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Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga

4

April 7, 2015 by nsakas1

The site this paper will discuss is titled Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. This online exhibit was the creation of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The exhibit seeks to give a detailed history of the little understood Vikings whose origins began in extreme northern Europe. The exhibit chronicles the explorations of the Vikings over several centuries, and their eventual discovery and colonization of North America some 400 years before Christopher Columbus. The site is a companion to the exhibit that is housed at the Smithsonian. Despite the fact the site is a companion, the overall feel of the online exhibit is that it works equally as a standalone exhibit. Although the site does not identify a specific audience, it seems that the exhibit is approachable to wide variety of audiences. The site also employs several interactive elements and videos that help to offset the fact that the exhibit is text heavy. The prose are easily approachable and the accompanying pictures of artifacts help to bring the overall narrative to life. Overall this site is worth the visit.
The exhibit is the creation of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution. Additional funding for the project comes from Volvo, Viking Husqvarna Sewing Machines, and Phillips Petroleum Company to name a few. The mission of the site is not stated plainly. This is disappointing, because there is no official measure of whether the site is meeting its goals or not. However, if you had to extract a mission statement from the contents of the exhibit site it might read something like, “The mission of the exhibit is to educate the public about the extensive history of the Viking people and their superior nautical abilities that allowed them to explore vast territories even colonizing North America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus is given credit for the same feat.”
Another difficult aspect of the exhibit to pinpoint is the exact audience that the exhibit is targeting. One of the tabs offers a teacher’s guide. When an observer clicks on the tab they are taken into a room where a list of suggested activities that correspond with the exhibit are located for the use by teachers in their classrooms. This certainly shows that the exhibit sees students as a particular audience, but there is no indication as to which age groups of students the exhibit is focusing on. Another approach to understanding who the audience is, is to look at the level of education required to understand the text. In the exhibit’s case the language used is pretty basic and does not use many technical terms. By this it would seem that a very general audience is being targeted by the exhibit.
One of the most observable assets of the site is its overall aesthetics. The opening page has a well created resemblance of a Viking ship transposed over a nautical map giving the viewer an immediate clue to what the site will focus on. The observer is then given a choice as to the direction they wish to move through the exhibit. One tab allows the observer to “visit the exhibit.” The other tab allows the observer to move into a section entitled “Viking Voyage.” The “view the exhibit” tab allows the observer to take a guided tour of the exhibit online which gives a well-balanced portion of text, artifacts, and photographs. The artifacts sort of pop off the page in their 3-d form. Perhaps if the observer could somehow manipulate the object, (like being able to turn the object in a 360 degree angle) would it be any better. The pictures also add to the aesthetic. Each photograph adds to the sense of place that the exhibit is focused on.
If the observer wishes they could choose to select the tab “Viking Voyages.” This option brings the observer to an interactive map. This map shows significant locations that were important in the interpretation of Viking history. The map is aesthetically pleasing in itself, with its deep blue colors highlighting the ocean and the earth greens and browns highlighting landmasses. The observer can then click on one of the many corresponding map icons, and will be taken to a new room where the observer can get information about a particular place associated with Viking history. Each of the location rooms uses a balance of text and images to give the observer the information the exhibit is highlighting. Like the other photography used throughout the site, the photos in this section are breathtaking. A particular favorite is the photo in the Iceland location. This photo is very pleasing to look at.
Another important aspect of any website or online exhibit is its ease of use. If an observer visits a site or online exhibit, the experience will be short lived if the observer has difficulty moving around the site. Having to scroll through piles of text or having to click onto the back icon to get out of a page are just some of the deterrents that can hinder an observer from having a pleasurable experience. Fortunately the Viking Saga exhibit site is very user friendly. After visiting the opening page an observer can pick any direction they wish to go. No matter which direction an observer chooses to go there is always a way to get to other areas of the site no matter what page you are on. The exhibit site utilizes tabs on a toolbar at the top of the screen that can take you into the exhibit, Viking Voyage, Teacher’s Guides, and Home Page from anywhere an observer is in the site. However, there are some aspects of the sites user ability that may be a hindrance to some observers. Some of the exhibit site’s content can only be viewed via plugins. Macromedia Flash 4, Apple Quicktime 4, Cult 3d, and Real Audio are some of the plugins required to view a portion of the exhibit site’s content. If an observer did not have the ability to download these plugins a portion of the site exhibit would be unavailable to them. This can be detrimental when a portion of your site’s mission is tied in with the assumption that everyone can access all the content of the exhibit site.
Perhaps the greatest importance of a site or exhibit is the content. After all, without content there would be no exhibit to speak of. Additionally, it is the site’s or exhibit’s content that delivers the mission, themes, and takeaways that are the focus of the project. The content of the Viking Saga exhibit does a good job of delivering the overall message the site is trying to get across. The exhibit tries to dispel some of the myths that Vikings were merely a band of barbaric raiders. The exhibit details many aspects of the lives of Vikings that are to the contrary of this notion. For one the exhibit talks about the extensive farming and trading industries that the “Norsemen” were involved with. The exhibit also speaks of the Viking’s superior ship building and sailing abilities. It is through these abilities that the Viking’s were able to create settlements throughout Northern Europe and eventually North America. Another aspect of the exhibit’s content, as has been mentioned above, is its use of artifacts and pictures along with the text. This mixture of elements allows for different styles of learning to be present att he same time. Not everyone learns from reading all the text, but artifacts and pictures can deliver valuable context in a non-textual way.
Overall the exhibit site is well worth the visit. The content delivers the message the exhibit is trying to portray in an easy to follow method. The use of artifacts and pictures deliver a visual experience that is essential for those who do not learn by text alone. Additionally the aesthetics and creativity of the site keeps observer’s attention. Also the ease of use of the exhibit site does not detract from the importance of the exhibit’s message. Even though the exhibit does not clearly distinguish who is its target audience, or that it does not give a clear mission statement, the exhibit still delivers powerful content. In spite of the few flaws this exhibit should be recommended for anyone wishing to learn a little more about who the Vikings were, and what was there legacy?


