Digital Project Proposal: Learning and Seeing DC for the Modern Day Penny Pincher

In the Fall of 2008 I studied abroad in Ireland for four months. Living in a new city full of history, I wanted to see everything historical I could find. However, as you could probably guess I was a broke college kid and I had a tough time finding free things to see and do. I wish I had a better understanding of what I could have seen that was historical, fun and better yet FREE!

 

Living in Washington DC now, I feel somewhat the same as I did in Ireland. There is so much history around me and I want someone to guide me to the places where I can learn DC history on a limited budget. For my digital history project, I plan to help those like people like myself who want to explore DC and see what historical sites and monuments the city has to offer. Thus, I will write a blog, via WordPress, with the best places to go and things to see relating to history in DC.  Since this is a history minded site, each blog post about each site will have background historical information on each of the free sites that will be profiled. I want people to explore their city while wanting to learn the history behind it.

 

How will I decide which sites or monuments will be profiled on the blog? That’s easy, I plan on visiting each site myself to give people a poor college student’s historical perspective. I want people to get a better understand of what they will see and learn if they choose to heed the advice of a fellow penny pincher like myself. In addition to the blog posts about each free historic site or monument, I will also be taking pictures. This will allow for the visual people out there to get a better sense of what they will see if they want to see it. Therefore, I will create a Flickr profile where I can display all of the photos that I will take. I will include a link in the blog posts to Flickr where people can get an idea of what they will see. I do plan on having a couple teaser photos on the blog page itself though.

 

What is great about using WordPress and Flickr to help people to decide what to do in a new city and to teach them some history that they might have never known is that it creates a forum for historical discussion. Whether commenting on a blog post or on a photo, crating a dialogue about history is one of the goals of this project. In the digital age in which we live today it is much easier to get history across to many people via the internet, and that is what I am doing here. I hope to inspire people to get out, see their city, and most importantly learn and talk about history!

Cruisin’ Route 20…with History!

Have you ever been driving in what seems like the middle of nowhere and passed by a placard, statue, or house that looked important, but did not quite see the historic significance of this place as the car zoomed by?  Haven’t you wished that you could quickly look somewhere that would explain to you the significance of that place?  For many busy historic roads, there are definitely places where you can find this information. But for the lesser known highways in America, this information is hard to come by. You really are in the middle of nowhere.

For my digital project, I hope to rescue New York’s Route 20–my local, hometown highway– from this oblivion and create an interactive map that denotes and explains the historical significance of certain sites along this route. This site will allow people to engage in the travel and learning experience while driving.  Maybe drivers will even stop at some places along the way for a longer gaze, or even visit a local museum that is situated along the route. This site will transform driving along Route 20, which many regard as just driving through cornfield after cornfield, and will rescue this route from historical oblivion.

New York’s Route 20, formerly known as the Cherry Valley Turnpike, is host to a plethora of historical sites, including the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the William Seward House in Auburn, and the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls.  Route 20 enthusiasts have set up their own websites about the route, including the Route 20 Association of New York State and an amateur’s site titled “Historic U.S. Route 20: The Main Street of Upstate New York.”  These two sites, however, do not offer much historical interpretation, the former more concerned with tourism and the latter lacking scholarly methodology. These sites also do not include an interactive map where drivers can quickly locate sites or where travelers can research the map before they head out on their drive. All in all, the current options on learning more about Route 20 are limited.

I will use Viewshare, Flickr, or Historypin to create an interactive map that marks different sites along the highway.  California Route 66 Preservation Foundation runs a website that includes an interactive map. My Route 20 map will link to descriptions of the historical significance of different sites along the road and will display different photos (historical and current) of these sites.  For my digital project, I will start with the three historic sites mentioned above: baseball in Cooperstown, William Seward House, and Seneca Falls convention.  I will follow Dan Brown’s suggestion, in Communicating Design, and create personas that will guide my design decisions.[1] My website will cater to three different personas: spectators (who just want a quick description of what they are passing), enthusiasts (who can read the whole story on the site), and tourists (who want the full story and might even want to stop and visit the site).  I hope to cater to these different personas by using a similar format as Philaplace where the spectators get a few lines on  the historical significance, enthusiasts click more to get the whole story, and tourists can scroll down to see recommendations for books to do further research or recommendations for local museums to visit.

Since New York’s Route 20 does not have nearly the renown as Route 66, outreach will be vital to this project.  My main audience is interested tourists and so I will link my site to travel review sites, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. Route 20 already has a page on TripAdvisor.  In addition, I will inform local preservation and history organizations, such as the Route 20 Association of New York State and “Tour Auburn,” of my site.

For the evaluation of my project, I will have different users test the site. As Brown emphasizes, planning for usability tests are as important as gaining feedback from the results of these tests.[2] I will create usability tests for someone who is driving the route as well as for someone who is interested in the route and planning to travel the highway in the near future.  Hopefully, these people find this site easy to use and easy to understand. More importantly, I hope this site will further interest in the local history of upstate New York. Instead of driving through the middle of nowhere, travelers (and even just web browsers) will gain an appreciation of the rich history of the area and realize its important place in history.


[1] Daniel M. Brown, Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning (Berkely, CA: New Riders, 2007), 18.

[2] Brown, Communicating Design, 51.

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.

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 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.

Digital Project Proposal

For my digital project, I propose taking pictures of memorials around DC and looking at what their locations signify.  How close are they to the National Mall?  What does their distance mean?  When were they created? Why at that particular time?  Using these questions, the point of the map would be to create a timeline of when memorials were built and the significance of their time and place.  This would shed light on the sociopolitical atmosphere of DC in the past century or more.

Having only lived in DC since August, I know the main monuments on and around the National Mall but I feel like there are more memorials scattered throughout DC that I’m unaware of.  Why don’t the monuments further from the Capitol receive as much attention?  Maybe they do and I’m unaware of it but creating an interactive map with all of the memorials would be fun and useful not only for myself but others as well.

The tool I would use to create this map is Viewshare.  For each monument, I would tag the location and include a short paragraph about when it was built, why that time and who proposed the memorial.  I think it would be interesting to see where the ideas for a monument come from and who generally supports them.  Is it common for certain groups of people to create a committee to build a monument? If so, who are they? For example, looking at military/war memorials, are veterans the core group for proposing a memorial or is it people outside of the military?

In looking at the monument’s histories, I would cite the distance between when the memorial was built and time period of the person or event it represents.  For example, how soon was the WWII memorial built after the war ended?  Was there a reason for the delay in building the memorial (if there was)?

While all of this information might be too detailed for this project, perhaps I could focus more on the facts of the monument (date it was built, who initiated the project, time gap between the event/person and memorial) and leave the tags open ended.  By this I mean I could put a question at the end so visitors would take it upon themselves to inquire more about why the memorial was placed where it was, why were time gaps as long or short as they were, etc.  Leaving the paragraphs open ended could be a good way of creating curiosity in visitors when they go to sites.  It is way of promoting critical thinking about history.  It might be possible to create a sort of scavenger hunt.  I don’t know what the prize would be, aside from gaining knowledge (which is always good).  Maybe in the future the map could be used for activities like that.