I chose to review The Geometry of War: Fortification Plans from 18th-Century America (find it here), an online exhibit hosted by the Clements Library at the University of Michigan. It is the online version of a temporary physical exhibit at the library which ran from October 2012 to February 2013. I chose it partly because of my interest in star forts but also because it fits into a broad practice of many museums which have begun to showcase past exhibits online.
This exhibit is done in basic HTML format, with a sidebar allowing visitors to access each case, in any order, just as they could at a physical museum. Choosing one shows a picture of the case as a whole, with the text of its primary label, and then high-resolution scans of each object next to the text of their individual labels. Almost all of the objects are maps or designs of forts. Overall, the design is simple and easy to use, if not particularly engaging or alluring. It is great for someone who likes reading and has an interest in forts, but not so great for drawing in new audiences.
Surprisingly, I think this exhibit works better online than in physical form. While I haven’t actually visited it in physical form, the pictures of each case provide a clue to what it was like: very text-heavy, hard to read labels and maps obscured by glass—I imagine myself leaning over the cases, squinting. However, on the internet, the text is much less intimidating for visitors. More importantly, while visitors lose the experience of having the real thing in front of them, the scanned images can be selected and viewed in much greater detail through the website. Additionally, museum objects presented online lose much of their effect by being flattened from 3D to 2D. However, for flat objects such as maps, this is not an issue.
If I could add to this exhibit, I would include a 3D modeled virtual tour of one of the forts shown (perhaps Ft. Pitt?) discussing the importance of star forts by showing visitors how they worked. This would be interactive, allowing visitors to wander the fort, go to hotspots with demonstrations (cannons firing, soldiers working, etc.) and toggle various layers including siege works, fields of fire, and cutaway sections. I would also write an additional set of shorter, more concise labels, with a toggle for the visitor to choose between those and the current, more expansive labels. This would address the exhibit’s weaknesses by adding an engaging, 3D component and making the labels more accessible, while complementing its strengths of content and organization.