The Web Site Reviews
Beyond Face Value
Produced and maintained by the United States Civil War Center and made possible by a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
This site is a web exhibit focused on the images of slavery that appeared on Southern states currency before, during, and after the Civil War. The authors aim to display the images and encourage visitors to ponder the questions of why images of slavery appear on Confederate and Southern States paper money and what these images say about the authorities that produced the money. The writers of the exhibit approach the subject from a sociological viewpoint, interpreting the images and denominations that appear on the notes as windows into the psyche of the bankers, political leaders, towns, merchants and corporations which issued paper money before and during the Civil War. The intended audience is scholars and students of the American Civil War.
The exhibit begins by placing money in context as culturally produced objects reflecting the identity of a people. Money is identified as a powerful communication tool capable of reaching larger audiences than any other available means.
The central core of the exhibit is the catalog of currency and related documents. The site claims over 100 objects, though I could confirm only 75, each of which has been scanned and, in most cases, two images have been created - the whole notes as well as close-up scans of selected vignettes within the notes. One-line identifier labels accompany the images. The images are highlighted in two out of the available seven sections within the site: the Collection and the Images. Two sections are general essays giving an overview of the Civil War and a sketch of the economic environment of the period from 1830 to 1863. The last three sections consist of information about the creators of the exhibit, a bibliography, and an informational section about the exhibit and an electronic user-survey. The content of these sections is solid, consisting of short essays by the authors accompanied by links to offsite web pages with relevant information in further depth. Interestingly, the 'Collection' section consists largely of quotes from other reference works rather than any original work by the authors.
The fact that only two of the sections of this exhibit actually deal with paper money highlights a major problem with this site - the authors do not seem to know how to use the notes at their disposal to illustrate history. The discussions of the notes are limited to descriptions of what is depicted on them with no attempt to analyze them for what they could say about larger issues of social and cultural attitudes, artistic conventions, or possible regional variations in slave imagery, to name a few possibilities. The only attempt to connect the notes to the social and cultural background of the Civil War is reached through a link off of the introductory paragraph of 'The Images' section. This is surprising as this essay is well written and speaks directly to the thrust of the exhibit, and yet is easy to miss among the choices presented to the visitor. The site is also weak in its goal of creating an educational resource - this consists of a word list at the bottom of the 'Overview Essay' and a set of three questions to consider while studying the exhibit that are buried in the 'About the Exhibit' section.
The navigation and design of the exhibit is straightforward. However, the form of the exhibit tends to dilute the exhibit's stated message. It is difficult to figure out where to start - the eye is naturally drawn to the center of the opening page, which makes a certain amount of sense since this is where the Images section is located - but this section does not state the goals of the exhibit. Instead the closest approach to an introduction appears in the 'About the Exhibit/Survey' section at the bottom of the introductory page. Overall, this site does not make good use of new media - it fails to even make effective use of the possibilities inherent in enlarging the small images used on banknotes. The banknotes are shown at approximately life-size, while the vignettes are shown in badly scanned enlargements.
Early Islamic Coins
This site is produced by James N. Roberts, a private collector of Islamic
coins, as a non-commercial introduction to Islamic coins from 690 to
1500 A.D. The site functions primarily as an electronic document with
a limited archive (images of Islamic coins) and a limited gateway
function. The scholarship presented is sound and based on the standard
reference works available for Islamic coins in English. The information
presented is in the form of a comprehensive overview of the types, dates,
and origins of the various series of Islamic coins from the appearance
of the first distinctively Islamic coins until the somewhat arbitrary
and Euro centric, but numismatically accepted, beginning of the modern
era of coinage in 1500 A.D. This web site is targeted at collectors
of Islamic coins.
