Experimental Collection Engagement with the Locomotives and Rolling Stock Collection
The majority of Ingenium’s locomotives and rolling stock collection are not currently on public display and most likely will never be due to their size, weight, and maneuverability. New technologies and digital tools, however, create opportunities for these rail artifacts to be seen and accessed by a wider audience. With this in mind, I created a virtual tour that brings together 360 images, artifact histories, archival material, sound, and other Ingenium projects to tell the story of rail technologies housed in the Ingenium Centre. Check out the tour here.
Planning and Process
Coming into this project, my experience with digital tools and digital story telling was limited. In order to familiarize myself with this technology and approach, I researched museums and digital collection engagement efforts to see what was out there. It quickly became apparent that virtual tours were the main form of digital collection engagement used successfully by other heritage institutions. These mostly consisted of interactive still images, 360 and Google Street View tours, walkthrough videos, or digitally constructed virtual environments. I toured the virtual spaces of other institutions and took note of what did and did not work, and drew inspiration from there. One of the tours I consulted was by the Bytown Museum in Ottawa; click here for their 360 virtual tour.
Using the Insta360 Pro camera, I photographed the space by taking photos every two to three metres around the perimeter of the room, as well as some exterior shots of the building and inside some of the artifacts. 360 photos give visitors the ability to travel virtually through the space and see the artifacts from multiple angles. Compared to traditional photography, 360 images help capture the scale of these artifacts in relation to the spaces they are housed in.
The software I chose to host the virtual tour, Lapentor, offers multiple ways to navigate through the space. Users have the option to travel through the space by clicking on directional arrows that take them from one scene to the next, or they can select images to view based on their interests. Lapentor is also compatible with virtual reality headsets which allow users to fully immerse themselves in the space.
In an effort to make the tour interactive and to provide different types of content for the diverse interests of users, I used a combination of text, image, and link hotspots. I presented this content so that the text interactives tell the stories of the artifacts on the tour while the additional visuals showcase unique elements such as archival drawings or closeup shots of specific details of the artifacts. I incorporated web links to draw connections between artifacts in storage and Ingenium projects and articles related to these railway pieces.
Because this project uses photography, a visual medium, I considered ways and consulted with colleagues on how to improve its accessibility for particular audiences, such as those who are blind or low vision. An audio alternative was added that features recordings of the texts and described audio of the artifacts. The audio is paired with soundscapes related to the artifact in question using sounds mostly from Freesound.org. I created these soundscapes using the free and open-source audio recording and editing software, Audacity.
However, Lapentor has limitations when it comes to accessibility. First, when it’s paired with screen readers, not all the hotspots are recognized. This makes it extremely difficult to open and close hotspots for screen reader users. Second, there is no option to include alt text for images, so I included “image descriptions” in the photo captions and audio clips. As this example shows, there is a need for more open source accessible virtual tour software.
Conclusion and Project Reflections
My favourite artifacts from this project were the Electric Sweeper and Streetcar used by the Ottawa Electric Railway Company in the first half of the twentieth century. These two artifacts are pieces of local Ottawa history, something I am very passionate about. My research at Carleton University deals with nineteenth-century Ottawa and Beechwood Cemetery. In fact, the creator of Ottawa’s streetcar service and the electric sweeper, Thomas Ahearn, is buried at Beechwood and featured on their Great Canadian Profiles Plaque tour, found here.
I also enjoyed working with the Canadian National Railways Caboose and the Governors General rail cars. I liked getting to see their decorated interiors. Stepping into these artifacts truly felt like stepping back in time. This is an experience that is hard to capture digitally, but I hope interior photos of the Caboose and the linked virtual tour of the Governors General rail cars (accessed here) give visitors a similar experience.
Virtual tours with 360-degree panoramic images have been critiqued as “satisfactory” at best by museum scholars. That said, this medium allows increased virtual access to collections which is something front of mind for many museums. The new Ingenium Centre, and the fact that no such tours existed, presented a compelling opportunity to experiment. This project was made under the principle that digital media should be used as a tool for museums to create virtual spaces that visitors can actively use. By creating content engagement opportunities, considering accessible UX experiences, and sharing artifact stories, I believe this tour did just that; it’s certainly more than “satisfactory”!
I invite everyone to tour the locomotives and rolling stock collection virtually. You will discover the many stories of rail history in Canada that are right here at Ingenium.
I would like to thank everyone who provided their assistance, expertise, and guidance during this project including: Sharon Babaian, Camil Carrier, Ralph Daguilh, Jonathan Desrosiers, Lauren DiVito, Emily Gann, Bridjet Lee, Pierre Martin, Sonia Mendes, Samantha Moore, Marcia Mordfield, Renée Racicot, Jaime Simons, Annie Tanguay, Adele Torrance, Erica Vanden Bosch, and Kristy von Moos.
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