On the Water: Stories from Maritime America

National Museum of American History: Behring Center

Smithsonian Institute

Transportation is a major part of American history. Marine transportation and waterborne commerce underlie American history. So, its no surprise that the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History installed the permanent exhibition: America on the Move in the General Motors Hall of Transportation in 2009. On the Water: Stories from Maritime America is located to the side of the entrance to the General Motors Hall. Any trip to the National Museum of American History or Smithsonian property in itself is a grand experience. I truly consider the buildings’ façade the portal to any exhibit – you know how it goes, first impressions.

Below are several photos from the physical installation. The larger photo shows the build-out of the entry gallery. I found the large scale pieces and towering walls a bit cluttered and overwhelming- more of a deterrent to flow than a welcoming presence. The lighting was mostly directed spotlights, an effect that lasts throughout. The physical space is adequate for the items to allow visitors a realistic immersion but it does lack reference to scale. It’s always more effective to include real pieces of the past to let viewers make their own connections. Large scale installations tend to be in the order of millions of dollars, so its inevitable to work with the corporate world of donors. It is a common trend across public institutions.

Visitors to the permanent exhibition explore life and work on the nation’s waterways, discovering the stories of whaling crews, fishermen, shipbuilders, merchant mariners, passengers, and many others (1450-1800). From 18th-century sailing ships, 19th-century steamboats and fishing craft to today’s mega containerships, the exhibition reveals America’s maritime connections through objects, documents, audiovisual programs, and interactives. Visitors discover the significant role maritime activity played in American lives.

Each gallery has a similar look and feel mainly models of various modes of transportation with curvy walls that seem to emphasis “movement” appropriately. There is mention of the Native American encounter with the early European immigrants, replicas of watercraft used by both groups. It leads into the background narrative of the Europeans the patterns of Atlantic trade in this period but not in the myopic sense, instead focusing on the broader crisscrossing of the Atlantic. Most histories focus on the Original British Colonies, here we get the complex network. This is done with graphic representations in which the person stands in a patterned light beam, simulating the effect of being a prisoner on a ship. Dividers are the backdrop to more contextual content.

What is lacking here though is mention of the founders of certain technology nor the design or plan for boatmaking either. There was a lot of revolutionary technology that seems to have been skirted. It just seems odd to separate the history of the technology from a time of American history that relied on it for its progress. The Navy was a major player in our navigation with its submarines making no appearance or a mention. I found the lack of immersive technology a disappointment. Its not to say that there isn’t any technological element that helps the visitor understand the inner workings of ships or boats. But the tech is explained or no way for folks to engage. Yet I think the artifacts used support the focus of the collection – but equally essential are references to background to related achievements.

What’s missing here is an area where one can experiment with new technologies. You could have kids and adults walk up to be able to react to interactive kiosks. All these people coming together is a different mix of the different people that are here. That’s essentially what you do everyday with interactive medias. Take all the varying components and put them together. Also, a call to action to continue the conversation. And see how other folks interpret this topic.

Online Exhibit

The Smithsonian created a companion website. The website features the same historical content as the physical exhibition, plus a searchable database that provides additional information and photographs for selected artifacts in the exhibition. Multimedia resources and educational activities, including an associated Flickr group where visitors can upload their own maritime-related imagery, round out the experience.

There are 7 discrete exhibition sections noted as menu items at the top of the page. Each section contains background textual pages and a link to physical artifacts from the collection. The story flows by including links on a right side menu.

Collections are logically linked from a top menu bar or embedded within the side menu of each exhibit section. Multiple image views are included with captions. Its a really good way to get a view of an object from that period with various angles you would in person. The search bar in the top menu allows you to browse through more than 250 objects by era or keyword. Items have proper metadata include: ID Number, Material, Date, Dimensions, Source.

The objects featured are part of the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, with most coming from the Division of Work & Industry. Representing a broad sweep of American maritime history, these objects were collected over more than a century and reflect broad patterns of technological, economic, social, and cultural change.

The eras highlighted reflect the National Standards for U.S. History, for student in grades 5-12. One can search by keyword and/or filter by Era:

  • Colonization and Settlement (1585–1763)
  • Revolution and the New Nation (1754–1820s)
  • Expansion and Reform (1801–1861)
  • Civil War and Reconstruction (1850–1877)
  • The Development of the Industrial United States (1870–1900)
  • The Emergence of Modern America (1890–1930)
  • The Great Depression and World War II (1929–1945)
  • Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
  • Contemporary United States (1968 to the present)

Comparative Review

On the Water is conceptionally interesting but lacking in immersive tech. The audiovisual kiosks are helpful and the artificats and graphics are easy to read and easy to understand although it looks that labeling isn’t always obvious. The darker lighting and colors used are a bit too relaxing for me. The location of the entrance is near the exit so that can draw folks off course – they skipped on the chronological and topical flow.

