“Being There”

I’ve told the class – and anyone who’s deigned to ask – about my favourite museum before: the S. S. Great Britain in Bristol, England.  The S. S. Great Britain was the first screw propeller iron ship ever built, designed by famed industrialist Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  The ship herself had an illustrious, decades long career, eventually finding herself sunk off the coast of South America.  In the 1970s, the ship was brought back to the surface, transported back to Bristol, installed in a dry dock, and over a series of years and a series of renovations, turned into a museum.

Now, I love this museum because – in opposition to the typical museum where you look at artefacts behind glass – you got to walk all around and through the entirety of the ship.  An audio guide triggered by either a GPS or an RSSI would give you information about a given room – the dining room, the kitchen, the third-class accommodations.  Although much of the ship was a recreation rather than the “real thing,” interacting with the past through sight, sound, smell, and touch made this representation of the “real thing” all the more “real.”

This week’s readings reminded me of the S. S. Great Britain because they all highlighted how AR can create a sense of “being there” which is integral to experiencing the past – for professional and amateur historians alike.  Augmented Reality (or Mixed Reality as Stuart Eve put it) offers an avenue to get a feel for what it might have been like to “be there.”  Rather than relying on reproductions (like the S. S. Great Britain does), Mixed Reality interfaces let the user interact with both the contemporary and the historical environment at the same time.

Marrying the two worlds of the contemporary and the imagined historical presents yet another way of teaching the structures of history, of acknowledging the pasts relation to the present and the present’s relation to the past.  The goal of Augmented or Mixed Reality isn’t to recreate the past, but rather to highlight the layers of time, space, and meaning all in one place.

And isn’t that what historians have been trying to do all along, anyway?

This post originally appeared on The Recorded North