Thomas Jefferson and 'the Boisterous Sea of Liberty'"

Part of Exhibition: Smith Education Center



of an Exhibit

by Elissa Frankle

Published on February 15, 2010 , Modified on July 21, 2010

  • Description:

    One of my father’s regrets as a history buff raising a museum-lover in the DC suburbs was not having taken me to Monticello when I was younger. Fortunately, I waited to go to Thomas Jefferson’s “Little Mountain” until February 2010. Less than a year ago, in April 2009, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, with primary support from Robert H. and Clarice Smith, opened up a new Visitors’ Center at Monticello. Within this Visitors’ Center, the Smith Education Center serves as an introduction and supplement to the tour of the historic house. In an area so focused on events that occurred two hundred years ago, the use of digital technology to enhance the visitor experience in the education center—and, in the end, the house itself— was strikingly well done, providing more than enough context for the place and the man while feeding on curiosity and connected thoughts.

    The Smith Education Center comprises four exhibits: a study of Jefferson’s words and quotations through projected letters, an overview of the architecture and construction of Monticello, a chronology and thematic exploration of Jefferson’s life, and an all-digital journey through the ideas of the Revolutionary War Era, including personal, political, and religious freedom. I have chosen to focus on this last exhibit, “Thomas Jefferson and ‘the Boisterous Sea of Liberty.’”

    “Thomas Jefferson and ‘the Boisterous Sea of Liberty’” consists of twenty-one digital screens, including seven single-touch screens mounted approximately three and a half feet off the ground. The top fourteen screens, mounted between five and eight feet off the floor, show pictures, quotations, phrases, and timelines associated with the Revolutionary War era and Jefferson’s ideas of liberty. Sometimes several screens were used together to display a single image at a larger size; other times, individual screens portrayed singular ideas related to the common theme shown on the uppermost screens. When the timeline of the war itself was displayed, sounds of musket fire played over the continual strains of period music. The seven interactive screens, only five of which were working during our visit, displayed “droplets” in four categories: question marks, for questions; asterisks, for important people or places; quotation marks, for document and important person quotations; and exclamation points, fewest in number and which we could not categorize adequately. Touching a “droplet,” one of the above symbols with a brief phrase appended, opened a box with a headline, a paragraph of approximately 150-200 words, and often a picture. The droplets that fell around the sides of this open box would be associated roughly with the topic in the open box. A closed box generated seemingly random droplets. My traveling companion compared this system to using Wikipedia: performing a search for a topic of interest, stumbling upon another link (or associated droplet) about which you were curious, clicking on another droplet with a question you never knew you had. We, and the few people using another screen in the room, were engaged in constant conversation about the topics at hand, making our own connections and using the droplets to follow up as our new questions arose. When the images on the top screens changed, similarly-themed images or portions of the images going onto the top screens would fly across the touchscreens, under any open box but just enough to draw the eye to the top screens.

    The breadth information covered across the seven “communal screens” focusing on the big ideas and the individual’s touchscreen created a rich context for Jefferson’s masterwork without seeming didactic. The education we received was of our own choosing, allowing each visitor to decide how much of a scope of history, and to what end, he or she desired, while still providing a common body of knowledge to all visitors via the upper screens. Great care had also been taken to reduce glare from the windowed wall facing the screens, so that even at sunset the light streaming in did not detract from the experience. Moreover, benches along that wall provided a resting place for a further half-dozen visitors while we explored the touchscreens. These benches gave a view of the upper screens without invading the privacy of those using the lower screens, allowing even those simply resting their feet to become involved in the ambiance and basic ideas being shared. The combination of large basic principles with the option to dive further in-depth into topics of interest (and, due to the random nature, of new interest) provides all visitors with the choice of intensity of experience, a welcome contrast to the didactic guided tour of the house itself. The serendipitous, individualized nature of the learning could not have been experienced through any other method but digital touchscreens, making this a valuable use of technology.

    Were I to add a piece to these digital gateways, I would allow for further exploration within a single topic—a clickable image, for instance—or the ability to capture an image from the top screens—perhaps Jefferson’s copy of the Koran—and find out more information about it, rather than having to wait for the related droplet to fall. Serendipity and the desire for instant knowledge keep a tenuous balance, and being able to choose which of these to take would be appreciated. Furthermore, we visited on a quiet evening in February; I wonder if the five working touchscreens, without any of them projecting onto larger, communally-visible screens, would be adequate for crowds in the summer visiting the exhibit while waiting for their timed house tour.

    My general concerns over the technology in this room stem from a concern for accessibility. How well would a person with low vision be able to use the visually-guided touchscreens, beyond being immersed in the ambient period sounds? In the future, I would hope that technology would be available to provide people with low vision the same sort of serendipitous experience we enjoyed, allowing them to choose their own route through the history without needing the rote route of a Braille or large-print guide.

    Was it successful? Our conversation continued so long into the evening that we were the last people to leave the complex; the next morning, when our guide in Monticello proper asked if we had any questions, we could not think of a single one. The rich experience we had received through digital technology—in a place of artifact-heavy history—had answered them all already.

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