The exhibit brings together the past but also the future too. They chose things that we think – we meaning the audience – especially care about from the past and from the present, so they’re defining what we see as important values from today. That is quite a responsibility. And it’s a very difficult, practical task. And in some ways, it’s a task that has got more difficult over the last century. Now part of that is because we feel that there’s more stuff around that we could collect and accompanying that is also a feeling that time is kind of getting faster and that the past is getting more and more recent.

The online experience, typical of earlier generation websites, used Adobe Flash for their accessible delivery mechanism for publishing on the web. Unfortunately, Adobe Flash Player has been deprecated since 2020 in most browsers. With Flash Player going away from the web browser space, project containing this technology can run in issues with their content. You can convert the assets and animation from projects for native web playback converting to HTML5 Canvas. It’s what I have heard but not actually tried.

But as I mentioned in another post, digital data is vulnerable, much more so thin film or paper. And yet complete libraries are being compromised away and put through the shredder. Yet entire libraries are shredded and lost to budget cuts, because we assume everything can be found online. But that is not true. We have the technological means to save our entire past, yet it seems to be going up in smoke. It is a shame when books become only artifacts, rather than living pieces of our memories and the living contribution of someone who is no longer with us, but who can still impart his or her wisdom to the next generations through the vehicle of the book. Our memory evaporates. Hard disks last only 5 years. Internet pages change all the time. And no machines are available to read the floppy disks we used barely 15 years ago.

If we lose the past, we will live in an Orwellian world of the perpetual present. It’s where anybody controls what’s currently being put out there will be able to say what is true and what is not. And this is a dreadful world. I don’t want to live in that world! Just think about it. Every day we create terabytes of data. Are we really going to save everything? That requires us to think intelligently about what is important to us. But what is important to us may not be important to historians in 100 years or 1,000 years.

A few words

Now, we could say, maybe they could just try and keep one example of everything. But that is a lot of stuff, and already we know that museum stores are packed. Typically, a museum shows less than the stuff that it has and they are never going to come out of the stores. Museums can think about digitizing what they have. Now digitizing is great in many ways. Lots of museums are digitizing their collections, and that is a breaking of the walls because it exposes what items are in those collections. 

But is the digital enough? Museums shouldn’t resist the opportunity to ask those kinds of questions with the big audience they attract to do a little bit of research. So who here would think it would be OK for museums to stop collecting things and just have digital stuff instead? So from now, just collect digital copies. It is probably a minority.

History is a kind of experience. And we base our behavior on our experience. Many times, we base it on our personal experience. Our personal experience is short and limited. History is a way of expanding experience and making your behavior comport better with what many people have done in various situations, over a long period of time. We do not have a breadth of knowledge of what people might do or what the range of human behavior is. We haven’t been met with lots of situations.  But we need to know how human beings act in those situations. So we assume that people, always, have been more or less the same. But their cultures are different. And their situations are different. And by studying those, we learn more about people. That is why history is a humanity. It is not vocational, exactly. Most people who study it do not become historians, professionally. They just become people. So, people are people. Just situations change. And history is about different people’s experiences. 

Now in some ways the pace of change is getting even faster, in some areas at least. Now that sets up a problem for museums. Which do they collect? They want an example of everything. They collect on innovations. Do they collect based on ascetics or on social use? What do we save to keep a sense of ourselves, of our memories? To individual levels, we face this. And all sorts of experts and techniques around to try and help us with some of that, including sometimes when it gets too difficult and we need people to come in and help us declutter, as it is called these days. But for museums, these problems are magnified. Because they have the role of collecting the significant stuff for all of us today. Now, these problems have magnified for all kinds of reasons. Some of them include the fact that no longer does museums think they only have to keep the stuff of the kings, the queens, the emperors, and so on. That stuff is not going away, but they also really want to try to represent our increasingly diverse societies and collect things from popular culture and so on. And we really must think, well, what things do we want to collect? What should we collect now and save for the future? These are very, very hard questions for museums about what they will do.