Days of Future Past: Augmented Reality and Temporality in Digital Public Humanities

Uncanny X-Men #141 (1981 [1980])
In July 2017, I presented a version of this talk on a panel on “Temporality” at the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference (#keydh on Twitter) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The project  I discuss here, a digital tour of the Nightingale-Brown House, will debut in September 2017. I’ll update this post with a direct link when we go live!

I wanted to start by outlining three of the major questions I hope to raise in this discussion of a digital house tour I’ve been working on at Brown University’s Public Humanities program. This presentation will focus on the details of our particular project, but I hope this overview is useful to people who are specifically interested in the metaphor of the tour in DH as well as anyone who might have thoughts on temporality as it relates to DH work and the interfaces we rely on (or develop) in various initiatives.

Excerpts from Uncanny X-Men #141-142 (1981 [1980])
This talk takes its title from “Days of Future Past,” a 1980 storyline from Marvel Comics’ Uncanny X-Men serial in which a member of the superhero team travels back in time to stop the bleak future she calls home from existing in the first place. “Welcome to the 21st century,” reads a caption box on the opening splash page of #141. Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and their collaborators present readers with a dystopian vision of 2013 and a ragtag team of surviving heroes so desperate that they’re “toying with the basic fabric of reality” in an attempt to travel back in time to literally rewrite history.

I’ve found the phrase “Days of Future Past” useful when considering the place of temporality in digital humanities projects. Its success, for me at least, is in the way this particularly poetic sequence of words disrupts my sense that the past, present, and future are distinct and discrete things. It demonstrates the exploratory potential and the inherent limitations of speculative thinking, reminding us that our visions of the future are inevitably shaped by the historical and cultural conditions in which they are envisioned, and that they are often reliant upon particular versions of the past. For example, the X-Men’s time travel mission is to stop the assassination of an anti-mutant United States senator and the Orwellian government his successor creates in the name of this martyr. Here we see the comic book’s creators looking back at the political murders of the 1960s while looking forward to the symbolic weight of 1984 and its implications. Later X-Men narratives will introduce time traveling narratives that reflect their times and places; an early 1990s story hinges on incomplete digital records that obscure key historic details rather than illuminate and preserve the past. A post-9/11 crossover hinges on the protection of a young messianic figure that will one day guide our heroes out of their bleak and violent present.

Screenshot from “Digital Tours of The Nightingale-Brown House” (Brown University)

I revisited “Days of Future Past” while working on a time travel project of my own at Brown. Over the summer of 2016, a team of undergraduates joined faculty members, a house curator, and myself to create digital tours of the Nightingale-Brown House, a former residence of the Brown family that now functions as the institutional home of our Public Humanities program. The tour focuses on five spaces in the House, the material histories of the objects that still reside there, and stories of the Brown family that relate to these objects.  

Our circumstances were far less dire than those of the X-Men: we were looking for a way to provide an augmented experience for individuals interested in self-guided tours of the house (and we have iPads available for visitors: though the house is an active institutional space full of students, staff, and faculty, we get foot traffic from tourists, especially during the summer). Ideally, we wanted to create exhibits that could also be accessed by people who were unable to make the trip to Providence. And as a Public Humanities program, we were interested in developing a digital tour in-house so we could learn more about the relationship between non-digital and digital tours and the potential uses of augmented reality. After researching the available options within the range of our resources (Sarah Dylla, one of our former grad students, wrote a white paper reviewing the uses of QR codes and location-based technologies), the project team decided to create exhibits with Neatline, Omeka’s exhibit-building plugin. Sarah and others considered augmented reality, virtual reality, and location-based technology like sensors. But these options seemed expensive, clunky, or in some cases, redundant. For example, QR codes seem outdated at a moment when the users with mobile devices they interpellate can just as easily Google the desired information. Most of our experiences with house tours, whether they take advantage of digital tools or not, are always already augmented reality experiences. A digital tour that was web-hosted could be accessed by a wider range of users beyond the house, and there were also fewer barriers to digital entry for on-site visitors.

On the tour, users are provided with overviews of each space in relation to the history of the Brown family as well as a series of annotations highlighting particular objects.

