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Exploring and Sharing the Past with iGIS

This post is long overdue but better late than never!

About a year-and-a-half ago, I started using iGIS, an iOS app that allows you to visualize geospatial data on your mobile device. My Professor, Josh MacFadyen, had demonstrated the possibilities of this app in our digital history class and I was eager to find ways to apply it to my own research. I had fiddled around with the app outside of class – see my post here – but didn’t have a chance to test it in the field.

In late summer, I finally had a chance to put it to the test. Using maps and aerial photographs I had georeferenced and converted, I uploaded my files to both my iPhone and an iPad and set off. Now the PoW camp I was visiting is somewhat remote – the nearest cellular signal was ten kilometers away and, needless to say, there was no wi-fi. Not sure how the program would work just using the devices’ internal GPS, I pre-loaded the satellite imagery (from Google) – a handy feature when you are in the bush – which would let me compare the historic imagery and maps with what the site looks like today.

An hour by bike and I was at the site. I pulled out my phone and was pleasantly surprised to find that my phone’s internal GPS was accurate enough to show my location. As you can see from the image below, there are only a few signs hinting at the site’s history – all the more reason to find new technologies to fill in the gaps. The rectangular shape to the upper right of my position is the foundation of the camp’s powerhouse.

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Things kept getting better for I discovered that the iPad worked as well – I was surprised for I wasn’t entirely sure that the iPad I was using had an internal GPS to begin with!

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Having thrown in an aerial photograph from 1949 (above) and a forest inventory map from the 1930s (below) and I was in business! Adding a layer to show the physical layout of the camp as it appeared from 1943-1945 helped visualize the site and pinpoint some of the camp’s buildings and locations of interest.

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While this is fantastic for my own research – I was able to identify tree stands cut by PoWs and see how the area has in some cases recovered or in others changed – it has important applications for public history as well. That same week, I led an interpretive PoW wagon tour, taking thirty people out to the site. As part of the tour, we provide visitors with a guidebook listing the buildings and explaining the history. Along with this we include a traditional map showing the layout of the site. While some of the footprints of the former buildings are visible if you look closely, it isn’t always easy to visualize the camp’s layout. However, with me leading a tour with an iPad, visitors were able to see exactly where they were standing in relation to the camp’s layout in the 1940s. Combining this with historic photos of the site and screenshots from my 3D model, visualizing the site became a whole lot easier!

That same week I visited the former PoW camp near Mafeking, Manitoba with the Beranek family, whose father/grandfather worked there in the latter war years. As I had only been to the site once before and was therefore much less familiar with this camp’s history than Riding Mountain, I relied pretty heavily on iGIS and an aerial photo to orient myself. I was also able to add the GPS waypoints I had taken on my handheld GPS the year before, seen as yellow dots in the image below.

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Needles to say, using geospatial data on a mobile device opens up a realm of possibilities for both studying and sharing the past. While my use of the app and sources were fairly basic, I was able to visualize the site’s history, explore areas that I may have otherwise overlooked, and use non-traditional sources to better understand the relationship between history and the environment. Combining this with the ability to allow visitors to interact with landscape in new ways and let them explore on their own terms, I am eager to see how historians can use these technologies in the future.

With a major research trip (and some field work) planned for the summer, you can bet I’ll be bringing iGIS to help me explore and share the history of PoWs in Canada.

Camp 30 – Bowmanville: Then and Now

Following the popularity of my Fort Henry post, I thought I would share a brief look at another important internment camp in Canada – Camp 30 near Bowmanville, Ontario. Approximately seventy-five kilometers east of Toronto, Camp 30 was built around a former boys training school on the outskirts of the town.

Camp 30 opened in November 1941 with a capacity of 700 men. The camp was an Officer Camp, holding officers from all services, but it also held a number of other-ranks to serve as the officers’ orderlies. Notable, Camp 30 was the site of the infamous “Battle of Bowmanville,” in which PoWs refused to be shackled and barricaded themselves inside the camp for three days. The camp closed in April 1945 and the remaining prisoners were transferred to other camps.

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Camp 30 today – Google Satellite Imagery

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Camp 30 in the 1940s. Source: Library and Archives Canada

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Camp 30 – Then and Now

As you can see from these images, many of the camp buildings and other structures have been removed or destroyed since the camp’s closure. Fortunately, there has been some interest in the site in recent years and a growing push for preserving its history.

