S&T Visualizing History: Some Examples and Some Thoughts

A few weeks months ago, I had brought up a YouTube video, “Visualizing Empires Decline” as a well-crafted example of visual media demonstrating historical concepts and facts.

The creator, Pedro Cruz, has a variety of work on his website.

So who is Pedro Cruz?  Originally starting out in the field  Physics Engineering,  he switched over to Informatics Engineering and holds a degree from the University of Coimbra.  He has been a researcher at  the Centre for Informatics and Systems of the University of Coimbra (CISUC), as well as having done work here in the States at MIT Sensible City Lab.  As a doctoral student at Coimbra, he as been a research assistant at the  Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART).  He’s also won a a decent selection of awards for his work, and has been mentioned in numerous publications. (Huffington Post anyone?)

So why the long list of his (rightfully earned) accolades?  Cruz’s work is impressive, and demonstrates that creating high quality and innovative visualizations is an industry unto itself.  This brings me to my question: Realistically, how can historians incorporate innovative visualization media, such as that of Cruz’s,  into their own work, when creating this media requires either the Perfect Renaissance Historian, or the dreaded C-Word (Collaboration)?  Do the lines of communications exist between traditional historians and professionals such as Cruz?  How (or Do) opportunities arise to foster this type of collaboration?

Snowballing off of this, let me throw in some work from a company called Soomo Publishing, which creates innovative learning materials for college courses.  They work via contract, so that materials are created for a specific university for a specific class.  With “Goodbye Static, Hello Interactive” on the front of their website, Soomo Publishing makes it loud and clear that their presentation (and therefore interpretation) of history is the wave of the future.  At least if we want history to be in any way enjoyable and relevant – and therefore digested – by future generations.    And their work is attractive, to say the least.


All of the content I’ve presented here in this post I have enjoyed immensely, which begs the question: Are Historians still the gatekeepers of history anymore?  Or more importantly, are historians still involved with history that’s digested by the public?

Hypercities: Cool Concept, But…

Hypercities, a joint project based out of University of California Los Angeles and the University of Southern California and funded through the MacArthur Foundation, “is a digital research and educational platform for exploring, learning about, and interacting with the layered histories of city and global spaces.”  Built on the belief that “all stories take place somewhere and sometime,” Hypercities was built to allow stories that may have taken place in the same location, but in different times, to “interact and intersect.”[1]  In other words, the site allows a visitor to pick a city and have a time traveling experience.  The project started in 2009, with major cities from all over the world in development. The list includes Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Rome, Lima, Ollantaytambo, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Tehran, Saigon, Toyko, Shanghai, Seoul, and others.

Contributers to Hypercities includes the team from UCLA and USC, as well as partner institutions who choose to upload maps, photos, archival documents, etc.  Individual users can create a free log-in ID, and upload information as well.  In this sense, Hypercities attempts to harness resources and information from the public, making it a two-way platform between the creators and the audience.

The visitor first “launches” the hypercities platform, where a world-sized map shows which cities are available to explore. The interface utilizes Google Maps and Google Earth technology. Some cities have much more content than others.  For example, Los Angles has much more content than London, even though London’s history covers a far longer time period.  Rome is a great example of a city that has content across a wide temporal range.  The amount of content per city is most likely due to where the official developers have put their own time and energy, as well as where users have uploaded their own content.

The goals for the site are big.  In their own words:

“As a globally-oriented platform that reaches deeply into archival collections and aggregates a wide range of media content (including broadcast news, photograph archives, 3D reconstructions, user-created maps, oral histories, GIS data, and community stories), HyperCities not only transforms how digital information is produced, stored, retrieved, and shared but also transforms how human beings interact with media and how we experience places.

By connecting digital archives, maps, and stories with the physical world, HyperCities aims to become the first media platform for supporting the revolution of Web 3.0, the birth of the geo-temporal human web.” [2]


It all sounds great, right?  Having first explored the information on the site before launching the platform itself, I had high expectations.  Navigating hypercities is an altogether different experience.  There’s an eight-minute introduction video that shows the visitor how to interact with the different maps, as well as the extra content – photos, images, videos, personal stories, oral histories, etc. – that has been geo-located in each city.  Yet I found the site hard to navigate, things took too long too load, and it took a while for me to learn how the site operated.  And yes, I watched the video before I jumped in and started playing around.  The site claims that it has already been used by “thousands of students, teachers, community groups, activists, and members of the public-at-large interested in exploring, creating, interpreting, and sharing the history of city spaces.”[3]  These users must have had more patience than I did, because I would think this would prove to be too much of a hassle to utilize in a classroom, or for many visitors to want to spend their free time on the site.