The website consists of a series of essays and images linked to a central document. The main page is a double list of links that divide Islamic coinage by periods/ethnic group or by issuing authority. The period/ethnic group list links lead to historical essays on each followed by links to coins of the issuing authorities mentioned. The issuing authority links take the viewer to images of the coins produced by each, followed by links to the relevant historical essays. This layout is quite useful to individuals interested in identifying Islamic coins, but it is also presents redundant without enhancing the information presented. The navigation is straightforward, but uninspired and a little clunky due to the large number of links presented on the entry page. A strange feature of the site is that the introduction is not on the main page for the site, instead it is presented as a link from the entry page. This makes sense from the standpoint of a collector interested in accessing the coin images without having a lot of extraneous navigation. The use of the potential new media in the site is also uninspired, consisting of the ability to approach the data presented from two different directions (the two lists), but, again, it makes sense from the standpoint of the collector of Islamic coins. The images are clear though not first-rate, with thumbnails used to link the main images, which include standard numismatic label data for each coin.
This site is essentially an on-line web exhibit organized as a physical exhibit on a museum floor would be as is made evident through the design of the opening page. The content is sound, and follows traditional historiography with little attempt at interpretation. Each era in Japanese numismatics is illustrated in a separate section including images of the relevant coins. The initial page is clear and easy to navigate, although navigation through the site as a whole is overly cumbersome - many of the sub-pages should be combined rather than following a traditional exhibit case layout. Unfortunately, the site suffers from very slow load times, even on a cable connection, for reasons that are not entirely clear, especially since the images seem to be well compressed. This slow load time coupled with a linear approach to navigation makes the using the site difficult to justify in terms of time required to get to any useful information. This site is aimed at general audiences interested in Oriental coins.
This site is a commercial site produced by a coin dealer in order to promote sales of Chinese coins. That being said, the site provides a useful overview of Chinese coins, presented in standard historical numismatic format. This consists of outlining the development of coinage in China chronologically by dynasty and ruler. The key to the site is the Reference Guide page that contains a linked listing of dynasties grouped within Chinese historical periods, each of which has a separate page. These pages are in the form of extra-long essays with accompanying images of coins. The audience for this site is the collector of Chinese coins. The site does not make much use of the potential of new media - it approximates the form of standard published references for coins. It is noteworthy for the good quality of its images and the easy legibility of its text, both of which enhance the site's usefulness to its intended audience.
Fine Art and Paper
Money in Jacksonian America, 1820-1860
This page is a web version of an article that appeared in the Resource Library Magazine. It fails to use new media in any way beyond what was done in the original article, and is especially disappointing for the quality of the images presented and the pedestrian way in which they are used, despite the good quality of the written presentation. Navigation presents no problem as the entire presentation consists of a single page with links to a couple of off-site essays and to low-quality enlargements of the thumbnail illustrations. The intended audience for this site is essentially the readership of Resource Library Magazine. The presentation does provide an interesting guide for possible uses of the images on Jacksonian paper money in historical research and interpretation. This site is an example of an institutional site approaching numismatic items from an art historical perspective uninformed by the numismatic history of the objects in question.
This site is by far the largest of the sites reviewed in this essay. It is also essentially a labor of love produced by by Edward C. D. Hopkins, a retired Air Force Colonel, on an ongoing basis since 1998. This is a site that was designed from the beginning as an open-ended project that would be continuously added to as time and opportunity arose. It is the most complex of the reviewed sites in terms of its function - it includes a large database, has aspects of a gateway in its large selection of links to related sites, it is presented as a web essay on the history of Parthia as illustrated through its coinage, and also functions to a limited extent as the focus for a virtual community for those interested in Persian history and Numismatics.
The scholarship on this site is excellent and has been reviewed and extended by the contributions of many experts in the fields of Persian history, archaeology, art history, and numismatics. The coins are organized by ruler and by the Sellwood type ("Sellwood" refers to David Sellwood's book "The Coinage of Parthia," which is the standard reference for the series.) within each ruler heading. Each of the ruler pages includes a short biography of the ruler and a listing of known coin types from each. This data forms the basis for much of the rest of the site and forms the nexus for an intricate web of links from multiple pages. Hopkins continues to update his pages with new developments in archaeology and new coin images as they become available. He continues to receive, answer and post commentaries making this a still dynamic site over four years after it was first posted, an impressive achievement for an unsupported individual. An interesting feature of the site is the Tech Info button which leads to a page that discusses technical issues associated with posting pages on the web - examples include discussions of font compatibility, resolution and color settings for optimal viewing of the site, automated translation, etc. - a great place to learn more about potential pit-falls in web page design.
