If you are anything like me, most of your interaction with the digital world is conducted through a smartphone and a plethora of apps, or applications. The introduction of the smartphone to the public forever altered the way we view and engage technology. Today, we can use our mobile phones in numerous ways to ease the navigation of daily life. As we all know, there is an app for everything and the field of history is no exception.
There is no shortage of imagination in the creation of history apps, as outlined in HistoryToday’s article, “Digital History: Tapping into the Past.” The innovation in history apps is exciting, especially those that utilize AR or “augmented reality.” Currently, one of the most common types of history apps are those pithily titled “map apps,” that act as an accompaniment to historic walking tours. These “map apps” are great for participating in heritage tourism and are useful to any history enthusiast – whether a student, teacher, traveler, or history “fan.”
Several great examples of walking tour apps are featured in the article, “7 Ways Mobile Apps are Enriching Historical Tourism,” I would personally love to experience the Chicago Gangland Tour. To assess the usefulness of the walking tour app to digital history, I experimented with the local Explore Baltimore Heritage app of self-guided tours. This free app, created by the nonprofit historical organization Baltimore Heritage, is compatible with Apple ios and Google play. Once opened, the app’s main interface is a google map of Baltimore City covered in push-pins that represent Baltimore’s historic and cultural landmarks. The user can enlarge the map and the push-pins can be pressed to reveal what landmarks they represent. The user can press the blue “i” next to the landmark’s name and will be linked to a description, historical interpretation and photograph of the landmark. The menu for the app is located at the bottom of the screen. The options are “map,” “tours,” “search,” and “about.” The “about” and “search” section are the least useful. The “tour” tab is the most useful and provides a list of twelve walking tours in which the user can guide themselves.
There is a great thematic range, the user can explore anything from “Art and Industry in Station North” to “Literary Heritage in Baltimore.” Each walking tour contains a list of landmarks. Choosing a landmark leads the user to a section that contains a description along with a photograph and sometimes an audio or video clip. The push-pin symbol on the landmark’s description page will lead to a google map locating the landmark and a link that will provide walking directions via google maps. Anyone who has ever used google maps will have no problem navigating the walking directions with this app.
In order to get the full app experience, I decided to explore one of the tours myself. It was difficult to choose which tour to go on, since they are all considerably interesting. But here’s a fun fact about me: my grandfather was a Baltimore City homicide detective. And while I never had the pleasure to meet my grandfather, his harrowing tales of Baltimore’s criminal history were passed down to me through family members. Druid Hill Park centered heavily in these gruesome anecdotes. As a result, I was surprised to find Druid Hill Park on the list of walking tours without a safety disclaimer. In fact, none of the walking tours included any discussion of safety. Although I have a great affinity for Baltimore, all of us locals have heard “Charm City” referred to as “Murdaland” on more than one occasion. So, with the travelers who may one day use this app in mind, I chose to explore the tour that gave me the most pause: Druid Hill Park.
You’ll be pleased to know that despite my initial misgivings, my adventure into Druid Hill Park was a lovely (and safe!) afternoon activity. Aside from my various visits to the Baltimore Zoo and my one-time participation in a treacherous 10-mile race in the area, I had never explored Druid Hill. Imagine my surprise at the presence of a William Wallace monument overlooking Druid Hill lake! Yes, it really exists and it actually exists for a legitimate reason. Then, imagine my dismay at the sight of a dilapidated “remembrance” pavilion erected to honor a Baltimore family’s son who never returned from the First World War. Without a single plaque or marker, the commemoration of this pavilion would remain unknown to the public if not for its inclusion in the historic app.
The Druid Hill self-guided walking tour through the Explore Baltimore Heritage app was educational and enjoyable. I learned about many aspects of Baltimore that I had not had the opportunity to discover previously. The whole walking tour took approximately an hour and a half and was roughly a two-mile walk. What I found so great about the walking tour, was that I could really cater the tour to my own taste. Because the map directions are routed through google maps, it would have been simple for me to avoid a landmark that I had little interest in and re-route my journey. Initially, I did find the map on the home page to be overwhelming. I did appreciate the availability of all the landmarks included in the app on one map, but perhaps that map would be better placed in an alternate tab. It would be beneficial if the home page on the app provided an introduction similar to the blurb on the app’s website. And while it is stated on the website that the organization welcomes the contributions of the user through the sharing of local stories and old photographs, that is not yet an available option on the app.
Overall, I was impressed with the Explore Baltimore Heritage app. It has a simple, clean, and easy-to-use design and is replete with stimulating information, historical interpretation, and original research. I would gladly send visiting family and friends on one of these walking tours, or, better yet, join them for one. The historic walking tour apps put everyday sites into historical context for the user in places where there may not be available interpretation. As a digital tool, historical apps are beneficial for the digital history field and can serve as a medium of collaboration between digital historians, public historians, and the field of heritage tourism. Ultimately, historical apps are an example of how embracing new technologies can help historians connect to the public in innovative ways.