12 May 2015 – Rebecca Keller
Editor’s note: This piece is part one of a special online section accompanying issue 37(2) of The Public Historian, guest edited by Lisa Junkin Lopez, which focuses on the future of historic house museums. The contributions in this section highlight the voices of artists who engage with historic house museums as sites of research, exhibition, and social practice. In this piece, Rebecca Keller takes us on a wild ride in the form of a fictional professional association’s newsletter, envisioning a provocative future where technology plays a starring role in visitors’ experiences of the past.
Scholars of Cultural, Historic, and Important Places-Society for Historical and Archeological Interpretive Programs
Fall 2065 member newsletter
SHAIP-ing the Senses
Note from the Editor: With the theme “SHAIP-ing the Senses,” this issue of our newsletter features new approaches to creating compelling experiences for our visitors. Here we share the stories of SCHIP-SHAIP scholars, conservators, and interpreters who have developed innovations that offer audiences fresh ways to enjoy our historic places and open our doors to deeper engagement. We welcome your feedback.
Jules Verne Inspires More
The visionary Jules Verne, whose stories inspired the Underwater Visitors Center at the Historic Eco-system of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, is also the muse behind a new program at the Hall of Anachronistic Technologies (HAT), a museum dedicated to interpreting early 20th-century photography and imaging technologies. HAT is situated in the former ACME Camera factory in Poughkeepsie, New York.
The inspiration for this particular project began when museum educator Eliza Bell happened across Verne’s short story, “The Kip Brothers.” In the story, a murder is solved when a sharp-eyed relative looks closely at a photograph taken of the victim shortly after death and sees captured in the dead man’s retina the image of the true murderer.
Dr. Bell discovered that the theory behind this phenomenon–the idea that the last image captured by the eye was preserved after death in “optograms”–was published in respected scientific journals of the time. It was even employed by Scotland Yard in the investigation of Jack the Ripper.
Recognizing that this pseudo-science was an example of the fascination with photography during that era–a fascination that no doubt led to the rapid expansion of the ACME Camera factory to begin with–Dr. Bell was inspired to ask, “What if we used this idea as a springboard for applying our contemporary technology?”
As we all know, in a creative field like museum work, it pays to follow an inspiration.
Dr. Bell was familiar with ongoing research in Epi-genetics–the discovery that the experiences of our forebears become added into our genetic inheritance. She wondered, “What if this epi-genetic legacy could be visualized, like an inherited “optogram?”
To this end, Dr. Bell and her team tracked down descendants of the original ACME factory workers, many of whom are still in the area. Using funds from the Digital Humanities Foundation, local historical and genealogical societies, and the National Endowment for the Arts, the team collaborated with Applesoft and Goognet. The results of this work are the groundbreaking “Epi-genetic Vision” goggles, currently being tested on the grounds of HAT.
Using sophisticated neurosensory scanners and visual translators, the tech team first worked to capture epi-genetic memories and images from people whose grandparents and great-grandparents worked at the ACME factory. By translating these scans into digital data and collating this data with photos and objects in HAT’s collection, the museum team was able to construct holographic “Day in the Life” experiences for visitors.
It works like this. Upon entering the Hall of Technology, visitors are invited to put on large, specially designed goggles. Sensors embedded in the goggles scan the visitor’s visual field. The goggles align the wearer’s point of view with epi-visions, semi-transparent projections of the epi-memories passed down from former factory workers. Exploring different rooms, the visitor will see a variety of former workers going about their business. Audiences might encounter the ancestor of a neighbor or see her own grandmother during her working life, unfolding in real time. In addition, if the visitor agrees, his own thoughts, emotions, and responses to the experience can be captured and inserted into the database of non-visual material accessible to future visitors.
Interestingly, despite the technological sophistication of the project, the take-away for Dr. Bell is much more down to earth.
“This project taught me that inspiration can come from anywhere but that accessing and honoring community memory and experience is an important aspect of what we do. The story we tell here is not simply that of the technological breakthroughs of the early 20th century but, rather, the complex tales of the men and women who worked here. And as “gee wiz” as Epi-Vision technology is, my favorite thing is that it’s a way for us to add our voices to those of our forebears. By allowing contemporary responses to be folded into the story, it becomes a dynamic record, continually refreshed in meaning.”
The truth of that statement is made clear by the reactions of the visitors. Ninety-year old Greta Harkshank, a lifelong resident of the area, was one of the early testers of the Epi-goggles. After viewing the exhibition with them, she turned to her daughter with tears in her eyes. “I think I saw my mama in the background in the packing room,” she said. “It was like a time machine.”
We think Jules Verne would be proud.
