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.
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.
What is this project, and what have we been up to?
While we have decidedly more formal ways of narrating this project, we thought we’d start by explaining how this project got started at Northeastern. Both myself and Angel David Nieves are new faculty as of the 2020-1 academic year; we had known each other from other collaborations that included the Immersive Pedagogy Symposium and a special issue of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. We’re going to be leading some spaces here that we thought had synergy; the a 3D/VR Lab for humanists (Linker) and the Social Justice Studio (Nieves). In the fall semester we sat down and thought through what we could work on together — and so we came up with 3D Black Boston, a project that uses immersive technologies and historical research to recreate sites related to Boston’s historical African American community on Beacon Hill. The first phase of the project examines this space prior to the Civil War and the pilot spaces associated with David Walker, the radical Black abolitionist. We want users to think about the long history of systemic racism in our society, and so I like the idea of looking at Boston, a stronghold of abolition, to show just how pervasive it was. Students sometimes have difficulty realizing that abolition and systemic racism co-exist, and that yes, people who supported ending slavery espoused racism in a range of different ways. At the same time, the African American community in Boston created spaces for themselves in response. We want to tell those stories.
When we say we want to use immersive technologies, we mean that we want to produce virtual reality museums that reconstruct a particular moment in time. Think 3D house museums — you’ve probably been to a historic home that’s been interpreted to reflect a moment or period in time. The nice thing about doing this work in VR is that we can recreate objects and spaces that no longer exist or provide interpretation for places that do, but present obstacles to doing this work. David Walker’s residence at 8 Belknap Street (now 81 Joy) no longer exists, and we’re pretty excited about the possibilities of recreating it digitally.
Thanks to support from Northeastern University, we have several students learning how to conduct historical research, build 3D models, and put everything together. This space will be updated as we progress! Look forward to hearing more from us soon.