Project Overview: Uniting leaders from the fields of tech, education, museology, architecture, dance and human rights, the Computational Histories Program hopes to deploy web-mapping and mixed reality systems (i) to transform architectural structures, civic spaces, and landscapes into digital canvases for museum curators; and (ii) to examine the user interplay between archival material, data, movement, and geolocation. In concert with these technical and creative ambitions are aims (iii) to design educational curricula that blurs disciplinary boundaries between computational, curatorial, and choreographic thinking; and (iv) to foster cross-campus initiatives with Cornell researchers in New York City, Ithaca, and Washington D.C. Key advisors and collaborators at Cornell Tech include Deborah Estrin (Associate Dean for Impact), Helen Nissenbaum (Director, DLI), Diane Levitt (Senior Director, K-12 Education), Debbie Marcus (Senior Director, Break Through Tech), and Lauren Williams (Development Associate), as well as talented graduates from Cornell Tech's Connective Media program, Zhiling Hu, Meera Nanda and Ananya Paul. Explore the research tracks below – with a focus on the core initiative, Beyond Museum Walls – or contact Michael Byrne (Project Lead, DLI) for more information here >
Image Credits: (Animated Header) The facade of the New-York Historical Society showcases AR activations of Maria Callas, Shirley Chisholm and Eleanor Roosevelt, demonstrating how urban structures have affordances to highlight historical figures from core museum collections. The rendering reveals a conceptual sequence using the facade of the United Nations to animate content relating to Roosevelt's involvement with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, followed by the potential of dance and gesture to vivify digital content within civic spaces, such as Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island. For illustrative purposes only, the dancers appear static inside the Cornell Tech logo; however, they will move dynamically within the final design iteration. (Above) Composite view of the UN HQ from Four Freedoms Park, with a superimposed image of young Eleanor Roosevelt. (Animations, Designs & Overlays) Michael Byrne.
Computational Histories Program | Digital Correctives in Civic Spaces
The Digital Life Initiative (DLI) developed the Computational Histories Program to examine the ways in which contemporary technologies can redress historical asymmetries in urban and rural environments. While Eleanor Roosevelt acts as a signifier across several project tracks, it is her legacy of campaigning for marginalized voices and social justice that impels the program's technical, creative, architectural, and educational ambitions.
Historical Context: “No woman has ever so comforted the distressed or distressed the comfortable,” said U.S. Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce when describing Eleanor Roosevelt. Beyond her role as the longest serving First Lady, a position of genteel servitude that she challenged and redefined alongside President Franklin Roosevelt through her commitment to public policy, social justice, and civil rights in America, Eleanor was dedicated to improving the quality of life for people across the globe. Her fearless activism unsettled established societal norms, garnering her one of the largest FBI files compiled on any person in history, while securing her a prestigious appointment to chair the drafting of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the most widely translated document in the world. When DLI Research Fellow Michael Byrne noted that such an extraordinary figure was unrepresented or acknowledged formally on Roosevelt Island, the Computational Histories Program was initiated to critique the systemic exclusion of women and other silenced communities from sites of public commemoration and historical discourse.
Furthermore, Byrne discovered that former NYC Mayor John Lindsay had intentions in the 1970s for Roosevelt Island to be named in honor of both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; however, the latter was ultimately overlooked within official city legislation, despite the island’s location opposite the UN’s headquarters, and the assertion that Eleanor was "more closely identified with New York City than the President himself." While her contemporary absence reflects the pervasiveness of gender inequality in society, broader contestation exists around earlier historical omissions, particularly those of indigenous communities in the U.S. (e.g., Roosevelt Island was originally named Minnehanonck by the Lenape people). Just as Eleanor's nationally syndicated newspaper column My Day was launched to connect people across America, so too can today’s immersive technologies, material structures, embodied practices, and pedagogical frameworks be used to galvanize the voices and histories of communities locally, nationally, and globally.
Augmented Reality (AR) technology involves wearing a headset or directing a mobile device at an object, surface area, or community space, and allowing computer-generated imagery to be superimposed seamlessly onto the user’s screen in real-time. For example, virtual overlays of historic women can be activated when viewed through AR lenses, or pointing a phone at the granite blocks in Four Freedoms Park, the façade of the United Nations headquarters, or other commemorative structures (see visualizations above). Through the integration of web-mapping platforms and the aggregation of curated content from an unrivaled network of museums, AR has the generative capacity to amplify women’s historical narratives in environments beyond conventional museum settings, as well as integrate contemporary reflections from users. We aim to develop a free platform that will merge real, virtual, and historical worlds, illustrating how past legacies and present creativities become coterminous: the narratives of historical Greats will be intertwined with the contemporary reflections of girls and women locally and nationally.
