A virtual visit to Monticello

The web is well established as an effective medium for providing wider access to museum artworks and artifacts, but what happens when the museum itself is one of the artifacts, and the location of objects within the museum constitutes a significant part of their narrative?

For the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, owners and operators of Monticello, a mere cataloguing of treasures was an inadequate method to do justice to Jefferson's "autobiographical masterpiece," so the concept of place-based storytelling was employed to make virtual visits as rewarding as possible. The Monticello Explorer not only lets you walk the halls and fields of the estate, it actually gives you more access to this World Heritage Site than you'd get during a personal visit.

Launched in mid-April and designed by Portland's Second Story studios (who previously tackled similar insitu challenges with Theban Mapping Project in and around Egypt's Valley of the Kings), the Monticello Explorer offers what could easily be an overwhelming amount of information, but keeps things intelligible through navigation options that are as intuitive as walking through someone's home. (Which, as it turns out, is exactly what you'll be doing.)

Upon entering the Explorer subsite, visitors are presented with four initial entry points (and countless possible permutations) for scouting the Monticello house and surrounding property. Most conventional in their approach are a pair of narrated video surveys, observing Domestic Life and offering a General Tour of the building. In addition, two visitor controlled interactives allow surfers to inspect the real estate at will.

Three of these four options (the two video tours and a self-directed perusal of the mansion) are closely interwoven, and of these, the Explore the House interactive is probably the best point from which to initiate investigations. Using a 3-D model of the house (created from laser scans of the building's interior and exterior) this option allows visitors to move through the building in a manner similar to QuickTime Virtual Reality tours - click-and-dragging to pan through a scene, and using hot spots to move to the next room or get a closer look at an artifact.

While true QTVRs might seem a more obvious choice for this situation, the use of a model rather than photographic imagery does speed things up a bit on slower connections, and actual movement from one point of view to the next is depicted in a wireframe manner, further decreasing the bandwidth load. In addition, all the furnishings and decorations have been removed from the model, so the Explore feature also serves as an architectural tour (and leaves one feeling that they're walking through a vacant home that they just might make an offer on - if the price is right).

Having settled in a room, the visitor can scan for hot-spots, which will load auto-playing (but also manually operable) animations and slide shows into a floating pop-up window. Some rooms also contain "View Photograph" icons which, if the grey walls are seeming too bare, will perfectly superimpose a picture onto a wireframe drawing - and give the 3-D a touch of the VR. (It's a very nice effect.)

To the right of the model viewer is text related to whatever's on screen at the moment, and a Floor Plan of the building for those who prefer a non-linear approach to exploration. Above the main content, a pull-down menu offers text-based navigation, while at the bottom of the screen, a "Related Materials" tab accesses photographs and information for artifacts in each room - many of which can be magnified for closer inspection.

Finally, just below the 3-D viewer is an invitation to "Tours In This Location" which directly connects the surfer to the previously mentioned video tours offered by the site. Sidestep to either of the video tours, and the display will essentially remain unchanged - map and text to the right, related items below. The 3-D viewer, however, will have loaded and automatically begun playing the narrated video tour (with a Closed Captioning option) for the room you were viewing. As with the 3-D tour, you can move in a linear fashion from room to room (in this case, by simply 'clicking to proceed' at the end of each clip), or use the floor plan to jump from one corner of the house to another. (Though this latter option will return you to the 3-D tour, and you'll have to load the desired video(s) from there.)

The Explore the Plantation exhibit offers a different, though no less impressive, approach to surveying the surrounding property. (Though if you don't have a broadband connection and fast processor, this section may be the most frustrating. Even with my cable hookup, I had a the chance to drum out a few quick tunes with my fingers.) On loading, the Plantation exhibit loads a topographical map of the Monticello estate, peppered with dozens of small squares denoting points of interest - each of which will reveal a popup title on mouseover. (There are, in fact, five maps of the plantation, each covering a distinct time period from the 1740s to the present day.)

Entire areas of the plantation, from roads to orchards, also generate title boxes, and if you're in danger of information overload, a "Map Features" menu allows you to narrow the focus of the points of interest to one or more of the four categories available. Click on a point of interest, and Explore will load detailed information into a floating text box. ("Floating" in the true sense of the word here - in addition to the option of closing the box entirely to get a better view of the map, it can also be resized, and dragged by its 'title bar' to any location in the browser window. A "Show Text" button at the bottom of the frame will reinstate the feature any time you need it.)

If you've wandered far afield and want to quickly more back the mansion, or simply want to change the magnification of the topographical map, a navigator window at the top left of the exhibit allows you to zoom and drag your way to any location on the estate.

Access to "Related Materials" is still available at the bottom of the screen (with artifacts that range from a modern-day image of a selected building to a zoomable copy of Jefferson's freehand drawing of the first Monticello), and as with the House tour, if you know the name of the feature that you're looking for, a pull-down menu at the top of the screen provides direct access. All the content has email and printer friendly options (the latter including images as well as text), and the site also offers a comprehensive Search interface and a six-page Help section.

Thanks to the integration of various branches of this exhibit, visitors can follow a tour uninterrupted from beginning to end, or move seamlessly from 3-D to video, stop to peruse a few artifacts, jump ahead or back at will, or even slide from one historical period to another. And yet even with all these options, you won't lose your place. That in itself is more of a recommendation than many websites can hope to achieve. Combine it with the lifetime acquisitions of the author of the Declaration of Independence, third president of the United States and sponsor of the Lewis and Clark expedition (to scratch the surface), and you could spend a very long time not getting lost here.

The Monitcello Explorer can be found at http://explorer.monticello.org/index.html.

(And for those who may be interested in Second Story's own description of the goals and challenges in designing the Monticello Explorer, the Archives & Museum Informatics website has a recent paper presented by Second Story Creative Director, Brad Johnson - Place-based Storytelling Tools: A new look at Monticello.)

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