The Cusp of Modernity to the Cutting Edge


Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, from 1913 to 1921, witnessed World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, as well as innovations like the institution of the assembly line and development of the germ theory and antiseptic surgeries that brought America and the rest of the world to the cusp of modernity. Combining primary source historical content with cutting edge technology, Northern Light has spent the last few months creating an interactive timeline display for the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. The timeline will be displayed on a 55” touch screen display made by Ideum, a company that specializes in touch wall and table displays.

Last week, the entire NLP staff headed down to the studio where the Wilson team has been testing the interactive program. Beth Sternheimer, the producer on this project, demonstrated the variety of experiences that visitors will be able to choose from. “The interactives are more engaging than sitting and watching a video…visitors also have more incentive to physically go to a museum versus watching something on YouTube. And each user can control his or her experience, deciding what they want to focus on and where to delve in.”


One of the challenges for Rich Howley, the developer and programmer, was to anticipate how visitors will use the display and how much people will figure out by exploring. For instance, “if they stand to the left but touch the right side of the screen, it would be unhelpful to have the text box pop up on the right.” The multi-touch screen can accommodate many users at a time. Rich explained that limiting the screen’s capabilities for only two users was the best use of space both on-screen and in the exhibit. This is just one strategy he employed to customize the overall experience.

Associate Producer Amy Shafer oversaw the archival research for this project and was particularly struck by the many parallels between ourselves and people who lived a century ago. “We think of people who lived during the early 1900s as being very prudish and proper, but the reality is that they weren’t so different from us; they made fun of political figures and worried about the future the same way we do today.” This realization is echoed by the popularity of PBS’s Downton Abbey, set in Britain during the exact years of the Wilson presidency. A fan of the show, Producer Beth Sternheimer commented that it offered a fascinating backdrop to her work. “Having researched and written about sinking of the British passenger ship RMS Lusitania and its geo-political impact for this project, it was interesting to see the series begin with the deaths of several passengers and witness how it personally affected the residents of Downton Abbey.” Amy agreed that the show provides excellent insights into the era, also adding that the best part of conducting such in-depth research was “discovering historical figures that are full, multi-dimensional characters.”


The era of Wilson’s presidency may have witnessed the cusp of modernity, but today, the technology behind this touchscreen interactive puts the Wilson Center on the cutting edge of the modern museum experience. Allowing visitors to explore primary sources in an engaging and self-directed manner capitalizes on both our digital proclivities and our renewed cultural fascination with the early 1900s.

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