I have an idea!


I decided on Friday that enough was enough, I simply had to pick a project for Interactive Exhibit Design. I’ve had a gajillion possibilities (yes, a gajillion) running through my mind for the past month, and it was time to just find something and run with it.

IMG_3810It all started that morning when I decided that, really and truly, I just want to make a time machine. I remember the days when I could fit into a cardboard box, and all it took was a box and sharpie to create a wonderful time machine. My modern-day version could take the shape of a computer monitor or touch screen surrounded by a cardboard interactive kiosk (think of something roughly shaped like an arcade game). I could have a dial on it that you spin for different eras, and for each one there would be something that you navigate through using buttons hooked up to a Makey Makey. You could investigate various items of interest using a magnifying glass (or replica of one) as a kind of mouse. The next question was, where would it be based on, and what kind of history to tell? Obviously it can’t say everything about every era. Would it be a choose-your-own-adventure point-and-click game going through different periods of the same place? Would you see things from ground level or from the top down, like a map?

Wait a minute, I thought. I’m leaning towards maps anyway. Why don’t I just focus on one “epic journey” and tell the story through an interactive map? 

And so the amazing time machine was scrapped almost as quickly as it popped into existence. But out of its ashes arose a better idea. (It’s hard to imagine something better than a time machine, I know. But bear with me.)

I started on a new track of searching for important historical journeys. Military campaigns are especially well suited to this kind of thing, because they are intimately involved with place. In fact, accounts of military campaigns are often difficult to follow without a good knowledge of geography.

Thinking about military ventures in turn led me to a diagram that we discussed briefly in one of last semester’s classes: Charles Minard’s map of Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign. The diagram eloquently depicts the reduction of Napoleon’s troops as they marched across Eastern Europe, as well as the plummeting temperatures that decimated the Grande Armee much more than any armed conflict. Wouldn’t it be fun if something like that were interactive?

And so my idea to do an interactive map of Napoleon’s invasion into Russia was born. It’s everything I was hoping for: an important historical event and a gripping narrative all dependent upon a sense of space. My exhibit aims to tell this story using visual representations of troops and temperatures, like Minard did, but to bring that sense of space into the center of the storytelling.

As I see it, I now have two options to carry this out. Picture this: you walk into a museum gallery decked out like a small portion of an 1812 French military encampment. The General’s tent is open, letting out a crack of light from a candle or a lamp. You step inside, and you are met with:

Option 1.

IMG_3811A construction similar in design to the time machine that tells the story of Napoleon’s march on a large screen. Controls allow you to move backwards and forwards in the account, as well as to zoom in and out of the map. Moving forwards along the timeline will take you to different geographic markers on the map, as well as advance the story, which will be displayed on the side. This sidebar will give a short statement  (i.e., an exhibit label) on what happened at that particular point, and perhaps a quote from a soldier, if I can find some. Also displayed will be a short graphic which will succinctly state the date, the temperature, and the number of troops remaining. I am picturing the interactive map being made with MapBox and HTML/JavaScript, and the controls being hooked up with a Makey Makey or something similar. Potential ambitious add-ons include audio (someone reading the labels out loud, with a backdrop of natural sounds, marching, artillery, horses, etc. as appropriate) and a way for you to identify with either the French or the Russians (maybe by wearing a different headpiece or something) that would cause the exhibit to tell you that army’s side of the story.

Option 2.

IMG_3812A large map of Eastern Europe – ideally a reproduction of an 1812 map – with various markers placed along the route that the Grande Armee took. Interacting with the markers will cause the story to advance on a nearby tablet or computer screen. The screen could show the same information as Option 1 – map, factual information, first-hand account, and statistics. (Or do I need the digital map for this option? I’m not sure, although it could possibly make for interesting comparisons between political borders of 1812 and 2014.) My first thought was that there could be buttons hooked up to each important marker in the story, but I decided against this because I don’t want the buttons to be pressed out of order. Instead, I am picturing my imaginary visitors moving a single identifier of the French army – a little conductive figure of Napoleon, or a chess piece or something – along a track cut through the map. Each marker on the map will be conductive and hooked up to the computer, so that when the figurine or chess piece makes contact with each marker along its journey, the completed circuit will activate the proper display on the computer. The advantage of this option is that there is a more historically relevant physical interface to interact with, but it’s more difficult to decide how to set it up and make it work.

So there you have it. Now it’s just a matter of deciding which approach to take, and researching the finer details of the campaign. We’ll see soon enough whether my final result looks anything like what I’ve pictured here…


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