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The Library of Congress Exhibitions

A look at one of the country's -- and the Web's -- most extraordinary resources.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.

frontier picture

December 4, 1996

Currently on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is "Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present," an exhibition devoted to exploring changing conceptions of the American West. To promote the exhibition, to encourage discussion of the issues it addresses, and to serve as an educational resource, the curators have developed a Web site displaying more than fifty of the exhibition's approximately three-hundred photographs.

rail picture Far more than a digital-image warehouse, the site offers engaging and informative guidance through its collection. Photographs are grouped into "galleries" -- "The Open Land," "Mining and Oil Extraction," "The Growth of Cities and the Recreational Use of Land," and so on -- which are presented in a logical sequence beginning with the first branchings out of the new railroads into awesome stretches of untouched landscape and culminating in the contemporary congestion that characterizes much of the developed West.

open picture The images are striking. Early photos show views of the formidable wilderness that confronted the West's first European settlers. In the section titled "The Open Land," aerial color photographs bring home the effects of excessive mining and logging by showing bold geometric patterns of ravaged earth in bright, raw colors. More recent photographs show the modern-day encroachment of the architecturally banal and ugly upon a once majestic landscape. (It's worth pointing out that visitors can click on photographs to view them at a larger size. Unfortunately this is not obvious to first-time viewers, who may wonder why the images on the gallery pages are so small.)

develop picture The site also encourages feedback and interaction: numerous links lead from the gallery areas to "guestbook" comment pages and to a message-board discussion area. Discussions have been somewhat lackluster thus far, perhaps because the introductory post (a weighty essay on the nature of art by the museum's assistant curator of photography) is a bit intimidating. The board does hold potential, though: the museum promises that prominent curators, artists, photographers, historians, scholars, and teachers will be invited to comment on the exhibition and to respond to visitors' ideas and questions.

Impressive as the site may be, its creators harbor no illusions about the relative quality of the digital images: "many of the photographs in the exhibition," they point out, "are exceptionally sharp, detailed, and tonally rich, and computer screens are still not able to depict such images in their full subtlety." The curators encourage people to visit the exhibition in person, if at all possible, and even offer a downloadable coupon for discounted admission -- which suggests that the most important purpose of a museum Web site may be to draw people out of the virtual galleries and into the actual ones.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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