Virtual Reality in Local History

Virtual reality has a lengthy history in the realm of science fiction, but only recently has it crossed over into our lived experience. Public historians have been quick to jump on the virtual-reality bandwagon because of the technology's potential to bring history to new audiences via the Web.

Some might argue that the historical value of a virtual tour is somewhat dubious, maintaining that it is the tangible experience of visiting a historic site that makes all the difference. I take a different view: virtual reality is merely one of many ways of interacting with and learning from the human past. It is neither superior nor inferior to an in-person visit. Indeed, I learned a great deal by clicking through the various sites I link to in this post, and I hope those who read this will take the time to explore them, as well. I wouldn't share them if I didn't think it worthwhile to take a closer look.

One need not look far to find examples: even Manassas National Battlefield Park has launched a virtual tour. The website still isn't fully fleshed-out, but it clearly has significant promise. I've driven down Route 29 past the Stone House innumerable times, but I've only stopped once to read the plaques. Stone House is an imposing landmark, but those who drive through the park are usually on their way to somewhere else. The virtual tour of Stone House brings the magic of this site's history to any Internet-connected device. Visitors can virtually tour three rooms of Stone House so far, and the site promises more in the coming months. It's an impressive start.

Unsurprisingly, many local plantation house museums, with their significant financial resources, have imposing virtual presences. Mount Vernon's virtual tour allows visitors to navigate through George Washington's home and gardens from the comfort of a tablet or smartphone. It features videos narrated by experts, clickable points of interest, and many other unique features. Monticello has something rather similar but includes the reconstructed Hemmings Cabin along Mulberry Row. Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason, chose an alternative path, developing a virtual reality tour powered by Google Street View. James Monroe's Highland and James Madison's Montpelier have similar designs.

With the noteworthy exception of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, the virtual tours of these plantation homes usually erase the experiences of enslaved laborers, a mistake that Encyclopedia Virginia corrects with their comprehensive list of distinctive local VR tours. Produced in partnership with the Library of Virginia, these, to me, are the most fascinating of all the local virtual history offerings. The site includes slave dwellings from Alexandria, across the Potomac from Washington, DC, to Bedford County in Southwest Virginia. Perhaps most importantly, though, the site also features a virtual tour of Maggie Walker's home in Richmond, showcasing an inspirational and uplifting story that offers a counterpoint to Virginia's long history of deprivation and enslavement.

The Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum in Chantilly offers a number of virtual exhibits dealing with a diverse set of topics relating to the history of air travel and spaceflight. The National Museum of Natural History offers an even more impressive bevy of virtual offerings. Most other Smithsonian-affiliated museums offer some form of virtual tour.

In sum, there is no shortage of virtual options for exploring local history. Virtual reality is fantastic for those with physical disabilities and/or social anxiety that make it difficult to attend museums and historic sites in person. In the age of SARS-CoV-2, virtual tours will likely take on even greater significance, as mandated closures force those who might once have visited in person to pursue alternative ways to engage.

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