So now that we’ve gotten through two presentations, it’s time for some screenshots. The team presented at the Association for the Computers and the Humanities last week. Today we gave a presentation for folks at Northeastern. I am biased, but I think the students on the team are doing an incredible job navigating issues related to research and the technology, as well as presenting their experiences in clear and compelling ways. For the latter presentation, I turned VR on for a build-in-progress, and we pushed the Oculus view to Microsoft Teams. Trying to get VR headsets to play nice with various remote/pandemic contingencies has a particularly tricky part of this project. We’ve been building the project since March (including training!) and I think this aspect has slowed us down a little. I nonetheless think we’ve gotten a lot done despite the circumstances.
Anyway, it’s always weird showing a historical 3D reconstruction in progress, because the decisions we make today might not be the decisions we make tomorrow. We conducted an initial survey of source material at the beginning of the project, but it’s almost impossible to anticipate all the little details up front — sometimes we realize we have to go back to the archives when we’re building a texture or trying to figure out what is typical or appropriate at 8 Belknap Street.
For example, none of us are satisfied with the wallpaper in this render despite extensive wallpaper research. We know that David Walker was renting a house erected in the mid 1820s, and we all think that wallpaper was probably up in the parlor, if up at all, and would probably date to that time period. We’ve been scouring digitized databases for examples and some archivists and librarians have been sending us samples of books bound in wallpaper to understand the range of what was available. So the students are still thinking about what this should look like — but what to do in the meantime? Not assigning wallpaper to the walls is also an interpretive choice. I think we opted for period-inspired paper as a placeholder to communicate that wallpaper should go here. This is why we think it’s so important to make our decisions public-facing. We’ll have some student-written blogs up soon that explain choices specific to certain objects. By the time the project is ready for public consumption, we hope to have a permanent feature on the site that links individual objects to the sources that underpinned their creation.
Anyway, we have several more rooms to populate with objects that need to be revised in small ways. There are wonky reflection probes that are driving me bonkers even after spending hours trying to sort them out for these presentations. But most importantly we have to work through what sets of objects and spaces are going to tell the most meaningful stories about David Walker within the 8 Belknap Street build. This curatorial work is crucial for making this more than just a lovely model of a nineteenth-century home.
Our student team works very hard on this project. We pay them for their time and provide them with skill training, but after the challenges of remotely working on this project over the summer, I was very pleased to be able to treat everyone to a well-deserved dinner at Eataly in Boston.
I promise that we’re not becoming a food blog, but the whole event seemed like something to commemorate after spending so much time apart from one another.
For the past few months, I’ve been working on the 3D Black Boston project team researching David Walker’s life and home with the end goal of creating an immersive 3D reconstruction of his residence on 8 Belknap Street. The project requires a combination of research and reconstruction techniques that, for the most part, were new to me. My background as an architecture student gave me prerequisite knowledge regarding how to construct a building digitally but I’d never done research for a historic preservation project. Additionally, the immersive VR aspects of the project means I’ve had to learn new software including Unity in order to render SketchUp models and eventually create the simulation.
The research methods we used were novel to me as well. The research material we were searching (sources that provided information about Walker and his residence) were especially difficult to find because the project is centered around a Black male abolitionist in the 1800s. Writings and records from that time, such as census data and newspapers, are heavily biased towards white perspectives; thus, finding accurate information on David Walker’s life and home has proven difficult. There are inconsistencies regarding things such as the time and place of Walker’s birth, as well as when exactly he arrived at Boston. We’ve had to fill in the gaps of Walker’s life to try to create a narrative that is as coherent as possible for the purposes of this project; for example, looking at sources such as his famous appeal and the Freedom’s Journal newspaper which he worked on for a short time. We’ve encountered similar difficulties with his residence on Beacon Hill. Documents from the NPS cite tax records that approximate the date the house was built and surviving 1800’s buildings on Beacon Hill can give an insight into the architectural styles and layout of Walker residence. However, since the residence was rebuilt, it is challenging to make decisions in model reconstruction with any degree of certainty. Photographs or floorplans of Belknap Street in general are all but nonexistent before the home was rebuilt in the early 1900s.
