Exploring the past. How mobile devices are helping to bring history to life.

I’m in London for a couple of days, which has given me plenty of time for walking around, looking at the architecture. One of my favourite activities when staying away from home is to roam around in the evening, with no particular sense of purpose, trying to get lost and seeing what turns up. It’s amazing what you can discover around the blandest of corners.

My usual strategy is to just set out and turn down the least likely lane. Alternate left and right turns from there, but these days, I have new options. There is an ever increasing resource of history Apps, complete with geolocation capability, that can link where you are with what, of historical interest, is near to you, as well as bringing in reconstructions, films and interpretation.

Take the Londinium App from the Museum of London and partners. It’s a simple concept: a map of Roman London, overlaid on a map of the modern city. You can adjust the level of opacity, to view either the historical map or the contemporary one, or some level in between. There is a structured route that you can walk, or you can simply explore. Places of interest are marked by pins in the map: some are artefacts that you can ‘excavate’ by rubbing the earth off, some animations, text or video.

Whilst it’s not perfect, it’s a credible effort to align people, place, objects, reconstructions and photos into a coherent interpretation of the local history. It’s certainly enabled me to place historical objects into a context and to place them in relation to each other. One of the challenges any museum faces is that the objects are invariably presented out of context: in other words, their respective location to each other is lost. It’s like presenting a display with bed, a kettle, a lawnmower and some shoes all in one case. Yes, they all came from my house, but they would never have sat next to each other like that. They’ve lost context.

A different type of historical App is the Wasteland App from Faber&Faber. It’s a marvellous resource which takes T.S Eliot’s poem and interprets it in a variety of ways. For a start, you have access to the full text, alongside a new set of films showing a contemporary reading. You also have the full original, handwritten manuscript, complete with amendments and changes.

You can access ‘tags’ against key phrases or sections, which help to interpret specific lines and phrases in both a historical and personal context for Eliot. This depth of interpretation is significant, much more than you could get from just the written word and google. To top things off, for added flavour, you can also access additional reading of the full poem by both Eliot and other notable poets. And not just once, but through the course of their lives. It’s really a very powerful tool for aligning the written and spoken word. It adds real flavour.

We are just at the start of a journey that will see us meeting a whole host of historical situations in new and dynamic ways. It will revolutionise how we learn about our past and how we are able to use it to inform our present.

Londinium App: http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Resources/app/Streetmuseum-Londinium/index.html

The Wasteland App: http://touchpress.com/titles/thewasteland

About julianstodd

Author and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the Social Age. I’ve written ten books, and over 2,000 articles, and still learning...
This entry was posted in Apps, Archaeology, Education, History, Interpretation, Learning, Museum Education and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Exploring the past. How mobile devices are helping to bring history to life.

  1. Nice post. I’ve seen these apps advertised but not used them. I’ve been playing around with augmented reality apps and can see that I think could work really well. Visiting Old Sarum would be even more fantastic is one could hold up a smart phone or iPad against the scenery and see a representation of how the castle or cathedral will have looked.

    • julianstodd says:

      Hey – yes, augmented reality is something very exciting – Apps like Starwalk have started to scratch the surface of what’s possible, but it’s under-utilised at the moment. Really exciting to see where this will take us – in my case probably walking into lampposts…

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