Tag Archive | Riding Mountain Park Labour Project

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.


Adding detail to Google’s terrain.

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


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.

Fourth Symposium of Environmental Historians of Southern Ontario

I am happy to say that I will be presenting at the Fourth Symposium of Environmental Historians of Southern Ontario this Saturday (March 22, 2014). The University of Toronto, with support from NiCHE, is hosting the event which will be focusing on energy and forestry. I will be presenting some of my research about PoWs in Riding Mountain, with a focus on using HGIS and other digital methods to provide some new perspectives about life at the camp. The rest of the speakers are as follows:

Panel 1 – Energy and the Environment – 1:00 – 2:45pm 

Chris Conway, PhD candidate, History & Philosophy of Science & Technology, University of Toronto
“‘What is taken for granted’: Rethinking Electricity and the Environment in Ontario, 1974-1983.”

Stacy Nation-Knapper, PhD candidate, History, York University
“Sen’k’lip, Salmon, and Inundation: Indigenous Experiences of Columbia River Plateau Hydroelectric Development.”

Ruth Sandwell, Associate Professor, OISE, University of Toronto
“Artificial Lighting: How Manufactured Gas, Kerosene, and Electricity Made (and Polluted) the Modern World.”

Panel 2 – Forests and National Identity in Canada – 3:00 – 4:45pm

Michael O’Hagan, PhD candidate, History, Western University
“‘In the Midst of the Canadian Bush’: Mapping Prisoners of War in Riding Mountain National Park.”

Sinead Earley, PhD candidate, Geography, Queen’s University
“Forest Knowledge (re)Rooted: The Sopron Division of Hungarian Forestry at the University of British Columbia, 1956-1961.”

Joanna Dean, Associate Professor, History, Carleton University
“Crabapple Centennial.”

If you are interested in attending or are looking for more information, please click here.

Interactive Exhibit – Making Progress

If anyone had told me in my undergrad that I would be building a foam and paper model as part of my PhD coursework, I’m sure I would have thought they were crazy. However, here I am, building a scale replica of a PoW camp in an attempt to make an interactive exhibit.

I have now finished the physical model of the camp. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the model is on a foam board overlain with an aerial photograph of the site. The buildings were scaled to size and built with a foam frame. I then copied the textures from my digital model, scaled them down, and produced a fold- and cut-out version that could be wrapped around the frames.

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Now with all the buildings finished, the model is starting to take shape.

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One of the next steps is to add buttons to the model. These buttons will trigger 360° views and videos that will explain the history of the camp and help users understand what life was like for German PoWs and their guards in Riding Mountain National Park.

Interactive Model of a PoW Camp!

Well I finally settled on a project for my Interactive Exhibit Design class: an interactive model of the prisoner of war camp in Riding Mountain National Park. Having created a digital model of the camp last semester, I wanted to incorporate that work into something that could theoretically be used for a public display. Here’s the plan…

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I am currently building a physical model of the site (about 1/500 scale) on a 20″ x 30″ foam board. The buildings are also being built from foam board and are “wrapped” in the textures from my 3D model. A number of buttons will be strategically placed throughout the map and the idea is that users will be able to push one of these buttons, triggering a 360° video/viewer (on a nearby screen) of the model from that viewpoint. This will hopefully allow users to get the camp layout and provide a little more immersion than a stand-alone model.

As of right now, the plan for the interactive portion will use buttons hooked up to a Makey-Makey and Max 6 which should provide me with everything I need. Time (and skills) permitting, I’d also like to see if I can provide a way to switch between “historic” (using the model) and a modern (using photographs taken at the site) 360° views.

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The first of my buildings

Stay tuned for more updates!

Next Project – Interactive Exhibit Design

This semester I am taking a Interactive Exhibit Design course in which each student designs and creates an interactive exhibit of any shape or form. At the moment, I have two ideas for my project and I’m going to share my first (more on the second later).