In 2013, the former site of Camp 30 was designated as a National Historic Site and in the same year, Heritage Canada listed it as one of the Top 10 Endangered Places in the country. While its future is still being decided, I hope that Camp 30, one of the last remaining internment sites in the country, can be preserved for future generations.

Camp 31 – Fort Henry: Then and Now

Of all twenty-eight-or-so internment camps in Canada during the Second World War, I can only think of five that have either changed relatively little or haven’t been completely destroyed (at least from the external appearance) in the last seventy years.

Among these few is Camp 31 (originally Camp F) at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario. Built from 1832 to 1837, the fort was among the first sites chosen to serve as internment camps in the early years of the Second World War. From June 1940 to December 1943, the camp was the temporary home to German combatants (both officers and other-ranks), Enemy Merchant Seamen, and civilian internees.

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Fort Henry today – Bing Aerial Imagery.

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Camp 31 (Fort Henry) in the early 1940s. Source: Library and Archives Canada

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1940s map over aerial imagery. As you can see from the photos, the buildings in the enclosure and compound, the guard towers, and the barbed wire fences around the recreation and lounging areas have been removed.

Juno Beach: Then and Now

To mark the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day landings, here is one of the projects I have been working on.

Earlier in the year, the Laurier Military History Archive released thousands of aerial photographs taken during the Second World War. Among the collection was a number of photos taking during reconnaissance missions leading up to June 6, 1944. The following series shows Juno Beach as it appeared on June 4, 1944 and how it appears now.

Click on the image to view the full size. If you look closely, you can see some of the German defensive positions and obstacles of the Atlantic Wall. Note that the Archive’s online collection only includes medium-resolution photos so I apologize that I cannot zoom in any closer at the moment.

The first two photographs shows a map of the British and Canadian landing beaches (West to East – Gold, Juno, and Sword). The second photograph shows which Regiments landed at Juno in the early morning of June 6, 1944.

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The following photographs show the Canadian landing zone from West to East.

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The Royal Winnipeg Rifles and a Company of the Canadian Scottish Regiment landed here in the morning of June 6, 1944.

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Courselles-sur-Mer in the middle. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles landed at the left and the Royal Regina Rifles on the right.

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Bernières-sur-Mer in the middle, the objective of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.

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Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, the eastern-most part of the Canadian landing beaches and the objective of the North Shore Regiment.

For those who have visited Juno Beach, you may recognize this area. The middle of the two photographs shows the location of the Juno Beach Centre.

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Courselles-sur-Mer. Note the landing obstacles along the coastline in the 1944 photograph.

Thank you to the Laurier Military History Archive for making these images available on the web and allowing researchers to use them!

Interactive Exhibit – Video

Bit of a delay since my last post, my apologies! As I get back into the swing of things, I hope my posts become a bit more regular.

Just a quick post today – a short video showing off my project for the Interactive Exhibit Design. Fellow PhD Candidate Steve Marti recorded and produced a series of videos showing off the class projects. Here’s mine:

Be sure to check out my classmate’s projects by clicking here (and scrolling to the bottom).

Interactive Exhibit – Final Thoughts

Having presented our exhibits to the class this past Wednesday, we were asked to provide a brief reflection on our projects. While I was happy with how it turned out, there are definitely some things I’d like to change for any future versions.

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On the physical model, I think a list of the buildings would have helped viewers orient themselves to the layout of the camp. While each of the buildings are mentioned in the video, I’m not sure that it was clear which building the video was talking about.

One of the difficulties I encountered was the limited amount of time I had to share the history of the PoW camp. With the Makey-Makey, I was limited to five buttons and I just wasn’t able to tell as much as I would have liked in five videos (totaling five minutes).

As for my model, I found that Sketchup, or at least the computer I was using, was not able to handle the detail I had hoped to include. As I added more features to the model, I noticed that SketchUp began to slow down considerably. For example, turning on the shadow feature caused the computer to take a significant time to load an individual scene, and trying to export a twenty second video with shadows would have taken about twelve hours. Needless to say, I opted for the shadowless option, which only took five minutes!

While not the easiest of tasks, I would have liked to import the model into a better engine, perhaps something like the CryEngine. As the creators of this model of 17th Century London have demonstrated in the historic reconstruction of London, it definitely has the potential to bring the camp to life! However, I have a feeling that would require quite a bit of work.

Nonetheless, I hope that I’ve demonstrated one rather simply way of exhibiting a historic site that no longer exists!

Interactive Exhibit – The Final Product

Today, the Interactive Exhibit Design class is presenting exhibits. For those who are unable to attend, I thought I’d let you know how it turned out.

