Material/Immaterial: Affinties

A Review of Selected Online Exhibits at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

By Alex Campolo

Entering the virtual lobby at homepage of the National Museum of American History, one gets the feeling of standing on solid (for the Internet, at least) ground. Corporate sponsorship, institutional endowments, and a large staff of researchers ensure a certain level of quality for each exhibition. Pieces are well documented, photographed, and cataloged. Information is presented in a clear, readable, and uncontroversial manner. However, even our early class discussions should raise important questions about curating and exhibiting in virtual spaces. As I explored American cultural artifacts across a variety of media I became aware of previously unforeseen challenges and opportunities, errors and possibilities embodied in these online but certainly not immaterial spaces.

The most striking feature of my initial visit to the various exhibitions was the degree to which advances in web design and computer technology seem to shape the visitor’s experience of the online exhibit. The sensory chasm between the 1995 exhibit Magic Lanterns Magic Mirrors: A Centennial Salute to Cinema and the contemporary Flash-based multimedia feast of ¡Azúcar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz interrogates the idea of the permanence of the museum artifact. Less than two decades ago, a Smithsonian online exhibition consisted of bolded text, linear hyperlinks, and well taken, but pixelated digital photographs. The awkward formatting of image and text distracts the visitor. Seen today, the exhibit says less about cinema than about web design in 1995. The Cruz exhibit, on the other hand, appears organic in its online space, although its reliance on the the Adobe Corporation’s Flash platform should raise questions about accessibility. Every link hovers and vibrates with animations. Photographs enlarge and reduce themselves on every page. The visitor can immerse herself in sensory experiences, listening to one of Cruz’s salsa classics while browsing high-resolution photographs of the extravagant shoes and dresses. The overall architecture, instead of hindering readability, presents a powerful material metaphor; the entire exhibit is structured around a folding cover of an imaginary Cruz vinyl album. The wide gap between these two pages gave me a pessimistic sensation, a sense of technological determinism. Even the Smithsonian’s impressive material collections appear subordinate to the constantly changing means of online presentation. How can a history museum, a repository of the artifacts that our culture has chosen for preservation, be so dependent on the ephemeral technologies and design practices of the Internet?

This question is of fundamental importance to our own exhibits and reveals a challenge of online curating. We must grapple with the possibility or even inevitability of obsolescence unless, of course, we decide to make our own exhibits temporary. One strategy for dealing with this issue is to emphasize continuity rather than change, or perhaps the continuity of change. For example, the seemingly drastic shift in the online presentation of the Smithsonian’s collection can be conceived not as an epochal, paradigmatic break but rather as a smaller step in the process of the evolution of the museum as an institution. Although time-frame for change may be more compressed in web spaces, it is clear that museum exhibition in physical spaces has also undergone vast shifts over time. Materiality scholars Bill Brown and Katherine Hayles, while not directly concerned with issues of exhibition and curating, present strategies for emphasizing materiality in increasingly digitized cultures. Brown argues for a continued awareness not only of the materiality of digital media, but also the materiality of our own bodies in engaging with these digital and informational systems (60). Taking a more literary perspective, Hayles argues for a broader understanding of the materiality of literary texts by proposing new definitions of inscription technologies (24). Her metaphoric understanding of the relationship between materials and symbolic languages (22) stresses a similar sense of continuity.

With this sense of continuity as a guide, I began to look for ways in which other exhibits worked around my perceived dynamic of digital, “immaterial” “progression” (the abundance of quotations denotes some debatable concepts here). One of the most compelling exhibits was a collection of American industrial drawings called Doodles, Drafts, and Designs: Industrial Drawings from the Smithsonian from 2004. The online architecture of Doodles, Drafts, and Designs is simple without being trivial. The viewer proceeds via linear hyperlinks through a series of categories (“working it out,” “convincing,” and most interestingly “controlling”) that lend conceptual coherence to the works. This organizational quality distinguishes Doodles, Drafts, and Designs from lesser exhibits like Edison Invents: All About Thomas Edison and His Inventions, which merely presents a long scrolling biography interspersed with small photographs. Even the more flashy Celia Cruz exhibit struggles to impose meaningful categories on the artifacts, separating the obvious spheres of “Her Life,” Her Music,” and “Her Dressing Room” when a more unified presentation would have given each of these elements a sense of historical and personal context.

Each category in Doodles, Drafts, and Designs has its own page featuring ten to twenty artifacts laid out vertically, requiring the user to scroll from top to bottom of the page. The entries on each artifact are uniform and present a thumbnail picture of the drawing to the left of a short descriptive paragraph. One weakness in the presentation is that it is not immediately obvious that the user should click on each thumbnail to gain access to the high resolution scans and photographs which are the real attraction of the exhibit. Clearer instructions or a rollover animation would resolve this issue.

The digital presentation of the drawings is excellent in the larger pictures. The scanning and photography of the physical artifacts present strong colors and contrasts. Perhaps most interestingly, the scans convey the textures and folds in the paper, lending a tactile feeling to the digital images. The cover of a manual for the Guaranteed Portland Cement Company shows a rough canvas cover and even suggests the materiality of the ink.

(Image is best viewed here at original size and resolution)

Although I do not have the space to engage larger theoretical questions about (digital) photography, these photographs seem to stress the indexicality of the medium, its relationship with a material artifact. As problematic as this relationship may be in our so-called postmodern age, the simplicity of presentation, and its engagement not only of the visual elements arranged on the page, but also the tactility of the material drawing suggests a sensitivity to the issues raised by Brown and Hayles. Doodles, Drafts, and Designs succeeds not because it employs the latest Internet design technology but rather because it effectively engages the materiality of the artifacts that it presents. As a lesson for our future exhibits it shows that careful decisions about architecture and the material nature of artifacts can overcome the relatively rapid changes in technology and convention of web design.

Most relevant to our class’s exploration of media and materiality is how Doodles, Drafts, and Designs: Industrial Drawings of the Smithsonian explores a paradox at the heart of the common conception of the opposition of materiality and immateriality. The exhibit’s introduction speaks about the materiality of thought processes: “Engineers, inventors, and designers produce drawings as part of their creative process. They draw to work out and refine concepts and details. They draw to persuade. They draw to give direction. And they draw to record their ideas and to learn from others.” Curator Steven Lubar understands that supposedly immaterial processes like creativity have intimate relationships with the physicality of pen, paper, and ink. To consider an artifact like the sketchbooks kept by inventors Andrew Butler and Dylan Reeder is to follow the material expression of thought. Ultimately, these material artifacts function as a solid record of process, as material insights into creative subjectivity. Doodles Drafts and Designs exhibition suggests an affinity rather than an opposition between the material and immaterial.


¡Azúcar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz (Collectively curated by the staff of The National Museum of American History, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Web, 2008, web design by Marisabel Sánchez, Brian Kubiak, Ramón Reyes-Fúster, David Sánchez-Carmona for Links Media)

Brown, Bill. “Materiality.” Critical Terms for Media Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Print.

Doodles, Drafts, and Designs: Industrial Drawings of the Smithsonian (Steven Lubar, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Web, 2004, web design Nicole Van Doren)

Edison Invents (Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Web,

Magic Lanterns Magic Mirrors: A Centenial Salute to Cinema (Photgraphic History Collection at the American Museum of Natural History, Web, 1995)

Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. Print.

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