The work of building a digital house tour may seem to some less like an adventure in time travel and more like a fairly conventional exercise. In many ways this project is a textbook example of DH when it’s defined as the act of using digital methods to pursue traditional humanities lines of inquiry.  And your mind can quickly move to strange places when you’re tasked with the job of mapping time and space.

unstuck in time

Like Bethany Nowviskie, I started to feel a bit “unstuck in time” the longer I spent thinking about what she calls “the problem of temporal orientation in our digital cultural heritage interfaces.” Reflecting on the ideas of temporality shaping her own digital scholarship in a 2016 talk she later published on her personal website, Nowviskie begins by channeling Kurt Vonnegut and eventually finds, most visibly in Afrofuturism, generative means of imagining alternate futures that counter ideas of order and control and attempts to “master” time.

But Nowviskie also notes that scholars have less and less time to devote to “speculative thinking” in times of economic scarcity, and I would argue that digital humanities practitioners may have even less time than some of their peers. Many established and emerging visions of DH seem to present digital initiatives as practical, utilitarian, public-facing alternatives to more cloistered or specialized modes of scholarship. Our DH projects, we explain in our grant applications, tenure portfolios, and Twitter bios, can make history available, accessible, simultaneously comprehensive and comprehensible.

nowviskie quote

Our abilities to achieve these goals may be exaggerated at times, but as far as aspirational goals go, they’re not bad. That being said, I believe that these ambitions can take up a lot of our resources (time, labor, collaborative energies, money, among others), and that the speculative dimensions of these projects are often unexplored as a result. As many of you likely know, the realities of digital projects can sometimes feel like endless speculation, as we describe future projects that require materials and money and time we don’t presently possess, as we navigate traps laid for us by well-intentioned past selves whose digital methodologies we may no longer agree with.

The Nightingale-Brown House is an intimidating place, especially if you didn’t grow up rich. I was afraid to touch anything for the first few months. On Instagram I joked that my office, with its illuminated stained glass portrait of a Brown family member, was definitely haunted. While the Public Humanities program has occupied this space for almost a decade, the past inhabitants of the Nightingale-Brown House cast an imposing shadow over the present.

The images we use in our digital house tour remediate the staging of these rooms for on-site visitors. Like many historical houses, its various objects are arranged in a manner that suggests an authentic image of the past in which no one who lived in the space actually sat on or touched anything. Some of us may have had older relatives with similar rooms fixed in invisible amber. I’ve worked on a few digital house tour projects, and I remember being surprised to learn that every material object in a given room wasn’t owned by the same person or from the same period of a historical house’s long history. This information is not immediately visible to most of us, and the surprisingly layered and varied material histories of these spaces are frequently only available to us via the labor of docents, volunteers, and tour guides.

Our team of undergraduates learned a lot about the history of the Nightingale-Brown House, but the project was also a more general introduction to the technologies of cultural heritage: tours, but also house curators, photo albums, archives, genealogies, and, of course, digital exhibits. Students worked with archival materials from Brown’s Hay Library, composed and performed their own oral narratives for physical tours of the house, learned about metadata, and created layouts and content for Neatline. When we hired a photographer to take high-resolution images of each space in the house, they worked with him to select frames and angles: what may have seemed at first like a relatively straightforward task further revealed the challenges and constraints of using particular tools to tell stories in various forms of media. In other words, this project made the relationship between cultural memory, technology, and temporality visible in a variety of ways, as students examined the personal and professional dimensions of documenting the past and preserving it in the present for imagined future uses.

Neatline describes itself as a tool that “opens new possibilities for hand-crafted, interactive spatial and temporal interpretation.” As its “Demos” page reveals, projects have used Neatline to annotate fictional and historical travels across time and space, to georectify older maps, and to create campus maps for visitors. On Our Marathon, we used Neatline to “map” the variety of notes written on a temporary memorial left at Copley Square. Since then I’ve been experimenting with Neatline as a tool that maps interior spaces for a few years, first as a consultant on digital house tours at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, and now on this project at Brown. With high-resolution images of these spaces and a server to host Omeka and Neatline on, it’s relatively easily and inexpensive (especially when compared to grant-funded, multi-year initiatives) to create and finish digital exhibits like our Nightingale-Brown House tour.