I am always looking at new ways of presenting the history of PoWs in Riding Mountain National Park. While there has been increased attention regarding the labour project’s history, there remains no display in the Wasagaming townsite. This, I hope, will change sometime in the near future. As I began building a 3D model for my Digital History assignment last semester, I began thinking of ways that would allow me to incorporate the model into some type of interactive display. Rather than just stick with the traditional physical model/diorama, this course presents an excellent opportunity to turn a traditional display into something a little more exciting.

The next question is which direction I want to take it. As space (and resources) are limited, one option is to have an entirely computer-based exhibit. In this case, the project would take the form of a simple program for a SMART Board or traditional computer station. I’m thinking the screen would display a bird’s-eye view of the camp layout as it appeared in 1944. By clicking one of the buildings, a video of the 3D model and historic photographs would then provide a virtual tour of that specific building, indicating its purpose and history. I would also try to work in other non-building related elements, like PoW stories, dugout canoes, and camp pets, into the exhibit as well to provide a sense of what life was like for PoWs at Riding Mountain.

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Another option would be to create a physical reconstruction of the camp as well. Looking at my experience with the demographics interested in the camp’s history, most aren’t tech savvy. By creating a scale model of the site, hopefully I can bridge the gap a bit. Still have to work out the details on how I want to build it.

But wait – why stop there? Why not both?! If I’m feeling really ambitious, I’m thinking of how I can combine a physical model with a digital reconstruction. One idea is to have the buildings function essentially as buttons (or sensors) that people can press (or do some wort of action), which would then trigger a virtual tour on an nearby screen. I think this physical/digital reconstruction would help bridge generation gaps and allow both the tech-savvy and the not-so-tech-savvy visitors to learn more about the history of PoWs in Riding Mountain National Park.

Any ideas, comments, or suggestions?

Reconstructing the Past

From October 1943 to October 1945, over 400 German prisoners of war (PoWs) were employed in a woodcutting operation in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. Housed in a newly built camp on the shore of Whitewater Lake, the PoWs had better living conditions than the majority of civilians living around the park. When the buildings of the camp were removed in 1945 and 1946, the area was allowed to return to its natural state. For seventy years, nature has reclaimed the site, which is now a small prairie bordered by spruce. The history, however, has not been forgotten. Through the use of a 3D reconstruction such as this one, I hope to achieve a better understanding of how PoWs experienced internment at Riding Mountain while, at the same time, contributing to better public interpretation on and off the site.

The first step was to find appropriate sources that would allow me to build models of the buildings. Fortunately, through my research, I have found photographs of almost every building at the camp. However, no map of the camp has survived and it near impossible to determine the camp’s layout from the photographs alone. A solution came with a 1949 aerial photograph from which I could make out the foundations of the majority of the camp’s buildings. Combining the information obtained from these photographs with an architectural plan for a bunkhouse similar to those built at Riding Mountain, I could now start modelling.

Using Trimble’s SketchUp program, I started modelling the buildings whose dimensions I knew, or was fairly certain of. While the majority of the buildings at the camp were standard military installations and could be modelled from the information obtained from the architectural plans, I encountered problems when trying to model unique buildings, such as the garage, barn, and stables. This, however, was where SketchUp proved its worth. Using the Photomatch tool, I applied a single measurement to a photograph, which then allowed me to measure, with fair accuracy, the length of any other building in the photograph. With these dimensions, I could now finish modelling.

This 3D reconstruction, however, has to be taken as a representation rather than an exact replica of the camp. Due to source limitations, I was not able to model everything to the detail that I would have liked but instead had to improvise for cases in which no data exists. The building interiors were especially difficult for only one interior photo, of the recreation hall, is known to exist. While further research may uncover the interior layout of these buildings, I chose to leave these areas empty for the time. Another difficulty I encountered was that with a higher level of detail resulted in a significant decrease in the speed of both my computer and SketchUp. Therefore, to ensure that the final model was still accessible, I was unable to include the detail that I would have liked.