Newspapers and illustrations as well as objects in various archives helped identify what kinds of models we needed to make, and I will admit I was initially surprised by the amount of detailed research each object required. Trying to recreate a simple object such as a pen means that I am required to know how pens were made and how far pen technology had advanced by 1820, as well as how expensive the different types of pens were and what materials would serve afterwards as examples for texturing in Unity. Finding references for these models in various archives has also been extremely helpful, but due to COVID, we’ve been unable to visit archives in person and are restricted to what has been recorded digitally. I’ve modeled and textured a variety of objects including several of Walker’s appeals with different forms of pamphlet stitching and several writing tools which would be necessary given one of Walker’s occupations as an author.
Digital reconstruction as a way to explore history interests me on multiple levels. Architecture, in a sense, is a cultural record; the buildings people make and how they used them are intrinsically tied to a time and place in history. So, by researching Walker’s residence in detail and attempting to recreate it, we can gain valuable insight into his life and the culture of the time. Working on this project recontextualized my understanding of historical research; without substantial information about Walker himself and what belongings he might have owned made the process more concrete and approachable. This method continues to open up new avenues of research that I wouldn’t have considered had we just been looking at David Walker outside of his home, and I think it will ultimately lead to a more holistic understanding of the historic figure.
I’m also excited about using the reconstructed product in a virtual reality environment that people can explore. Not only will it take advantage of new technologies and hopefully lead to more projects of its kind being completed, it will also make this repository of detailed information about David Walker more accessible to people outside strictly academic circles. It will present information that would take up several pages in a densely written paper as a visual, interactive experience, making it easier for people to learn about historic communities such as Beacon Hill.
I admit I knew nothing of Boston, let alone its history, when I began this project. As a team, we were required to try to conceptualize and research how the interior of David Walker’s house looked. An African American abolitionist, David Walker lived on the Northern Slope of Beacon Hill in the 1820s, and is best known for writing his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. In his influential Appeal, he addresses American hypocrisies in the context of freedom and Christianity. I have learned a large amount about Boston’s history throughout this project, finding it especially interesting to learn as I attempt to employ the perspectives used by David Walker himself.
The challenging research process has also been a conducive one. Information is hard to come across regarding the dwellings that were present in 1820s Boston, specifically on Belknap Street or the Northern Slope of Beacon Hill. In addition, with respect to the life of David Walker from birth to death, some inconsistencies were found on the internet. Through research and team discussions we were able to form an understanding of Walker’s work and part of his home life in Boston. We know he worked as a clothes dealer based on advertisements and records of the time, and that he most likely wrote some of his Appeal pamphlets at home. We also know that he was a kind man who offered help and shelter to many African American fugitives and slaves. Significantly, some two hundred years later, we do not know what the inside of his home looked like. It goes without saying that one’s dwelling can say a lot about you, and may reveal both obvious and subtle traits about your character. An attempt to virtually reconstruct the interior of this very influential person’s home will bring greater awareness of the history of African Americans in Boston. Thus, the research process was more an investigation into who David Walker was, and how connecting dots about his surroundings could help us form a visual understanding of his and his family’s home on Belknap Street (now Joy Street).
Thanks to the tutorials given by Professor Linker and Liam, learning to model in SketchUp revealed new perspectives in considering the art and design of furniture/objects. I was surprised at how much more demanding digitally constructing a rather simple-looking chair was. It forced me to decompose and recompose elements of the chair, giving me a newfound appreciation for furniture makers. I modeled two Empire-styled chairs (which was in fashion in Boston at the time Walker was living there), a pitcher with the help of a teammate, and a Windsor chair. Some challenging aspects of digitally modeling objects in SketchUp proved to teach me more rather than take away from the experience. The online SketchUp glitches often, while at other times my brain is the one glitching where I find myself overcomplicating simple design. I’ve learned to look at my reference more often, drawing it out in a simplified manner to helped me uncomplicate a seemingly complicated object.
