Print Project Proposal: Virtual Tours

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.

3 Replies to “Print Project Proposal: Virtual Tours”

  1. This sounds like a really great idea for a project, Emily! I have one question and one suggestion.

    Question: Is there any way you can get numbers on how many people actually do the virtual tour? I’m probably on the rightward side of the bell curve on how much I like historic houses, but I very rarely do virtual tours because I find them clumsy and awkward. Do you think most of the people who do the virtual tour do it instead of going to the house because they can’t make it there for some reason? It would be great if you could get some data on how people actually use them, and with what frequency.

    Suggestion: Given that you’re a longtime citizen of the beautiful commonwealth of Virginia, I’m sure you’ve been to both of these places. It would be really interesting if you could get some people who haven’t been to the physical houses to check out the virtual tour and give you their impressions—I feel like they might have an illuminating vantage point.

    This seems like a really interesting project, and I’ll be eager to read about it if you end up doing it!

  2. This sounds like a really interesting project – with historic houses like Mount Vernon or Monticello, which rely so much on tapping into the experience of “being there” in rooms that were used by famous individuals, I wonder how effectively a VR tour can really re-create the sensation of standing in these rooms. Does the tour provoke a different level of feeling present in different audiences?

  3. This is a great idea. Lot’s of historical sites offer these kinds of virtual tours and I don’t think I’ve seen much scholarship exploring how they work or don’t work and what parts of the stories of different sites are being emphasized.

    As you explore this, it would be good to also be thinking about the ways that the tours attempt to construct space and place. On that line of thinking, some of the things we get into relating to spatial humanities later in the semester may be of interest.

    It would also be good to try and do some leg work to historicize the development of these online virtual tours. For example, looking at the wayback machine from the Internet Archive, it looks like Mt. Vernon has had a kind of virtual tour up on it’s site since at least 1996 So I bet there will be discussion and exploration about the idea of “virtual tours” that goes back at least to the mid 90s.

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