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Monday, August 3, 2015

August 3, 2015: Virginia Connections: Slavery at Monticello App

[If it’s August, it must be time for my annual pilgrimage to my Virginia homeland with my boys—and my annual series AmericanStudying the Old Dominion. Leading up to a special weekend post on the people who really signify “Virginia” to me!]
On the technology that’s helping bring a historic site into the 21st century.
In one of those prior Virginia series I blogged about Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and how it has evolved into the 21st century, including the creation of a “Slavery at Monticello” tour that confronts head-on that central contradiction inherent in the place, as well as in the life of its creator and the identity of the nation that he helped found. To their great credit, the folks who run Monticello have also done a wonderful job restoring and making use of Mulberry Row, the plantation’s central street and home to most of its slaves, as well as indentured servants, free blacks and whites, and other plantation workers and residents. In those and other ways, Monticello has modeled a longstanding, famous historic site engaging with some of its and our darkest histories, and sharing them with the public at every stage of the process.
Just a few months ago, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, partnering with a new initiative known as The Mountaintop Project, took another step in engaging with and sharing those histories publicly: the creation of a new SmartPhone app, Slavery at Monticello: Life and Work on Mulberry Row. While the app will in some ways parallel the Slavery at Monticello tours (making them accessible to both Monticello visitors who choose a different tour and those unable to visit the site, audiences who of course might have missed out on those tours and their information and perspective otherwise), it will also offer a number of innovative and important additions to that lens: highlighting the stories of individual Mulberry Row residents; recreating spaces and buildings from the Row, including many that have not been recreated on the actual grounds; and seeing examples of the work that enslaved and free workers did on a plantation like Monticello, among other features. “We’ve developed a digital experience that deploys familiar technology to explore a lost world,” argues Monticello’s Director of Digital Media and Strategy Chad Wollerton, and the app indeed offers precisely that combination of the digital and historical, the familiar and the innovative.
I would particularly emphasize the “familiar technology” part of Wollerton’s framing and the app’s goals. In recent months, we’ve seen one kind of response to SmartPhone technology at public sites, with Disney’s parks banning selfie sticks in an attempt to limit that use of phones by their visitors; many museums have done the same. I completely understand those bans, and of course a selfie stick isn’t just a SmartPhone—it’s a literal and figurative extension of the device, even further into the world around the user. Yet at the same time, the simple 21st century truth is that SmartPhones are here to stay, and that the experiences of many Americans—of everything in their lives, including, yes, historic and cultural sites—will be mediated by and through those devices to a significant extent. Sites can seek to limit that use and its effects, or they can, as Monticello has done, embrace it, and work to make the SmartPhone into an evolving, meaningful part of their visitors’ experiences and education. I guess it’s clear where I stand on those options!
Next Virginia connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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