Nestled amid the fields and woodlands of Virginia’s Northern Neck rests Menokin, a site almost forgotten to history. Menokin was commissioned in 1769 as a wedding present to Rebecca Tayloe from her father, on the eve of her marriage to Francis Lightfoot Lee. Frank, as he was known to his peers, was a Virginia planter, a patriot, and a rebel. Most notably, he and his brother Richard Henry signed the Declaration of Independence. Despite this amazing pedigree, Menokin was allowed to crumble in the latter half of the twentieth-century. Approximately half of the building stands today. While this might sound like a tragedy, Menokin’s dilapidation has actually transformed it into a “rubble with a cause”.
Menokin and its 500 acres of surrounding property were gifted to the Menokin Foundation in 1995. The Foundation is committed to transforming the property and great house itself into a teaching center for history, architecture, archaeology, ecology and other humanities through innovative practices. This commitment to innovative teaching methods is best demonstrated by the glass house project, the Menokin Foundation’s plan to stabilize what remains of the house, and fill in the missing walls and floors with plexiglass. This project, utilizing state of the art glass technology, will essentially transform Menokin into a 3-D cutaway of 18th century Virginian architectural practices.
This commitment to innovation and technology is also reflected in the Foundation’s commitment to exploring augmented reality platforms for self-guided learning experiences on the site. Augmented reality will allow long-disappeared dependencies and outbuildings on the property, such as slave quarters, agricultural buildings, tenant houses, and the original kitchen and office to be visually recreated for the visitor. Self-guided, technology driven options are especially practical at Menokin, as the small staff cannot always be pulled from their work to give private tours, and the ruin of many of the places to tell historic stories presents a challenge to the interpreter.
Here is where my Public History Practicum team and this Digital History project enters the mix. The Menokin Foundation has partnered with AU’s Public History program in order to research additional innovative methods for interpreting and teaching Menokin’s stories. Four of us (myself, Laura Heiman, Kelly Colacchio, and Meghan O’Connor) are working this semester to help the Menokin Foundation, and Laura and myself will be taking advantage of this Digital History project to delve into one specific platform for interpreting Menokin’s history for the public.
We intend to develop an interactive mobile phone based tour using the platform ARIS, to give Menokin visitors a unique and informative experience on the property. ARIS, currently in development at the University of Wisconsin Madison, is a platform for creating games or tours on smartphones. ARIS is especially innovative in that it allows for users to interact with information or plotlines in real space. The app allows visitors to trigger information and “characters” on their phones through scanning QR codes or simply standing at a specific, flagged GPS location.
Specifically, Laura and I will create a mobile Aris tour for Menokin’s property, hopefully consisting of a working mobile prototype, or possibly simply a paper mock-up (depending on time constraints). We will use the “character” feature of Aris to allow a “historian”, along with figures from Menokin’s past, such as Francis Lightfoot Lee, to communicate through time with visitors on the property. The tour, due to its user-driven nature will allow for either a linear flow or a one-location-at-a-time look at Menokin’s property and history. Our project will also hopefully involve usability testing. As Dan Brown notes in Communicating Design, “usability testing is an essential part of the web design diet,” and we wouldn’t want to miss this opportunity, in creating a product which could feasibly be introduced to a real historic site, to conduct some tests with potential audience members (49).
This project will help Menokin further their goal to become a teaching center in many areas of the humanities, either through creating a product they can put in the field, or at least by testing the waters for the use of modern technology in a historic house setting. Airs, a brand new platform for constructing interactive, user driven tours will be a perfect fit for Menokin’s current low-staff, low-budget reality. Furthermore, this tour will allow for Menokin to test run low-budget augmented reality technology by allowing visitors to interact and learn from buildings which are no longer standing. Additionally, by engaging with technology that is familiar, comfortable, and potentially preferred by younger audience members, it will be able to attract and impress a new segment of its potential audience. This awareness of the audience we intend to reach will help us, in the words of Brown, “capture user needs and create a framework for making decisions about the design” (26).