The Portable Past

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Can serious history be presented on a cell phone? Handheld devices such as BlackBerrys, iPhones, and other smart phones (and even some not-so-smart) can play video, access the Internet, and display Google maps nearly as well as larger computers. Add in GPS capability, and anyone can hold a multimedia, geographically intelligent machine in the palm of one’s hand. So far, however, precious little programming has been developed to take advantage of these amazing devices beyond games, restaurant reviews, and a host of useful but limited applications.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the federal agency that funds research and public programming in history and other fields of the hum­anities, provides grants to spur innovative ways of bringing history to the public via new-media technology; several of the projects are already bearing fruit. (Full disclosure: I’m involved with one of them, which is described below.)

Historical sites and museums have long used cell phones’ audio function to provide guided tours. For example, numbered placards throughout Valley Forge National Historic Park invite visitors to dial in to hear short interpretive presentations by historians (call 484-396-1018). Similarly, visitors can call New York City’s Central Park Conservancy and listen to celebrities describe their favorite spots in the park (call 646-862-0997). Art museums in numerous cities also provide similar cell phone–based audio guides.

But bringing culturally or historically significant video materials to smart phones remains a frontier. Among recent offerings is an application for iPhone users called Historic Earth, which overlays geocoded historic maps onto contemporary ones to compare locations over time (see http://www.historicmapworks.com/iPhoneApp.php). In Poughkeepsie, New York, a Marist College team headed by computer science professor Ron Coleman received an NEH grant to create mobile device–based video tours of the Hudson Valley’s Staatsburgh State Historic Site. A preloaded device available at the gift shop guides the tour with an animated map, and GPS-triggered prompts pop up on-screen as a visitor approaches various features. Follow a prompt, and a mobi-sode will play on the screen—Coleman’s term for the minute-long documentaries about the estate’s many features.

The open-source software to guide the tour has been completed, says Coleman. The next step is to create the content. That’s where hist-ineers come in—a hybrid team of historians, curators, and computer engineers who are mapping out this new route into the past. “We’re making this up as we go along,” ­admits Coleman. “It’s not exactly a trail that’s been blazed before.” (For status reports on the project, visit http://www.geoplicity.org.)

At least some academics welcome these efforts to create history-on-the-go. Eric Zuelow, a historian at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, notes that “cell-phone technology potentially makes it possible to utilize a medium that students understand. The real challenge here is figuring out how to transform a ‘viewer’ into a ‘critically engaged student.’”

I’ve now had my own intimate experience with translating history for the tiny screen. Several years ago, I received a call from MIT grad Michael Epstein, who creates visual narratives for mobile devices that he calls terra-tives, aiming to tie serious historical content to specific locations. He suggested that we turn a documentary film of mine about a murder 160 years ago into a guided walking tour for iPhones. Working with an NEH grant, we quickly learned that putting history on a smart phone isn’t as easy as downloading a documentary into a little box. It demands new approaches to unfolding the past.

The original documentary, “Murder at Harvard,” which aired on PBS’s American Experience series in 2003, recounts the story of the 1849 Parkman-Webster murder case, which centered on a notorious and grisly homicide at the Harvard Medical College involving the Boston Brahmin elite. Our goal with “Murder Mobile” (parkmanmurder.com/Parkman_Murder_History.html) was to tell the story through a Beacon Hill walking tour that would reveal the traces of 1850 Boston that still remain. The tour takes visitors inside the impressive lobby of a luxury hotel, a structure originally designed by Charles Bulfinch as a progressive 19th-century jail. Once inside, we point out the still discernibly discolored brickwork that marks the original wrought-iron staircases and galleries that gave prisoners access to sunlight and fresh air.

A particularly revealing moment in the tour comes in a grassy courtyard at Massachusetts General Hospital, near the spot where the Harvard Medical College stood in 1849. While the school moved away long ago, the bottom of a pit dug for modern air-conditioning equipment contains a section of granite-block foundation wall and weathered wooden timbers from the original structure. With the help of digital special effects, we put those timbers on our little screen and place them in their original setting—and thereby show how they supported the cellar where the dismembered body parts of Dr. George Parkman came hideously to light a century and a half ago. Such unexpected surviving visual details—placed within context by the voices of historians and a carefully crafted narrative—tie the present and the past together, illustrating the potential of this new format.