Frances Perkins: the Woman Behind the New Deal

Meagan Leddy-Cecere
Web Exhibit Review

Frances Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal

The web exhibit Frances Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal is the digital accompaniment to the physical exhibit of the same name that ran from November to March of 2009 at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University. Curated by Jennifer B. Lee, the exhibit showcases correspondence, manuscripts, photographs and ephemera from Columbia’s collection of the Frances Perkins Papers.

The simplicity and openness of the exhibit’s layout is its greatest strength. Taking a minimalist approach to web design, the exhibit employs a color scheme of sober blues, greys, and blacks. Clear lines and classic fonts result in an undemanding legibility of both content and form. While visually pleasing, it is clear that stylistic concerns did not dominate in the site’s web construction. The exhibit is a didactic rather than an aesthetic accomplishment, with the primary intent of instructing the viewer on a little-known historical figure (Frances Perkins) while providing contextual information on depression era America. The intention behind the exhibit is to increase access to documents previously accessible only through Columbia’s library, and as such, style for style’s sake remains of only secondary importance.

The exhibit effectively facilitates this didactic agenda through a predominately chronological organization and easily navigable structure. Minimizing the disadvantages of an online environment, the web sight is arranged according to an arterial configuration, which guides the viewer through the site in a linear pattern. Easy site mobility is also aided by the exhibit’s thematic organization – section titles follow a roughly chronological order, and then break down into smaller themed pages. Accordingly, the narrative script is strongest in the pages which introduce each section, while the pages that follow are text light and object heavy, featuring high quality tiffs of objects accompanied by concise explanatory labels. By simply clicking the object in question, object metadata (i.e. what it is, where it is, who created it) is easily accessible.

The strength of the exhibit’s narrative script is the key to the site’s success as a teaching tool. While compelling, the objects featured in the exhibit remain secondary to the information situating their significance within a broader historical context. Take for instance the exhibit section on the Triangle Fire of 1911, which features images of Perkin’s handwritten draft of an commemorative address she delivered at Cornell in 1961 in honor of the fire’s fiftieth anniversary. Relatively uninspiring, the images of Perkins’ notebook become remarkable only when accompanied by the text which details how her first hand experience of this devastating disaster functioned as the catalyst which propelled her into a life of government service. This holds true for the remainder of the exhibit. Although the objects are interesting and well chosen, they are supportive rather than central. They do not tend to illicit strong emotions, nor do they stand solely on the merits of their aesthetics. It is the strong combination of text and object – a well crafted and researched script which links disparate images and ideas together – that results in a compelling digital portrait of one woman’s crucial role in Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Ultimately, the many histories of the Frances Perkins exhibit are told around objects, rather than through them. Stories of labor unions in depression era America, of presidential prescience and blindness, and of one woman’s agency as U.S. Secretary of Labor take shape only where text and object meet. Some might interpret this interdependence as a structural failing. Instead, I choose to understand The Frances Perkins exhibit as an exemplar of the dynamic synergy that transforms a static collection of objects into a relational and didactic experience.

Works Cited

“Frances Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal.” Columbia University. Web. 31 October 2012. <https://exhibitions.cul.columbia.edu/exhibits/show/perkins/about>

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