Originally created 05/17/98

Internet exhbitions hit or miss



The Internet doesn't always do exhibitions very well. Sometimes they're successes, more often they're strikeouts.

Perhaps that's because computer screens are so scrawny. Or because you have to constantly be fiddling with a keyboard or a mouse. Or maybe it's a logical-flow problem: In a real-life exhibit, you are usually guided from panel to panel to panel; in an online exhibit you can click to or fro or just leave the field altogether.

Today we'll look at a few pictures at some exhibitions:

If anybody should be able to do it up right online or anywhere else, it's the Smithsonian Institution. Last month the institution's Traveling Exhibition Service unveiled its first exclusively electronic endeavor, "Rotten Truth," about garbage in America. It is, in a word, offal.

To be fair, the site is not maintained by the Smithsonian, but by the Association of Science and Technology Centers. The two groups collaborated on the design, which is clunky and wordy and, for the Smithsonian, uncharacteristically inelegant. The images are puny and few -- many of them stock photos from Rodale Press, publishers of Organic Gardening magazine and a corporate sponsor of the exhibit.

There is a suggested progression through the presentation. But there's no cumulative effect, no payoff. The display is not a total waste. Buried in the heap are some nifty nuggets. The time line of America's relationship with trash, for instance, which begins in 1657 with Manhattan's (still openly flouted) law against "casting waste in the streets."

We learn that in 1879 Frank Woolworth began displaying his wares out in the open. Customers were able to feel things -- and steal things. Such merchandising led to more and more packaging, designed to thwart shoplifters, and consequently to more and more rubbish. And we find out that 100 years ago, the first recycling plant in America opened in New York. There is also a section that advises traditional exhibition developers on ways to reduce waste.

The real waste here, however, is of one's time.

With less pretense, the Library of Congress site offers 17 online exhibits. Inspired by the library's exhibits in their buildings on Capitol Hill, these online displays are an attempt to, in the words of Librarian of Congress James Billington, "get the champagne out of the bottle."

It's a sticky business. And sometimes numbing. Occasionally you feel like you've stumbled into an Encarta encyclopedia. There are some notable bits in the exhibits. In "The Gettysburg Address," for example, you'll encounter an eerie photo of Abraham Lincoln, in a crush of people, at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863. An actual draft of his speech is lovely and legible.

If you want to see a copy of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, read by David Ben-Gurion exactly 50 years ago Thursday, you can find it in a special Israel at Fifty Web site exhibit created by Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Using speeches, statistics, songs and other stuff, this collection of stories, documents, images and sounds succeeds in ways that many designated exhibitions do not. It's a package. And the Web, like UPS, was born to handle packages.

The best Web parcels are clean and clear and yet full of surprises. They are usually the products of fertile, forceful, multifarious minds. Like, for instance, the online version of another Smithsonian Institution exhibit: From Smithson to the Smithsonian.

Music, images, pertinent text and a clean design -- this elegant exhibit hits a homer.

-- Linton Weeks can be reached at Related Searches

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