Digitally modeling antique objects, such as Empire-style chairs has caused me to first, research the chair style, the time period when it was most popular, materials used in making the chair, who made it, who owned it, and more. Although some of the information used when digitally modeling the chair – especially when the information is more specific and arcane and more than likely cannot be found – helps create a spatial sense of the chair’s home and use, the research and digital modeling assists in forming a well-rounded image of the time period. Retracing the history of a chair, or type of furniture style, then breaking it down to digitally remodel it unlocks interesting things one may have missed when researching earlier. For instance, what is the curvature of the wood? Or what is the placement of the chair? Is it placed in the living room? Bedroom? Kitchen? This chair has a cushion, and so I wonder if the cushion pattern matched other aspects of the room such as the curtains or wallpaper? All these questions about a specific chair may not be found necessarily on the internet, but they still help generate a spatial concept of where the chair lived in my mind.
Another surprising aspect of the project was learning about Unity, how powerful of a tool it is for creating virtual spaces. Thanks to the previous team’s work, I learned the tool of color mapping an object before bringing it into Unity to be textured and playing with different finishes to make the object look more realistic was very entertaining. I look forward to learning more about the program and bringing my rather flat-looking furniture to life in Unity.
So far, this project has been both very interesting and very challenging. I didn’t know anything about 3D modeling going into it, and I only had a basic understanding of David Walker and Boston’s abolitionist history. Prior to beginning this project, I had been working with the National Park Service in Boston on a digital project for the African Meeting House, so I did have a general background on the Boston abolitionist movement, but I was still missing a lot of information. Thus, this project began with a lot of research. I learned about David Walker’s life and legacy, about his home on Beacon Hill, and about his used clothing shop. Mostly, though, I learned that there is so much that we don’t know and so much information missing.
As frustrating as it was, I found it exciting to have to think creatively about new resources to investigate and to try to puzzle together Walker’s life. Before this, I hadn’t thought much about how a person’s gender, race, and social class could impact how well (or if at all) their life events were recorded. Looking back, it makes a lot of sense, but when I began my work I was surprised to find this.
Later in the project, I began trying to help research Walker’s house: the history of the property, the floorplan, and what the views out of his windows might have been. This was especially challenging because, in addition to the fact that government sources did not always record the possessions and movements of Black people at this time, the land around Belknap Street (now Joy Street) had undergone many property rearrangements and many street name changes. Some of the most exciting resources I found came from this search. For me, finding and looking through the Taking Books (essentially old tax records listing names and possessions, but not always addresses) from the late 1700s and early 1800s was really fascinating. At some point, I started recognizing names of people in different tax books and started to piece some stories together. That was especially rewarding and I felt like I was finally beginning to get a grasp on the information.
In addition to research, I also spent a lot of my time working on 3D modeling. The first thing we learned how to model in Google SketchUp was a simple chair. I had used Google SketchUp as a child, but not at all since then, so it was both exciting and difficult to dive back in after so long. After making some practice models and trying to figure out the different tools at my disposal, I began my first real SketchUp model: a hearth. I had decided I wanted to learn about kitchens and model items that might have been in Walker’s kitchen, so this seemed a good place to start. I had found an interesting resource called The House Servant’s Directory by Robert Roberts, which details recipes, etiquette procedures, and cleaning tips for the maintenance of large households. Combining information from this book with my other kitchen research, I also modeled a cooking pot and fireplace tools. The cooking pot was really challenging for me because of all of the different curves and I went through several drafts of it before I was satisfied, but when it was completed I felt very accomplished.
Once models had been created in SketchUp, the next step was to import them into Unity and add them to our full model of Walker’s house. I admittedly have not done as much work in Unity thus far, although learning about texturing and lighting and seeing how much more realistic it can make our models look is very intriguing!
I had already been excited about the possibilities of combining technology and history because of my work with the National Park Service, and this project really emphasized the potential of this type of collaboration. Technology gives us another way to interact with historical information.
