Reflection: Digitizing Material Culture

            Throughout the course of the semester we have encountered countless examples of the many approaches to creating digital history projects, with each demonstrating the unique forms in which historical content to can become digital.  Influenced by the many digital projects studied these past few months and the readings offering varying viewpoints about the potential and dangers of digital content and technology, our class worked to design an online exhibit that could be useful to both the Emily Dickinson Museum’s goals and the goals of its visitors and neighbors. These interpretive decisions understandably shaped the audiences, types of interaction, and possibilities for future growth of the digital exhibit. In particular, using Roundme to present both the history and current state of the collections within the Evergreens kitchen has provided experience in collaborating with a small historical institution to create digital materials for broad audiences and an opportunity to test many of the guidelines, developments, and recommendations discussed in the course readings this fall semester. 

            The project consisted of meeting with the museum staff to discuss the possible material available for the exhibit, photographing the objects, researching their histories, and then deciding upon a platform to showcase the kitchen’s history. By choosing Roundme as the specific platform on which to present the material culture, rather than on Omeka as originally planned, the project’s approach to selecting and studying the objects became greatly changed. Because of the more record-based and exhibit-like focus on Omeka, images and information entered onto that platform would have required greater consideration of metadata related to each object. In stark contrast, the limited features of Roundme meant that the assignment focused less on the data behind each image and more on the presentation of the images themselves. 

            In combination with the cooking videos, the material culture digital exhibit offers a virtual experience of the Emily Dickinson Museum’s kitchens, characterized more as a visual aid than text-heavy research. Fascinated by the many interesting cooking objects in the Evergreens kitchen, the only kitchen on the property available for visit, we decided to create a virtual tour of the space including highlights of several tools and appliances. Before first entering The Evergreens Kitchen tour, an introductory page appears featuring a thumbnail of the room and a short description of the project. The short paragraph on the welcome page also serves to offer some cursory details about the historical house and room to be entered. Once inside, visitors immediately face the two open doors and the icebox, where they can already find three information icons and an additional panorama in to the pantry. Users can drag the mouse around the image, moving left and right, as well as toward the ceiling and floor. In addition to this zoomed-out, 360 degrees view of the room, visitors can also achieve an interesting look into specific objects within the kitchen to think about the particular tools and appliances of which historical kitchens were comprised.

            As we visited the site and identified our many options for material culture to study within the Evergreens kitchen, our team chose objects that represented a common time period and type of material. Deciding that it was important to identify items that specifically related to the central period of interpretation within the home, the objects that entered the exhibit largely came from the late nineteenth century. To reflect this decision, the detailed explanations written up about each object sought to ground its interpretation in this time period. The effort to establish a focused time period to be observed through the virtual tour also affected the introductory text to the panorama. Importantly, while wanting to show objects from this particular time, the team also recognized that visitors will be most interested in cooking utensils that resemble ones they may be familiar with today. Because of this, the objects chosen represent mostly late nineteenth century material culture objects found in the kitchen that are earlier models to similar tools and appliances today.

            The format for displaying these materials was a digital panorama that allowed for interactive movement through the space. Influenced by readings throughout the semester related to the effectiveness of interactive features on digital projects, we sought to include various ways of exploring the room that would allow for visitors of the webpage to have choice in what aspects of the room they would delve further into. Additionally, we recognized that the most interactive digital projects are the more engaging and memorable ones, especially to persons with little prior knowledge of or connection to a site, like younger visitors. In “Telling Stories: Procedural Authorship and Extracting Meaning from Museum Databases”, Steve Dietz discusses the idea that interactivity requires going beyond navigation of a linear story and making more personalized digital exhibits .[1]   Similarly, working within the Roundme program, we found that the interactivity of the digital experience could not go far beyond linear storytelling because of our inability to add hyperlinks or to insert data visualization, maps, or videos as we had considered.

            While the interactive nature of the Roundme panorama indisputably makes for an interesting virtual experience, it also presents several limitations that make it difficult to work beyond the few features, formatting settings, and multimedia options available through the program. Additionally, planning for the long-term maintenance of this exhibit can be difficult because of its ultimate reliance on the continuation of the Roundme website. The text Digital Historywarns extensively about the fragility of digital materials, especially when relying on outside programs.[2]Relying on the digital tool to remain accessible to all users and to plan future expansion on the tour requires the host site to continue to operate and without any major changes, including an increase in price for building new tours. The platform itself must continue to work for the tours to be viewable, and the data on the site, from the images to the panorama interface itself cannot be downloaded outside of the program limiting the ability of museums to back up the materials.

            These many restrictions create a significant challenge for sites looking to add significant amounts of information and additional images. One major frustration with Roundme comes from the inability of creators to resize images or to format text, which greatly limits the amount of either that can be included at each information pinpoint. Additionally, texts and images cannot be applied to the map themselves in its free version, making every addition to the panorama only accessible through the pinpoint icons. For users that plan to explore the digital room in its entirety this does not create a major problem, but for those who would like to see a specific object or label without clicking on every available hotspot, this could be a major source of frustration with the tour. Perhaps most frustrating for this specific digital project, there are no options for uploading videos into the virtual tour, even at any level of membership. Having the ability to link videos of people using similar objects would greatly enhance the understanding of how these objects were used. For example, one could imagine a video appearing of someone mixing dry goods into a bowl upon clicking on the bowl on the back table. Because of these constraints, there is little ability for virtual tour creators to go beyond these basic features, discouraging the application of too much creativity or time spent on these projects.

