Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff

The first of the three websites I chose to look at for the project was the Roy Rosenzweig Center’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. As others have noted, the site’s aesthetics make it feel quite elderly, in internet terms, and the blank, red expanse that consumes most of the right side of the browser window on the site’s home page is awkward to the point of distraction, while the collage of portraits portraits taken from various paintings, political cartoons and the like of the era gives the appearance of cheapness. Compounding this awkward impression, at least in my estimation, are the hyperlinks labeled “Explore”, “Search” and “Browse”. Though each actually has a distinct function in using the site, the terms themselves are roughly synonyms of each other, and appear to betoken a certain lack of thought in word-choice. Looking through other sections of the site, the impression that more effort could have put in to its design and organisation continues, despite some very interesting material. The collection of images, for example, includes some striking items, but with photographs, political cartoons, portraits and propaganda pieces all jumbled together seemingly at random, navigating the contents can feel like a chore.

The second site I looked at was Stanford University’s Mapping the Republic of Letters. The home page embraces a rather spartan aesthetic, with fairly restrained use of red and dark grey over a background of light grey, the elaborate logos of the site’s study partners adding some visual interest to a clean, professional-looking presentation. What will immediately draw the eye of any visitor to the site, however, is the large and detailed “narrative panorama of the project” that occupies most of the upper portion of the home page. Credited to Michele Graffieti, depicting dozens of scholarly and intellectual figures from the last half millennium or so, from the Mexican nun Juana de la Cruz to Voltaire, Jeremy Bentham and numerous modern academics and their respective institutions. Accentuated with endless dotted lines tracing one figure or school to another over the course of history, the piece serves as a striking visualisation of the continuity of scholarship which the project proposes to map. Above and slightly to the right of the mural are links to other areas of the site, helpfully highlighted with red boxes when one moves the mouse cursor over them. Below, there lies a brief explanation of the project and an additional introductory video embedded. All thing considered, it’s a very attractive presentation, albeit there is a small instance of text-error in the “About the Project” blurb, and the site itself may have not been updated in some time, as the fine print at the bottom reads “© 2013, Stanford University” and the site’s weblog appears to be dead or missing. Still, a very impressive bit of design.

Finally, I visited the University of Houston’s Digital History site. The home page is almost overwhelmingly organised in appearance, with part of the page usefully divided into categories such as “Eras”, “Topics”, “Resources” and “References”, each of which is further split into various related sub-categories such as “Revolution” or “World War I” for “Eras” or “Architecture” and “Controversies” for “Topics”, each of which, on the other side of the hyperlink, is again divided into multiple sub-sections within its own sub-section. Above, there is an intriguing slidable chart by which visitors can track the progress of American history from the pre-Columbian era into the 21st century, but the hyperlinks within the chart itself are unfortunately broken. Again, quite a good effort so far as presentation goes.

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