It has the potential to be more immersive, more expansive, and more accessible than other sources of information such as reading a scholarly paper or visiting a historic site in person. Engaging with an interactive and historically accurate model is the next best thing to an actual visit to the historical site – something ideal but often not possible. Technology can also contain more information simply because it lacks the physical constraints of a real space and can, unlike a book, directly link to other resources for further learning. Furthermore, technology can enable people who may not be able to digest dense scholarly writing or may not have the means to travel to a historic site to engage with the information and hopefully connect to it. 3D modeling is especially powerful because of its immersiveness. In my opinion, the thing that makes using technologies such as 3D modeling in historical scholarship so powerful is the ability to help a wider audience connect more intimately with historical material. I have personally felt more connected to Walker’s life after trying to physically reconstruct his home, and I hope that this project will help others engage with Walker in a more personal way.
For this past semester, I have been working on a research project with a team of students and professors to reconstruct David Walker’s home on Belknap Street in Boston using 3D modeling software. The process has involved an investigative research process into the life of David Walker since there are not many records of his life or home. As a computer science student, I had little experience with 3D modeling or historical research processes coming into this endeavor, but the team and the project have allowed me to learn a lot about the abolitionist community in Boston, as well as the 3D modeling and historical research processes.
One of my main struggles coming into this project was the challenging research process. I assumed that we would be able to find a great deal of information about David Walker. In reality, not very much is known about him; we know that he published a passionate appeal that caused him to top the most wanted list in many Southern states, and that he later moved to Boston, where he lived on Belknap Street and ran a used clothing store with his wife, Eliza Butler. The process of finding information about his life and home involved digging through maps, newspapers (he wrote for the abolitionist newspaper, Freedom’s Journal), census records, letters, billheads, and more. Often, the information in these records was not much use in putting together Walker’s life. This might be partially attributed to the fact that he was a Black man living in Boston in the 19th century, and records about Black people were not as well collected or maintained at the time (see: the census), and also because he was in Boston for such a short time leading up to his death. I found that researching Walker directly might not yield too much information in terms of our goals in furniture or household modeling, so I focused instead on researching the maps of the street, the style of buildings in Boston at the time, as well as the household items Black families might have bought and other items Walker may have possessed based on his profession (used clothing retailer, writer).
In order to piece together the items that might have been found in his home, I organized a spreadsheet of furniture advertisements and billheads that I found in databases and newspapers in Boston around the 1820s. After organizing these ads and billheads, I found photos of the furniture to use as a basis for my own 3D models. Some of the ads had illustrations of the items for sale which helped in getting a general idea of the style of the pieces, but not much more. One of my peers on this project showed us the Boston furniture archive, organized by Winterthur, which was helpful with bigger furniture items such as tables and chairs. But, as noted by a professor, this archive might only contain photos of higher-priced, better-conserved furniture owned by white families. For other references, I browsed auction sites for Federal-style furniture from Boston in the early 1800s. I also watched videos on auction retailers’ YouTube channels to get a better understanding of the moving parts of the furniture. I modeled two tables: one tilt-top table and one card table. Both tables were challenging in that they had moveable parts. To understand how the card table unfolded, I browsed through a few woodworking manuals but didn’t find much confirmation. Instead, I opted to look at auction videos and photos and created a model that I felt was close enough to how the card table should unfold.
Although I haven’t mentioned it yet, the 3D modeling process was something completely new to me, and probably took up more time than the research into Walker’s life. Many of the processes in 3D modeling involved self-learning and research through YouTube tutorials. I found it helpful to talk to my project peers to understand how to render some parts of my models. I worked together with Kesia, my teammate, to create a washing pitcher after we both attempted to model one without much success. Kesia also helped me figure out the tapered design of the legs on the card table. I would say my peers are the most useful tool in this project: we all came into the project with different skill sets, so working together to complete interdisciplinary challenges such as 3D modeling is made considerably easier with their help. To date, I’ve been able to finish models of a card table, a tilt-top table, a washing pitcher and bowl, a stack of firewood, and a storage trunk, and I still have many other furniture items on my list to research and model.
