Digital Project Review: Clara Barton National Historic Site Interactive Experience

Clara Barton National Historic Site Interactive Experience. National Parks Service. No credit/about page exists. Accessed 27 January, 2017.

The Clara Barton National Historic Site Interactive Experience is a resource that allows elementary school students to experience Clara Barton’s home from a computer at school or home. Taking the form of a Flash presentation, the virtual tour allows users to pan their way around each room of the house and click on a few artifacts in order to see, read, and, in some cases, hear more about Barton’s home and life. There is also a section that provides activities (largely reading comprehension and multiple choice) for students to complete.

Screenshot of the interface, this is essentially full-size

The virtual tour, like the historic house museum it seeks to replicate, is far from controversial. Yet the opening quote of the tour, from Glen Echo developer Edwin Baltzly, makes an interesting argument that frames the rest of the tour: Barton’s home is “warehouse-like, hospital-like, hotel-like, sanctuary-like, with its many rooms and spacious halls” because of her experience of battlefields, hospitals, and volunteer organizations. This thesis is supported in the brief text that accompanies each room, as the authors draw out connections, in style or purpose, to Barton’s leadership of the American Red Cross.

The tour deftly combines 360-degree views of each room with photographs of artifacts and excerpts from Barton’s correspondence, which are presented in text and in audio, read by actors. The selections from her letters are directly tied to the objects and spaces that constitute the home in an effective manner.

Screenshot of room view.

The user interface is very straightforward and self-explanatory, in part because of the relative simplicity of the content. While one can choose what to investigate and what to overlook and in what order, that is the limit of the user’s agency. It lacked the free-ranging exploration of the Google Street View tour of the White House, but it was still pretty neat.

The virtual tour has its limitations. For one, the Flash presentation takes up perhaps a quarter of the screen at full size. This was likely to facilitate using small image files, but it prevents the tour from ever becoming immersive. If the project was completed in 2017, I imagine that filesize would not be much of an issue, but a reference to “dial-up” in the instruction page leads me to suspect that this tour is nearly a decade old. I can only guess because there is no copyright date associated with the tour (there is a statement that all of the images are public domain). The reliance on Flash meant that the application was not supported on my phone, though I imagine the small tour size might actually work well on smart phones.

Screenshot of one of the activities that follows the virtual tour.

In addition to a lack of copyright, there are no credits for the designers, historians, voice actors, or producers of the tour. This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons, but most of all because it’s a pretty great little project. I found the blend of primary sources informative and liked the 360 view. I also think the tour serves a valuable purpose, not only in allowing people around the country to visit the house without having to travel to Maryland in order to see it, but because the house is currently closed for renovation. I hope that as virtual and augmented reality tours become more immersive, they retain the sensible connection to artifacts and primary sources that this project displayed.

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