Bringing Massachusetts History to the Digital Sphere

Mar 4, 2016   |   MSNE Staff

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The Massachusetts Historical Society is a staple to our city’s relationship with its strong history. Through their educational programs, we’re able to connect with stories otherwise forgotten, showing how Massachusetts has been a partner in innovation from the beginning. Together with the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), we’re excited to announce a partnership with its 225th Anniversary exhibit “The Private Jefferson” showcasing the largest collection of personal paper and drawing by Thomas Jefferson, which is held by MHS. By digging into the third president’s private papers, MHS is opening a window into his personal life to explore the key elements of Jefferson’s character, including his unending creativity and worldview.

We are helping MHS enable richer storytelling opportunities by providing interactive digital moments throughout the exhibit. MHS wants to make this story accessible to everyone — and we’re honored to use Microsoft technology to make that happen.

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Brown University students Miranda Chao and Ryan Ngoy showcase TAG’s multi-user Splitscreen Mode in the main exhibit hall at Massachusetts Historical Society.

Visitors to the Massachusetts Historical Society can get hands-on access to Microsoft technology within the exhibit — through a collaboration with Brown Professor Andries van Dam and students within his program, MHS was able to utilize Touch Art Gallery (TAG) to develop a digital narrative that looks into Jefferson’s personal artifacts.

TAG, which was developed by Brown University in partnership with Microsoft Research, is an application that offers direct digital contact with artifacts (such as papers and artworks) that would otherwise be too fragile to handle in person.

“Thomas Jefferson has been described as the American Sphinx and is considered by many to be enigmatic. Our exhibition aimed to peel back the mysteries around this founding father and show the person who has become one of the most famous Americans. While we are confident that the answers to our questions exist with the nearly 10,000 manuscripts we hold in Jefferson’s hand, our show would never have been able to make this story available to the public without the technology that Microsoft made available to us,” said Gavin Kleespies, Director of Programs at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Using TAG, MHS built five interactive tours, loaded over 100 digital manuscripts and drawings, and embedded 20 short videos of top experts on our third President. Visitors can explore this digital content in immense detail on a 65” touch-screen monitor in the first room of the exhibit or with smaller Windows touch-enabled monitors in the other rooms. They can even use a split screen tool to look at two documents side by side, while maintaining full zoom capability. This allows them to compare the subtle differences in the drafts of the Declaration or zoom in to compare the quality of the paper used by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The additional information and the embedded videos add volumes of content that deepens the visitors experience but would never have fit on a display label. These TAG experiences are also available to download as a Windows app (entering “mhs.cloudapp.net” into the server field) so that people unable to travel to Boston in person can also explore these artifacts and stories.

Furthermore, classrooms around the globe are now able to experience the incredible information included within this exhibit through help from Skype Virtual Field Trips. The first Virtual Field Trip looks specifically at Jefferson’s groundbreaking architectural plans – including Jefferson’s farm and garden books, plans for Monticello, and drawing of the Virginia State Capital. The second Virtual Field Trip looks more closely at the letters, writings, and intellectual development of this founding father – including the drafts and the Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence, the manuscript draft of Notes on the State of Virginia, and a sampling of his correspondence. It is exciting to be able to break down geographic barriers through platforms such as Skype in the Classroom to empower educators and students from around the world to share in this amazing history that MHS has preserved and breathed new life into.

The Massachusetts Historical Society’s 225th Anniversary Exhibit “The Private Jefferson” is on display through May 20, 2016. Visit the Massachusetts Historical Society from 10am to 4pm Monday through Saturday at 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, MA.

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