaotic assortment of wheels and gauges in the control room, it leaves one wondering what the German Navy's equivalent of a "Section 8" might have been. (If you spin one of these QTVRs around in circles for a few rotations, you'll probably get an idea of how some members of the crew must have felt from time to time.)

Between these two extremes of scale, other, more conventional mini-exhibits look at some of the interactive displays available at the Chicago location, as well as some of the smaller artifacts that make up the U-505 exhibition (such as a mouth-watering image of a can of bread). Period photographs complement glimpses of Life On Board and How a Submarine Works, while an interactive diagram of the boat's exterior offers a few additional Sub Facts related to design and operation.

Beyond the tour proper, a series of "On-Line Activities" feature an interactive timeline of the Capture of U-505 (including video interviews with veterans of the event), and a pair of online games to acquaint the surfer with both sides of the U-boat war. Find the U-505 explains, and then has the surfer employ, such tools as code breaking and radio direction finding to locate and attack the U-505, while Command the U-505 gives visitors the chance (though not much of one, as the game seems stacked in the Allies' favor) to try to sink a destroyer or dive to safety. Both games offer side features with more details about the methods being used, and Find the U-505 also drops in a few more modern-day interview clips with members of the original American crew. Finally, Resources provides links to a few FAQs about the physical exhibit, external websites and teaching resources, a reading list, and downloadable desktop wallpapers.

While the design is generally basic (this isn't a complaint; it suits the needs of the site just fine) there are the occasional touches of something a bit out of the ordinary - such as an aircraft that flies out of its photograph and into a diagram during an interactive demonstration, and the Capture feature's use of a navigational interface that will be familiar to anyone who uses the Apple OSX operating system. On the down side, the navigation for the site in general is such that while it's easy enough to backtrack and retrace your steps, in most cases you can't immediately move to specific pages within the mini-exhibits, and some links can be difficult to read due to occasional unfortunate pairings of text and background colors. Still, these are minor points when compared to the overall presentation, and anyone with even a passing interest in this corner of history will find a visit well worth the virtual trip.

The online version of the U-505 Submarine at the Museum of Science and Industry can be found at http://www.msichicago.org/exhibit/U505/index.html.

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