ARIS & Menokin: New Technology for a Renewed House

My digital project will be a joint collaboration with fellow classmate Caitlin Miller as we tackle designing an ARIS tour for The Menokin Foundation.

The Who: The Menokin Foundation near Warsaw, Virginia, operates the historical house and grounds of Declaration of Independence signer Francis Lightfoot Lee.  The Foundation holds 500 of the original 1,000 acres, of which 350 acres have been given over as a National Wildlife Habitat.  The house itself is a ruin.

Menokin as it exists today, partially standing and as a ruin. The metal roof was constructed to provide a least some protection from the elements.

The Menokin Foundation is at a particularly unique point in their development as a historical site, as they are initiating an innovative conservation method to preserve the remaining structure of the house.

A computer generated model for what the Glass House project will look upon completion.

Yes, that’s glass.  Think Apple Store meets Colonial Williamsburg: the negative space of the house (everything that currently isn’t there) will be filled in with structural glass, including floors and roof.  The house is projected to be finished by 2017 or 2018.  The Menokin Foundation is committed to making the future visitor experience reflect the innovation, creativity, and unique quality of the Glass House project.

The Challenge: For a multitude of reasons, the Glass House concept will be the only (re)building to be done on the property; the outlaying buildings, slave cabins, and tenement houses will not be rebuilt.  This presents an extra challenge for historical interpretation at the site.  How do we connect visitors to stories of the past that are no longer physically tied to the space?  Menokin has a rich, 400+ years of history that includes not only the life and political career of a little known but devoted Revolutionary (that would be our guy Francis Lightfoot Lee, or as we was known by his peers, Frank) but the history of the Rappahannock tribe that lived on the land before English colonists, the slaves who worked the plantation, and the tenant farmers who worked the land in the second half of the 19th-century into the 20th-century.

Even with the physical remains that are at Menokin, challenges are present for communicating the historical past to the visitor.  The Glass House project will not be completed tomorrow: how do we provide a dynamic visitor experience in the mean time?  How do we tell stories connected to the people of Menokin that did not necessarily take place at Menokin?

The Why:  Designing a tour of the property through ARIS –

Wait, What’s “ARIS”?: ARIS is “a user-friendly, open-source platform for creating and playing mobile games, tours and interactive stories.  Using GPS and QR Codes, ARIS players experience a hybrid world of virtual interactive characters, items, and media placed in physical space.”[1] ARIS was created at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  Although still in its Alpha stage, the projected has been underway for two years now, with a devoted and brilliant team of people behind it.  Check out their website at arisgames.org.  And download the App!  (It’s Free!!)

ARIS was created at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  Although still in its Alpha stage, the projected has been underway for two years now, with a devoted and brilliant team of people behind it.  Check out their website at arisgames.org.  And download the App!  (It’s Free!!)

The Why (again): Designing a tour of the property through ARIS allows for historical interpretation at Menokin that otherwise may not have been feasible or probable.  Using this platform, we can potentially have Frank, his brother Richard Henry (Yes fans of 1776, THAT Richard Henry), Frank’s wife Rebecca, or any number of Lee family members tell you about the American Revolution in their own words.  The Lee Digital Archive has a number of letters exchanged by the family members during the period.  A ‘Historian’ character could guide the visitor as well. We could present the visitor with visuals that are definitively lacking at the site currently.

Important for Menokin, an ARIS program would not require physically building anything on the property.  The land will remain clear, as the experience is a digital one.  Triggered by GPS, ARIS also allows us to tie specific areas of the physical property to specific historical narratives.  The flexibility in altering an ARIS program will accommodate the on-going archeological digs, Cultural Landscape Reports, and further research into the property’s past.

Also important to historical interpretation at Menokin are staffing and budgetary concerns.  Although Menokin will be expanding in the years to come, staffing is currently limited.  This makes having people-to-people tours an almost non-option.  ARIS will allow the Foundation the freedom to create multiple tours geared towards different interests (the site is devoted to conservation, architecture, and ecology in addition to history) without employing multiple tour guides.

ARIS programs also allow us to reach out to a younger, perhaps more tech-savvy audience.

The Where: Our ARIS tour would be specifically located at Menokin.  Some ARIS games are playable ‘anywhere,’ and this may be a future option for our tool.

The Evaluation:  We would like to create a prototype of a tour, although due to time constrictions we realize that this may become a paper draft of what the tour could look like.  We are interested in gaining feedback about the project, conducting a front-end evaluation if possible.


[1] ARIS homepage, arisgames.org.

One Reply to “ARIS & Menokin: New Technology for a Renewed House”

  1. I really love this idea. I think using ARIS should work well for prototyping the project and it could well be a solid application for actually running the project in the end. You can get something up and working as a functional prototype and you can write up a short narrative with screenshots as a kind of script of the mobile experience. That way, the real intellectual work in the project, planning the interactions and relationship between the app and the physical environment, will exist outside of ARIS. So, if something better comes along as a way to provide access to the tour it would be relatively straightforward to port your work to another system.

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