A few years ago my parents took a trip to Mexico and had invited me to go with them. I initially refused, however, my father kept pushing me and one argument he made was that since I was planning on becoming a teacher I should visit some of the heritage sites in Mexico so I could discuss them with my students. I gave in eventually but not before arguing that I could just as effectively use digital tools to allow the students to experience the sites themselves, an argument he did not buy. Now in the age of Covid-19 with many people confined to their homes or unable to travel the availability of various digital historic tours and location-based tools such as Spokane Historical, Intermountain Histories, Cleveland Historical, and Salt River Stories has become more important than ever before. It is also more important to re-examine the strengths and weaknesses of the platform.
Virtual Tourism isn’t anything new as discussed in the paper “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller: Using Virtual Tours to Access Remote Heritage Sites” by a group of Canadian students and heritage professionals, which highlights the Victorian era’s use of panoramic paintings and lighting effects to create immersive experiences. Modern technology has taken this approach to new levels using digital mediums. The use of google street viewer alongside a simple VR headset like google cardboard or similar device that uses a smartphone for the screen can be an affordable and powerful tool for education and virtual tourism. It can also be useful for heritage sites that have accessibility issues such as historic homes that don’t have a wheelchair or disabled friendly option for moving between floors, an issue that regularly came up when I worked as a historic home tour guide.
While using virtual tourism methods like street viewer, the Arvia’juaq tour hosted by the University of Calgary, or even the Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour can provide an immersive and interactive experience that doesn’t require one to leave their home or classroom there are limitations. In “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller” it is pointed out that using VR and immersive tour technology can be an issue of accessibility as many students or would be virtual tourists do not have access to the devices or internet connection necessary to take advantage of them. (Dawson, et al, 22) VR can also be disorientating and cause motion sickness in individuals if done poorly.
Another place-based history platform is the use of curatescape sites like Spokane Historical, which lets users add stories connected to real-world locations. Sites can be accessed through web browsers for simply reading the stories, but also through smartphone apps which allow users to go out and find nearby stories and see the location in person while reading the story on their phone.
One of the strengths of such platforms is the ability for users to create a tour like experience for themselves just by finding what is in their neighborhoods or places that might interest them. I’ve had several people who I recommend the Spokane Historical smartphone app come back and tell me about the things they learned about places they’ve lived near their whole lives and it’s always a fun conversation. The use of text and media allows for a more traditional educational experience and that can be appealing for people who feel they learn best through reading and visual means more so than the more interactive and physical (although still visually based) methods of virtual tours.
Curatescapes have their weaknesses as well. Like virtual tours, the medium still requires the use of technology that may not be accessible to everyone. Stories are often short due to an emphasis on concise storytelling, however, writers also have to introduce background information to make certain elements work so the writing can be awkward as well. As stories are typically written by students the quality of the writing can vary greatly from story to the next. It can also be difficult to find a location to attach to the stories for the geolocation feature, as many stories aren’t connected to one location on a map. While not always the case, as seen by Cleveland Historicals focus on oral history, many stories do not effectively use media other than written words and images which can be an accessibility issue in itself but also is limiting the educational potential for many stories and can cause a lack of appeal when so many images are similar black and white photos of old buildings or people. For many users, these weaknesses are of minor concern, but as more professors begin to incorporate curatescape into their courses it is something to consider addressing.
Outside of virtual tours and place-based story sites there are a ton of useful digital tools for historians to utilize on their sites. For example, Google Photo Scan is an app that lets a historian scan a photo in a frame, and the app will remove the glare from the glass. This could be a really useful tool for helping the color image issues of curatescape sites. I don’t really have framed photos but I do have some art prints and decided to test out the app using one I had in storage until I could find a good spot to hang it.
While not perfect the app did help to remove the glare and the issue could be the size of what I scanned or the orientation I had it set when scanning.