The last time I was at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, I got to touch a jellyfish. The guide behind the open tank pointed through the water’s surface, showing me where it would be safe to touch. I was surprised at how firm the head felt, and I remembered how Dory and Marlin bounce on jellyfish heads in Finding Nemo, finding their feat now believable. The unexpected texture made me giddy. Now, every time I see gelatinous sea creatures, I remember the tank at Baltimore. With a new tactile understanding, I perceive them to be more robust, and even more agential, than I had before.
Today’s museums aren’t the museums of my childhood, and interactive exhibitions at museums is just one example how the public humanities have been changing. By “public” “humanities” I just mean public-facing work humanists have been engaging with. Earlier in my graduate training, I used to think “public humanities” was a new (and partly desperate) attempt for the humanities to make itself relevant and accessible in the twenty-first century. But now I see why it was naïve, if not overly cynical, to think so: the public humanities have been around as long as museums, monuments, library programming, and their likes have been around.
Though not new as a practice, public humanities does have new tools now. For instance, digital humanities continually expands how we research and teach. As a philosopher of fiction, virtual reality is a tool that I’m especially invested in. Literary fiction has long been used for pedagogical purposes; imaginative works were justified when they served moral educational purposes (think fables). Audiovisual fictions, too, are powerful educational tools; children’s programming routinely use fictional characters and events to teach anything from Spanish to science. And now, we can create immersive fictions. How could virtual reality be best used for public humanities?
One immediate thought is that virtual reality would be an excellent tool for teaching history. Virtual reconstructions of past locations might be considered fiction insofar as they’re distinct from the actual past. Virtual reconstructions would also need to fill in many details that are unknown to historians, so those simulated pasts would be fictional in the sense that they’re made up.
Historical fictions in both literary and audiovisual forms already bring alive the past for us, but imagine being able to walk around a reconstructed place to “see” firsthand what it was like. It’d be like visiting Colonial Williamsburg or Frilandsmuseet without needing to travel. Like in Westworld, one could virtually walk down Main Street to learn about western frontier social dynamics or learn about Edo architecture and dress by virtually walking through Shogunworld.
An immersion is worth a thousand pictures. Studies such as Green & Brock 2000 suggest that transportation—a high level of immersion—helps to form new beliefs. One doesn’t need to brute-memorize the differences between doric, ionic, Corinthian, and composite columns when one can recall where in virtual ancient Rome one had seen each column. A friend tells me that he has a much easier time memorizing things as an adult because of the many frameworks in which new knowledge can fit. Facts can become details of systems already in place, and interactive experiences, whether in a museum or virtual space, provide sensory modes of taking in information that allow facts to be integrated into one’s existing knowledge and memory. With advanced enough technology, we could also simulate touch, smell, and even taste. Imagine what such multimodal engagement would do for learning when simply touching a jellyfish had all but transformed the way I see them, their seeming passivity superseded by deliberate agency.
Seeing how Stephen Ortega uses video games to teach history shows how virtual reality, too, can help challenge the text-based understanding of the past. Virtual history would invite a more spatial way to understand past events with a focus on borders, expansions, proximities, and social dynamics in shared spaces. Interactive fictions in the form of virtual reality or video games also highlight the very real presence of contingency in history.
Wonderful as it may be, using virtual reality for history education would inherit the problems that face all historical fiction. There are many things we don’t know about the past, but narrative visual representation forces us to make choices about matters that we have no assurance over. We might have no idea what Silla dynasty women’s make-up looked like, but filming Korean period dramas requires directors to make decisions on how to represent Silla-era women. The worry is that virtual reality would introduce too many potential errors; what we gain in immersive power, we lose in fudging capacity. The strength of the medium is also the weakness in the sense that we can’t skip over representative aspects of the past that we don’t have knowledge of. Too bad if we’re uncertain of an era’s dress, wall texture, or roof shape because these things are going to have to be represented somehow in virtual reconstructions.
Could we point to the iterative nature of our learning to alleviate the worry? Take physics. In high school, we’re introduced to Newtonian physics even through it is inconsistent with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. This choice could be defended with the claim that simplification is a necessary pedagogical tool, or that Newtonian mechanics is good enough for everyday needs. When students need more precise calculations, they can be taught fancier equations. If scientific content now known to be strictly-speaking-false or incomplete can be justifiably taught in high school, could a similar case be made for history, that certain content known to be strictly-speaking-false or incomplete can be taught with the understanding that should further specification be needed, students can be retaught?
