A 360-Degree View of Virginia History

By Special Contributor posted 09-26-2017 15:28


By Peter Hedlund

In 2013 Encyclopedia Virginia (EV), a free and authoritative online resource published by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, partnered with the Google Earth Outreach team to apply the technology behind Google Street View to capturing some of Virginia’s most interesting cultural resources. This project was originally intended to provide EV’s visitors an engaging way to virtually explore some of the places discussed in its articles, but it soon became clear that this technology could also serve other purposes. In the ensuing years, EV has documented sites on and off the beaten path, from James Madison’s Montpelier, George Mason’s Gunston Hall, and Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest to historic African American schools, the dwellings of enslaved people, and tobacco barns. To date, EV has published more than 30 virtual tours.


Gunston Hall | Credit: Peter Hedlund

Virtual Field Trips

In 2013 EV published an article about Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s retreat about 75 miles south of Monticello. Written by Poplar Forest’s director of architectural restoration, the entry details some of the site’s innovative aspects. To accompany the article, EV used equipment donated by Google to create its first 360-degree virtual tour of the entire house. Being able to “walk” through and thoroughly explore each room from a web browser allows readers to develop a much deeper appreciation of the place.


Poplar Forest | Credit: Les Schofer

In fall 2014 EV staff attended the Virginia Council of Social Studies’ annual conference and presented the virtual tour of Poplar Forest to an audience of history and social studies teachers. The teachers’ response was encouraging. Some saw the virtual tours as potential preparation for field trips, whereas others explained that their field trip budgets had been slashed. While a virtual field trip can’t completely replace a real one, it would nonetheless be an engaging way to introduce students to the places they had studied, they said.

A series of technological advances over the last few years has made virtual field trips much more compelling. In 2014 a Google engineer developed Google Cardboard—a very simple virtual reality (VR) headset that uses cardboard to hold a mobile phone that, when viewed through the headset’s plastic lenses, functions as the display. Less than a year later, Google could convert Google Street View imagery into a stereoscopic view—meaning that an image is split into two identical side-by-side images, one for each eye. When a stereoscopic image is synced to the phone’s gyroscope and displayed in the Google Cardboard viewer, it creates a VR effect. This is an extremely affordable and accessible way for the general public to experience VR content.


Experiencing virtual reality with Google Cardboard | Credit: Peter Hedlund

Moreover, with the introduction of a mobile app called Google Expeditions, classroom teachers can lead students on guided VR field trips using imagery that EV has captured throughout the state.

To make the Google Cardboard viewers more readily available, EV has enlisted the help of a local company to produce custom-branded headsets featuring the faces of Virginia historical figures.


Encyclopedia Virginia’s Google Cardboard headsets | Credit: Peter Hedlund

Virtual Access and Preservation

Even if school field trips were not in decline, certain places would still be off limits or extremely difficult to visit. With 360-degree photography, these sites have become virtually accessible:

  • Visitors to Historic Christ Church in Tidewater, Virginia, are welcome to explore the 18th-century building, but only the minister is allowed to climb up into the pulpit.
  • The Oak Hill slave quarter near Danville, Virginia, was recently was named one of Virginia’s most endangered sites, but it sits on private land and is inaccessible to visitors.
  • Scattered grave markers and broken pottery are the only indication that a town called Canaan once existed on an island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. Abandoned in the 1930s, this site is now only accessible from nearby Tangier Island by private boat.

Remnants of the lost community of Canaan, Virginia | Credit: Peter Hedlund

Tangier Island itself is a fairly remote location. The only populated island in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay, it is reachable only by ferry or private plane. It faces the same fate as nearby Canaan due to climate change, sea level rise, and erosion. Some scientists predict that the island’s approximately 450 residents may need to find a new place to live within the next few decades. The island’s mayor and town council reject this forecast and insist that federal assistance can provide the infrastructure necessary to preserve their community.

Last year, members of EV’s staff borrowed a Google Street View trekker—the same equipment Google used to capture the trails of Arizona’s Grand Canyon—and photographed every road, trail, beach, and public pier on the island. Using a boat, they even captured the channel in and out of the harbor—essentially the main street of this waterman community. This imagery has now been published to Google Maps, and it provides not only virtual access to an extremely remote location but also a tool for islanders to communicate to the world beyond their disappearing shores what makes their community and culture so valuable and worth protecting.


Capturing a 360-degree view of Tangier Harbor. | Credit: Matthew Gibson

In addition to sites that are difficult to access, VR can be used to capture sites before they are lost. In 2014 Nomini Hall, the onetime home of Robert Carter III, burned to the ground. Had EV been able to photograph the site before it was lost to fire, it could have been preserved virtually.

Recently, EV was able to document a 19th-century log cabin, a former dwelling of enslaved people in Amelia County, in advance of its possible destruction. The structure is quickly yielding to insects, fallen trees, and a lack of resources necessary to preserve it. The property owner views the cabin’s declining structural integrity as a safety concern and has plans to burn it to the ground. Whatever its ultimate fate, EV’s photographs of the building ensure that it will be virtually preserved.


Inspecting a 19th-century log slave dwelling near Amelia Courthouse, Virginia. | Credit: Peter Hedlund

The Google Street View project began as a way to add immersive visual context to EV entries, but it has evolved to produce VR imagery that enables virtual field trips and allows access to places that would otherwise be out of reach. And in some cases, the virtual tours EV creates may one day be all that remains of a site.

Peter Hedlund is the director of Encyclopedia Virginia, an authoritative and user-friendly resource on the history and culture of Virginia published by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

#mapping #Technology #ClimateChange

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