Spatial History and Time Travel

This past week in DIgital History, Mark Tovey came in as a guest speaker and introduced us to spatial history in London, particularly with the British military garrison and Victoria Park. For those who do not read or pay attention to the heritage signs or plaques in Victoria Park, they would just take it as a piece of land set aside by the city for a place to have a picnic, toss a frisbee, and where the squirrels of the city can run free. In fact though, the park in the nineteenth century was the site of the British military garrison, who originally occupied the area in 1839 to guard against border raids following the Upper Canada rebellion of 1837.

Mark acknowledged that these soldiers provided so much more than protection for the city, they added to the cultural atmosphere through painting around London and setting up Theatre Royal. Mark, along with the group Garrison Theatricals reenact plays that would have been performed by the British military garrison in the nineteenth century. They also utilize paintings and photographs from that era and project them on screens for backdrops.  Mark has conducted a great amount of research into the garrison that was located in Victoria Park, in his very interesting presentation, he displayed great historical photographs that he has collected of the garrison. It was amazing to see how large the military settlement was, as it extended further outside Victoria Park, up towards Pall Mall Street.  The framed infantry barracks covered the northern two-thirds of the park (approximately 10 acres), while the southern third was utilized for drill grounds and a cricket pitch. Located to the north was the soldiers quarters, the officers quarters were to the south, while the hospital laid to the west and on the east side of the park was the canteen, cells, defaulter room and power magazine. Unfortunately, the only map I could find online of the layout is pretty blurry and small, but Mark had a much larger layout map that we used during our field trip to Victoria Park to witness spatial history first hand.

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Through the application IGIS, Professor MacFayden, determined our location in Victoria Park, then overlaid a historical map of the barracks over the satellite image of the park, allowing for us to step back in time and gain a great understanding of how the park was laid out in the nineteenth century. While Mark pulled up historical photographs of the military garrison on his laptop, allowing us to visualize what the park would have looked like when the garrison was stationed there. This spatial history adventure was really interesting, it is excellent technology for visualizing the past, acting almost like a time machine.

cricket square victoria park

The cricket square (Victoria Park), 7th battalion, Confederation Day, July 1, 1867.

Mark also mentioned that Museum of London is utilizing this technology with  photographs from their collection to provide a historical walking tour of the city by the use of an application downloaded onto a smartphone. It is called Street Museum, I uploaded the application onto my iPhone to use how they were using spatial history to engage the public. It is really cool! They have placed numerous  pin marks onto a google map of the city and by clicking on these red markers a historical photograph opens up of a street/building/event, providing what it would have looked like in the past. They have also included a date and historical information. A very fun spatial history tool that is great for education and comparing the changes to landscape over time.

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This would have of course been even cooler if I was actually in London…maybe a future Digital History field trip has to be taken. Our London (Ontario) also has its own walking tour put together by History Pin and the Public Library of London’s photograph collection. Similarly to the Street Museum application, they have placed historical photographs in Google Maps street view, allowing the viewer to see what certain sections of downtown would have looked like, while providing historical information on the right hand side.

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This spatial history tool is great in that they provide a map of the area in the bottom right hand corner, to give the viewer a better understanding of the location. One can follow the tour by clicking ‘previous’ and ‘next’ at the bottom of the screen and move easily through street view. I really enjoyed taking the tour and seeing all the great old photographs of downtown London. It is wonderful to see that a lot of the beautiful building architecture has been maintained over the years; this is one of the reasons why I love the city. The next step for this spatial history web-based tool, is a smartphone application, to allow for a better visual and comparison of the past and present.

Through learning about and exploring  spatial history this past week, it has opened my eyes more of how we can use digital tools in visualizing the past and gaining the attention of the public for historical education. As it sparked in me this week a great interest in the history of Victoria Park, which after a fire destroyed the barracks in the 1870s, the park was deeded to the city in 1878, and landscape architect Charles H. Miller set to work making it into the wonderful nature escape setting in the centre of the city for people to enjoy.

victoria park 1910

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