I have to say I am pretty happy with the way the bunkhouses look with Sketchup’s shadow/fog settings turned on (even if they did slow the computer down to an impossible-to-do-anything level). Note the most unusual of the camp prisoners, a black bear, in the middle.

Image4As I was writing this, I realized that I’ve made a few changes to the scenes below, but they give an idea of how it looks.

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Now for a view of the physical model with the text panels.

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Now you may be asking, “how is this interactive?” If you look closely at the image above, you will notice a series of five black dots. These are actually buttons that are hooked up to a Makey-Makey hidden below. The Makey-Makey is controlled with a Max patch so that when a button is pushed, it triggers an attached computer to play a video of that specific area of the camp. All together, it looks something like this…

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Interactive Exhibit – An Insider’s Look

As of yesterday afternoon, my exhibit is up and running without any hitches! As I was going through my images, I found that I still had some that I hadn’t shown yet.

One aspect that I wanted to show in some detail was the interior of the buildings. This, however, is rather complicated as, for the most part, I have no idea what the interiors looked like. That being said, the architectural plan that I had for my bunkhouse provides a sense of the interior layout and I tried my hand at a re-creation.

I did include a brief interior view in the previous version of my model but I had used some stereotypical bunkbeds obtained from Sketchup’s Warehouse. As I was going through my photo archives, I rembered that I had a photo of the bunkbeds at Riding Mountain, taken while the camp was under construction and the bunkbeds were stacked outside. From this, I was able to create the model below. The texture for the bedding was adapted from a photograph of a WWII Canadian-army issue blanket.

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Another building that I had some information about was the mess hall. In a recently acquired collection of photographs from the PoW camp in Sherbrooke, Quebec, I have a picture of the interior of the same type of mess hall used at Riding Mountain. Making some estimations regarding the dimensions, I built myself a basic table and bench. I also cropped out a not-so-happy PoW and included him in the model to provide some sense of scale.

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Stay tuned in the next few days as I post some images of the final stage of my model!

Interactive Exhibit – Details are the Devil

While I knew I wanted to add some detail to my model, I had to narrow down what would be noticeable and, arguably more important, what I was actually able to model.

While they may not be the most glamorous or exciting, clothes lines were a necessity and they camp and they also offered me the opportunity to show off some of the uniforms and other items of clothing the PoWs would have been wearing at the camp. Fortunately, I did some research at the Canadian War Museum a few years ago and photographed, among others, some PoW uniforms with their distinctive red “target” on the backs. After a little bit of work, I was able to come up with this:

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As wood-carving was a popular activity at the camp, some of the PoWs tried their hand at building their own furniture and garden fences to decorate their bunkhouses. From historic photographs of the camp, I was able to re-create some of the benches and fences that welcomed visitors to the PoW bunkhouses. Combined with the clothes lines, I think they help give a better sense of what the camp looked like in 1944.

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Another aspect that was missing from my previous model was signs of any trees at the site. While nearly every tree around the camp had been removed in an effort to reduce the danger of a forest fire, the Parks Bureau wanted spruce to regenerate in the area and therefore a number of spruce trees were spared the axe. Luckily, I can make out the position of most of these trees from the aerial photograph and, using an existing model from Sketchup’s Warehouse, this is how it turned out!

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Interactive Exhibit – Back to the Digital Model

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve last updated this so I thought I had better show what I have been up to!

With the physical model complete, the next step was to work on my digital model. Using my existing model as a base, I wanted to add more detail in order to make the camp a little more exciting and realistic. I also finally found a better picture of the style of building used for the kitchen and mess hall so I had to build that one again from scratch.

One of the first steps was to adjust the terrain. Google does provide data for terrain but due to the rather large scale used, it represents a very general representation of elevation. Because of this, my buildings would have one door in line with the ground while another would be three feet above the ground. Luckily, you can fiddle with that in Sketchup.

Terrain is usually hidden but once you turn on “Hidden Geometry,” you can start fiddling with the ground contours. As you can see from the image below, the ground is structured in a series of triangles. You can, however, add detail so that the triangles are smaller and only alter a specific section.

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Adding detail to Google’s terrain.

Once this was completed, my buildings were now in line with the terrain!

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PoW Bunkhouse with adjusted terrain.

Another of Sketchup’s tools is the ability to add fog and shadows. Fairly self-explanatory, fog helps hide the boundaries of the area that I’m working on while I’ve found shadows to help provide a little more of a realistic feel to the model.

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Model of PoW camp with Fog and Shadows.