I love museums. I could spend days in a museum. With some museums there are truly not enough hours in a day to see everything; with other museums there is not enough space to fit everything in to the museum.
So here we have the inquisitive museum visitor and the space confined museum curator. What are they to do? The visitor simply doesn’t have the time and the curator doesn’t have the space! And, added to that some of the most interesting pieces a museum may own could now be too fragile to be put on display, but what is the point of conserving something if the public can’t see it?
Enter the Smithsonian Institute, a fine example of two problems that museums suffer, too much stuff and not enough space. What is a curator to do? Put it online, that is what a curator is to do! At HistoryWired: A Few of Our Favorite Things the avid museum visitor and history enthusiast can explore the vast collection of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History. On display now you can see pieces that are on display at the Museum of American History but also pieces that are not on display.
As implied by its name the HistoryWired website is a collection of the favorite things of the Smithsonian curators. The website states that “With less than five percent of our vast and diverse collection on public display in our exhibit halls, we hope that Web sites like this will bring many more of our treasures into public view.” When a visitor enters the “museum” they are shown a floor plan of the museum with rooms marked as Home, Clothing, Business, and the like. Subdivided within these boxes are boxes of different shapes that the visitor can move their cursor over and discover what that box represents. The sizes of these item boxes are determined by visitor voting, after viewing an item the visitor is then asked if they would like to see more objects like the one they were looking at. The more popular and object is the bigger its individual box. This voting system allows visitors to see what others have found interesting and noteworthy and let curators to change the exhibit to reflect what the public wants to see. Read more about how to work the website here and more general information here.
This digital museum shows pieces directly related to the history of the United States whether that be the clothing of a time period or the invention of the computer a visitor should be able to find something that interests them. The culture history of the United States is represented magnificently with items of clothing (highbrow and lowbrow), sports paraphernalia, musical recordings, and photography. Science, medicine, technology, are also represented in this digital museum. With each image you click on you get more information about the item and the time period of the item. Depending on what kind of item you click on you could be directed to a recording of music or a speech or articles written by Smithsonian historians.
With so many different pieces on this site one might wonder if it is difficult to find something pertaining to a specific time period or subject. The answer would be no! It is not difficult to search this site. (Color me surprised!) You can modify your visit by time period (like WWI or everything pre 1800) or you can look at items only dealing with daily life or whatever subgroup you are interested in. You can even search for specific things like Woodstock or Hell’s Angels and find a match. A hopeful search for airplanes or flight yielded nothing, a sad oversight I believe!
I have to admit that when I first started playing around with HistoryWired I was skeptical. Very skeptical. Why would I want to look online at objects that I could see in person? After spending sometime looking at the objects displayed and reading about them I was won over. I like that there are links to more information, that if you are looking at a piece of music there is a link to hear the music. I thought it was great that I could look at a dress form the 1800s and then a playboy bunny costume and that each piece was given a historically valid reason for being part of the online collection. This website manages to put what should be in several different museums all in one place. Hours could be spent on this site but because of its formatting it does not seem overwhelming. I do not think that this is what museums should turn into but I do think that it is a nice companion to a museum. I look forward to more museums creating a site like HistoryWired.