As we move into the second week of September, the realization that autumn is right around the corner hits and the desire to partake in fall-related activities fills the spirit. With Salem, Massachusetts only a short drive away I decided to investigate online what local museums had to offer for exhibitions and programming during the fall season. As I explored the Peabody Essex Museum’s website, I stumbled across an array of online exhibitions dating far back as 2000. What finally caught my eye, and perhaps this was due to the hint of autumn in the air, was the online interactive “Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Early Years.” Hawthorne became known for his dark romantic style comprised of rich symbolism and psychological themes. But where did it all being? I was hoping that this online exhibition would answer my question.
In 2004, an exhibition commemorating Hawthorne’s bicentennial birth date took place in the Philips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum. Since the physical exhibition is no longer on view the online interactive takes the place of it by digitizing his early works as well as other objects and artworks related to the time period.
The interactive is primarily a digitization of Hawthorne’s first work The Spectator. At the age of 16 he began the paper to report on daily happenings of the community. There are seven issues to choose from, all from the year 1820. By simply clicking a number on the top of the screen users are brought to a specific issue. Each page follows the same format: an auditory component thatreads a short excerpt from the issue, a section that highlights what is in the issue, and a related objects section. The layout is simple and straightforward and users do not have to click around to find content, what little of it there is.
When a new issue is opened and the reading begins, it is difficult at first to understand what is being read. At first I did not know if was an interpretation of the text being read or a direct quote. There is a sound on/off button towards the bottom of the window that does allow the audio to be played again. The issue itself can be clicked on and enlarged in another window, allowing the user to locate the quote being read in the text. Luckily Hawthorne printed his letters and wrote exceptionally neat by today’s standards so readability is not an issue. However, the user has to zoom in rather close to be able to see the faint words easily, making reading the whole issue tedious. I was hoping that the “in this issue” feature would bring me to the specific article mentioned so that I would not have to keep zooming and moving the page around, but instead the entire issue was presented in the window just as it was before. The option to have the entire issue read would have been a good feature and a better use of an audio option.
The related objects section was not all that interesting. A combination of letters, personal object, and art, there was nothing interactive about them. By clicking on the item the user is simply presented an image. Letters can be zoomed and manipulated but they are in traditional script, making them almost impossible to read. Again, here is where audio would have been a nice option. Objects had the potential to be interesting but since the user cannot actually do anything with them other than look at them on the screen, the feature seems a little pointless. Even paintings of Salem had no context in relation to what was being discussed in the issue of The Spectator.
In The House of the Seven Gables Hawthorne writes: “I find nothing so singular to life as that everything appears to lose its substance the instant one actually grapples with it (p.31).” Initially, I had high hopes for this interactive. I even thought that it would make a good resource for teachers to use when studying this literary movement or historic time period. The interactive was nothing short of disappointing. Not only did it lack engagement completely, I can honestly say that I did not learn anything about Hawthorne’s early writing style. Perhaps the Peabody Essex Museum will revisit this online exhibition because there is potential for a dynamic and engaging interactive. Until then, I will keep my literary explorations confined to the pages of a book.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.