What “Visualizing Nineteenth-Century New York” does right off the bat is grab you—here is an exhibit that works with the public’s relatively short attention span, but also doesn’t dumb down the information.
The digital exhibit, a collaboration between the New York Public Library and students at the Bard Graduate Center, has a main title page connected to several smaller, inter-related exhibits on topics such as “Guidebooks” and “Maps and Views” that give you a sense of what life was like for residents and visitors to New York in the early 1900’s.
The page begins with its title—Visualizing Nineteenth-Century New York—in
large, bold letters. A paragraph in a medium font then briefly summarizes the heart and point of the exhibit, evoking an image of people in a bustling, growing New York and articulating the exhibit’s goal to make viewers understand a different time and place.
The next two paragraphs are in small font and put the exhibit we are about to see in the context of the time and give the reader a guide of how to go through the digital exhibit. With these shrinking fonts, the eye is comfortably drawn downwards and deeper into the material. The succinctness of the text and the use of compelling images are also effective in drawing us in. In comparison to other digital exhibits I looked at, where a tiny font and too much information overwhelmed the viewer, the curators of Visualizing Nineteenth-Century New York seem to have a true understanding of how to lead an eye through the text.
What they interestingly don’t seem to emphasize are the visuals—the photos. There are plenty and they are certainly adequate, but it is surprising to me that an exhibit seeking to “visualize” an experience does not feature large or interactive pictures of their artifacts. The text dominates—it is at the top of every page and often takes up at least seventy five percent of the viewer’s eye, even on the title page.
Still, the exhibit is effective, informative, and interesting. They know how to draw you and bring you back in time, even over the internet.