Despite it’s limitations, a 3D model such as this one can be extremely useful. By building this model, I am now able to learn much more about what life was like for German PoWs in Riding Mountain. Already, this model has also allowed me to correct some inaccuracies with my existing map, particularly in the designation of some of the buildings. By comparing the model of the camp to a copy of the “Nightwatchman’s Circuit,” listing the route taken by one of the guards each night, I changed the designation of three buildings and identified a previously-unknown fourth. More importantly, however, this model presents numerous opportunities for historical interpretation off and on the site. Whereas I have traditionally provided visitors with GPS units and printed handouts, a digital model expands my ability to help visitors understand the camp’s history. By uploading the model to IOS, using an app like SightSpace, visitors will be able to visualize and interact with the camp model while standing on the former camp’s location.

This model is only the beginning of reconstructing life at Riding Mountain. As more information becomes available (and as I port the model over to a faster computer), I hope to build a more complete and detailed representation of the camp. This will allow me to study the camp in ways previously unimaginable while contributing to a better understanding of what life was like for German prisoners of war in Riding Mountain National Park.

GIS Day at Western!


Tomorrow, Josh MacFadyen and I will be presenting at Western’s Map and Data Centre for its GIS Day event! If you are interested in learning more about Geographic Information Systems and how we can use use GIS in historical research, come out to see our presentation!

The morning’s events begin at 9:30 and Josh and I will be on from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. and Dean Thompson from the City of London will be presenting after us. This will be then followed by poster presentations until noon. Here’s the link to the full program.

Here’s a glimpse of some of the things I’ll be talking about tomorrow!

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Hope to see you there!

Sketchup Learning Curve

Now that I have my GIS basemap to work from, my next project is creating a 3D model of the camp with SketchUp. While I really don’t have any experience with modelling, here’s what I’ve been working on recently. This is one wing of a standard H-Hut that served as barracks for the PoWs at Riding Mountain. While it may look simple, it is surprising how long it takes to get this far!


Lasting Effects: PoWs in Riding Mountain National Park

The following video is the result of a digital history assignment that I’m currently taken. The assignment tasked us with using digital methods to examine a significant or interesting landscape and naturally I chose the site of the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. For those not familiar with it, this project employed 440 German PoWs in a woodcutting operation from 1943 to 1945 in an effort to prevent a predicted fuelwood shortage.

My first task was to find the sources. While I have a fairly sizeable collection of textual records relating to the camp’s history, maps and other spatial information are, for the most part, missing. Instead, I turned to aerial photographs to fill in my record gaps. Little did I realize how much I could learn from them!

With the assistance of the National Air Photo Library, the Manitoba Land Initiative, and a staff member at Riding Mountain National Park, I was able to assemble a range of coverage from 1931 to 2009. The next step was to import them into a GIS program and georeference them.

With the photos georeferenced, I was now able to add information from my records. As a map of the camp’s layout has not survived, my first step was to create an outline showing the buildings’ shapes and locations. Fortunately the building’s footprints, with some exceptions, were still fairly clear, even in my photographs from the 1970s.

The next major step was to look at landscape change. Like a map of the camp, a map showing the location of the woodcutting area has also not survived. Using aerial photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, I was able to plot the extent of the woodcutting operation, which, as I discovered to my surprise, was almost entirely confined to the northern shore of Whitewater Lake. By comparing these photographs with modern ortho-imagery, the regrowth of the spruce population is quite remarkable. The Parks Bureau specifically instructed that the PoWs leave spruce trees standing in hopes of regeneration. As you can see from the video, the spruce population has [spoiler alert!] done exactly that!

Anyways, I’ve talked enough so on to the video. While this isn’t going to win any Oscars and I am certainly not Morgan Freeman, I hope that this video demonstrates how GIS and other historical methods can be applied to studying history.


Thank you to all of the individuals who helped, especially Josh MacFadyen, who put up with all of my constant questions!

One last thing; if you are interested in learning more, Josh and I will be delivering talks on Historical GIS for GIS day on November 20. For more information, please click here.

Adventures in Arc – Part II

Here’s the “teaser” of what I have been working on. This is an excerpt of a longer that video that looks at how German PoWs transformed a little part of Riding Mountain National Park.