This post compares a physical and online exhibit created by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which was sponsored by Kenneth E. Behring, with additional support by The History Channel. The online exhibit can be visited here. Sponsors, credits, and related information can be found here.
This weekend I visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and they had an ongoing exhibit chronicling America’s past in warfare. Titled The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, this particular exhibit chronicled each war the United States participated in, starting with the Revolutionary War up through the War in Afghanistan immediately following the attack on September 11, 2001. One of the key arguments in this exhibit is that America was founded by an act of warfare, by liberating itself from British control, and this freedom was continually ensured by future engagements. American freedom was won by people sacrificing their health and lives for it.
The exhibit starts with a recreation of a town during the Revolutionary War period, with buildings and mannequins in period uniforms. The remainder of the walk-through shows a wide range of artifacts from each war, from weaponry, furniture, and photographs, to videos that document the personal statements of the people that took part in the war. One of the largest artifact was a fully restored Huey helicopter from the Vietnam War, and it included a video with people who had direct experiences either flying on them, such as soldiers transporting patients to medical personnel.
Most of the information was provided by showing actual artifacts with placards describing it, and there were a number of documentaries playing at several spots. There were no interactive elements that I noticed, visitors were expected to read or watch in order to gain any information.
The layout was designed that visitors walked through the exhibit chronologically, and each war had its own room or hallway. Visitors are expected to trace each war in order, with little freedom of movement. Some of the individual rooms were large enough to have two rows of exhibit spaces, but the flow of exhibit is chronological regardless.
Most of the people I noticed in the exhibit were families with young children, or groups of friends that appeared to be high school aged or in early college years. There were no curators or volunteers within the exhibit itself, but there were a few at an information desk that covered the entire museum, not the one exhibit.
One of the things that was lacking throughout the entire exhibit was the perspective of the other side of the conflict. The entire exhibit was focused on America and the actions of its citizens. Considering the exhibit is held within the national museum for American history, I can understand why this outside experience was left out, but their story is crucial to understanding the conflicts. There was a reason why America felt it needed to enter these wars, and it is hard to understand these motivations without this outside perspective.
There is also an extensive online exhibit on the Smithsonian’s website for The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, which provide much of the same information found within the physical exhibit. The main argument for both this online exhibit and the physical one was to show how war influenced American history and society. The online exhibit deals with more of the factual elements of war: the people involved, where it took place, and some of the objects used during the campaign. The site itself was built using Flash, but there is a companion exhibit that presents the same information in a standard HTML website.
The Price of Freedom’s online exhibit is geared towards an academic setting, as there is a section that has several resources for use in a classroom. The website is structured so that visitor to the site can go directly to one particular war without needing to go through the material for previous sections. One key assumptions in this exhibit is that, just like the physical exhibit, the information only presents information from the American perspective. There is little to no information about the ideology of the opponents during each conflict. The Revolutionary War and World War Two are the only sections that delve into the opponent’s reasoning for entering into combat.
Both the Flash and HTML versions of the exhibit are separated into sections containing all the information for one war. Users who choose to view the exhibit have access to an introductory video to each as well as slideshows containing portraits and maps, which do not appear in the simplified HTML version. Both versions present pieces of information followed by several related artifacts. All of the artifacts have information about its specific history, as well as the physical dimensions and description of it. Visitors are able to view all of the information within each section of an exhibit at any time, but there are several subsections within each war that the visitor must view one at a time.
The main difference between the online exhibit and its physical counterpart is the scope of the overall exhibit. The online exhibit presents only a fraction of the artifacts found in the physical exhibit, and hardly any of the video presentations. It appears that the creators of the online exhibit were limited by technology and could not present everything in the physical exhibit, and therefore had to choose the artifacts they felt best represented the whole. The online site also differs in that visitors are able to choose to view wars and topics within those wars in any order they choose, rather than starting at the first war and going chronologically from there.
The online exhibit for The Price of Freedom could use an update. Flash based websites are becoming dated, and does not allow much accessibility. The ‘Printable Version,’ as they call it, provides more accessibility, but does not include everything in the Flash version. There is also no way to contact curators or the creators of the site. The only interaction is if a visitor has technical questions about viewing the site or obtaining permission to use images.