I found that 3D modeling as a methodology was helpful in the research process because there are few physical records to find about David Walker. Instead, by looking at old newspaper ads for furniture and billheads for purchased items, we were able to model through his surroundings and his community rather than through census records or deeds. We investigated him at his shop by looking at laundry materials, older clothing, and fabrics, and then at his work as a writer through our 3D models of pens, quills, paper, and inkpots. Our model of the house isn’t going to have his bed frame in the exact location where it was when he lived on Belknap Street 200 years ago, but I believe putting together this model of the objects that made up his community, his work, and his surroundings is less about complete accuracy and more about experiencing Walker’s work, how he lived, and his purpose in life. I think that through 3D modeling, I was able to get a better sense of how he lived through the items he used every day, rather than if I had only found research through his census records or housing deeds. I was also able to learn a lot about Boston and the abolitionist community in Boston during Walker’s time, through Freedom’s Journal and letters regarding Walker’s Appeal. This project has taught me a lot about the research process, especially regarding alternatives when there aren’t many records available. I’m excited to see where else it leads us.
For the past semester, we’ve been working on recreating the home and surroundings of David Walker, a prominent Black abolitionist based in Boston in the late 1820s. This project initially caught my interest because it was a focused study of Black history in Boston, specifically about a prominent Black historical figure that I wasn’t previously aware of. Furthermore, the 3D aspect of the project wasn’t something I had done and knew nothing about. I have always been interested in how urban landscapes affect history and policy, so I was excited to learn more about 3D modeling and how it can add to our understanding of historical events. As a Black student, I was anxious to know about the Black community around me. Helping to visually represent part of its history was a great place to start. Reading David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, appreciating what an important role it played in Black liberation (amongst his other contributions), and then attempting to get to know Walker himself has been an illuminating process thus far.
What surprised me most about this project was how much historical and archival research differs from most of that done in the social sciences. As a social science student I went in with the expectation that the research work would be easier, or at least different, from what it turned out to be. I had never looked through anything similar to city directories, censuses, tax and land records, or birth and death certificates. At first, it was admittedly frustrating how long it could take to scour through sources like this and usually reach a dead end. It was also harder to find sources; Since I started college in the pandemic, I had never even taken a book out of the library, let alone requested access to digital resources from archives, collections, and libraries across the US. As the project went on, I got better at knowing what to look for in historical documents and how to access what I needed. More importantly, I became more patient! The research aspect of the project is now my favorite, and easily the most rewarding. On a surface level, it feels good to make a breakthrough or find the perfect document, but on a deeper level, it is rewarding to uncover more about David Walker, Eliza Butler, and the Black community of the 1820s. There is so much I didn’t know about this moment in time. Even more surprisingly, a lot about the early 1800s is hard to pin down. Even the most basic details of a figure like David Walker’s life, like his birth date and town, are cloudy. Obviously, Walker’s race contributes to this. For me, it really puts into perspective how record keeping has changed overtime and how difficult it is to understand a person of the past.
I also realized how much technology can help people understand different periods of time. As the majority of the project focuses on 8 Belknap St. (now 81 Joy St), Walker’s personal home, we’ve had to spend a lot of time considering what Walker may even own. With no pictures or detailed writings about the house, a lot of the information has to come from community members, newspapers, ads, tax/legal records, or other similar sources. While Walker’s writing, city and state records, historical documents, and research papers can help someone understand what Walker contributed to his community and Black liberation, understanding the physical space Walker operated in helps to understand David Walker himself. Not only as an accomplished Black author and passionate abolitionist, but as a father, a husband, a store owner, a newspaper contributor, and person. 3D modeling adds a depth of understanding to historical scholarship that more “traditional” research methods cannot as easily capture. Recreating communities like that of 1820s Beacon Hill allows us to understand what living in these spaces was really like, going beyond what they contributed to history or what patterns can be observed in them. It’s exciting to know that projects like these are becoming more and more common so that historical scholarship can create increasingly human understandings of the past.
