Remembering Rebecca: A New Way to Engage with Historic Houses

Laura Heiman and I (Caitlin Miller) collaborated on designing a self-guided iPhone tour for the Menokin Foundation via the ARIS platform.[1]  The tour, Remembering Rebecca: A Walk with Francis Lightfoot Lee, chronicles the romance and marriage of Francis and Rebecca Lee, the original owners of the Menokin plantation.[2]  Utilizing an engaging feature of the ARIS platform, the tour allows Francis Lightfoot Lee “himself” to tell the visitors about his life and love.  The project was completed and is currently running on the Menokin Foundation’s property.  The Foundation’s director is interested in potentially keeping it as interpretive media on the property.

Meeting Frank: the first stop on the tour.

Remembering Rebecca teaches visitors about the Lees’ relationship from courtship through when they became the guardians for their nieces Portia and Cornelia.  This timespan takes the visitor from pre-Revolutionary war Colonial America to the first decade of America as an independent state.  This story is told through twelve GPS located “stops” on the property.  The text for the individual “stops” is short and informal, conveying relevant historical information about Lee and his time period in bite-size pieces.  At the final stop we created a “conversation” between the visitor and Francis Lightfoot Lee, addressing wrap-up questions we felt a visitor might have on the narrative.   Utilizing this aspect of ARIS not only allows us to give the tour a conclusion, but also serves to foster the sense that the visitor is having an actual conversation with the former owner of Menokin.

One of 12 Stories
The Final Stop: Visitors can "ask" Frank these questions.

We also took advantage of ARIS’s ability to include media, uploading five images to help contextualize Lee’s world.[3]  Keeping in mind copyright issues, we sourced the images through the Library of Congress, the Menokin Foundation, and in one case, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation website, which granted us full permission to use the image for the class project.  If Menokin should decide to utilize the tour in the future, the image can continue to be used after they sign a Colonial Williamsburg user-agreement form.  We feel confident that without too much editing our project could go live at Menokin and be used by real visitors.

This image, from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation shows what Rebecca's wedding dress might have looked like. A caption to this effect is just out of sight in this screen shot.

As ARIS is new technology, and some visitors may not feel comfortable downloading an application without some literature on the tour, we have created a physical pamphlet to go along with the digital tour.  This lets those who stop by the visitor center know about the tour, and is a handy reference for where the physical “stops” are on the tour.  The pamphlet was designed to reinforce the theme of the tour, that of Francis and Rebecca’s romance.

Pamphlet Side 1
Pamphlet Side 2

Working through the ARIS platform to create a self-guided tour for Menokin has proven to be a rewarding experience.  The program has huge potential to create dynamic, inter-active, and entertaining tours at historic sites.  Additional game features, which we decided against using in order to keep the tour simple and straightforward, could create interesting scavenger hunts for children and adults alike.  ARIS allows visitors to engage mentally and physically with the property.  This is a benefit for any historic site, no matter their operating budget.  ARIS is especially useful for low budget operations, as its easy-to-use format is a plus for smaller operations.  We would most certainly recommend ARIS for future use at Menokin, as well as other historic sites.


[1] ARIS is a project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  It allows users to create place-based iPhone tours and games on a free open-source platform.  For more information, visit http://arisgames.org/

[2] For more information on Menokin and Francis Lightfoot Lee, visit http://menokin.org/.

[3] The images are:  an etching of Francis Lightfoot Lee, an image of what Rebecca’s wedding dress might have looked like, a plan of the house that shows what it looked like before it fell down, a painting of 1770s Philadelphia, and a photo of a locket found on the property that is believed to have belonged to either Portia or Cornelia.

2 Replies to “Remembering Rebecca: A New Way to Engage with Historic Houses”

  1. This project looks great! To me this project is definitely one of the most innovative. I haven’t visited a museum in quite sometime but as an average person this is the kind of uses of technology I would expect and appreciate seeing if I were to visit. Something that I’ve picked up from discussions in our class is the dilemma of what items to share and what not to share – because there is obviously a bunch of history out there. And I feel that with mediums like ARIS and your project as a case study that you can give the user a good overview of information – without overwhelming them – but still provide them the opportunity to explore more into a topic if they wish.

    Also the general use of the app in the space itself is one of my favorite parts. A big trend we’re seeing in technology is how we can utilize in our own actions outside of just sitting at a desktop. Great job!

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