One of the most intriguing new ideas in digital public history, location-based history, has been enabled by recent technological advances in mapping and GPS-like technology. These advances allows historians to assign historical places and events geographic coordinates and plot them on a map. These maps help historians and the public alike to see historical data from a geographic perceptive. Websites and mobile apps are also making use of GIS technology, which allows one to see his or her current location in relation to those sites where important events took place in the past. With the rise of smartphones, people are increasingly taking their devices with them, offering historians a chance to have the public access historical information about a location while physically standing in the location mentioned. These two concepts have given rise to a variety of different location-based websites and mobile apps. Even so, this process has been filled with complexities and there are still many things historians must consider before deciding to embark on a location-based digital public history project.
First of all, historians must be using historical data that is strongly tied to a sense of place. For example, the City of Philadelphia had hundreds of historical photographs of buildings or areas in the city. These could (for the most part), be tracked down to a single geographic location where the photograph had been taken. The makers of PhillyHistory.org were able to assign these photos geographic coordinates and plot them on a map. Eventually they took it even a step further, using Google Street view technology and Layer to allow users to view the city through augmented reality–to view historical photographs as overlays on the current landscape. Because the data they had to work with was inherently place-based, this type of technology was useful in helping users view the historical data in a new way. But at the same time, historians need to be wary of incorporating geolocation-based technology when they do not have data that is driven by a sense of place. As Brad Baer, Emily Fry and Daniel Davis mention in their article “Beyond the Screen: Creating interactives that are location, time, preference, and skill responsive,” one must make sure that the technology being used is the most effective way to present the information, and is not being used just because it is the latest trend in technology.1 It needs to add something to the user’s engagement with the historical content.
Another challenge of using placed-technology is that, in many cases, it relies on the user providing his or her own mobile devise. Each devise is running different operating systems and using different versions of different browsers. They are also relying on different cellular data networks or in some cases, only a Wifi connection. Making a mobile app or mobile site that offers a consistent experience across devices can be challenging. Because technology is always changing, it also takes a considerable amount of time and money for IT and historical staff to keep the site or app running effectively.
Even with these challenges, location-based technology is providing new and exciting methods for historical inquiry. One of the most stunning concepts is the Museum of London’s Street Museum. The downside to this app is that you have to physically be in London to use it appropriately. But I can imagine how it works from the videos and descriptions. It is another use of augmented reality, where Google Street view type technology and the camera on you phone help position historical photographs as overlays of the historical landscape on to the present landscape. This, in essence, means that one can hold up one’s phone and see on the screen at 3D image of what that exact location would have looked like sometime in the past. As one moves the phone, the 3D image moves as well. This allows Londoners (who might not visit the Museum of London) to easily engage with these historical scenes as they walk around town as part of their everyday lives.
Another interesting way to use this technology is showcased by the Walking Cinema: Murder on Beacon Hill. Their app focuses on location based storytelling and provides users with a self-guided outdoor audio/video walking tour. This content is packaged with a live map the tells user where they are and where they need to go. The app leads users on a tour of several stops, pointing out architectural features and artifacts that might have gone unnoticed by the everyday passerby. The topic they pick–a murder– is also appealing to a large audience. By putting users in physical locations that were important to the crime and letting them “discover” evidence along the way, really contributes to the feeling that they are helping to solve an investigation. After taking a Forensic Science class during my undergraduate career, I have been struck by the similarity in process that crime scene investigators and historians go through in order to recreate their own interpretation of what happened in the (recent or distant) past. This mobile app highlights these similarities and offers a new way of presenting the process of historical inquiry to a public audience.
Reading about placed-based digital public history and visiting some example sites has caused me to consider if my own project could benefit from the use of this technology. Of course, I first have to examine my data and see if it is connected to physical locations. As my project tries to explore the perspectives of different people involved in the Siege of Sackville, my data seems to be based on individual personalities. While I agree that it will be helpful to make some use of maps to put this event in a greater geographic context, the stories are not necessarily driven by their connection to locations. I could use a map to show several locations in Vincennes, such as the Memorial, the church and the graveyard. But after being there in person, I have seen that these locations are in very close proximity to each other. I think it would hinder, more than help visitors to have a mobile app directing them from place to place. While I really like the idea of using geolocation technology, I am not sure that my data is best suited for it. Therefore, I will continue to try to use other digital methods that best present the stories I am trying to tell.
- Baer, Brad, Emily Fry and Daniel Davis. “Beyond the Screen: Creating interactives that are location, time, preference, and skill responsive.” MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published February 1, 2014. Consulted April 1, 2016. http://mw2014.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/beyond-the-screen-creating-interactives-that-are-location-time-preference-and-skill-responsive/