That being said, 3D Modeling was another personal learning curve. I have never worked with any sort of 3D technology prior to this project. But once again, I gained an appreciation for the 3D modeling process, both in Unity and Google SketchUp, two of the programs we are using to recreate Walker’s space. I’m not a particularly math or computer-minded person, so this part of the project is still the hardest for me. Because of that, I’m very happy to be learning these skills early on, and in a group setting. Watching how Professor Linker, Liam, and my peers approach 3D spaces and geometry has been invaluable. In most cases, they see patterns that I don’t while creating a 3D object. Over time, this has helped me improve my modeling skills, but also how I visualize 3D objects and spaces. I’m looking forward to modeling more objects on my own, even though I still think it’s a weak spot for me. Practice makes perfect!
The first object I made is a sad iron, pictured below. The object was more difficult than I thought it would be to make. The curvature of the handle was the most difficult part to visualize. I still want to go back and try to smooth the edges of the iron a bit. The scale was also difficult, since I had to make the object at a 10x scale to be able to work at the detail level I needed. Still, it was my first digital project on my own, and I was able to get a pretty close replica to a Sad Iron of the time.
I look forward to texturing the model later on to add age and wear. I am now working on a rocking chair, which is a lot more complicated, but I have a better grasp on how geometry and 3D space work and I’m more comfortable experimenting with SketchUp. It took a lot more research to figure out the dimensions of the rocking chair, since it is a complex piece of furniture in real life as well, so it’s taking more time on both ends. That model as of today is pictured below. Other than that, we’ve been working on trying to piece together Eliza Walker’s life, as she’s an important part of Beacon Hill as well.
Over the past semester, I’ve learned a lot more about academic research and how technology and the humanities can intersect. I’m excited to see the rest of the project develop and keep working on research and modeling skills.
We’ve been busy working on the project these last few weeks — mostly with an eye to presenting at the Association for the Computers and the Humanities Conference, which will be held virtually, July 21-23. The conference program looks very exciting, and we encourage you to check out our panel presentation, hear about progress to date, and to meet our student team members.
Note: We realized yesterday that we lost some recent posts due to a server error. Over the next few days we’ll be working to restore those.
We’re now at the point in the project where the team has modeled and applied materials to several historical objects. When I teach students how to build models for virtual reality projects, I have them focus on wire-frame geometry and we map out places where we will apply materials to in the future. We build those materials in Unity and give said materials values that have them behave like glass, metal, wood, etc. They just don’t always look like these materials until we’ve added some environmental effects.
So sometimes, you spend a lot of time building objects like this and their appearance isn’t very satisfying yet:
Yesterday we showed the student team how to add some layers of realism with reflection probes (Unity objects that determine what is reflected in reflective materials) and by building post-processing filters to augment what the main camera sees. The main camera usually determines what the user sees when wearing a virtual reality headset to view a project immersively.
Here’s what the same scene looks like with those objects installed and some of those effects applied:
I was aiming for a hazy look, as if someone had groggily walked into a room and encountered three mysterious cubes. The students were asked to imagine a way to style the scene using what they learned. We ended up with a range of different looks for the same objects, from an underwater look, to a retro video game look, to a spooky, shadowed look, and so on.
I often tell them that the trick to a lot of this is to let Unity do the heavy lifting. Also, post-processing can take the same scene and change the mood quickly. It’s much better to algorithmically update the values on a post-processing profile than it is to try to swap out textures for every object in a scene to create an atmospheric mood.
Some of these effects don’t always play well in VR, but that’s something we’ll fine tune when we have an assembled project we can playtest.
This is just a quick update to show off a model made and textured by Ananya Dhandapani, with a couple of tweaks by Jessica Linker, to test a close-up of the wrappers in the test scene. Ananya will probably want to tell you more about this process at some point in the future, especially as it has involved her learning about the structure of pamphlets and asking archives about wrapper colors. For now, please enjoy this screenshot!