A group of 6th graders gathers around a display case in the main hall of the Old Plantation Museum in Natchez, Mississippi. Inside is a girl’s dress made of rough cotton, stained with age. With great care, a museum interpreter opens a tiny vial filled with green liquid. Reaching inside the case, the interpreter lets fall a drop of the liquid on the fragile garment. The fluid immediately disappears. The interpreter turns on a special sensor inside the case attached to a ventilating fan, and the gallery is flooded with scent: first something sweet, similar to roses, then the 6th graders wrinkle their noses as a sour smell drifts by. Soon the children begin to experience reactions. Some open their eyes wide in surprise, some looked worried. “She was afraid,” says one. Another sniffs the air. “I think she was curious, too.” One little girl says, “She was in awe of the soldiers.” A boy has wide eyes. “I smell molasses.”
As our members well know, historic textiles–especially clothing, are relatively rare. Garments that have survived are fragile. Many SCHIP-SCHAIP institutions have examples of these valuable and fascinating objects in our collections, but our responsibility to care for these fragile treasures has often led to the conclusion that we can’t make them available to our visitors. The scene above describes a new project, called ”The Emotional Perfume of the Past.” This collaboration between the Natchez Old Plantation and the World War I Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, seeks to connect these carefully preserved collections with interpretation and to find a way to share these objects, so rich in story, with visitors.
The collaboration was born during an informal discussion at the American Textile Conservation conference. Conservator Melissa Sims Harris of the Old Plantation and researcher John Covington of the WWI Museum were comparing notes about the evocative power of their collections over lunch. Covington told Harris about his fascination with a particular doughboy’s uniform, complete with a bullet hole near one elbow, and Harris spoke passionately about wanting to learn more about a homespun dress, said to have been worn by an enslaved 13-year old girl.
The year before, Covington’s interest in WWI had led him to extensive travel in France, where he’d met a graduate student doing research into perfume-making. The student told Covington about his work analyzing pheromones the human body gives off during times of fear or stress or joy. Covington had wondered, was there a way to discover the trace elements still preserved in the uniforms of his doughboys?
He mentioned it to Harris over their lunch. Harris has a background in chemistry and knew that chemists have long been able to break down a scent into its constituent components. Thus, their collaboration was born.
Together they secured grants from the National Science Foundation and the American Alliance of Museums and (in an inspired demonstration of fundraising panache) convinced the Parfumerie Chanel et Lanvin to support the project. The collaborating scientists soon developed a formula that was harmless to fabric but that released enough of the scent molecules trapped in the cloth for a special sensor to analyze. Then the Parfumerie came up with a system in which the pheromones are ‘reconstituted’ with analogous chemicals and augmented with familiar scents, designed to evoke emotions in visitors.
This was exciting, but Harris and Covington didn’t want mere spectacle. They felt strongly that evoking emotional response from visitors without connecting it to a larger interpretive framework was not enough. After all, even a ghost story or a prank can inspire fear or laughter. They wanted to show how rigorous research and more sensory-based approaches can work together to open up the objects in their collections. So, with support from their Directors and Trustees, they dug into their own institutions’ archives, photos, diaries, and other historic material. Armed with this research, they could then identify garments to submit to testing, garments about which a great deal was known, especially the social context and status of the individual that had worn the item.
So, when a 6th grader reports that she gets a sense of awe from the pheromone traces released from the yellowing dress, the interpreter can show her a photo found in the museum archives of Union Solders bivouacking on the plantation grounds. In the upper corner, easily overlooked, is a little girl wearing the dress in the case.
“I’d never really noticed her in the photo,” said the archivist at the plantation, “until I had a reason to look for her.”
And Covington’s doughboy? After almost a year of digging, with help from archivists in France, the Ohio Historic Society, and the Veterans Administration, Covington found out who had worn the uniform and suffered the bullet wound. George Henry Jenkins, an infantryman from Cincinnati, had been wounded in the Second Battle of the Marne. He survived when surgeons amputated his left arm and returned home to Ohio, where he became a journalist and eventually wrote a column for the Chillicothe Gazette. Covington was elated to discover microfiche of Jenkins’ columns in which he shared memories of the western front and the day he was wounded. Further research led to the discovery of Jenkins’ wartime diary, preserved in the archive of the Chillicothe Historic Society.
So now, when visitors to the WWI Museum experience the powerful emanation of confusion, pain, and relief that is released from Jenkins’ uniform, interpreters are able to read the entry that he wrote while recovering in a field hospital. ”Despite my horror at finding what the surgeons did, I am determined. If I have sacrificed a part to save my whole, so be it. I will survive. I have many stories yet to tell.”
~ Rebecca Keller is an artist who has used art and writing to expand the established narratives of historic sites, in locations from an anatomy theater in Estonia to Jane Addams’ Hull-House in Chicago. She writes about her approach in Excavating History: When Artists Take on Historic Sites (2012). She can be reached at [email protected].