Thursday, January 29, 2009

Benjamin F. Brown and the Circus in America

Collection: Benjamin F. Brown and the Circus in America

I stumbled upon an interesting digital exhibition when I searched for circus and discovered a page for the Benjamin F. Brown and the Circus in America exhibit. This collection is hosted by the William L. Clements library at the University of Michigan.

This digital exhibit provides access to materials from the William L. Clements library's Benjamin F. Brown Collection. Brown (1799-1880) was a pioneer and innovator in the circus business; his innovations paved the way for enterprising circus legends such as P.T. Barnum. Materials from the Brown collection were used in a 2003 exhibit which not only detailed the life of Brown but also illustrate the development of the circus in the United States. Interestingly, this collection provides access to information on such fascinating subjects as the wild animal trade during the 19th century and historic methods of travel and shipping. The creators of this exhibition have a clear idea of who their intended audience is: scholars, educators, history enthusiasts, and the like.

The exhibition itself was clearly created with a specific set of principles in mind. The creators had access to Brown's materials, examined the ways in which this information could be useful and of interest to contemporary audiences, and arranged for the creation of a digital approximation of the exhibit itself. As far as collection principles go, the exhibit clearly fits with and furthers the goals of an institution primarily concerned with education. The description of the materials explicitly states anticipated uses for the information, stating that "the collection enhances our understanding of the circus in America, the wild animal trade, Middle Eastern travel, and the life of a community in northern Westchester County, New York." Furthermore, the collection fits into the broader collection policy of library because they, "The Clements Library collects primary source materials in all formats relating to the history of America prior to the mid-twentieth century." These materials fit well with this policy.

Browsing the collection itself is done by clicking on "continue to the next page" links at the bottom of pages. Combined with the narrative structure of the curation of the digital images, this has the effect of simulating a guided tour through the exhibition of the collection. Unfortunately, much of the metadata offered is actually on top on the exhibit pictures, in the form of informative cards on the items themselves. In some cases, text boxes below the images detail the dates and contents of the pictured materials, but this is not consistent. Because you cannot enhance the images enough to clearly read the cards, accessing the metadata becomes problematic. On the plus side, the commentary that runs alongside the exhibit does explain that, "On one voyage in the Caribbean, Benjamin Brown and his performers fended off a pirate attack."

The presentation of the exhibition itself is passable. The website appears to have been designed by someone with a rudimentary understanding of html. It feels like it probably did not look impressive 5 years ago. That said, it does what it needs to do, everything works, and the content of the site is not unduly burdened by stylistic issues. Because this is a digital representation of the exhibition, and not the entirety the actual collection, I feel that its long term utility is suspect. I doubt that this site has been altered since its initial creation in 2003 as it does not appear to be at all actively curated. It would be far more useful to have images of all of the contents, with detailed metadata, and allow users to search the information as they please. The reality is that with resource allocation issues being what they are, not everything gets to migrate to digital form.

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