Around the Mall & Beyond

The Smithsonian, the world's largest museum and research complex, has yet another address: the World Wide Web

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Another section concerns the risks at sea, featuring a lot of statistics and stuff about memorials and rituals of the seafaring folk. There are pictures of the many artifacts connected with risk, from memorial wreaths to be cast on the water to weather charms and survival suits.

By now I have pretty well mastered the virtual Ocean Planet, I think. Time to head over to the real museum.

People in shorts, people in T-shirts, mothers and babies, groups of schoolchildren, tour leaders with furled umbrellas — pretty much the standard summer crowd at a Washington museum. Once inside, information pours over me.

Here is a glass tower filled with Nike sneakers. Is this relevant? Oh yes: 60,000 of them fell off a ship in the northeast Pacific in 1990. Some washed up a year later in Oregon; by '93 some had reached Hawaii; more are expected on the Atlantic coast by '96, brought by the ponderous movements of a gyre, a tremendous circular ocean current.

Here is the Niño exhibit. It tells me the same things I learned on my machine, but now I watch video clips of the drought in Australia and the rains in Texas, and neat shots of hurricanes and other natural phenomena.

On through the exhibit: a ship's figurehead, fishermen's T-shirts, traps, a Polynesian stick chart for mapping the Pacific wave and current patterns, samples of polluted water, and sea products from denture adhesive to explosives, from nail polish to paint. More kiosks and photomurals, scary facts about the ozone hole, industrial pollution and zebra mussels, which are infiltrating our waters at an alarming rate and will cost us $5 billion in damage by the year 2000 (Smithsonian, February 1994).

It is an interesting show, all right, and an important one for everybody, for it tells us that we have got to start thinking about the oceans and what is happening to them. In the museum itself, the information is obviously more exciting, more firsthand than on the Web. But I must say, much to my surprise, I was won over by the exhibit on my little screen in the tranquillity of an office. With my feet up on the desk.


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