Imagination, Interiors, and User Interfaces (Spatial Turn Series)

The first book that got me excited about researching “places” was George Chauncey’s Gay New York.  While I haven’t read it in years, there are two things about Gay New York that stick with me.  First, I always think of how Chauncey used floor plans and ideas of public and private space to interpret interior spaces.  Second, I remember how much I enjoyed the book because it encouraged me to use my imagination.  I recall a late-night reading session when I kept putting the book down on my desk and imagining what the Bowery was like at the turn of the century.  Keeping in mind Chauncey’s close readings and my memory of getting lost in the history of a place, I am often a little disappointed by digital humanities projects.   Many times when I browse an an archive built with Google Maps or a “virtual tour” of a interior space, I am rarely as excited as when I first read Gay New York.

As far as I can tell, there is something about the description of interior spaces that can activate my imagination.  Unfortunately, the presentation, and curation, of these spaces in Web-based projects can shut down my imagination.  Too little interpretation can make a project seem too like an embellished bibliography.  Too much interpretation recreates a feeling similar to that mastered by the physical house tours I went on as a kid–confined to the center of each room by velvet ropes, you have to wait and be told what to do, or worse, what to think.

Books, like Gay New York, can help to overcome the feeling of limitation through its prose, but digital projects rely on a different set of conventions.  Writing on the Web coexists with a website’s user interface.  Designers, writers, and developers have the challenge of finding the right balance of interaction among sources, interface, and user.  My favorite digital humanities projects are those that get this balance right.  They draw me in and allow my imagination to go anywhere.  By looking at three examples of  virtual tours, we can start to see the ways in which sources, interface and users interact to produce moments of interest and imagination.

Solid Sources: Tenement Museum Virtual Tour

Virtual tours of building interiors are not new.  As long as I can remember, websites have provided images of rooms that users could click to see more information.  Searching for “virtual tour” on the web turns up many of interesting examples.  The Tenement Museum in New York City, for instance, hosts a virtual tour of 19th-century tenement apartments.

Tenement Museum Virtual Tour

Tenement Museum Virtual Tour

It provides a 360 degree image that you can drag around to see different parts of a room, floor plans and audio and written interpretations of the spaces.  All of this is great.  Unfortunately, two things in particular keep my imagination in check.  First, the audio tour, while interesting, prevents me from exploring what I want, when I want.  To get the museum’s interpretation of the tenement, I have to wait on a certain webpage until I have had my fill of listening.  The second thing that keeps my imagination in check is that the tour displays images in a pop-up window.  While not a big concern, it doesn’t feel immersive and I feel limited in how I can interact with the museum’s sources.  The Tenement Museum’s virtual tour succeeds in conveying information, but it doesn’t excite me about exploring its archives.  It has solid content and a functional interface, but the two don’t combine to start me imagining, say, life in a tenement.

Sources & Interface: Robie House Interior Restoration Project

The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust hosts the Robie House Interior Restoration Project which allows you to see information about the interior design of the Robie House as well as different stages of its restoration.  Like the Tenement Museum tour, it provides visitors with images, text, and a floor plan.  For me, what sets this example apart from other virtual tours is its interpretation of the Robie House’s dining room.  The curators of the project include a series of images of the dining room all taken from the same angle.  As a result, you can click through different stages of the restoration and see elements appear and disappear.

Robie House Interior Restoration Project

After I cycled through the images, I found switching back and forth between the 1910 image and the light fixture image compelling.  The light fixture image shows how the room looked while lit and how the different lighting changes the character of the space.  In that moment, I thought, “oh, that is cool,” and then I was thinking about what it might be like to eat in this room next to one of those lights.  The decision to match the perspective of restoration images with the 1910 images and allow users to switch back and forth allowed for a moment of discovery to happen.  It was exciting and cool, and allowed me to go beyond the content of the site and think about ideas that I found interesting.

Imagination Through Exploration: Google Art Project

The Google Art Project seems to prioritize the moment of discovery and process of imagination above other things (even using the word “Discover” in its interface).  Within a few seconds of visiting the site, I got absorbed into the paintings and their surroundings.  Unlike many digital humanities projects, the Google Art Project doesn’t privilege either the spatial or the textual, but stresses the movement between the two.  You can find paintings and gallery layouts through the virtual tour or browse by painter and artist.  Once you find one thing you are interested in, you can either go more in depth or move (spatially or otherwise) to related paintings or galleries.

MOMA Virtual Tour

Google Art Project’s Virtual Tour of the Museum of Modern Art

At first glance, the layout of the virtual tour seems a lot like the Tenement Museum.  It includes a picture that you drag around to see a physical space and a floor plan.  The Google Art Project, however, allows you to quickly go beyond this view.  Clicking on a painting brings you to a viewer where you can pan and zoom in close enough to see brush strokes.

Google Art Project's Painting Screen

Zoomed in on The Starry Night

If you want to learn more about the painting you are looking at, you can click through to the painting’s “details.”  Here you can see different types of information about the painting (including written interpretations and videos) as well as a basic Google map about the artist’s life.

Google Art Project Details Screen

Google Art Project Details Screen

The Google Art Project uses web design conventions to highlight the content on the site and engage its users.  By using dark colors for much of the entire site, I got the sense of looking at everything through a “ligthbox” effect (when you click an image on the web, it zooms in and darkens the rest of the screen).  Only when it was time to engage with interpretation of the image does the background lighten to emphasize the text.

Focus on Imagination Instead of Medium

Using what I assume are wildly different budgets, these three sites all use the virtual tour to create an archive useful to academics and the public at large.  The web allows us to do many things.  Using a digital medium we can recreate and reinvent house and gallery tours, archives, and books.  Rather than focusing on redefining these forms, I would like to digital humanities projects to concentrate on what makes those forms great–their ability to spur your imagination.  While I will never be able to go back and read Gay New York again for the first time, I am hopeful that digital humanities projects of all sorts will keep my imagination going for some time to come.

About Evan Cordulack

Evan Cordulack is a Web Applications Specialist for Academic Technology. He helps faculty members with Web-based projects related to their research and teaching. He earned his PhD in American Studies at William & Mary in 2013. Find him at


  1. Betsy Schlabach says:

    _Gay New York_ changed forever the way I research public and urban space and links to their interiors. Great work, Evan. I’d like to see Black Chicago do similar work with its interior spaces. I could see some great digital humanities projects concerning kitchenette apartments, 47th street, and the Robert Taylor homes.

  2. Gene Roche says:

    This is an excellent overview of some of the the benefits and the shortcomings of the digital humanities. If someone can’t get to NYC to visit the Tenement Museum, the overview can provide some interesting information. But we get a little closer to real experience of those early inhabitants of the lower east side by actually walking up the stairs and squeezing into the tiny rooms that housed whole families. Even that’s just a start for those of us who have become accustomed to things like AC, clean water and plumbing. Understanding the past really requires the cultivation of active imagine; hopefully, the technology helps to stimulate that.