April 2011 will mark the 150th anniversary of the first hostilities of U.S. Civil War, and museums, municipalities, and historic sites are making their preparations for the events and exhibits to commemorate it. And while, no doubt, times are tough for funding cultural heritage projects, there's a lot of excitement and momentum building around the sesquicentennial, making it a great opportunity for those exploring how technology can make history more interactive.
"A more valuable field trip" - that's the argument that Pennsylvania high school social studies teacher Jeff Mummert makes, pointing to the increasing accessibility of both mobile and augmented reality technologies as ways to "offer deeply interactive projects for students and the general public."
To that end, Mummert has created the Civil War Augmented Reality Project (which recently evolved to become HistoriQuest). Aimed at giving both students and the general public a richer experience, the Civil War Augmented Reality Project wants to build apps that will use augmented reality to connect primary documents and photographs to local historic points of interest.
Knocking Down the Museum Walls with Mobile AR
The Civil War's sesquicentennial provides both challenges and opportunities for many local historic sites. It's estimated, for example, that Gettysburg, Pennsylvania will receive some 3 to 4 million visitors in 2013, the 150th anniversary of the battle and of Lincoln's famous address. How can mobile technology and AR provide better, smarter, more active experiences - inside and outside the museum walls? How can building localized apps encourage the public to do more than just walk through a battlefield or a visitors' center?
Mummert walked me through one app under development: a body of an identified Union soldier was found in the town of Gettysburg on one of the first days of the invasion in 1863. At the spo where the body was found, the mobile app triggers a CSI investigation, of sorts, where Gettysburg visitors can follow clues (a photograph of a wife and child found on the body) through various points of interest in the town: to the churches that served as hospitals during the battle, to the David Wills House - now a museum, and the site where President Lincoln stayed the night before he gave the Gettysburg Address - to battlefield site and the Gettysburg National Cemetery, and eventually to the soldier's grave-site.
The Sesquicentennial: The Opportunities for Mobile, AR, Linked Data
Mummert's Civil War Augmented Reality Project is one of many efforts underway to commemorate the 150th anniversary through technology. The Civil War Data 150 Project is one example - a partnership that aims to support and connect linked data across local, state, and federal institutions so that information can be found and utilized, no matter the collection, the archives, or the library in which it's housed. The Civil War Data 150 Project will help pull together the open data upon which developers can build the sorts of apps that Mummert and others envision.
Although a fundraising effort on Kickstarter last summer was unsuccessful, Mummert is moving forward with his plans for the Civil War Augmented Reality Project. He believes the 150th anniversary of the Civil War will be an important moment for historians, educators, archivists, and technologists. It's a nice round number to build a celebration upon, of course. But just as importantly, Mummert argues, we're at a key moment in the adoption of mobile and augmented reality technologies, a new way to help invite and engage the public and students in a more engaging and interactive experience with Civil War history.