I want to like this site very badly.  Their research on geo-temporal analysis and argumentation seems like it’s a step in the future, and I was intitally very excited about their concept and what they want to do with the project.  In fact, I still am excited with the concepts behind hypercities, I’m just not thrilled with actually using hypercities.  It could potentially be a great tool for the educator, the archivist, the historian, and the lay person alike, but not as it stands right now.  It just gave me a headache.

[1] hypercities.com, About Page

[2] hypercities.com, About Page

[3] hypercities.com, Education Page

Collaborative Effort/I Need Help

Hi Everyone,

So I have some issues with WordPress, and I thought I’d mine the collective brilliance of the class to solve said issues.

1. If you want to use wordpress as a website and not a blog, how do you move all of the fun widget/side bar items to a static page? Basically, I want all of those things that are currently on the side of my blog to be on the side of my homepage, which is a static page and not the blog.

2. Is it possible to make header images that a user has uploaded scroll or rotate? I know the preprogrammed images for the twentyeleven theme can be set to “random,” but I want a series of my own images to scroll through the top. Is this possible?

Also, as I am not unappreciative of anyone’s effort in providing answers to these issues, I am more than willing to bring in ‘thank you cookies’ for our next class. Just don’t tell the lab workers…

Thank you!!

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.

Are you interested in wholesale real estate? Here are the risks of wholesaling real estate according to HRRE.

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 arisgames.org.  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 arisgames.org.  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, arisgames.org.

Print Proposal: Smart Phone apps and Public History

As a recent convert to smart phones, I am more than amazed at how much I use my phone, from trying to find the cheapest price for a certain product to navigating the DC metro and electronically refilling my metro card.  As a graduate student in public history, one of the first apps I downloaded to my iPhone was the Smithsonian app.  This app provides information on the Institute’s nineteen different museums (and a zoo).  The user can access hours of operation, what exhibits are currently at each museum, and can be linked to maps, contact information, etc.   Other SI applications include “SI Main Street,” which is an oral history database that asked people from across the United States, regardless of age, to contribute stories that convey the meaning and importance of their hometown.

I am very intrigued by the concept of smart phone applications and furthermore, how Public Historians can utilize them to connect to the public.  The National Museum of the Native American put out an app to go along with their exhibit “Infinity of Nations,” which is currently on display at the NMAI in New York City.  I would like to explore the effectiveness of museum exhibit smart phone apps already in existence, as well as exploring future possibilities for the field.  How expensive are applications to design?  How do you craft an app so that it enhances a visitor’s experience without distracting from it?

Technology is the bandwagon that, whether historical sites like it or not, they are going to have to jump upon sooner or later.  Smart phone apps present many advantages.  They can be made available to the public for free, and once downloaded are easy to take with the visitor as they navigate around a historic site.  Purchasing a book or pamphlet may not be inconvenient when a visitor is touring a museum exhibition, but would a visitor want to lug around extra materials at an outdoor museum, a house museum, or a National Park?  The information, which can include far more details than a brochure, would already be in a device the visitor would carry with himself or herself.  The interactive capabilities could be quite positive as well.

The positives are there, but that begs the question: What are the barriers and/or pitfalls to utilizing this technology?  Are the costs prohibitive such that only larger institutions (a la the Smithsonian) could utilize smart phone apps?  What situations would make smart phone apps worth the time and expense?

Very preliminary research would include the above mentioned apps (The Smithsonian App, “Infinity of Nations” app, “SI Main Street” app) as well as checking out their user rating, reviews, etc.  Secondary sources would include:

Arita-Kikutani, Hiroyuki, and Kazuhiro Sakamoto.  “Using a Mobile Phone Tour to Visit the Ueno Zoological Gardens and the National Science Museum in Tokyo, Japan.”  The Journal of Museum Education 32, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 35-45.