Cruisin’ Route 20…with History!

Have you ever been driving in what seems like the middle of nowhere and passed by a placard, statue, or house that looked important, but did not quite see the historic significance of this place as the car zoomed by?  Haven’t you wished that you could quickly look somewhere that would explain to you the significance of that place?  For many busy historic roads, there are definitely places where you can find this information. But for the lesser known highways in America, this information is hard to come by. You really are in the middle of nowhere.

For my digital project, I hope to rescue New York’s Route 20–my local, hometown highway– from this oblivion and create an interactive map that denotes and explains the historical significance of certain sites along this route. This site will allow people to engage in the travel and learning experience while driving.  Maybe drivers will even stop at some places along the way for a longer gaze, or even visit a local museum that is situated along the route. This site will transform driving along Route 20, which many regard as just driving through cornfield after cornfield, and will rescue this route from historical oblivion.

New York’s Route 20, formerly known as the Cherry Valley Turnpike, is host to a plethora of historical sites, including the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the William Seward House in Auburn, and the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls.  Route 20 enthusiasts have set up their own websites about the route, including the Route 20 Association of New York State and an amateur’s site titled “Historic U.S. Route 20: The Main Street of Upstate New York.”  These two sites, however, do not offer much historical interpretation, the former more concerned with tourism and the latter lacking scholarly methodology. These sites also do not include an interactive map where drivers can quickly locate sites or where travelers can research the map before they head out on their drive. All in all, the current options on learning more about Route 20 are limited.

I will use Viewshare, Flickr, or Historypin to create an interactive map that marks different sites along the highway.  California Route 66 Preservation Foundation runs a website that includes an interactive map. My Route 20 map will link to descriptions of the historical significance of different sites along the road and will display different photos (historical and current) of these sites.  For my digital project, I will start with the three historic sites mentioned above: baseball in Cooperstown, William Seward House, and Seneca Falls convention.  I will follow Dan Brown’s suggestion, in Communicating Design, and create personas that will guide my design decisions.[1] My website will cater to three different personas: spectators (who just want a quick description of what they are passing), enthusiasts (who can read the whole story on the site), and tourists (who want the full story and might even want to stop and visit the site).  I hope to cater to these different personas by using a similar format as Philaplace where the spectators get a few lines on  the historical significance, enthusiasts click more to get the whole story, and tourists can scroll down to see recommendations for books to do further research or recommendations for local museums to visit.

Since New York’s Route 20 does not have nearly the renown as Route 66, outreach will be vital to this project.  My main audience is interested tourists and so I will link my site to travel review sites, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. Route 20 already has a page on TripAdvisor.  In addition, I will inform local preservation and history organizations, such as the Route 20 Association of New York State and “Tour Auburn,” of my site.

For the evaluation of my project, I will have different users test the site. As Brown emphasizes, planning for usability tests are as important as gaining feedback from the results of these tests.[2] I will create usability tests for someone who is driving the route as well as for someone who is interested in the route and planning to travel the highway in the near future.  Hopefully, these people find this site easy to use and easy to understand. More importantly, I hope this site will further interest in the local history of upstate New York. Instead of driving through the middle of nowhere, travelers (and even just web browsers) will gain an appreciation of the rich history of the area and realize its important place in history.

[1] Daniel M. Brown, Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning (Berkely, CA: New Riders, 2007), 18.

[2] Brown, Communicating Design, 51.

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.

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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 , which may be similar to the one on house real, 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  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  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,

Digital Project Proposal

For my digital project, I propose taking pictures of memorials around DC and looking at what their locations signify.  How close are they to the National Mall?  What does their distance mean?  When were they created? Why at that particular time?  Using these questions, the point of the map would be to create a timeline of when memorials were built and the significance of their time and place.  This would shed light on the sociopolitical atmosphere of DC in the past century or more.

Having only lived in DC since August, I know the main monuments on and around the National Mall but I feel like there are more memorials scattered throughout DC that I’m unaware of.  Why don’t the monuments further from the Capitol receive as much attention?  Maybe they do and I’m unaware of it but creating an interactive map with all of the memorials would be fun and useful not only for myself but others as well.

The tool I would use to create this map is Viewshare.  For each monument, I would tag the location and include a short paragraph about when it was built, why that time and who proposed the memorial.  I think it would be interesting to see where the ideas for a monument come from and who generally supports them.  Is it common for certain groups of people to create a committee to build a monument? If so, who are they? For example, looking at military/war memorials, are veterans the core group for proposing a memorial or is it people outside of the military?

In looking at the monument’s histories, I would cite the distance between when the memorial was built and time period of the person or event it represents.  For example, how soon was the WWII memorial built after the war ended?  Was there a reason for the delay in building the memorial (if there was)?

While all of this information might be too detailed for this project, perhaps I could focus more on the facts of the monument (date it was built, who initiated the project, time gap between the event/person and memorial) and leave the tags open ended.  By this I mean I could put a question at the end so visitors would take it upon themselves to inquire more about why the memorial was placed where it was, why were time gaps as long or short as they were, etc.  Leaving the paragraphs open ended could be a good way of creating curiosity in visitors when they go to sites.  It is way of promoting critical thinking about history.  It might be possible to create a sort of scavenger hunt.  I don’t know what the prize would be, aside from gaining knowledge (which is always good).  Maybe in the future the map could be used for activities like that.

Project Proposal: A Walk with Francis Lightfoot Lee

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).

Digital Project – JFK’s AU Commencement Address

On June 10th 1963, President Kennedy gave the commencement address to the American University graduating class. Although it was an exciting event for those present, it was largely ignored by the domestic media. Little did they know that the real audience for the speech was Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev. Kennedy spoke of the need for peace, a reduction in Cold War tensions, and most importantly, his willingness to sign a limited nuclear test ban treaty. This last point was a veiled signal to Khrushchev – the two governments had been working covertly for years to get such an agreement.

This AU Commencement Address was the catalyst that led to the signing of the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty – the first successful treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union since the start of the Cold War, and the last Soviet treaty Kennedy would sign before he was killed.

With the 50th anniversary approaching next year, now would be an excellent time to create a digital exhibit of this material. The AU archives maintains a small online presence of the event with some photos and short summary. However, their site is directed mainly towards an AU student audience, and tells little of the greater significance of this event.

Using Omeka, it would be possible to consolidate AU’s display into a much more elaborate exhibit of photographs, as well as incorporate primary documents and historical analysis to explore not just why this event was important to AU, but why it was important in a larger Cold War context. Given the approaching anniversary, done right, this could garner some attention from a larger audience than the AU archives’ site currently draws.