Project Reviews

The Lost Museum
Created and maintained by American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, other members of The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and the Center for History and New Media George Mason University.

P.T. Barnum is often credited with the phrase, "A customer is born every second." A true business and showman, Barnum opened to the public a fascinating world of delight, mystery, and strangeness on January 1, 1842 through Barnum's American Museum. Offering an array of displays and exhibits, Barnum intrigued his customers for twenty-three years until a mysterious fire demolished the museum on July 13, 1865. Although lost for a century and a half, Barnum's museum survives once more, only in digital form. Through the collaboration of the American Social History Project at CUNY Graduate Center and the Center for New Media at George Mason University, The Lost Museum opens its interactive doors to enthrall visitors once again.

Designed as a virtual project, The Lost Museum website allows the public, students, researchers, and educators to utilize the site for their own needs. Divided into three categories, museum, archive, and pedagogical tool, the project offers several options for its visitors. However, each category specifically allows the exploration and research of events and issues in antebellum America and New York City.  If visitors opt for the museum route they have two options; they can either freely explore the 3-D virtual museum, or investigate it for clues in the mystery game of "Who Burned Down the Museum." Regardless, both options employ the 3-D virtual layout.

When playing the mystery game, participants must use critical thinking with investigator tactics to uncover "hot spots," or clues to solve the mystery. Exploring three levels of the virtual museum, participants easily navigate through exhibits of digitalized primary resources. These primary resources are innovatively interactive. For example, visitors may watch a slideshow that incorporates primary images on etiquette from the era. To add further depth to the exploration, each primary resource links to the archive. By simply clicking on "Archive" link beneath the image, the website will take the individual to additional information about that particular item or event. This fully integrates a world of primary and secondary sources. Once a clue has been uncovered, participants use their "notebook" to assign the evidence to a suspect. The potential suspects — abolitionists, Copperheads, animal rights advocates, scientists, and the Bowery Boys — are all characters from the antebellum era. Referencing the suspect report, visitors may read suspects' descriptions and watch a movie about their activities during the antebellum era to provide supporting evidence for the investigation. For those without sound, the site offers a transcript for all their movie media.

After the successfully locating all fifteen clues, or finding a sufficient amount of information, participants may accuse whom they believe started the fire. However, the website creates a historical curveball. Instead of providing a definite answer to the accusation report, the project furnishes several possible scenarios, allowing the audience to use their own analysis and historical thinking skills to make their own argument. By compelling the audience to create their own case, the project easily diverts from a purely entertainment site to educational tool.

For those uninterested in spending a considerate amount of time analyzing clues and touring a digital museum, the next option would be the archive. Divided into two sections, researchers can either perform a detailed search or browse specific exhibits in a database of over three hundred images and text. The archive includes images and texts from Barnum's own museum to 19th century social, cultural, and political topics, such as the Civil War, propriety, and science. To help the ease of navigation, the majority of the primary resources list specifically what exhibit, museum room, and document category the source classifies under. It also lists where the actual source can be located. Although not all the sources are displayed in the virtual museum, the project includes resources pertinent to the project while exemplifying how far digital history has come. The full digitalization of Barnum's 1850 American Museum Illustrated Guide Book gives researchers the opportunity to employ a primary document that gives a descriptive layout of the original museum and its contents.

As a pedagogical tool, the site still provides educators and their students a wealth of information. The "Classroom" section of the site not only supplies activities for educators to utilize in their teaching plans, but also includes essays, references and a map for further enrichment. Although there are only ten activities, each activity incorporates a prevalent nineteenth century theme from the website, giving enough variety for a class. The only failure of the classroom section is the "Bird's-Eye View of Lower Manhattan" map. Although brilliantly designed, the map is fairly lacking. The objective of the map is to craft a bird's-eye view of the cultural and economic institutions of 19th Century New York City. Unlike the museum, the map has a limited selection of buildings and contributes no additional primary resources to support it. The text is directly imposed onto the image making it difficult to read. Despite this minor blemish, the classroom still impresses with its selection.

Altogether, there are only few critiques for this exemplary website. Conceived in 1996, the project reached its completion in 2004. However, the site appears to be now only maintained, not continuously updated. The last referenced year on the project is 2009. This is confirmed through the site's survey. Visitors participated in a survey of the site, but the survey is now inactive. Another critique may that the project does not give an in-depth analysis or argument. Others may complain that the high level of interactivity does not constitute it as a scholarly website. However, the project established a digital history site that offers everyone something, creating historical branches that extend to all parts of society.

Combined as an archive, exhibit, and a pedagogical tool, The Lost Museum project is an exemplary digital history site. Although it offers historical fun and excitement for the general public, its database of resources and educational tools presents fantastic opportunities for researchers, students, and educators. P.T. Barnum was magnificent showman who rarely disappointed his customers. With The Lost Museum project, his world once again does not fail to disappoint.

Briony Zlomke
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: February 2011