            To an extent there are benefits to these problems, as the simple functionality of the digital tool ensures quick and uncomplicated projects. The simple features of the program allows the tour to be easily edited and quickly replicated if changes are wanted after its publication. Additionally, because of its clear purpose and layout, users can easily navigate through the virtual tour. The tour opens first by automatically rotating around the room, visibly demonstrating the way in which users are expected to move through the space. Additionally large information icons figuring prominently throughout the panorama and contrasting sharply with the dark image are easy to spot and to click. Rather than requiring too much introductory text to understand the space being entered, the digital project represents an uncomplicated activity, especially fit for casual and quick exploration.

            In addition to the ease and unfrustrating usability of the Roundme program, some alternative options are available on the website that would allow historic sites like the Emily Dickinson museum to expand their control of the virtual tour. The lowest upgrade allows users to create a floor plan and to expand the types of image files used in the program, both of which would be useful for a historic house museum like the Evergreens. Additionally, another purchase option would allow more options for customizing the appearance and functionality of the virtual tour. Like many digital programs these extra features come with additional pricing, which could discourage many small institutions from upgrading their memberships. However, even the most expensive upgrades are relatively cheap, ranging from five to fifteen dollars per virtual tour, and discounts are offered to nonprofit institutions.

            This digital project also allows for growth, as history students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst or staff members of the Emily Dickinson Museum could add addition panorama images to create a greater tour of the house. This would particularly be useful if a series of panoramas were placed through the door leading to the upstairs staircase, where many rooms are not currently open to the public. This would allow the museum with an opportunity to get people interested in the bedrooms above that visitors are often curious about. This would also be within the interest of the institution itself, as encouraging visitors to virtually experience exploring rooms that they would otherwise not see could foster an interest in creating excitement and advertising the future opening of this space. One feature that would be especially effective at expanding the way through which this room could be experienced is through the use of audio recordings featuring sounds from the room. For example, by clicking on the floor one could hear the creak of the floorboards or by clicking on the bells one could hear ringing, which would add an additional audiovisual component to the virtual experience. Perhaps even more exciting, a future phase of the project could link panoramas above each bell to the rooms they are connected to show the ways in which the network of kitchen bells connected the rooms, inhabitants, and workers of the Evergreens. As we spent much time this past semester locating and assessing history websites, I often found that within my own and my classmates’ judgments of these digital spaces and tools that the ones that appeared most complete and static seemed less promising than the ones that clearly showed room for expansion. This digital history project of the Evergreens Kitchen on roundme.com offers such an opportunity, allowing it to be a part of the site’s ongoing online interpretation rather than an independent and completed product in itself.

            As part of the creation of this project, the team spent considerable time thinking through the various audiences of the digital webpage and how these groups could use the project. In the widely accepted Digital Historyguide by Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, they approach the tasks of identifying and attracting an audience as one of the central steps in any digital history project. In their chapter “Building an Audience”, the two authors encourage historians to overcome their discomfort with marketing and to actively seek to advertise and track visitorship to their website. They also recommend finding a balance between focusing the website content enough to be of interest but without too narrow of a scope.[3]The Evergreen Kitchen exhibit naturally satisfies a focused character because of its connection to the homestead of Emily Dickinson, who already brings a large following of enthusiasts both as a historical figure and a poet, but it also seeks to achieve a broader audience in its design for both local and distant visitors of the site. Often the largest groups of people who search the websites of historic house museums like the Emily Dickinson Museum are those intending or hoping to visit. For these individuals, the digital tour provides them with a way to glimpse the type of museum that they will be entering or to explore a site of which may be too far for them to travel. The Evergreen Kitchen 360 exhibit offers an informative experience for both local and remote audiences.

            Another audience that we envision this site serving is teachers, who can use the virtual tour for educational purposes within classrooms. For example, an elementary or secondary education history teacher could assign students to go onto this website to explore how kitchen in the past may have been different or similar to ones today. In the article “No Computer Left Behind”, Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig make that case that computers present an opportunity for education to move beyond rote memorization and to embrace technology as a way of computing historical facts.[4]While this tour could hardly serve a purpose on exams like Cohen and Rosenzweig propose it can train young students to view history more as a search for answers and path of exploration rather than a set of multiple-choice answers. From my own educational experiences, I recall being assigned several tasks in elementary school to research town history, where I would go around Morris Plains, New Jersey with a camera in hand and would have to interview people about their memories of the town. Similarly, one could reasonably imagine a similar activity using the Internet where, say, fifth graders could venture onto the website of the Emily Dickinson Museum and explore the two interactive maps of the Homestead and the Evergreens.

            This introductory experience with Roundme demonstrated the many advantages of displaying material culture and physical structures through the use of digital tools like panorama tours. In its final version, The Evergreens Kitchen exhibit offers an engaging way for exploring a room that features the stories of many different historical individuals, both resident and working. This project provided an opportunity to test out the various ways in which physical objects and textual information can be transformed in digital programs to create novel ways of experiencing and accessing this history.


[1] Steve Dietz, “Telling Stories: Procedural Authorship and Extracting Meaning from Museum Databases,” (1999), http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/papers/dietz/dietz.html.

[2]Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).

[3]Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History.

[4]Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, “No Computer Left Behind,” (Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media: Chronicle of Higher Education, 2006).