Friday, April 23, 2010

Memoir: An Immigrant's Story

The last post on the topic of the senses was about Lene Andersen's The Seated View. Lene was born in Denmark and now lives in Toronto Canada. I can think of no better way to start looking at histories by showcasing another Danish immigrant to Toronto at the Canadian Museum of Civilization's online exhibit Chris Bennedsen: Scrapbook of a Life in Letters.

A warning though. The material is wonderful. The story engaging. The slice of history is engaging. But the site itself has serious issues. I'll give a few hints below but hang in there - it's worth figuring out how to navigate the site.

Chris Bennedsen came to Canada in 1951 and stayed the rest of his life. He married an Italian-Canadian woman and built a life for his family. He never did lose the connection to Denmark and the family and friends who were there. Chris was also a collector. He kept every letter he sent and received as well as lots of other material. The online exhibit is a portion of a meticulously kept scrapbook of a life put into context and explained. It is a window into one man's life.

The exhibit however has some problems.

It suffers from 1990's multimedia syndrome mixed in with museum mentality. The site is menu driven, inflexible, and does not exploit the power of the web or the web browser. Having the material forced to fit into a small on-screen window is a waste. The site looks great. Just as I'd expect the placards and signs in the museum to look. As a web site though it is a pain to view.

Here are the steps to go from the intro page to the first page of the digital scrapbook:
  • Click on Introduction at the top left of the splash screen
  • Click on Enter at the top left of the intro screen
  • Click on the "book" titled "1 Spandet" or on the "1. Spandet" link across the bottom of the page
  • Click on the work "Spandet" under the intro text
  • Click on the "1" along the top of the virtual book, or click on the "Next Page" button at the bottom of the page, to start reading the material on the site
This may be how museum presentations are put together but it's terribly wrong as a way to build a website. I haven't seen material this hard to access since the days of multimedia productions on CDs. The virtual book metaphor doesn't have to be so literal let alone so narrow and tall. I have rather large monitors but I still had to scroll down two narrow book pages to read anything. I understand that if you're building a museum exhibit there are physical constraints and the need to unify everything behind a consistent visual theme. But this is the web. Where the material should fit my browser and not the other way around.

Even with the issues on accessing the content of the site it's well worth it. Behind the clicks and the menus is a compelling tale. One that crosses cultural boundaries, one section is entitled "A Dane in Little Italy", that could only happen in a city like Toronto and in a country like Canada. People like Lene and Chris and the lives they've made for themselves are some of the reasons I love living in Toronto.

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