Mapping Ararat: An Imaginary Jewish Homelands Project

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Digital Project Demonstration by Melissa Shiff (University of Toronto); Louis Kaplan (University of Toronto); John Craig Freeman (Emerson College)

From the Mapping Ararat website: In September 1825, Major Mordecai Noah founded Ararat, “a city of refuge for the Jews” in Grand Island, New York. This turned out to be just one of many failed projects and schemes in modern history that sought to carve out a nation for the Jewish people apart from British Palestine. Mapping Ararat offers the user/participant the tools to imagine an alternative historical outcome for Noah’s Ararat and to navigate through an imaginary Jewish homeland.

Notes on the Mapping Ararat demonstration at the Center for Jewish History’s “From Access to Integration” conference:

“Research Journeys Toward a Virtual Jewish History”

Research for the Mapping Ararat project began with the Mordecai Noah papers housed in the American Jewish Historical Society’s collection here at the Center for Jewish History.

The Mapping Ararat project combines historical research and artistic creation to image and imagine Mordecai Noah’s vision of establishing a Jewish refuge. This collaborative digital arts and humanities work-in-progress gives Grand Island, New York the virtual chance to become the Jewish homeland that its founder envisioned. The project also offers new approaches to coordinating and integrating different digital technologies.

First, there is the familiar website platform with a rich collection of material drawn from all of the archives where research has been conducted. Resources include maps, photographs and newspapers from the period. The website also has a social media component that allows for wide dissemination, as well as the ability to broadcast upcoming news and events, post comments and access documentation of the major artistic components of the project.

The augmented reality elements of the project include a virtual flag and an on-site walking tour of “Ararat”—a place that now exists virtually in exactly the geographical location that its creator had intended. 

How does the technology of “augmented reality “work? One has to download the augmented reality browser “Layar” onto one’s smart phone to be able to view the architecture and landmarks that don’t actually exist as assets in the physical landscape but are housed on a server and inserted into the landscape virtually. 

If you hold up your smart phone, it will use location services to determine exactly where you are standing, and images of buildings and other landmarks will appear on your phone’s screen according to your physical location. These virtual objects are tied to particular locations, allowing you to physically walk around and take a tour (using your phone) of a virtual landscape. As GPS technology allows your phone to pinpoint your exact location, you will be able to see on your phone’s screen the synagogue, mikvah, graveyard, casino and Noah’s Ark theme park (to name a few elements of the project) that are now a digital part of the imagined land of Ararat. Viewers are also able to access primary source materials using this same technology, providing them with supplemental information on-site.

Another component of the project is to create an exhibition in a gallery setting. When the visitor enters, s/he will see a projection on the ground of the topography of the real Grand Island, New York. Utilizing a digital map in order to overlap the topography and a gaming software program known as “Unity,” visitors can chart a course through the map using a joystick controller. Samples of vernacular culture—postcards, money, stamps, newspapers—will be juxtaposed with actual grand island artifacts (such as postcards that were available for purchase on EBay) or newspapers with which Mordecai Noah was associated. Video interviews with scholars will illuminate the material.

The purpose of the installation will be to act act as the catalyst that will enable the project to bring together archival materials from many institutions and house them together under one roof. Another possibility for this future exhibition is to present primary source artifacts and supplementary historical materials that can constellate around the digital world of Mapping Ararat.

As part of the demonstration, the Mapping Ararat team created an “augment” that they tied to the GPS coordinates of the front of the Center for Jewish History. Conference attendees with smart phones were able to go outside and, using the “Layar” app, view a virtual monument that Mapping Ararat built for the middle of 16th Street.

Click here to learn more about Mapping Ararat.

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