Conference Presentation on our Virtual Workhouse Project

Professor Austin Mason and DHA Elizabeth present their paper on material culture of the workhouse at the Midwest Conference on British Studies
DHA Elizabeth and Professor Austin Mason presenting at MWCBS

This past weekend I presented at  the Midwest Conference on British Studies (MWCBS) at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, along with two Carleton faculty members and three other Carleton students. Our presentation is part of a larger Virtual Workhouse project which utilizes digital tools such as serious gaming and 3D modeling to gain an understanding of the lived experience of workhouse inmates in 18th century England during the Houses of Industry period of poor relief. This past winter, I took a class co-taught by Professors Mason and Ottaway called Bringing the English Past to Virtual Life that brought these ideas into a classroom setting and allowed the students to research, model, and creatively construct new ways of exploring the lived experience of the poor.

Professor of History Susannah Ottaway, with two more Carleton students, presented a paper that explored spinning work in the workhouse, and whether it was driven by moral or economic objectives. Professor Austin Mason, Brittany N. Johnson ‘18 and I presented our paper, “Locating and Representing the Material Culture of the Poor” in the same panel. Our paper focused on the challenges of digitally reconstructing the material culture of inmates in the workhouse, based on the limited textual and material sources that survive. This past summer, Brittany and I spent two weeks in Norfolk, England, excavating workhouse objects from an old rubbish heap at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum. We found mostly objects of mid 20th century date, but the processes that determine object survival also apply to objects from the 18th and 19th centuries. We examined archival and archeological evidence of the Gressenhall House of Industry, in Norfolk, England, and explored the value of digital tools in that reconstruction, including SketchUp, Twine, and Unity 3D. Since evidence is limited, reconstruction is hard. Despite this, our paper argued that new questions emerge when using these digital tools that may not have been asked otherwise: What color is the cloth produced in the workhouse? What is the texture? What did the furniture look like? Where was it placed? These questions allow us further insight into the lived experience of the poor during the 18th century, which is difficult to get at through traditional historical methods. All these questions and more are born out of digital reconstruction, and while we don’t have all the answers, the exploration of these questions ultimately deepen our understanding of the past.

A flowchart illustrating how objects survive into collections at museums, and how other objects are lost.
A flowchart illustrating how objects survive into collections at museums, and how other objects are lost.

It was an incredible opportunity to present at a conference with my professors and fellow students. The challenge and reward of preparing and presenting a paper that incorporates my own research was invaluable, as well as the chance to hear about and engage with other historians and their research in the wider academic world.

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