Around the Mall & Beyond

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

Today we pay a visit to the virtual Smithsonian, and I see I am going to need some help.

Now, I am not computer illiterate. I have been working with word processors for years. So I was not at all intimidated to discover the new "Smithsonian Without Walls" on the World Wide Web, a part of the Internet. When my dear old Kaypro died at age seven I bought an IBM clone — and discovered that three computer generations had passed in that time. I had to learn the new system from scratch. And I feel pretty good about it except when I hit the wrong key and set an entire 100-page document in boldface.

But now I have apparently stumbled into yet another new world. I am sitting here with Mignon Erixon-Stanford, Internet coordinator (her e-mail address is [email protected], which looks to me like the cat jumped on the keyboard), and she is telling me about the World Wide Web. "All links within the same Web server," explains Mignon, "should be relative, not absolute, because the final product is populated across multiple servers."

Well, as an English major, I should find this easy to decipher since the words are perfectly ordinary, commonly used words. But it is baffling: How do you "populate across"? Fortunately, with Mignon's guidance, I soon learn that I don't have to decipher any of that arcane language to explore the electronic Smithsonian. In fact, it's simple.

Here, in a Smithsonian office on the Mall, I can log onto the World Wide Web. The Web is an electronic publishing forum connected by a system of diverging pathways that my computer knows how to follow so that I don't have to know. And once there, I simply type in another cat-on-the-keys address — — and on the screen appears the Smithsonian Institution's home page, with a picture of the Castle under fair skies and a menu that allows me to start exploring the Institution's museums and resources.

You can reach the Smithsonian's home page through any of the commercial Internet providers or through America Online. Incidentally, since June 1993 the Smithsonian has welcomed tens of thousands of electronic visitors to its home page on America Online.

The main difference between our presence on AOL and on the Web lies in how the two are set up. The Web is far more comprehensive — you'll find a lot more to read there; but on America Online we can do some pretty amazing things too; like set up a curator in a "chatroom" or a larger auditorium for some lively electronic discussion. On October 2, from 9 to 10 p.m. (EST), Dwight Bowers from the National Museum of American History will be on-line discussing the American musical theater.

When the Smithsonian launched its home page on the World Wide Web last May, its "Web site" contained more than 1,500 pages and 3,000 photographs. Today, the images and information on it continue to multiply as the Institution's 20 so-called Webmasters add new material to it on a daily basis. In just three months of operation, the site has served up more than five million screens of information. The capacity of the Smithsonian's Web site is almost limitless, and with the Web's vast network of cross-references linking one site to another, the implications for research and scholarship are beyond belief. I wonder what James Smithson would think of this new means we have for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge."

It is hard enough for an old guy like me to grasp the scope of it all. For instance, we were noodling around with the Smithsonian's virtual Enola Gay exhibit, which contains photographs of the physical show at the National Air and Space Museum and quantities of words about B-29 bombers, the controversy over the exhibit, Secretary Heyman's comments (if you have the right equipment you can get a video of him speaking) and other subjects that you can click on. ("Click" is now a transitive verb: you "click" on something when you use your mouse to make a selection by pushing its clicker.)

I clicked on "Hiroshima," and after a two-minute delay got a flood of information. The reason it took awhile is that, as Mignon casually remarked, "We just went to Japan."

My simple click had told my computer to search the files of a computer in Hiroshima, Japan, the site of the A-Bomb WWW Museum, a virtual museum that exists only on the World Wide Web, only on screens and in minds.

There is so much to see in the virtual Smithsonian, the Smithsonian Without Walls, that I don't know where to start. Perhaps at the Encyclopedia Smithsonian, in which I can find a complete history (and photograph) of Cher Ami, the heroic World War I carrier pigeon, or the Foucault Pendulum or the Hope Diamond, information based on questions frequently asked in the museums.

Now I've clicked on the gem and mineral collection of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), and I've just had a look at a remarkably clear image of Marie Antoinette's earrings and a wonderful double-exposure of the ceremonial Smithsonian Mace. Here's Smithsonian magazine's home page, where our 25th-anniversary logo offers me a choice of stories on science, history, the arts and, good grief, the Around the Mall column.

With further clicking I've found the Division of Fishes' award-winning home page, where I can get a quick read on what kind of research each of our ichthyologists is pursuing. Here I've found a list of discussion groups I can subscribe to. I can even eavesdrop — but I won't — on the discussions of mammalian biology or crustacean systematics, distribution and ecology.

Now my computer is showing me how the conversion of the Smithsonian's Multiple Mirror Telescope, located near Tucson, Arizona, is proceeding this summer. There's a video camera at the summit of Mount Hopkins trained on the MMT building, and a new image is grabbed every 30 seconds. I can see that the chamber doors have been removed to make room for the installation of the new 6.5-meter mirror.

But I have my own project: I want to look at the Ocean Planet exhibit at NMNH, first the virtual version and then for real.

I click on the words "Ocean Planet Online" on the general menu of offerings from NMNH and I get a layout of the rooms of the exhibit, a traveling show that opened in April. Clicking on the room labeled "Immersion" brings up a pretty logo and a short burst of words. "In ways we may never have even imagined," the screen tells me, "we're all seafarers. After thousands of years of seafaring, we're only beginning to fathom the workings of our watery planet."

I can click on a montage of seagulls, buoys, boats and fish to hear the sounds of waves, the call of the birds, the buoy bells and so on. But that's merely a frill. Clicking my way along from room to room, I visit the sections on ocean science, sea people, the sea store, oceans in peril, heroes and others.

Invited to go deeper by choosing from a list of subsections, I pick "El Niño" and get another map and still more information and yet another list of even more in-depth subjects including "El Niño and the Southern Oscillation: A Reversal of Fortune," which happens to be a master's thesis by Kimberly Amaral.

El Nino, I read, is a mysterious wind shift in the Pacific that occurs every two to seven years around November or December (hence the name "Niño," "the Christ Child"), when the westerly trade winds subside and allow the warm water they have been pushing to the west to flow back into the eastern Pacific. Everywhere, things go crazy. Fish, robbed of nutrient-rich cool water, die. There are droughts in Australia, Southern Africa and India; cyclones in Tahiti; mud slides in Colorado; floods in Peru.

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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