Researching and Modeling

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.

A drawing of Beacon Hill's Streets, with present and past names.
Kira Torrieri, Drawing of Beacon Hill Streets Past & Present

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.

A progress photo of a cooking pot model made in Google SketchUp.
Kira Torrieri, Cooking Pot Model Progress in Google SketchUp

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.

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