That being said, Neatline and Omeka present several challenges as well, and I don’t know if I’d use these resources again in the same way. If having students design and publish their own digital exhibits is a learning goal, then the lack of version control in Neatline (and Omeka more generally) can be tricky. Additionally, since Neatline was intended more for maps than interior images, it can take a while to get the hang of drawing, positioning, and styling polygons and annotations. And while we use an “out-of-the-box” Omeka theme (The Daily, which was created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media), I would likely invest time and energy in designing a theme that anticipates some of the particular needs of house tours.

Collage by Dylan Cole-Kink
Collage by Dylan Cole-Kink

I wanted to wrap up by considering some of the alternate realities of this project. I hope I’ve made it clear by now that I found the experience to be particularly valuable to undergraduates, and that I believe we developed a functional and engaging exhibit that anticipates some of the questions on-site and virtual visitors might have about the space. But I’m also interested in more speculative and exploratory work in relation specifically to digital house tours and more generally in digital humanities. For example, several collages from Brown family photos were created by Dylan Cole-Kink, a recent undergrad graduate working with us in 2017. Our faculty lead asked Dylan to use Photoshop to create an image that blurred past and present. She didn’t think these mock-ups fit with our project’s aesthetic, and I agree. But I love these images because of how rough they are, because they don’t neatly connect past to present, and so I began thinking about where and how work like this might find a home. For example, in a Digital Storytelling course I ran last spring at Brown, I became interested in ideas of distortion in DH and invited students to read and create digital projects via this lens. I can see the value of distortion in Dylan’s wedding collage (above), as it juxtaposes a staged performance from the Nightingale-Brown House’s past (a wedding photo) with an image from its present (a lecture held in the house’s former library), in a manner that also more generally invites us to think of the house as a kind of stage on which inhabitants and objects take up particular roles.

Collage by Dylan Cole-Kink

Despite the frequently-stated potential of web-based projects to expand and reimagine more traditional forms of knowledge production, we found ourselves using Neatline to essentially create fairly conventional exhibit labels for items in these digitized rooms. Students may have invited users to start their digital tours with an item of their choosing, but these fragmented snippets can easily be reassembled to reveal the narrative conventions of the oral tours they gave as physical guides to the house. The finished product is a relatively clean interface, and it may leave more skeptical visitors curious about what that interface conceals as well as reveals. One of the goals of this project was to explore and model conventions, and I think this work was generative in that regard. Many of our students may find themselves working in professional contexts where these conventions are valued, but I also want to take advantage of our own institutional space’s capacity for experimental and exploratory work. And I think there’s room in our field to interrogate the limits of best practices, and to provide interested students with spaces to ask these questions and model different kinds of answers.

As in archives, there’s a constituency of practitioners skeptical of the innovative potential of digital tools and methodologies. But I would push back on outright dismissal of projects that remediate technological conventions along fairly traditional lines, for three reasons. The first is the aforementioned learning goals previously outlined. Secondly, the conventions we embrace in our digital tour align with the contexts and expectations of many of our on-site visitors, who are familiar with exhibit labels and expect snippets of history rather than deep-dives during the time they explore the house. And finally (and more importantly), this project might best be read as exploratory, inexpensive work that operates within particular constraints but has also (for me at least) generated new ideas for how to think about tours and exhibits in digital and non-digital contexts, specifically in relation to their temporal dimensions.

But in order to read projects in this way, we have to situate them as “a” critical lens rather than “the” comprehensive take. We have to support research and projects that imagine alternate pasts as well as futures. We might develop smaller-scale initiatives aimed at specific audiences instead of general publics, work situated as learning environments instead of finished products, intended for short-term consumption and reflection instead of permanence, imagined as exploratory and speculative instead of didactic and factual. We should create and support opportunities in digital humanities and public humanities to both pay the bills and play Bill and Ted.

Collage by Jim McGrath

  Jim McGrath is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Public Humanities at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage (Brown University). He received his doctorate in English from Northeastern University, where he worked on Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive and several other digital humanities projects and initiatives. Jim is on Twitter (@JimMc_Grath) and he’s always happy to talk about digital humanities and public humanities. If you’re interested in house tours, mapping interior spaces, or more experimental and exploratory DH initiatives in the classroom, get in touch! Email: