Museum Without Walls

Norma Berke meets Augmented Reality

What are the best uses of augmented reality for interpreting the past? We created four interactive posters for the Litchfield Heritage Preservation Commission. First, you’ll need to download the free Zappar app to your smart phone — works with Apple and Android. Then, after opening, point at the poster and watch history come alive.

History Comes Alive













With virtual reality and augmented reality standing on the verge of popular adoption, this might be the Thanksgiving of the future. The technology, though, is advanced enough to make it inaccessible to small historical societies and museums. I saw two attempts this weekend. The Galena and U. S. Grant Museum promoted its holograms of Ulysses and Julia Grant — intended to serve as orientation. It was not a hologram, but a video projected on black curtains. The script also fell short, as the Grants explained what visitors would see in the museum, obviously not in character. Over in Dubuque, I visited the National Mississippi River Museum, a wonderful complex, where I watched a National Geographic film on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Great story, although, as is often the case, the journey to the Pacific is highlighted and the return adventure barely mentioned. What interested me was that it was promoted as a 4D experience. Which it wasn’t. No 3D glasses. Instead, at key points, rumbles under the seats as a storm approaches, quick sprays of water in the rapids, and wind on the mountaintops. Interesting but a gimmick. So I’m not sure where the new technology will lead us in the field of history.

Performing Place

Granite Falls – A Meandering River Walk from Anne Queenan on Vimeo.

As a board member of the Grand Center for Arts & Culture in New Ulm, Minnesota, I have been working with PlaceBase Productions on a street theatre production. Ashley Hanson and Andrew Gaylord create historic dramas that move, physically as well as emotionally. In our case, that means the audience will walk down Minnesota Street in the heart of the National Register Commercial Historic District (for which I wrote the nomination).

The work of PlaceBase Productions is grounded in the work of Sally Mackey and others in Great Britain, using the concept of “applied theatre” to connect place and story, without the traditional audience/performer dichotomy of a theater setting. While different from living history at a historic site, there is a kinship. It is not bound to the rules that the interpreter stay in period character. In one of Hanson and Gaylord’s productions, the actors might break into song or turn the tables and begin quizzing the audience. They might use non-period props that create a setting or mood. We’re working toward a May 2015 performance of New Ulm’s story. The goal is to activate memories, provoke thought, and promote activity on the street. It is truly community theater.

Here’s a link to PlaceBase Productions.

Bringing a photograph of death to life

If you love the lore of the Old West, you might been familiar with this iconic photograph of the Dalton Gang.

The Dalton gang, 1892

The Dalton gang, 1892
















Bob Dalton wanted to make sure his name would long be remembered, claiming that he could “beat anything Jesse James ever did–rob two banks at once, in broad daylight.” On October 5, 1892, the Dalton Gang attempted this feat when they set out to rob the C.M. Condon & Company’s Bank and the First National Bank in Coffeyville, Kansas. The robbery ended, however, with four of the five outlaws dead. Coffeyville became famous all over the country as the “town that stopped the Daltons.”

Now the city can’t seem to get enough of the outlaw gang. Using the photograph of their dead bodies, the local museum created mannequins and laid them out on the floor of an exhibit.

Dalton Defenders' Museum, Coffeyville, Kansas

Dalton Defenders’ Museum, Coffeyville, Kansas















And as an illustration of the impulse to step into the past, the town painted the image on the city sidewalks outside the bank. Yes, lie down on the sidewalk and have your picture taken with the dead Dalton Gang! It seems strange to commemorate death in such a manner, but we have an impulse to connect past events with real places — even step into it, or, in this case, lie in it. Add a photo opportunity and history is spread across modern media.

Interpreting Main Street

I will be participating roundtable discussion at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History in St. Paul. “Interpreting Main Street” will look at the ways that four communities interpret their historic commercial districts. Although I’ll be representing New Ulm, I’ve worked with the other three towns: Red Wing, Willmar, and Winona. The other panelists each bring a different perspective to the challenge of creating a museum without walls.

Come join us. Friday, September 19, 2014 from 2:00 to 3:15 p.m. The conference will be held at the Crowne Plaza St. Paul.

Whitewater Shaker Village

J. P. Maclean, a historian, set about researching the Shakers in 1903, traveling across southern Ohio. He wrote about his first glimpse of Union Village, a Shaker community located near Harrison, Ohio: “When I caught sight of the first house, my opinion was confirmed that I was on the lands of the Shakers, for the same style of architecture, solid appearance and want of decorative art was before me.” The University of Cincinnati, through their Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites, is doing some exciting work in using virtual reality to interpret history. Using tools like Google Sketch-up, students have recreated the exterior and interior of buildings in the Whitewater (Ohio) Shaker Village. While not the revelation that Mr. Maclean had, it opens a new perspective into the “land of the Shakers.”

CERHAS has used the approach to create a fascinating website about ancient Troy, complete with a virtual tour. Visit:

I’d like to see a historic downtown streetscape created for a Main Street Community.

Downtown Stillwater

The St. Paul Pioneer Press has a great story in today’s edition, with reporter Mary Divine looking at the city’s new podcast walking tour. City planner Abbi Jo Wittman said of the series, “From the city’s standpoint, they’re designed as part of the public-education program. They are a tool to help residents and visitors of all ages. I’ve already been contacted by a local teacher who would like to use them as part of a Minnesota history class.”

And Divine picked out a quote that summarizes my philosophy. “Each town has its own very interesting story,” [Hoisington] said. “You just have to listen a little bit, and it becomes evident what makes that town special.”

Philadelphia’s Museum without Walls

In Philadelphia, the Association for Public Art has developed a “museum without walls” program to interpret its public art, and it is one of the best “street” tours in the country. The self-guided tours are available in several multiple platforms: You can call phone numbers listed with each sculpture, use a free smart phone app, download the audio to an MP3 player, or scan a QR code (known as a QR or quick response code) on the free “Museum Without Walls” map at locations around the city.

The tour stops are very well-done, with interesting content provided by historians, curators, sometimes the artist or a living relative. For the linked video, for example, they enlist author Kirk Savage, who wrote Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in 19th Century America, historian Harold Holzer, and Millard F. Rogers, Jr., author of Randolph Rogers: American Sculptor in Rome. All knowledgeable, entertaining, and passionate about the subject. Visual content is simple — photographs of the work of art itself.

As with our pastcasts, the three-to-five minute length seems optimal. What Philadelphia does well is provide a place on their website where you can upload your own pictures and add your own thoughts about the sculptures. There is also a set of lesson plans for 4th and 5th grade students. This project was funded by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Heritage Philadelphia Program, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.