Select images above to view the model with an audience & side-by-side comparisons to historical photos.
Double-click to activate the interactive model; click and drag to rotate;
click the arrow on the right side for more navigation tools.
"The past did not happen in 2D and that it cannot be effectively studied or taught as a series of disconnected static images that, for the most part, represent incomplete remains." – Donald H. Sanders, "Why Do Virtual Heritage?"
Did you know that this year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first queer political protest in the world? Surprisingly, most people do not. What would you say if I offered you the chance to relive that historic moment – when, in 1867, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs took to the stage of the Grand Hall of the Odeon Theater in Munich to protest anti-sodomy laws in front of the five-hundred-member Association of German Jurists? He did so on the basis of a new, communal, queer political identity of which he alone had conceived. He was eventually shouted down, but his efforts inspired generations of queer activists – a lineage that can be traced to the modern LGBT rights movement.
As I previously proposed, virtual heritage makes available that which no longer exists or that which is not easily accessible for all. Three-dimensional modeling recreates spaces in which history was lived, enacted, and experienced. Exploring such recreations is a means of engaging our senses. Visualizing history helps us attach imperfection, emotion and memory to events, contrary to claiming "objectivities" and reciting "facts." This particular representation of the Odeon can help us, as public historians, to humanize and celebrate Ulrichs' activism, and to offer an alternative perspective to the narratives absent in history textbooks and our popular historical imagination.
Contrary to the idea that "virtual environments cause disembodiment, disorientation, discomfort, and social alienation" (Champion, 109), digital surrogates like the one I have created of the Odeon help us to both contextualize the spaces in which historic events took place and attempt to situate ourselves in the roles of the historical actors we study. Through a process of emulation, or approximation of lived experience, we can empathize with our historical subjects – thus improving our historiographies.
Rather than idolizing and, thus, objectifying the past – its significance and historical figures – how may we re-enact, bear witness to, and interpret it as human observers-cum-subjects? This project draws on disjointed fragments of information – synthesizing them into something that is not simply consumable (such as a text or tome), but something that is dynamic and interactive. To be clear, this project is not digital for the sake of being digital; "being impressed by technology is not the same as being inspired by it" (Champion, 109). Rather, this model reveals a version of the Grand Hall that no longer exists (having been bombed and reconstructed a level lower as a courtyard). Indeed, we may conceive of three-dimensional modeling (and other kinds of virtual heritage) as a form of preservation. We are creating large-scale digital records of our past. This project does not reveal historical information so much as it elucidates it. I started out with different pieces of a puzzle; SketchUp allowed me to put them together.
Still, we must be wary of accessibility issues that extend beyond breadth of circulation; the digital divide (issues of class and age that make technology a privilege, not the everyperson's tool), disability and learning style (future expansion of this project that keeps it from remaining exclusively visual), as well as questions of copyright, ownership, privatization and commercialization (of space, history and memory). Problems might arise from using a tool like SketchUp to draw from photographs, then upload the completed product to the 3D Warehouse – where anyone might access and even download it. Is that a wonderful, open source, informational free-for-all or a new frontier for plagiarism?
For my final project in Digital History, I will be using 3D modeling software (SketchUp) to reconstruct the Grand Hall of the Odeon Theater in Munich – the site of the first public political protest for "gay" rights. Using drawings, descriptions, and photos (taken at the beginning, middle, and end of the last century), I will extrapolate how the Hall might have appeared to Ulrichs in 1867 as he made his speech. The Odeon was bombed during World War II in an air raid and, as such, both the interior and exterior restorations differ very much from Urichs' time. In attempting to capture this site's former aesthetic, I hope to humanize (perhaps even dramatize) this important moment in queer history for my audience. The tangibility of space is an important and engaging aspect of history that I would like to explore through this project. "Setting the scene" by replicating the Grand Hall allows us to experience history in new, poignant ways.