Future Steps: In the spirt of global togetherness, Eleanor Roosevelt stated that “we go ahead together, or we go down together”. Fortified by this vision, the initiative will also highlight women’s untold narratives beyond the borders of the United States by advancing the immersive use of geolocation, archival assets, and gesture activation in different communities and cultures. Given Eleanor’s influential co-authorship of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we would like to champion women's initiatives within the UN and other international partners, particularly in the dissemination of complementary K-12 STEM curricula. It is also important to acknowledge that the initial phases of collaboration will serve as impetus for advancing the full ambitions of the Computational Histories Program: broadening the curatorial frame of women’s history to include other unrepresented voices.
Image Credits: (Track No.1 Header, Clockwise) Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Museum of African American History, Western Australian Museum, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and the New-York Historical Society. (Above) Four Freedoms Park with AR visualizations of historic women, as well as Jack Mitchell's photograph of Martha Graham Dance Company Artistic Director Janet Eilber performing in 1979; aerial view of the East River in New York City; singer Marian Anderson inserted at the Lincoln Memorial to celebrate her iconic performance and protest in 1939; an illustrative rendering of Eleanor Roosevelt projected onto the United Nations' headquarters in NYC; Roosevelt seated amidst UN delegates; and a 2020 video about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by Yulia Mahr and Max Richter. (Below) An illustration of a lightweight AR headset; vector examples of the Smithsonian's NMAAH and the United Nations HQ with mobile AR overlays; and Roosevelt – as commission chair – holding the UDHR, ratified on December 10, 1948. (Concept Designs & Graphics) Michael Byrne.
1 Beyond Museum Walls | Architectural Activations & Augmented Reality
Aim: Design a mixed reality system that illuminates the histories of women in civic spaces by inviting curators and new audiences to engage critically with emergent technology.
Overview: Cultural historians have campaigned actively for the creation of new monuments to reflect gender parity; however, Cornell Tech and prospective museum collaborators (e.g., Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative, and the Center for Women's History at the New-York Historical Society) believe that complementing immersive systems and web-mapping platforms with educational programs can challenge entrenched inequality in more dynamic ways:
Access: Highlight untold histories in communities with less exposure to museum content.
Engagement: Foster transformative meaning-making through user interactivity and creativity.
Utility: Design a digital toolkit for curators to amplify unrepresented voices from within their core museum collections.
Museum Expertise: Assemble a diverse group of specialists from the leading centers of women's history in New York, Washington D.C., and affiliated national networks.
Education: Disseminate a complementary K-12 curriculum that empowers young women to integrate computational thinking across multiple disciplines (e.g., history, dance, and geography). The Computational Histories Program advocates that technological advancements are redundant without deploying pedagogical frameworks that tackle the systematic inequality they aim to highlight.
2 Digital Re-performance | Archival Data & Movement
Aim: Experiment with the intersections of history, dance, gesture, and immersive technology.
Overview: Icons of the 20th Century Martha Graham and Eleanor Roosevelt believed in the power of movement as a social, cultural and diplomatic cohesive, articulated saliently within the findings of Camelia Lenart (see A Trustworthy Collaboration: Eleanor Roosevelt and Martha Graham’s Pioneering of American Cultural Diplomacy) and Victoria Phillips (see Martha Graham's Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy). After meeting Graham to discuss her 1956 world tour, Roosevelt noted:
"It is wonderful to have a medium of expression through your art which draws people nearer to you, even though their languages and their artistic expression may be completely different."
Inspired by these two remarkable women, Cornell Tech researchers Zhiling Hu, Meera Nanda, Ananya Paul and Michael Byrne raised the following provocation: Could the gestures of Eleanor Roosevelt trigger specific choreographic poses from Martha Graham’s repertoire? Consequently, an augmented reality experiment was conducted on campus to re-perform movement using data inputs from the archive. Virtual mannequins responded dynamically to the somatic prompts found within the First Lady’s historic photographs, while highlighting the alien sensibilities between physical and digital worlds. The ghostly avatars used to depict Graham's movements were rendered for experimental purposes only, but serve as a useful developmental tool for examining how public space can be populated with gesture-activated historical content.
View test footage below, or watch here >
Film Credits: (Mannequin Design & Manipulation) Meera Nanda; (Geolocation, Marker Activation & Gesture Testing) Zhiling Hu and Ananya Paul; (Design & Editing) Michael Byrne.
Image Credits: (Track No. 2 Header) A map of Roosevelt Island in New York City, pinpointing the Cornell Tech campus; and a composite photograph of Martha Graham and Eleanor Roosevelt. (Top-Down) Paul Meltsner's 1938 depiction of Graham (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery) paired with historic photos of Roosevelt from Getty Images; Michael Byrne alongside Bernard Frydrysiak's 1944 painting of Roosevelt (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery); Zhiling Hu and Meera Nanda during a brainstorming session inside Cornell Tech's Tata Innovation Center; and a digital composite of Ananya Paul in Four Freedom's Park on Roosevelt Island.