4 comments »

  1. Chris says:

    Nick-
    This site seems to be a good indicator of what a digital companion site to a physical exhibit can do. I like that the site designers chose to interpret the exhibit’s objects in two ways, one of which seems to take advantage of the digital media to tell its story spatially as well. It is interesting that there is no discernible mission statement for the exhibit as well as no good cues as to who is the audience for this digital exhibit.

  2. acoleman34 says:

    Nick, I liked your site choice. What an interesting topic. I liked your emphasis on the site’s ability to incorporate multiple intelligences into the presentation. It is similar to the site I reviewed in that sense. It’s important for museums and online exhibitions to recognize the learning habits of everyone and incorporate them into their education scheme. I’m a hands-on learner but that doesn’t mean everyone else is, and by touching on more of the patterns of learning museums and sites such as ours can ultimately reach and affect more of their audience. This also makes for a more powerful message. The engagement of multiple intelligences relays meaning in more ways, thus it allows for the overall message to be ingested and digested fully.

  3. Julie says:

    Nick, I love the Vikings. And with recent popular culture references like superhero movies Thor and the television show Vikings, I think the Smithsonian is smart to utilize this current public interest. I completely agree with your assessment about the text of the site being too heavy for general audiences. (I especially think there could be more pictures.) However, given the popular references being made to the Vikings, it is possible that the amount of detail may appeal to more people than we might initially think. I did some digging into the site as an educational resource (I have used the Smithsonian website before for teaching tools) and the learning center of the site is intended for students in 4–8, 9–12 grades. However, when looking at how the learning center of the site meets state educational standards for Georgia, it only seems applicable to 4th graders. So I agree that the Smithsonian could have been more upfront with the audiences and their goals.

  4. jeldredge1 says:

    It was neat to read your review and compare it to the site I reviewed, which looked at Irish and Viking interactions. I am curious as to why an exhibit on Viking history was created by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History? It reminds me of a discussion we had in one of my undergraduate archaeology theory classes about the tendency for Native American history to be placed in Natural History museums rather than History museums. I’m guessing that your site did not have an overall chronological theme as mine did? Since viewers can choose which ways they want to go and seem to have a lot of options, I would guess that the creators were not worried about sticking to a chronological narrative. I’ll definitely check this site out after the semester is over so I can compare it to the Trinity College Dublin exhibit.

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