The World at My Fingertips
I would like to consider myself a world traveler, having had the opportunity to experience the sites, sounds, smells, and histories found within regions of Western Europe and Malaysia. Sadly those travels are relegated to past memories and I find myself, like so many others, living a more home-based existence. Truth be told, it has been years since I have traveled beyond the boundaries the Pacific Northwest. In an attempt to relive some of my past adventures I recently logged into the virtual tour application of London’s National Gallery to as they state, “Step into one of the greatest collections of paintings from the comfort of your home.” The gallery’s virtual reality tour encouraged this art lover to venture through different rooms, click on pieces of artwork, and learn about the artists all the while sitting on my sofa enjoying some potato chips. I appreciated the engagement and accessibility of images and knowledge presented, but I also longed for the actual experiences associated with enjoying the artwork in person. The paintings were never larger then the size of my screen, and I could not smell the aging varnishes or see the intricacies and details of the artists’ brush strokes. This is not a disparagement of the VR experience, just an acknowledgement that this type of interaction with art and/or history requires the participant to enter the virtual environment with an open mind and imagination.
My role as a stationary traveler is one thing, but as a historian interested in sharing and preserving knowledge the utility of virtual and digital media is compelling. Web-based curation tools such as Curatescape – the host of sites like Spokane Historical and Salt River Stories – allow historians and archivists the ability to apply layers of multi-media content to the stories they are endeavoring to share. For example, this type of storytelling is showcased in Mark Tebeau’s article, Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era. By linking community and place, Tebeau demonstrates how the Cleveland State University Public History and Digital Humanities team were able to create an informal experiential learning laboratory by adding images, oral history, text, and video, to an interpretive website that geolocates specific stories on a map. The end product provides the audience access to a wide variety of media and content, while also challenging them to experience history in a new and interesting way. More specifically, Tebeau’s Cleveland Historical site resulted in a community-based oral history project that provides broad public audiences an enhanced understanding of regional identity.
The desire to learn about distant locations from the ease and safety of home is not a new concept, and the Peter Dawson et al. article “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveler: Using Virtual Tours to Access Remote Heritage Sites of Inuit Cultural Knowledge”, links passed Victorian panoramic paintings depicting arctic travels to the new virtual photospheres that connect visitors to geographically isolated heritage locations. In relation to digital humanities, virtual and mobile tools have limitless possibilities, most significantly as innovative ways to enhance classroom education, by connecting students to distant history, stories, and art. However, there are also accessibly issues to consider as many still face the challenge of limited internet resources and unequal access to computers, tablets, or phones needed to fully experience interactive sites and virtual tours. In the end, the positive and negative of each interactive website or application is dependent on what the individual visitors’ intentions are. I sought out a distant gallery to reflect on an old adventure, others may access these sites for virtual tourism, educational purposes, or to engage with unfamiliar regions. What is true, is that we now have the world at our finger tips.