3 Fearless Symmetries | Commemorative Design
Aim: Design a graphical submission that reflects the societal need for cooperation and equality.
Overview: Coordinated by Break Through Tech in collaboration with Cornell Tech and CUNY, the Ambient Belonging Project is an annual design and art initiative that fosters inclusivity in physical environments. The 2019-2020 theme ‘Win Together’ champions gender equality and collaboration, inspiring Michael Byrne to submit one of the winning entries: entitled Fearless Symmetries, ‘binary’ computer code was used to construct the portraits of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in order to highlight the dynamic political and personal partnership of the former U.S. President and the First Lady. As with the core motivations of the Computational Histories Program, the design was prompted by the marked omission of Eleanor from Roosevelt Island, and advocates the use of augmented reality as an ethical and philosophical corrective in restoring her rightful presence alongside FDR. For example, the bust of FDR on display within Four Freedoms Park presents an exciting opportunity to use AR as an interactive complement (see example below). Knowing that Eleanor was not a proponent of self-aggrandizement, Byrne feels passionate in using technology, not simply for its commemorative and novel affordances, but as a productive platform for connecting and elevating a broader community of voices. Eleanor's insights remain pertinent to today's mission for challenging imbalances within our society: "Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both."
Image Credits: (Track No.3 Header) Augmented reality rendering of Eleanor Roosevelt alongside Franklin Roosevelt's bust in Four Freedom's Park. (Above) An illustrative example of how mobile AR can transmute FDR's bust into a digital rendering of Eleanor Roosevelt. (Below) A floor plan of Cornell Tech's Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center. (Concept Designs & Animations) Michael Byrne.
4 Historic Reconnections | Campus Integrations
Aim: Draw on Eleanor Roosevelt's 30-year association with the Cornell community by encouraging collaborations across the University's campuses in Ithaca, New York City, and Washington D.C.
Overview: In addition to Cornell Tech's Digital Life Initiative, partnering hubs could include the XR Collaboratory (XRC), and other departments within Cornell University (e.g., College of Human Ecology).
"Many people have contributed to Cornell University’s rich history, but one key contributor was never a student, alumna or professor. In today’s College of Human Ecology, research in nutrition and health, design and technology, human development, and public policy can be traced back to the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt. For almost 30 years, Eleanor Roosevelt clearly felt a personal connection to Cornell, and especially to the social reform agenda of the College of Home Economics. Her relationship with Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose benefited the college and the university. And, all of her trips to Ithaca gave her the opportunity to show her support of young people, women and minorities, and to encourage their participation in politics, civic activities and international affairs." – Cornell Rewind: The Influence of Eleanor Roosevelt
Image Credits: (Left-Right) Letter between Eleanor Roosevelt and Martha Van Rensselaer, co-founder of Cornell’s College of Home Economics (now College of Human Ecology) in 1932; Roosevelt modeling her presidential inauguration gown at Bailey Hall during her 1937 visit to Cornell's Farm and Home Week. The gown remains in Cornell's collection; Roosevelt with Flora Rose, co-founder of Cornell’s College of Home Economics in 1938; Roosevelt with Gert Hans Werner Schmidt, manager of Hotel Ezra Cornell in 1938; and Roosevelt visiting Cornell's Watermargin student cooperative in 1950.
5 Legacy Engineering | Socio-technical Partnerships
Aim: Develop technological opportunities with The Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Partnership to vivify Eleanor's legacy at her historic home in Hyde Park, and beyond.
Overview: "The greatest thing I have learned is how good it is to come home again," wrote Eleanor when describing her affections for the humble house she called Val-Kill (meaning "valley stream" in Dutch). DLI Research Fellow Michael Byrne was honored to be appointed to The Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Partnership as a Board Director in 2020, and remains excited to use the Computational Histories Program to champion Eleanor's contemporary vision of inclusivity and social justice, while developing initiatives with local academic, cultural, and industry partners in New York (and neighboring states).
Image Credits: (Track No.5 Header) Augmented reality rendering by Michael Byrne of Eleanor Roosevelt walking Fala through the grounds of Val-Kill. (Below) Byrne standing alongside Neil Estern's statue of Roosevelt in Washington D.C.; Eleanor at Val-Kill: sitting in the garden, accompanied by pioneering lawyer and women’s rights advocate Pauli Murray, and enjoying conversation with guests.
Eleanor Roosevelt, lean and rangy, wore floral dresses and tucked flowers in the brim of floppy hats perched on top of her wavy hair, but she had a spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper.
Jill Lepore – These Truths: A History of the United States
The measure of her greatness was her capacity for growth, her ruthless honesty with herself, and the generosity with which she responded to criticisms.
Pauli Murray – Song in a Weary Throat
We make our own history. The course of history is directed by the choices we make and our choices grow out of the ideas, the beliefs, the values, the dreams of the people.
Eleanor Roosevelt – Tomorrow Is Now
Cornell Tech Advisors
DLI Research Fellow