Augmented Histories Project | Inspired by the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt
Cornell Tech's Digital Life Initiative (DLI) developed the Augmented Histories Project to examine the ways in which mixed reality technology can redress historical asymmetries in urban and rural environments.
The exploratory project was designed by DLI Research Fellow Michael Byrne, who noted that Eleanor Roosevelt was unrepresented or acknowledged formally on Roosevelt Island, echoing the systemic omission of women from sites of public commemoration and historical discourse. Just as Roosevelt’s nationally syndicated newspaper column My Day was launched during the 1930s to connect communities across America, so too can today’s immersive technologies and pedagogical frameworks be used to galvanize the voices of the marginalized locally, nationally, and globally.
Uniting leaders from the fields of museology, tech, human rights, education and dance, the project deploys web-mapping and augmented reality systems (i) to transform architectural surfaces, civic spaces, and landscapes into digital canvases for curators; and (ii) to examine the user interplay between archival material, data, gesture, 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.
Eleanor Roosevelt's legacy of public service intersects meaningfully with multiple voices, cultures, and histories, acting as a thematic unifier across several experiment and research tracks (see Nos. 2-5), with key emphases on Beyond Museum Walls (see No. 1). Explore below for more information, or contact us >
Image Credit: (Banner) The facade of the New-York Historical Society activates augmented reality renderings of Maria Callas, Shirley Chisholm, and Eleanor Roosevelt, demonstrating how museum structures have the affordance to highlight figures from within their core collections, ranging from the august to the lesser known. (Design & Overlays) Michael Byrne.
Visual Credits: (Track No.1 Banner, 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, Clockwise) Aerial view of the East River in New York City, an illustrative rendering of Eleanor Roosevelt projected onto the United Nations Headquarters, and Roosevelt seated amidst UN delegates; 2020 video of the 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 an image of Roosevelt – as commission chair – holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified on December 10, 1948. (Concept Designs & Graphics) Michael Byrne.
1 Beyond Museum Walls | Eleanor and a Global Community
Project Aim: Design a mixed reality platform that illuminates the histories of women in civic spaces by inviting curators and new audiences to engage dynamically, critically, and creatively 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 uniting immersive systems, web-mapping platforms, and educational programs can challenge entrenched inequality in more transformative 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 Augmented Histories Project advocates that technological advancements are redundant without deploying a pedagogical framework to tackle the systematic inequality it aims to highlight.
Augmented Reality (AR) involves using a headset or directing a mobile device at an object, surface, or community space, and allowing computer-generated imagery to be superimposed seamlessly onto the user’s screen. Similarly, archival material can be activated when wearing AR lenses, or pointing a phone at the granite blocks in Four Freedoms Park, the façade of the United Nations headquarters, or other civic structures (see visualizations below). Through the integration of web-mapping platforms and the aggregation of curated content from an unrivaled network of museums, AR technology has the generative capacity (i) to amplify women’s historical narratives in environments beyond conventional museum settings, (ii) as well as illuminate contemporary reflections from girls and women. The free platform 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 voices of girls and women locally and nationally.
In the spirt of global togetherness, Eleanor Roosevelt stated that “we go ahead together, or we go down together”. Fortified by this vision, the project 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, the project will champion the initiatives of UN Women and other international partners, particularly in the dissemination of complementary K-12 curricula. It is also important to acknowledge that the initial phases of collaboration will serve as impetus for advancing the full ambitions of the project: broadening the curatorial frame of women’s history to include other unrepresented voices.
2 Digital Re-performance | Eleanor and Martha Graham
Technical 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 dance as a social, cultural and diplomatic cohesive, articulated by 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 recent 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."
To represent their shared visions, Cornell Tech researchers Michael Byrne, Zhiling Hu, Meera Nanda and Ananya Paul 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 useful developmental tools 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 Banner) 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 sprint brainstorming session inside Cornell Tech's Tata Innovation Center; and, Ananya Paul rendered digitally into Four Freedom's Park on Roosevelt Island.
3 Fearless Symmetries | Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt
Design Aim: Create a graphical submission that reflects the societal need for cooperation and equality.
Overview: The Ambient Belonging Project – coordinated by the award-winning Break Through Tech in collaboration with Cornell Tech and CUNY – is an annual design and art initiative that fosters inclusivity in physical environments. The 2019-2020 theme "Win Together" promotes gender equality and collaboration, prompting Michael Byrne to submit one of the winning entries, entitled Fearless Symmetries. Highlighting the dynamic partnership between Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt – the former First Lady and President of the United States – ‘binary’ computer code was used to construct their portraits. As with the core motivations of the Augmented Histories Project, the design was inspired 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. Knowing that Eleanor was not a proponent of self-aggrandizement, Byrne feels passionate in using technology, not simply for its commemorative affordances, but as a productive platform for connecting and elevating a broader community of voices. Her salient words remain pertinent to today's mission of challenging gender imbalances within our society:
"Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both."
Image Credits: (Track No.4 Banner) Augmented reality rendering of Eleanor Roosevelt alongside Franklin Roosevelt's bust in Four Freedom's Park; (Below) Floor plan of Cornell Tech's Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center; (Portrait Design) Michael Byrne.
4 Historic Reconnections | Eleanor & Cornell University
Aim: Honor 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 include the Mixed Reality Collaboratory and Cornell University's new humanities engine centered on black and indigenous relationality, Dark Laboratory.
“Eleanor Roosevelt’s interest in social reform for women led her to play an integral role in the development of the College of Home Economics, now the College of Human Ecology, at Cornell University. From 1928 to 1940, Eleanor visited Cornell for the annual “Farm and Home Week” in which she always gave the keynote speech to a packed Bailey Hall. Her passion for social reform within the College of Home Economics demonstrated her unwavering support for young women and encouraged activism. Roosevelt left her mark on Cornell and her legacy continues to impact the College of Human Ecology today.”
5 Legacy Engineering | Eleanor and Cornell Tech
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 house she called Val-Kill (meaning "valley stream" in Dutch). DLI Research Fellow Michael Byrne was deeply honored to be appointed to The Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Partnership as a Board Director in 2020, and remains excited to use the Augmented Histories Project to champion Eleanor's contemporary vision of inclusivity, while developing initiatives with local academic, cultural, and industry partners in New York (and neighboring states).
Image Credits: (Track No.5 Banner) An augmented reality rendering of Eleanor Roosevelt walking Fala through the grounds of Val-Kill; (Right) Michael Byrne alongside Neil Estern's statue of Eleanor in Washington D.C. (where, fortuitously, she is sculpted wearing the same coat worn in the photograph above); (Below) Architectural drawings of Cornell Tech's Bloomberg Center alongside the buildings of Val-Kill.
"One thing I believe profoundly:
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."
Cornell Tech Advisors
Cornell Tech Project Lead
DLI Research Fellow