Dobrow Rummages in a Dusty Corner of the Web

Media Reviews for Media People: History Sites

By Published on .

Nothing punctures one's pretense of marginal intelligence like an afternoon spent with a curious young relative. I learned this the hard way last Saturday, when I took the li'l nephew on an expedition to the American Museum of Natural History. As we walked from exhibit to exhibit, he pressed me for explanation, clarification, detail, context. Before long, it dawned upon me: I had no answers to his questions (Nephew: "Why did the dinosaurs die?" Uncle Larry: "Uh ... because they ran afoul of Mayor Giuliani." Nephew: "What does 'afoul' mean?" Uncle Larry: "Say, let's go buy you a present!").
The History Channel's 'This Day in History' offers semi-illuminating video clips.
The History Channel's 'This Day in History' offers semi-illuminating video clips.

I take my unclehood (uncleing?) responsibilities seriously, especially when it comes to instilling healthy habits and a sense of personal responsibility in the lad. If he asks me for a cigar, he gets it, so long as he promises to tell his parents that a school chum gave it to him. On the other hand, I'd like the kid to hit double digits in age before he realizes that his uncle isn't all that bright. So prior to the family Father's Day get-together, I did a quickie romp around the internet to get the answers to the questions I'd muffed ("The dinosaurs died because it got cold. 'Afoul' means 'in or into conflict with'").

History ignored
The task took a lot longer than it should've. Turns out that there isn't a single decent general-interest history site on the web. I can understand why -- history encompasses, like, a lot of stuff -- but I'd have thought that somebody would've at least attempted the feat by now.

Judging by the nonfiction best-seller list and the 76 channels on my cable tier that air barely edited World War II footage or zebra-ambush porn from the Serengeti, it's clear that the interest level is there. Besides, there are monstrously inclusive web networks for everything from religion to literature. You mean to tell me that some ambitious webkin couldn't unify our collective wisdom about newts, efts, salamanders and James "Jimbo" Polk under a single massive web umbrella?

Because I'm lazy, I started my history-website walkabout by typing the URL into my browser. It directed me to the History Channel cable network, home of such genesis-of-a-nation essentials as "Ice Road Truckers" and "UFO Hunters." While you can't fault the History Channel for adopting as expansive a definition of history as possible, the web site's primary purpose is to hype the net's programming without mercy.

Only occasionally does attempt to do more than that. It offers a bunch of semi-illuminating "This Day in History" video clips and a moderately functional History 101 search engine. Beyond that, the site features a "What happened on your birthday?" box and that website-space-taker-upper mainstay, a poll ("Do you enjoy sharing your opinion about things?").

Advertisers don't seem to mind, however, as witnessed by Hyundai's sponsorship of "This Day in History" and Outback's sponsorship of the "Monster Crave" sweepstakes. Elsewhere, history buffs can avail themselves of ads for religious propaganda (Fox Faith's "The List" DVD) and erection sustenance ("Viva Viagra"), just like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. used to.

Smithsonian takes the high road
Smithsonian Magazine's website fares slightly better, if only because it doesn't share's fixation with aliens and dyspeptic loggers. The five-part "Dispatch From Stonehenge" curtly frames the risk involved in the first archaeological dig at the ancient site in 45 years, while "The Drive-In Theater Turns 75" delivers a straightforward jolt of Americana. Of the site's eight infrequently updated blogs, "The Gist" charms with its bits on pterosaurs and the success of dolphin-safe tuna fishing practices.
Smithsonian Magazine's 'Dispatch From Stonehenge' curtly frames the risk involved in the first archaeological dig at the ancient site in 45 years.
Smithsonian Magazine's 'Dispatch From Stonehenge' curtly frames the risk involved in the first archaeological dig at the ancient site in 45 years.

Still, much of the site's content has been repurposed, whether from the magazine or elsewhere -- and since Smithsonian groupies presumably constitute a large part of the online audience, they won't be swayed by "it's new to you!" appeals. The Smithsonian Channel video player may deliver must-have information for would-be plunderers like yours truly ("How to Attack a Fortress"), but the clips are excerpts from programming that could have been ingested elsewhere months ago. The same holds true for the "Today in History" rehashes and the smattering of book excerpts.

I wonder if marketers have already arrived at the same conclusion about the site and its semi-fresh content. One would expect higher-end home-page advertisers than Chevrolet (touting its seven under-$20,000 models), "Visit Mexico" and ConocoPhillips. Isn't Smithsonian supposed to be a brand for smart, wealthy people with reading glasses perched low on their noses?

And yet reads like a 75-updates-per-day blog when compared with Natural History's musty online presence. The site has plenty of material to draw on from the magazine's archives -- for example, Teddy Roosevelt weighing in on "My Life As a Naturalist" -- but it doesn't bother to graphically reframe the stories for web presentation. Give us some photos, some charts, some context ("Teddy wrote this piece while riding rough, kicking ass and chewing gum"), anything. It's perplexing and a little bit sad that old-guard magazines don't seem to realize that simply republishing old stories online does not in itself constitute a web strategy.

Dusty content
The rest of the Natural History site has a similar we're-online-now-because-some-guy-told-us-we-should-be feel to it. It earns demerits for its infrequent updates (one of the featured home-page stories on Wednesday afternoon was a piece culled from the July-August 2007 issue of the mag) and technical hiccups (once you click on a page, good luck clicking back from whence you came) alike. The "Factotem" blog boasts a whopping two posts in June and the single random podcast is buried deep within the home page. Why bother?

It shouldn't come as a surprise that advertisers aren't falling over themselves to get involved. There's a video-clicky ad for Peru tourism that's vaguely reminiscent of the commercials for "The Ruins," a gal-hugs-horse banner heralding the Humane Society, and graphically inert plugs for Bushtracks expeditions and a Steuben Glass frog hand cooler. Nobody's selling nuthin' here.

So when it comes to history, give old media -- The History Channel, Smithsonian mag and Natural History mag remain consistently engaging and, in spurts, illuminating -- an increasingly rare mark in the "W" column over its online counterpart. As for random history-related online inquiries, I have no choice but to recommend the ferociously fact-checked Wikipedia. Good luck with that.
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