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VCU Archaeology

Hands on the Past: the Ferry Farm Touchbox, Virtual Curation, and Tactile Archaeology

By Bernard K. Means, Director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory

Melanie Marquis demonstrated the Touchbox

Melanie Marquis demonstrates the Touchbox

This past Friday (March 22, 2013), I had the opportunity to speak with Melanie Marquis, laboratory supervisor at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, regarding a Touchbox she had developed for blind and other visually impaired visitors.  Standard museum displays—with artifacts and text protected behind clear acrylic or glass case fronts—are inaccessible to those who cannot see or have difficulty seeing.  The Touchbox was developed to make sure that these visitors also have the opportunity to learn and experience the rich history imbedded in the archaeological landscape at Ferry Farm—a history that includes American Indian artifacts spanning millennia, objects associated with a young George Washington and his family, and items recovered from a significant Union encampment dating to the American Civil War. The Touchbox includes large print and Braille maps of the Ferry Farm archaeological investigations, unprovenienced artifacts that can be safely handled, and some objects purchased from thrift shops that are analogues of materials recovered archaeologically.

Raised map with Braille showing the Ferry Farm landscape.

Raised map with Braille showing the Ferry Farm landscape.

Plastic replica (left) of an 18th century (right) recovered at Ferry Farm.

Plastic replica (left) of an 18th century brush  (right) recovered at Ferry Farm.

What’s lacking from the Touchbox are key items recovered from Ferry Farm’s rich past that are too sensitive or fragile to be handled by any visitor to the site. Fortunately, our work at the Virtual Curation Laboratory allows us to create plastic replicas of artifacts from Ferry Farm that can be incorporated into the Touchbox.  We’ve been working with Ferry Farm’s artifact analyst, Laura Galke, over the last year-and-a-half to create virtual avatars of many significant small finds, including American Indian stone tools, 18th century wig curlers and buckle fragments, the Masonic pipe that may have belonged to George Washington, and Minié balls from the Civil War occupation—among other objects.  And, we have created plastic replicas using the MakerBot Replicator that is normally housed in the Virtual Curation Laboratory @ Virginia Commonwealth University.  The plastic replicas we create are scaled exactly the same as their more fragile actual analogues, and thus enable a tactile appreciation of Ferry Farm’s past.

Plastic (left) replica of an Adena point (right) from Ferry Farm.

Plastic (left) replica of an Adena point (right) from Ferry Farm.

Over the coming weeks, we will be creating plastic replicas of small finds virtually curated from George Washington’s Ferry Farm for specific inclusion into the Touchbox.  We here at the Virtual Curation Laboratory are excited about our chance to make Ferry Farm’s history available to a wider audience. For more about our virtual curation efforts, I can be contacted at bkmeans@vcu.edu.  If you wish to learn more about the Touchbox, contact Melanie healy-marquis@gwffoundation.org.. And, Laura Galke can answer your questions about Ferry Farm’s small finds and current archaeological investigations at galke@gwffoundation.org.

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