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

[2] For more information on Menokin and Francis Lightfoot Lee, visit

[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.

Show and Tell: BackStory with the American History Guys

For my show and tell post, I’d like to direct your attention to one of my favorite examples of scholars using new (and old) media to teach broad audiences about history.  BackStory with the American History Guys is a podcast produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and featuring historians Ed Ayers (19th century history guy), Peter Onuf (18th century history guy), and Brian Balogh (20th century history guy).  Ed Ayers was a trail blazer in the field of early Digital Humanities, creating the “Valley of the Shadow” online Civil War documentation project in the 1990s.  (Be prepared, this is seriously old-school now.)

BackStory explores issues that have persisted throughout American history, tracing the evolution of trends over time.  It’s dynamic, involving interviews with experts and interested layman callers.  Its creators also use the podcast’s website, twitter, and facebook pages to solicit questions about the week’s topic.  If you’re interested, visit the “In the Works” page, to weigh in on upcoming shows on epidemics, terrorism, and memorials. If your question is a good one, you might just be invited to ask it on the show.  In this format, I believe Ayers, Balogh, and Onuf strike a good balance between involving interested audiences and yet maintaining the authority of the historian.

Something the show does very well is interview experts and significant players in American memory making.  For example, the most recent episode “Born in the USA” featured an interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, whose work A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard came up earlier in this very class.  I was also very impressed by an interview Ed Ayers conducted for the “Coming Home: A History of War Veterans” show, in which he talks to Frank Earnest, a past commander of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans about the symbolism of the Confederate flag.  Baby Public Historians like myself spend a lot of time discussing how to handle sticky topics in American History, and Ayers provides an excellent example of how to do just that.  He politely exercises his historian’s authority, says “no sir,” and shuts down overblown Confederate claims of African American participation on the Confederate side of the Civil War.  On BackStory, history is complicated, but historians exercise their authority too.

Now is an especially exciting time to be interested in BackStory. On May 11th of this year they will transition from an on-again off-again podcast to a regular weekly one.  Give it a shot, and let me know what you think!


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).

Project Idea: Historic House Museums on Facebook

As Professor Trevor Owens notes in “Tripadvisor Rates Einstein” social media sites not only provide unique access to a “sense of how individuals have interacted with these museums, monuments, and memorials” but social media sites also become “part of the frame through which other individuals interact with these places.”[1]  At their best, social media sites help staff understand who their audience is, and what they are most interested in learning about.   They also have the potential to influence how people see museums, etc. and what they are interested in getting out of an experience at a cultural site.

For my project, I am interested in looking at how historic house museums in Washington D.C. and interested members of their audiences use facebook.  How museums interact with their audience, the broader public, and specifically, their facebook fans?  How does that audience use the facebook platform to interact with the staff of a historic house museum?  Does facebook primarily function as an advertising tool, or does it help facilitate conversations about educational and interpretive content?  Is it effectively used as a platform to allow visitors to bring their learning home with them?  Do users feel comfortable engaging with material at more than a surface level?

I propose to “like”, follow and analyze the pages of the following historic homes and gardens in Washington D.C. : Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, Dumbarton House, Tudor Place Historic House and Garden, President Lincoln’s Cottage, Woodrow Wilson House, and Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens.  I will track the activity on these pages and compare how these institutions interact with their audiences through facebook.  As an additional source of comparison, I will also track the activity on the facebook page of the National Museum of American History, as a potential industry standard for facebook interaction, in order to see if social media sites are able to function as a level playing field for museums with small and large resources to interact with visitors on equal levels.

Additionally, I propose to look at the relationships between the online presences of historic house museums relate to individual’s attempts to craft their own online identities.  Who typically “likes” a historic house museum page?  Who reviews historic house museums?  Who is willing to include the names of historic house museums in their posts as a representation of their identities and interests?

I believe that research that creates knowledge about the best uses of facebook by historic house museums could be beneficial to the field and for me in my future career as a public historian.

[1] Owens, T. (2012) ‘Tripadvisor rates Einstein: using the social web to unpack the public meanings of a cultural heritage site’, Int. J. Web Based Communities, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp.40–56.

On the Potential Benefits of “Many Eyes”

In 2007 IBM launched the site Many Eyes, which allows users to upload data sets, try out various ways of visualizing them, and most importantly, discuss those visualizations with anyone who sets up a (free) account on Many Eyes.  As professor Ben Shneiderman says, paraphrased in the New York Times review of Many Eyes, “sites like Many Eyes are helping to democratize the tools of visualization.”  Instead of leaving visualizations to highly trained academians, anyone can make then and discuss them on Many Eyes, which is a pretty neat idea.

Many Eyes allows viewers to upload data sets and then create visualizations of them.  Many Eyes offers users the ability to visualize data in 17 different ways, ranging from the wordle type of word cloud, to maps, pie charts, bubble graphs, and network diagrams, just to name a few.  There are other sites or programs that will allow users to create charts in some of these ways, Microsoft Excel for example, but Many Eyes offers the advantage of multiple types of visualizations all in one place.

Additionally,  people in disparate locations can talk about the data sets and visualizations through comments.  The comment feature even allows for the “highlighting” of the specific portion of a visualization you might be referencing. The coolest feature of Many Eyes is that anyone can access and play with data uploaded by anyone else, in the hopes that “new eyes” will lead to surprising and unexpected conclusions regarding that data.

If you create an account on Many Eyes, you can access their list of “Topic Centers”, where people who are interested in data sets and visualizations relating to specific topics, can interact and comment with one another, as well as link related data sets and visualizations.  However, a quick perusal of the topic centers show that the vast majority of topics are being followed by only one user.  The few topics that have more than one user seem to be pre-established groups with specific projects in mind.

Unfortunately, it appears that a crowdsourcing mentality, where people who don’t know each other collaborate to understand and interpret data, hasn’t really materialized.  In this IBM research article, the authors even hint at how Many Eyes “is not so much an online community as a ‘community component’ which users insert into pre-existing online social systems.”  Part of the difficulty in realizing the democratizing aspect of Many Eyes might be a simple design problem in that the data sets, visualizations, and topic centers display based on what was most recently created, rather than by what is most frequently tagged or talked about.  This clutters the results with posts in other languages or tests that aren’t interesting to a broader audience.  Many Eyes developers might adopt a more curatorial method where they link to their top picks for the day on the front page in order to sponsor interest in certain universal topics.  But maybe the problem might be more profound; what do you think?

Ultimately, I’m not sure how relevant Many Eyes is to historians.  It seems that asking for a democratized collection of strangers to collaborate on visualizing your data seems unlikely based on the usage history of the site.  However, groups of researchers who already have a data set to visualize and discuss might be able to make use of this site for cliometrics-style research.  Classrooms and course projects in particular can benefit from this site, since it’s relatively easy for people with a low-skill level to use.  What do you think?  What other applications do you see Many Eyes having?  How relevant will it be for your work in the digital humanities?