The tour begins with a twinkling of chimes, as Ursula Rucker, the Philadelphia poet and artist, materializes on a smartphone screen. She stands at the base of the Philadelphia Art Museum steps—“the Rocky Steps, as some like to call them,” she says. “The people’s place.” As one scans their phone around the steps, and look out across the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, virtual signs, maps, photographs, and text boxes appear, an invite to “dig deeper” into the history of the space.
With its new augmented-reality app, called OverTime, Monument Lab, the public art and history studio that grew out of research at the Weitzman School, is hoping to provide a more immersive way of experiencing public space. The app, which launched in March with a prototype tour at the Art Museum steps, “offers educational, self-guided tours of a public space by unearthing the multiple layers of history, meaning, and interpretation of that site through a personal smart device.” In addition to providing information that may not be visible to the unaugmented eye, the app invites users to add stories of their own.
“The idea behind this, fundamentally, is that history is being written all around us, by us,” says Paul Farber, senior research scholar in the Center for Public Art and Space and co-founder of Monument Lab. “We want to actually learn from people who use the app. There’s more to learn from users and there’s more stories being written about this place. Any time you see a monument in public space, there’s countless stories that are also present—they just aren’t always marked in the same way.”
Monument Lab began working on the idea for the app before the COVID-19 pandemic began. The pandemic, which has forced people to socially distance while increasing the demand for outdoor experiences, only made the app more timely, Farber says.