I think this line of thinking can go some way towards addressing the worry, but the remaining problem is that while Newtonian mechanics may be good enough for everyday matters, the kind of misinformation that can be relayed through public history might be harmful even at the everyday level. Sure, approximating what color palette a fashionable 15th sitting room would have had might not be so harmful. But what if a virtual 15th century town square replicated the implicit assumption that everyone in Medieval Europe were white? Such a choice, even if executed without malice, would perpetuate black and brown erasure. We’re continually learning how white supremacy influences our understanding of history, so there is high likelihood that problematic choices like the above would sneak into choices made about virtual reconstructions.
Add to all this the fact that most consumers of historical fiction don’t know where fact ends and fiction begins. The stereotype about Vikings wearing horned helmets was single-handedly introduced by a costume designer for Wagner’s opera. Without clear indications of what detail is reproduced as a result of careful research and what is only approximated due to representational necessity (or expediency, in the case of the horned helmets), false content can be taken up as known historical fact.
So, we have hard and important questions about the potential harms of virtual reality. Are these worries big enough to discourage the use of virtual reality for public history? I’d like to argue “no” and give two reason to lean that way.
First, we might consider virtual history art, much like we consider historical fiction art. Gaining factual knowledge isn’t the foremost reason we read fictions or contemplate impressionist paintings. The point of some art is to give us a sense of what something is like: Anna Karenina’s trials show us what it’s like to be a victim of sexist double standards, and impressionist paintings show us what it’d be like to behold a pond full of water lilies on a sunny day. Of course, we could and routinely do learn factual details about some period while engaging with an art work. Thanks to Korean period dramas, I learned that medieval Koreans used a special class of honorifics for the royals. But if virtual reality, like historical fiction, were to be considered art, its primary expectation wouldn’t be fact portrayal.
Sabina Murray writes that historical fiction is necessary because while history is governed by what can be proven to be true, historical fiction is governed by the experience of it. “Fiction’s true power,” she writes, “lies in its ability to recreate the sensation of the past through its adherence to experienced time. Fiction introduces consciousness into the matter, […] a consciousness that accepts all that cannot be proven along with all that is known.” Engaging with virtual reality, like engaging with historical fiction, should accompany the understanding that its foremost aim is phenomenological, the providing of a sense of what some place was like.
Second, I want to suggest that virtual reality’s potential weakness—the fact that it can’t gloss things over and remain representationally incomplete—can also be an asset, at least when it comes to historiography. Historiography asks about history as a production: who writes history, and how, and why, and what frameworks implicitly or explicitly determine how we organize past events into a narrative, a series of cause-and-effects that admit rational explanation? It is trite but true that winners write history, and historians like Arnold Toynbee and Hayden White went as far as to say that history is just as fictional as a novel because creating a sense of order out of the past requires selecting, arranging, and presenting facts in a manner suspiciously similar to how fiction writers produce their work. They go too far, and their mistake can be fixed with the distinction between narrativity and fictionality: not every narrative—the recounting of two or more causally/temporally related events—is fictional since even true events can comprise a narrative. But there are salvageable insights from Toynbee and White: there is no single privileged way to understand the past, and any particular narrative we impose on the past inevitably leaves out datum that might have been equally prominent in some other narrative.
This is where virtual reality can come in as a powerful tool. Virtual reconstructions of the past, by directly immersing us in the daily reality of the past, show all the different ways in which any given day, let alone a time period, could have been experienced. In virtual reality, one can sneak away from the King’s parade to peer into a nobleman’s kitchen to see who’s working there, uninterested in political goings-on. Because it frees us to explore the past in flexible ways, virtual history shows us how history as a product forces us to choose one focus and perspective at a time when there are endless ways of attending to the past. It lets us acknowledge the constructed nature of history without collapsing the historical enterprise to the fictional enterprise. I’m told that historians are becoming more and more comfortable with speculation, and virtual reality allows the previously-unseen to be speculatively explored— and explored richly in part because all details must have been filled out by the nature of the medium.
It feels bittersweet to be thinking about virtual reality as a tool to provide first-hand experience of the raw data of history at a time dozens of states are introducing legislature to constrain what can and cannot be taught in the classroom. Plunging into the reconstructed past, experienced without retrospective organizing principles, could highlight the kinds of social and political decisions that creep into producing history out of the raw data of past events. If we’ll only continue to increase the amount of time we spend on virtual platforms, it’d be good to use new tools to make history and historiography—and the deeper structures and decisions informing them— more salient to the wider public.
The author would like to thank Dr. Walter Greason (Macalester College) and Yunxin Li (Stanford University) for helpful conversations about virtual reality and history.