The Museum at Home

We can do almost anything we want on the Internet today, including visit a museum.

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Online Exhibitis
Provided by various Philadelphia museums

For the past two weeks I have divided my time evenly between eating Häagen-Dazs ice cream, watching poorly rated romantic comedies, and lying in bed alone lamenting the harsh whims of fate. I know what you’re thinking, but no, my boyfriend didn’t dump me. I actually fractured my ankle, which has left me confined to my bed and to excruciating boredom.

Lucky for me, many museums actually have online exhibits that allow people to “visit” exhibits from the comfort of their homes. Personally, I’d prefer going to a museum to looking at a website any day, but with nothing better to do, I figured it was as good a time as any to check out some online museums.

First, I visited the Penn Museum’s “Body Modification” exhibit, where there were four different links for each category of the exhibit. When I clicked on the first link, I was brought to a blank WordPress page with no posts. Through some clicking around I figured out that you actually had to click on the picture below each headline rather than the link in the headline itself, otherwise you would just be redirected to this WordPress page again. Strange as this was, I continued through the exhibit anyway.

As stated, it was divided into four categories — tattooing, body art, piercings, and spirituality associated with body modification. The tattooing exhibit was interesting as they detailed how tattoos were viewed as badges of toughness by various cultures. In fact, in New Zealand, the Maori men would get tattoos that caused their faces to swell so much that they had to use feeding tubes to eat. I’ve heard that beauty takes pain, but this sounded pretty extreme.

If that didn’t make you cringe, you should hear about the “lip plugs” of Alaskan Eskimos. The next part of the exhibit, which focused on piercings, detailed how these lip plugs were put through boys’ lips to give them a walrus-like appearance. As boys ascended into manhood, their lips were stretched more and more as the plugs increased in size. It’s rituals like these that make me glad to be female.

Luckily, the worst was already behind me when I entered the body painting section of the exhibit. Viewing the photos of makeup products that juxtaposed a painted tribesman, I wondered if there was so much of a difference between all of these cultures. Does my red lipstick look just as silly to these tribesmen as their face painting looks to me?

When I tried to move to the last section of the exhibit, which I assumed was about the spirituality related to body modification, I was redirected to the body painting page. I can’t say that I was particularly surprised by this glitch. The “exhibit” looked similar to a blog, and by that I mean that it looked pretty sloppy. The font and margins were huge, harking back to days when I thought that teachers wouldn’t notice if I made my one page paper into four pages by using size 24 font and two-inch margins. Besides that, the pictures were small and of poor quality.

Additionally, the content of the exhibit was comparable to the detail of a sixth grader’s book report. The different practices that were discussed were superficially and briefly described, not really giving me any terribly insightful information. Sourly disappointed, I decided to next visit the Athenaeum of Philadelphia’s “Art Bound” exhibit.

“Art Bound” is an exhibit about the art of illustration and of book covers, which I previously hadn’t thought of as its own art form. Upon entering the exhibit, though, it is apparent that, for some time, book cover designs were an art of their own as artists were able to dedicate their entire careers to book covers.

Divided into different periods of art styles, the exhibit gives visitors a look into the development of cover art and illustration as books went from being commodities to being commonplace. William Morris was hailed as the first artist to move away from the intricate “gilded” book cover designs and towards something more affordable for middle-class literates. Even though his works were supposed to be simpler, they were still far more detailed than book covers today.

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Image courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.  Pictured Above: Q Is for the Queen. Oliver Herford. An Alphabet of Celebrities. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1900.

Clicking through the various sections of the exhibit, I could see the way styles of the era and, by extension, the trends of the writers of the time affected the books’ designs. As a lit nerd, I was practically drooling over the different designs — from C. Coles Phillips’s demure “fadeaway girls” to Howard Pyle’s punchy colored works. It made me feel like the music junkies who lament the downfall of album art as I found myself damning the advent of the electronic reader.

This exhibit was more satisfying than the previous one, first of all, because it looked like it took longer than 15 minutes to make. Besides that, there was more detail put into the descriptions of each attraction and the pictures were of at least a decent quality. That said, my only criticism of the exhibit was that the pictures weren’t bigger — the images certainly didn’t detract from the exhibit, but seeing as it was an art exhibit, I think it could have used bigger pictures. Overall, though, the exhibit was very well done, and I even sent the link to many of my fellow bookworms.

Lastly, I visited the Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection, presented by the Academy of Natural Sciences. I’m not really a science person, but this was another well-written, well-presented exhibit that turned out to be pretty interesting. Apparently, Jefferson was one of the leading figures in the beginnings of American paleontology, which helped move scientists towards the theory of evolution rather than of creationism.

The main attraction of the exhibit was the mastodon, a relative of elephants and mammoths, but a distinct species. Interestingly, there was a huge fascination with giants in popular culture when its teeth were first found, leading people to believe that they were the teeth of giants. Later, as more and more remains were found, the story of this mystery animal changed shape as people tried to guess what this animal once was. When you step back and look at this, it is really incredible that people were able to piece together these remains and determine such things as the animal’s diet and habits.

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Image courtesy of Ted Daeschler/ANSP. Pictured Above: Warren Mastodon, modified from Osborn (1936, 1942)

Similarly, there was a huge mystery surrounding the “great claw,” which was the subject of the first two scientific articles on fossils published in the United States. Initially when this claw was found, it was believed to be the claw of a great cat. As with the mastodon, as more remains were found scientists came closer to determining what the animal really was until, finally, they determined that it was actually the claw of an extinct ground sloth.

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Image courtesy of Ted Daeschler/ANSP. Pictured Above: Bru’s Megatherium (after Cuvier, 1812)

Fascinating as it was, it was also disconcerting to read about all of these extinct creatures. It made me wonder how many animals would go extinct in my lifetime, and what it meant to be reduced to bones. In any case, the exhibit was very well put together and read similarly to a history textbook.

So, I guess online exhibits aren’t as silly as I initially expected them to be. Although I still prefer going to museums, the online exhibits provide a great alternative to those who can’t make it out there. What’s more is that these exhibits are easy to share with friends who may not have the time or money to go to an actual museum with you. In that sense, I find online exhibits to be pretty useful. Most of all, though, I appreciated that these exhibits were able to dig me out of my fracture-induced boredom and actually teach me a thing or two. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go get my ice cream and see if Drew Barrymore gets the guy in the end.


Kailey Kluge is a junior International Area Studies Major at Drexel University.


All images courtesy of Ted Daeschler/ANSP and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.