Make the Trip Online: Virtual Experiences that Bring History to You

By Scott Vierick, Historian

The shift towards accessible, digital experiences that many historic sites, cultural institutions, and museums have embraced to share their collections, histories, and stories with a broader audience has perhaps never seemed more important. As the response to COVID-19 keeps more and more of us at home—many with kids to entertain—we wanted to highlight some of our favorite digital projects that can keep you engaged and entertained from afar.

You don’t have to be physically on a battlefield to learn about these important moments in history.

Trip to a battlefield canceled? HAI has collaborated with the American Battlefield Trust on several smartphone apps that explore major Civil War battlefields in Virginia. These “Battle Apps” include in-depth descriptions of the battles, videos featuring historical experts, and recreated audio accounts from eyewitnesses. If military history is your thing, you also may enjoy the National World War II Memorial app we developed with the Trust for the National Mall. It features personal stories of the men or women who contributed to the war effort from each of the states and territories represented at the memorial. All of these apps are available for free on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

Want to be reminded of the good that people can do, even in the face of adversity? HAI worked with the National Philanthropic Trust to create an interactive timeline that charts the changing nature of philanthropy over the centuries. We collaborated with the National Center for Civil & Human Rights to create an online Freedom Mosaic that highlights several individuals who have helped make the world more free and just. The mosaic includes images, facts, and, in some cases, oral histories. “For Community and Country,” a digital exhibit created with Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, explores the inspirational life and legacy of civil rights activist Dr. Hector P. Garcia.

The Civil Rights Decision Tree explores the Freedom Summer through the eyes of a voting rights activist.

Want to take a historical walk in someone else’s shoes? In partnership with Pearson Education, we helped create Project Imagine, a digital learning tool for high schoolers (and interested adults). Project Imagine uses primary sources to help students learn about the past and experience major events and changes in American history, from a woman on the homefront during World War II to an immigrant living in a New York City tenement. While it is intended for schools and classrooms, some content is available for free through the Project Imagine site.

In addition to the work we’ve done, many other historic sites have expansive digital offerings. George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate features a virtual tour of the mansion, and an interactive experience called “Be Washington,” where visitors can face some of the challenges that Washington did. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is also offering guided virtual tours for both individuals and groups using the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Visitors who buy a ticket are matched with a guide who can take them through the mansion and answer questions. The Smithsonian is offering a variety of resources on its Distance Learning Lab and History Explorer platforms. From artifacts to videos to lesson plans, these resources have entertainment and educational value for kids and adults alike.

Many smaller museums, historic sites, and cultural institutions also offer digital content. The Whitesbog Preservation Trust and Menokin Foundation both host compelling oral histories on their websites. The Historic London Town & Gardens website offers detailed descriptions of its history and short bios of its residents. We suggest checking out the websites of your local museums, libraries, archives, and historical societies to see what might be available online. You might be surprised at the compelling histories you discover.