Parthia.com makes excellent use of the encyclopedic capabilities of the web in pulling together a huge database of information. Despite the huge amount of information, the site is well organized and documented, including a search engine and a site map aside from the well organized navigational links. A complete reading of the site would take days, if not weeks, to accomplish. There are over 800 coins illustrated on this site with mostly excellent images designed to give examples of each type and variation of Parthian coin known, making this invaluable to the collector.
& Roman Coins
This is yet another site put together by a dedicated collector, in this case, of ancient coins. The author describes his page as a not for profit educational site with no apsirations to serious scholarship. With that disclaimer aside, the quality of this site is quite high. The site is organized around the theme of providing information on a wide range of topics of interest to collectors of ancient coins. As such, Ancient Greek & Roman Coins consists of a large number of useful essays on numismatic topics, well illustrated with coins from the author's collection. The essays are divided into categories covering Roman numismatics, Greek numismatics, Septimius Severus (a particular favorite of the author's), Technical and General topics, and essays on Doug Smith's Ancient Coin Marketplace site. Examples include essays on the "Vocabulary of Greek Coins," a series of essays on how to begin collecting, and essays on topics such as the purchasing power of ancient coins. The essays not only introduce new collectors to the hobby of numismatics, they also provide guidance and essays on coin photography, advanced numismatic subjects, and an annotated numismatic bibliography.
The site is easy to navigate, though the long list of essays tends to be a bit cumbersome to follow. A design flaw in the site is the variability of navigation and appearance in various parts of the site. The initial page has a nice background, but has anomalous grey backgrounds for its essay listings; some of the essays have plain white backgrounds, others gray, and still others incorporate host server graphics. Partly this fault can be attributed to the age of the site - it was begun in 1997 - and to problems with the hosting server. The images are excellent throughout. In terms of new media, this site takes advantage of the encyclopedic qualities of the web, but does not go much beyond the bounds of what could be done in book form. As a web presentation it is broader in scope than the Parthia.com site and comparable in size, but it is also less accomplished in its organization and navigation.
This web exhibit appears on the Department of Coins and Currency website of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge England. This art museum is an adjunct of the University of Cambridge and produces numismatic research of the highest scholarly and artistic standards. This web exhibit approaches the topic of eagles on coins from an art historical point of view - they are analyzed for their heraldic symbolism, with the changes in their appearance and significance over time and culture listed chronologically.
The exhibit is not comprehensive, but includes a more than adequate selection of excellent images to illustrate the topics touched on in the text. As an on-line exhibit it has a straightforward layout and navigation. The text is short and broken up into single-screen paragraphs combined with images, creating the impression of clean, non-distracting space, making for easy reading. Unfortunately, the text itself is badly written and edited, a great disappointment coming from an institution with such a great scholarly reputation. I suspect that the Fitzwilliam suffers the common ailment of many highly respected and entrenched research institutions with regards to the web. The individuals responsible for intellectual output are intimidated by the web or dismissive of its potential. The result is that content, while probably reviewed by senior staff, is often left to junior staff members with an interest in the web or to the IT technicians and designers, producing nicely designed and technically proficient sites with inferior content. In any case, the author(s) of this site is/are not identified.
Another criticism I would offer is minor and has to do with the designer's method of linking the thumbnail images of the coins to larger images - instead of the links going from the thumbnails themselves they are located in the label text, and the larger images are displayed individually instead of having the front and back (obverse and reverse) of each coin appear together as they do in their thumbnail form.
This site makes excellent use of new media in that it does not clutter
up its pages with pointless bells and whistles - it uses a simple illustrative
layout to present its theme in an elegant and easy to use manner, unfortunately
the shoddy editing and writing fatally mars the effect of the good design
work. The site does not go beyond what can be easily done in other media
and in fact closely resembles an exhibit brochure or catalog in format.