Keyhole History: Building an Augmented Reality with Digital Archives

(PI; with Terence Clarke and Matthew Betts, Canadian Museum of Civilization; Emmanuele Claude, Parc des Sault des Chats; Rebecca Bartlett, MADGIC Carleton University Library)

This project was 4a in the 2012 SSHRC Insight Development Grant competition. Taking the the reviewers’ feedback into account, and with progress in our research into augmented reality for digital history and museological practice, we resubmitted in the February 2013 competition. We are currently awaiting the results. Meanwhile, work continues.

How does writing history with augmented reality change the ways history can be understood? In the context of the development of a regional park, what are the implications of augmented reality for the historical interpretation of the park? This project seeks to develop a prototype digital ecosystem which would allow members of the public to explore the history of a place, in that place, using AR based on archival materials and the material culture. It focuses on the complex history and archaeology of the Chats Falls area on the north bank of the Ottawa River in Western Quebec, where a regional park, ‘Parc du Saults des Chats‘, is being planned. A prototype for the digital repository may be found at

This park is primarily accessed via the river. Imagine exploring the abandoned canal by canoe. Your smartphone vibrates, alerting you to the presence of cultural heritage in the immediate area. You hold it up, and the display overlays a reconstruction of the historic landscape on the screen as you point it in different directions – here the workmen’s camp; there a 19th century steamer drawing up to the wharf at Union Village. Union Village today is an abandoned headland, but through your smartphone you can see buildings, people, and hear the bustling activity. A selection of 3d models related to the material culture of the zone you are in may be examined, according to the interface. You select one, and hear about its importance. You are prompted to add your won remarks to the scene you are witnessing, or to listen to others’ interpretations when they too visted this part of the park.

We call this ‘keyhole history’, where the keyhole is a smartphone or tablet computer, allowing the user to peer back in time at historic landscapes. We do not build this from scratch, instead relying on combining existing services in novel ways. In terms of technology, the challenge rests in developing a workflow and in melding the different platforms, their metaphors, towards telling history-in-place. The ways digital media force particular interactions is akin to particular kinds of historiography. The question is, which ones work best, and what is ‘best’ in this context? Accordingly, our secondary objective is to evaluate the theoretical and methodological implications for mobile, expressive digital history researhc, documenting and making this research and workflow available to both scholars and the wider public.

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