Permanent solution: ‘Lady in Red and Black’ virtual exhibit preserves history of NIU women

Lady in Red and Black homepageNew technologies are making a permanent existence possible for temporary museum exhibits such “Lady in Red and Black: Ode to Northern Illinois,” which was created by Barbara Cole Peters in 2006.

NIU’s Digital Convergence Lab recruited an interdisciplinary team of undergraduate and graduate students to expand Peters’ original concept into a virtual exhibit.

The resulting website is now live at http://ladyinredandblack.niu.edu/.

Peters often has said that creating a museum exhibit is like making a message in the sand; you work so hard on something that is fragile and ultimately temporary. In 2006, she created the Lady in Red and Black exhibit for display at galleries around DeKalb County. The exhibit told the history of women at NIU through period garments, news clippings, images and personal remembrances.

But, like messages in the sand, this special exhibit was only available to a limited number for people for a limited amount of time.

The Lady in Red and Black virtual exhibit shares stories of Northern Illinois University’s women, such as this group of co-eds who participated in a “Midnight Spread” party in 1917.

The Lady in Red and Black virtual exhibit shares stories of Northern Illinois University’s women, such as this group of co-eds who participated in a “Midnight Spread” party in 1917.

The virtual exhibit now allows online visitors to explore Northern Illinois University’s past century through the eyes of the women who experienced it.

For each decade, the site gives an overview of the times and their fashions, provides a timeline of campus events, and offers a short video to tell the women’s stories in their own words with news articles, letters and poems.

The virtual exhibit was conceived by the Digital Convergence Lab (DCL) in Fall 2010. The DCL delivers experiential learning opportunities for NIU students, faculty research support, and community engagement for the northern Illinois region by providing intellectual and creative tools that focus on emerging interactive media.

The original design team consisted of Digital Convergence Lab staff, Aline Click, Jason Underwood and Andy Saia along with educational technology graduate student Kristin Brynteson. They consulted regularly with Peters to develop a look and feel for the project.

By the end of the fall 2010 semester, they produced a complete design document and prototypes for an online experience that would capture the essence of the original exhibit.

The spring 2011 design team for Lady in Red and Black consisted of DCL staff, Distinguished Teaching Professor Rhonda Robinson, art students and graduate students in educational technology.

Students created the website, which includes traditional and interactive digital media, 3D virtual exhibits of dresses and artifacts, video, audio and interactive Flash modules. Members of the student team received three credit hours toward an independent study or internship for their work on the project. They also gained useful experience working in a collaborative, group environment and tailoring their work to meet the expectations of a client.

The spring 2011 design team included Fatimah Hashim (ETRA), Kristin Brynteson (ETRA), Rhonda Robinson (faculty coach, ETRA), Victoria Boland (Time Arts, College of Visual and Performing Arts), and Chris McDonald (ETRA).

The spring 2011 design team included Fatimah Hashim (ETRA), Kristin Brynteson (ETRA), Rhonda Robinson (faculty coach, ETRA), Victoria Boland (Time Arts, College of Visual and Performing Arts), and Chris McDonald (ETRA).

Brynteson, who recently earned her Ed.D. in instructional technology from NIU’s department of Educational Technology Research and Assessment (ETRA), said that she enjoyed pulling together the different ideas and attitudes about the exhibit.

“We had to incorporate our vision into that of our client’s, which was a new experience for some of us,” Brynteson said. “We wanted the transition from the real exhibit to the digital world to be appropriate and graceful. It was challenging, but we’re very pleased with the final result.”

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the virtual exhibit is its display of period fashions.

Each decade displays a vintage garment that exemplifies the style and culture of the time. Peters selected and mounted garments from the 2006 exhibit, which were then photographed in minute detail by the DCL team.

Using the photographs, the interactive website allows visitors to get a 360 degree view of the dresses. DCL’s students and designers wanted to give visitors the feeling that they could explore and experience the dresses just as they would when walking around an exhibit in the real world. The website also provides close-up images of the dresses so that visitors can see the detailed work that went into the stitching and beading of each garment.

Barbara Peters

Barbara Peters

Capturing images of the dresses in this way not only enables Peters to share her unique collection with a wider audience; it also extends the lives of the garments themselves. All of the dresses pictured on the website are historical artifacts. Some of them are more than 100 years old and have become too fragile to mount again. Their images, however, will continue to be accessible to the public in northern Illinois and throughout the world.

At an unveiling of the website, Peters shared her thoughts on the team’s results. She noted that she originally had her doubts about creating a virtual exhibit.

“I thought, ‘How do you turn an old-fashioned thing – clothes from the 20th century – into something from the 21st century?’ ” Peters said. “But I am extremely impressed with the results. Throughout the process, the students were creative, diligent and professional.”

The Lady in Red and Black was the first experiential learning project for the DCL.

Since beginning this project, they have also created an interactive, science-based video game called “Picodroid,” for STEM Outreach. The game makes use of Xbox Kinect technology to introduce middle- and high-school students to physics and chemistry concepts. The DCL is also finishing production on “Literacy in Motion,” a video game that teaches reading and spelling.

Thanks to the success of the Lady in Red and Black and the Digital Convergence Lab’s other online experiences, co-director Aline Click and her staff are continuing to encourage students and faculty to participate in experiential learning projects.

Next up, the DCL will collaborate with NIU’s STEM Teen Read, an initiative from STEM Outreach. The STEM Teen Read encourages teens to explore the science behind science fiction through live talks, online videos and discussions, and interactive games. This fall, the DCL will be recruiting students to create an online virtual game for the STEM Teen Read’s Summer 2013 book, “Ashfall,” by Mike Mullin.

Faculty and students interested in participating in this interdisciplinary learning project with the DCL or proposing another project should contact Underwood at junderwood@niu.edu or (815) 751-8232.

by Gillian King-Cargile

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