Walking Through History in Public Part II

Last fall I was fortunate enough to visit the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco.  William Tran, the Education and Programs Coordinator, led my teacher group on a walking tour of Chinatown.  It was fascinating to observe all the layers of story as he explained the evolution of Chinatown through its architecture and changing landscape.  He held up documents and photos that helped us to see the changes in the landscape over time and to understand the ways that urban pressures are rapidly eroding the cultural heritage of the community.

Later in the trip my family joined me, and I tried to duplicate the experience using a paper tour map that William copied for me. I was not a successful tour guide.  I was missing his knowledge and the supplementary materials he showed us that enriched the experience.

Recently, friends have visited San Francisco, and I have encouraged them to try to book a tour through the museum.  Sadly, tours are very limited due to staffing shortages.  Thinking about the work of Histories of the National Mall, I have imagined how a mobile history app or website that mimics William’s wisdom, insight and perspective might aid the museum in sharing the rich history of Chinatown and draw people in to connected exhibits housed at CHSA.

While I haven’t used StreetMuseum in the field, I wonder if it might overload the user with content in an already overwhelming environment.  It seems that the challenge of augmented reality is to provide enough information and supportive content to enhance the experience of the user without overwhelming the real world.  While our physical landscape may often be a living museum, it is important to remember that the life goes on as we are moving through it.  A museum is, by its nature, an intentionally designed physical space meant to constrain the user’s experience of an environment.  Signage, user guides and docent tours augment that intentional space.  It seems that one of the challenges of augmented reality is how to design virtual signage, user guides and docent tours in a way that are supportive for its user and do not stress the user with information overload.

While my project isn’t really tied to an augmented reality environment, I wonder how I might design an experience for visitors to the CHSA as they walk though the museum’s exhibits and out into the physical landscape that inspired them.  In my mind, less may be more, but I would make sure that the content I did create would enhance the user’s focus and security in the environment in order to generate meaningful understanding about how an environment changes over time.

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