Yorktown's American Revolution Museum integrates cutting-edge technology

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

Silhouettes of soldiers, rifles in hand, glide across a corridor wall within the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

The technology, seemingly simple, was precisely crafted and placed to immerse visitors in the history, the story, of the American Revolution.

The silhouettes psychologically transition passersby from the rising tension between Britain and the American colonies to action, revolution. As visitors pass the projector, their shadows join the forward march.

Of course, not all media in the museum is as subtle as silhouettes—the four-dimensional Siege Theater, four years and $4 million in the making, bombards visitors with sensation as it places them in the middle the 1781 Siege of Yorktown. The elements serve the same immersive goal.

"They get to not just see it happen, they get to be a part of it happening," Media Project Manager Heather Hower said. "And that's very much what we try to do with all of our presentations. From the time you watch the introductory film to the time you head out into the living history areas, it's how do we get people to relate to the history and become a part of it."

The new $50 million museum debuted a 22,000-square-foot gallery in October that, in addition to 500 artifacts, contains four film experiences, six computer interactives, projections, audio wands and more.

Hower started with Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation 22 years ago, when the American Revolution Museum was still Yorktown Victory Center, and she said the amount of technology in the museum is unprecedented for the foundation. The former center, beyond an introductory film, contained only a computer resource center.

"We wanted that visitor experience to be the best that it could be, and so that's how we chose technology, the way that we were going to present things in our exhibits, the stories we were going to tell, the artifacts we were going to collect," Hower said. "All of that was driven by our story and our visitor."

To make this possible, the foundation partnered with Cortina Productions, a McLean-based company that crafts interactive multimedia for museums.

"They really had a kind of different approach," said Brent Feito, a producer at Cortina Productions.

"They understood what they wanted their institution to achieve, and one of the things that they wanted to do was to highlight the personal stories of people who lived during the Revolution," Feito said. "To make these people more relatable to the visitors, to make their stories really inform the visitors."

Meaningful technology

Usually, it starts with an exhibit script, Feito said.

"We, as media producers, work with the museum producers to define where the media is going to be inserted into that script, that narrative and what's the best use of the media in that narrative," he said.

Hower said a content team from the foundation — including curators, educators, administrators and other staff members — collaborated with the Cortina team, who programmed the content management system and software and produced the media.

The collaboration produced some unprecedented results. Feito said the Siege Theater film, for one, necessitated developing new processes and camera technologies to accurately film for a 180-degree screen.

The museum then begs the question: how do you tell a years-old story with cutting-edge technology and, even more, how do you tell it well?

"You never want to do technology just to do technology," Hower said. "So we didn't just do something because it looked cool or because it was a big wow, but rather, does it present the content in the way that is going to mean the most to the visitor who's interacting with it?"

There are two interactive maps, one each at the start and end of the gallery, designed especially for school groups — and not just because each map has two screens so large groups can view content without crowdingThe maps explore American regions, demographics, commerce in both 1763 and 1791. Hower said much of the content relates to the SOL curriculum, and this is true for many of the interactives.

In the area of the gallery dedicated to the war itself, the Battle Explorer interactive contains information about the 159 documented battles and skirmishes of the American Revolution. An appealing interactive, Hower said, to both "battle geeks" and individuals who might just be curious about one battle.

Just a few steps away rests the Battle Game, a flat-top interactive pitting visitors against each other in the Battles of Cowpens, Camden or Kings Mountain. They'll select a side, choose a strategy and watch the battle unfold. The game ends with a depiction of how the battle occurred historically.

"Some folks are one type of learner, and other folks learn in a different way," Hower said. "Our philosophy behind it was just sharing the content in multiple different ways, so that we would reach all visitors to the museum."

More to come

With an official opening from March 23 to April 4, to include the completed outdoor living-history, the museum will launch a mobile app tour, "to expand the experience beyond what (visitors are) interacting with in the gallery," Hower said.

Guests will be able to download the free app to a smartphone, choosing among four tours from the perspective of Patriots, Loyalists, women or children. In June, five more tour options will debut: Generals, Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, James Lafayette and the Marquis de Lafayette.

But perhaps one of the most intriguing technological pieces will quite literally plant itself in the galleries next winter: the Liberty Tree, a 17-foot sculpture rooted next to a mini-theater dedicated to the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

As visitors enter their thoughts on liberty into a kiosk, they'll see the words dance up the tree and down a branch, ultimately lighting one of the 20 lanterns hanging from the tree.

"This whole struggle, this whole gallery, and the introductory film, everything has worked together up to this point in an effort to fight for liberty," Hower said. "This is an opportunity for people to say, 'okay, liberty's important to me and here's why.'"

As senior director of museum operations and education Peter Armstrong explained in a September interview, the end of the galleries is far from the end of the story. "This is where it begins," he said.

"I think that the American Revolution Museum of Yorktown was very visionary in sort of thinking about how they were going to use media in their museum," Feito said. "They thought carefully about the stories they wanted to tell, and how they wanted to tell those stories and what the best technologies to tell those stories was."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

The museum is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily at 200 Water St.

Admission is $9.75 for adults, $5.50 for ages 6-12 and free for children under six. Residents of York County, James City County and City of Williamsburg, including College of William and Mary students, receive complimentary admission with proof of residency.

For more information, visit historyisfun.org or call 757-253-4838.

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