Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fun with Digital Content at Fort Vancouver, Part 2

Over the past ten years, efforts at Fort Vancouver have focused on telling a more complete, holistic story of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and U.S. Army eras onsite, utilizing the extensive collections and archaeologically recovered artifacts to give voice to the past.

In the first 40 years as a national park site, the NPS had done an impressive job of researching and interpreting the contributions of Dr. John McLoughlin (and the dozens of clerks and other officers of the company) and utilizing their records and other evidence to reconstruct the stockade and buildings that are still a highlight of any visit today.

However, this story - this grand heroic narrative - was not a complete one; important parts were missing.

While the historical record provided wonderfully detailed information about the dozen or so employees making up the upper, gentleman class (and their families), with the exception of pay records it was largely silent on the hundreds of others - working class employees, their families, and others - that made up the greater Fort Vancouver community.

And this was some community. The fort's employee village, a few hundred yards west of the stockade's pickets, housed an incredibly diverse population of upwards of 600 people at times. In this village, English, French-Canadian, Scottish, Irish, Hawaiian, Iroquois, and people from over 30 different regional Native American groups lived and worked under the watchful - and controlling - eye of McLoughlin and the company's officers.

HBC and Catholic Church records, along with a few images and other documents, provided tantalizing snippets of everyday life in the village, but it has been archaeological excavation and analysis that has finally helped us bring voice to the fort's village population.

From a maintenance boneyard and Himalayan blackberry patch, archaeology has helped transform the Village to a "place" again, complete with historic roadways, two replica employee buildings, replica fencing, wayside exhibits, and a trail connecting it again to the Columbia River waterfront via an internationally renowned land bridge.

What does this have to do with augmented reality? Well, stay with me; you needed the backstory, trust me. Anyway, as this "new" site within the park, we have been experimenting with the best ways to provide historical interpretation in the Village. How do we connect visitors to the artifacts found onsite, and how do we articulate what these artifacts reveal about Village life in comparison to life inside the stockade walls?

Sure, we've developed curriculum-based education programs, costumed interpretation presentations, and wayside exhibits, but the challenge is to serve what is largely a transient audience who experiences the Village while enjoying the trails and walkways; unless you're headed to a previously scheduled program we're featuring, it really isn't a destination.

Enter Brett Oppegaard. A dynamic doctoral student and professor in Washington State University - Vancouver's acclaimed Digital Technology & Culture program, he met with me and pitched an idea for developing a mobile storytelling project utilizing augmented reality at the fort. As I listened to his idea, I immediately thought of the Village; could digital technology help visitors better connect to the many layers of its history? Yes!

The result of our initial brainstorming and Brett's subsequent leveraging of resources is the Fort Vancouver Mobile Project. For updates on the project and to see the project's mission statement, check out Brett's blog here. Here's a quick summary:
Our primary goal is to generate mobile interactive narratives, or stories that visitors to the site can immerse themselves in, through a connection with a mobile communication device. We also have been examining and researching various other modes of information sharing and platforms, from QR (quick response) codes to mobile social networking systems.
The Fort Vancouver Mobile project serves as a cutting-edge research laboratory for developments in mobile content creation that emphasize location, spatial and contextual awareness in relation to interactive and mixed-reality storytelling experiences, particularly those that take advantage of the new abilities of mobile technology to illuminate important regional and national historical narratives.
This project is very exciting for us; Brett is able to bring a fantastic digital skillset and connections with many helpful resources while we have a "place" as well as a vast array of data, science, and historical content to contribute. Perfect match? We think so. We'll certainly keep you posted as the project progresses.


Larry Cebula said...

Greg: I am blown away with what you have done already on digital interpretation at Fort Vancouver. If I can ask a nuts-and-bolts question: How did you get the resources and expertise to do all of these projects?

All of us who work at humanities institutions know that we should be creating more digital content, but we lack either the time, knowledge, or resources to do so. I can't tell you how many times I have heard a museum or historic site person sigh and say "I wish we could do that but...."

How did you pull together the resources at Fort Vancouver?

Anne said...

Greg, Thanks for this intro post. Can you tell me about the 1950's(?) era black and white photo, the one with the boy scout center back doing a jig? They're standing around a pit of some sort with a Helpful Ranger.

mibarra396 said...

Hey Greg, I love your post and the incredible things your doing with digital technology. I'd like to ask about when you talked about Catholic Church Records.

Were the people there all Catholic? What i mean is did the fort have mostly Protestant or other faiths among the whites and even Native Americans?