Interactive History | Changing the Way We Teach History in Museums

By Maddie Mott ::

A child plays in the Augmented Reality Sandbox at the Museum of the Oregon Territory. Source: Maddie Mott

Sand on its own is a pretty unremarkable substance. But when combined with technology, sand can be transformed into an educational user interface. In January 2016, I began an internship at the Clackamas County Historical Society (CCHS), where I was involved in creating interactive exhibit components designed for kids that would be installed at the Museum of the Oregon Territory (MOOT). One of the components I developed is an Augmented Reality (AR) Sandbox, which uses technology to turn a normal sandbox into an interactive and engaging educational resource.

The AR Sandbox uses innovative technology previously unseen at MOOT. Using a projector, a Xbox 360 Kinect sensor, and open-source software developed as part of a National Science Foundation grant, a sandbox can become a radically different experience. Projected onto the sand are contour lines and a colorful elevation guide. As visitors interact with the sand, the change in colors reflects the changes in elevations, creating white-capped mountains and deep blue basins. The other feature of the AR Sandbox is the ability to “make it rain.” When a visitor holds their hand over the sandbox, a water simulation is triggered in which virtual water will fall onto the sandbox and flow naturally from the higher elevations to the lower elevations, creating lakes, rivers, and oceans.

A couple of weeks ago, a woman from a foundation we had applied for a grant from came to MOOT for site visit. As she played with the AR sandbox, she remarked “I feel like I’m at a science museum!” It’s a reaction we get a lot from visitors.Typically, AR sandboxes and other highly interactive exhibits are seen on display at science museums. People are often surprised to see the sandbox at a history museum, but that shouldn’t preclude history museums from featuring exciting and engaging teaching components as well.

At MOOT, the AR sandbox is used to teach our community about the relationship between history and geography. Geography and history intersect when the geographical features of an environment has an effect on the history of the people that interact with that landscape and the stories that they record. For example, the geographical features of the Willamette Valley, such as its close proximity to waterways and its fertile, flat plains, was one of the reasons Native Americans and settlers alike lived in the area. History, and the stories of the people that lived here, began with the physical properties of the environment. The AR Sandbox gives our visitors a chance to create an environment and set the stage for the rest of the historical narrative.