SketchUp bills itself as "modeling for everyone" – easy to use and versatile. The software has already left its mark on the relatively nascent field of virtual heritage; after some research, I found several projects in which cultural heritage sites are being recreated/reconstructed using SketchUp:
But what differentiates three-dimensional modeling from printed, two-dimensional pictures? The dynamicism of the tools we use to convey complex ideas and arguments is a prevalent theme in the digital humanities. This tool can bring research to new audiences by allowing them to engage with history in new and meaningful ways. We are capable of exploring sites to which we might not otherwise have access – thereby democratizing the physicality/intangibility of the spaces we occupy and to which we form an emotional attachment (if not conjuring questions of "reality" and "presence," as well as the privatization of the tools we use to conduct such exploration). We can also broaden the scope of historic interpretation by appealing to cross sections of learners: those who might benefit most from reading the descriptive text that accompanies the reconstruction (e.g., as above), or from visualizing the space in three dimensions while interacting with the model (e.g., rotatation, zooming). In expanding this project, I might consider other avenues of making my reconstruction more accessible and meaningful; perhaps a booming Ulrichs voiceover that narrates the events of that day, making the audience feel as though they are witnessing the historic moment; perhaps a (miniature) 3D printout that people can touch and examine "in-person."
Queer history needs to be explored with digital tools for three reasons: (1) popularization, (2) canonization, and (3) reconstruction. Narratives of queer politics have long been neglected by our collective historical imagination. Public history is first and foremost an act of publicizing underrepresented histories (making them readily available and understandable for the layperson); it is not simply the interpretation of that which is already well-known and well-documented. Digital tools are crucial in disseminating this "new" information by offering a variety of learning methods that are not restricted to a single location (e.g., a physical exhibit or historic site). As public history seeks to extricate itself from academia (theories and paradigms that are often revealed to be meaningless pretension), it must also disrupt the historical "canon" – a hegemonic intellectual falsehood that gatekeeps our sense of validity by encouraging adaptation and assimilation rather than proclamation and testimony. In parallel, digital humanities scholars have had to contend with similar issues at the foundational level. If both fields unite to address these problems, we may be better able to both popularize and radicalize our histories. Even within queer history itself, we find mis/underrepresentations of POC, trans people, women, the poor and working class. These issues can be exacerbated by a dearth of primary source material. Digital tools can empower us to document our own histories and disrupt dominant narratives within our own communities, while accounting for the losses that our histories have suffered. Even in the case of a nineteenth-century "white" European man like Ulrichs (and other queers of his time), censorship and time have both played a role in diminishing the historical record. It is my hope that this project can reconstruct some of it.
Creating a model of the Grand Hall opens up my research to new methods of analysis by allowing me to depart from prevailing paradigms in traditional historiography that claim "objective truths" and "concrete facts." The concept of a singular, impartial history is an institutionalized myth born of racism, classism, (cis-hetero)sexism, etc. We can humanize important events by engaging site-specific history, by infusing history with pathos – an appeal to emotion, to empathy. As such, my intended audience is the LGBT community, because my primary concern is with demonstrating history as a mechanism of self-empowerment. Peripherally, my audience is also cishets (especially the phobes) because, pragmatically speaking, their education (rather than their spectatorship and animosity) benefits us.
Most obviously, someone who is ill-equipped to handle the physical fragility – the tenuousness – of these objects. Implicitly, then, an “insider” is the archivist – someone with specialized knowledge who is capable of managing and organizing the vastness of our material legacies.
Be it botched frescos, the paving of the Great Wall, or “fixed” tombs-turned-picnic tables, we often have good reason to anxiously anticipate restoration and conservation efforts. Outdoors or indoors, antique or ancient, the salvageability of these things is treated warily and with perverse fascination. We mourn the deevolution of the Ecce Homo, all the while creating memes and traveling great distances just to take selfies with it. Why?
We are reminded of the role that archives play in safeguarding certain materials. Indeed, archives represent a societal mechanism – a checks-and-balances system – for the (safe, sane, and professional) maintenance of our cultural heritage. Archives hold the power, making historic objects and documents sacrosanct – they can both liberate and blockade the physical, the intellectual, and the ideological elements of our materials and the histories they hold.
This year marks the 85th anniversary of German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld’s visit to San Francisco, and the announcement cropped up in my newsfeed this past week. Hirschfeld co-wrote Different From the Others and had himself pioneered queer, cross-cultural archival work in the early twentieth century. Who knew that one hundred years later, the GLBT History Museum – home to one of the country’s largest repositories of queer archival materials – would be throwing an event in his honor? How have we gone from a society that would destroy these works to one that would revere them?