Reconstructing Historical Structures Workshop, led by University of Rochester’s Digital Humanities Center

Posted on behalf of Joshua Flaccavento (PhD student, UB English):

I attended Michael Jarvis’s talk on Friday the 4th about his Virtual St. George’s Project, an essentially historical project that brings in aspects of gaming to make the historical record more widely accessible. I knew absolutely nothing about St. George, the former capital of Bermuda, before this event, and I still can’t claim to know much, but among the other things I absorbed from Dr. Jarvis’s presentation was a clear picture of why this site was of such particular interest to him as a historian. The island’s ties to both Great Britain and America position Bermuda in a larger Atlantic world that many of us rarely stop to think about at all; the Virtual St. George’s Project is both a novel effort to change that and a fascinating example of how DH projects come into being.

Jarvis’ effort is essentially outward-facing; his interest in gaming engines as platforms for exploring historical research is tied up with his pedagogy, both in the sense that he recruits students to work on the Virtual St. George’s Project directly and that he intends it to reach out to a more public audience than most works of academic history typically invite. He could have taken a radically different approach, conceiving of VSG as a trove of interconnected documents and their accompanying metadata – along the lines of something like the Blake archive – but by setting out to render history in three dimensions and to make it interactive, Jarvis set in motion a complex process of finding, testing, and trying to implement multiple technological tools. That most of these were largely or completely unknown to him, as a humanist scholar, at the beginning of this endeavor is a testament to his curiosity and investigative rigor.

Attending the Reconstructing Historical Structures workshop the following day gave me the “inside look” at VSG; the team of technologists from Rochester who led our efforts that day took us through the results of what they’d learned in the process of assisting Jarvis on the project from the beginning to its current state. What I found most interesting about the workshop was the narrative arc of their work, the dynamic relationship they formed with Jarvis, who acted as both “instigator” and investigator, bringing new tools into the project (such as the Xbox Kinect cameras) to which the tech team would respond. From what I gathered, it sounded like a kind of feedback loop had formed between them, a mutually (in)formative dialogue that continues to push everyone involved to challenge their own assumptions about the theoretical commitments of their disciplines as well as the possible range of practices available to them.