The majority of historic sites and museums make meaning through physical space and objects. The rise of digital tools have enabled institutions that are traditionally so grounded in their built environment to expand their reach beyond their physical boundaries. While digital archives have been a relatively easy and common way to increase a historic sites’ reach and accessibility, digital archives to not address the importance of place for institutions like Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon, which makes meaning through George Washington’s house and grounds, is using digital tools to increase accessibility to audiences who cannot travel to Mount Vernon itself. Mount Vernon has built a virtual tour for students and other audiences who cannot visit Mount Vernon to learn about George Washington and his home. The website calls the virtual tour “the second best way to visit Mount Vernon.”
This project will analyze how Mount Vernon—an institution that primarily makes meaning through physical space—uses the virtual tour to make meaning digitally. I will explore what narratives Mount Vernon chose to include and highlight in the virtual tour and how those narratives and interpretations differ—or do not differ—from those on the physical tour. It is possible (and likely) more people will interact with the virtual tour of Mount Vernon than with the actual grounds and interpreters at Mount Vernon. Therefore, it is necessary to understand and think critically about how a space is interpreted virtually versus physically, and how audiences respond and engage with each—as a substitute for the other? In addition to?
As a point of comparison, I will analyze Mount Vernon’s virtual tour against Monticello’s virtual tour. Both Mount Vernon and Monticello are historic homes and grounds (on which enslaved people lived and worked) of founding fathers (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, respectfully) where meaning is made using the built environment. Since both sites have similar audiences, underlying narratives, and financial resources, a comparison of their virtual tours will allow for a more in depth analysis of how these two institutions use virtual technology from an interpretive standpoint, rather than from a pure image and fact standpoint. I also intend to analyze who their intended audiences are, and if different, how do different intended audiences affect the tour itself and how the tour is marketed.
Virtual tours are a great way to increase a historical sites’ accessibility, but it is not enough to increase accessibility for the sake of accessibility. It is important to understand what impact a digital tool, like a virtual tour, has on an institution’s narrative and interpretation, as well as audience engagement.