GLAMi Nomination

The Private Jefferson
Institution: Massachusetts Historical Society
Designer: Gavin Kleespies (MHS), Professor Andries van Dam (Brown University) , and Ryan Gaspar (Microsoft)
Tags: App, Education, Gallery, Museum, Virtual Exhibition

(submitted by Ryan Gaspar at Microsoft on behalf of the Massachusetts Historical Society)

The Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) has one of the preeminent archival collections in America; however there are real limitations to showing rare manuscripts to a wide audience. Through a recent partnership with Microsoft, and Brown University, MHS was able to address this challenge head on.

MHS holds one of the largest collections of Thomas Jefferson’s papers, second only to the Library of Congress, as well as the papers of his fellow founding father John Adams. However, when they were planning the exhibition The Private Jefferson, they knew that there were limitations on how we could tell the story of Jefferson’s life. They are able to show the personal correspondence between Jefferson and his granddaughters as well as the evolution of his most famous work, the Declaration of Independence, through displaying manuscript drafts in both Jefferson’s hand and Adam’s hand as well as one of 26 known copies of the Dunlap broadsides. It is amazing to stand next to three copies of the Declaration, but all of the handwritten documents have text on both sides. In a display case, whatever you show, you are leaving large portions of the content out. The value of these documents also requires very limited light and significant security precautions, which, combined with small handwriting on 240 year-old documents, makes much of the content difficult to see. This was where the partnership with Microsoft and the team at Brown became so important.

Microsoft provided MHS with hardware, but more importantly, provided project support and access to the team app developers at Brown University who designed Touch Art Gallery (TAG). Using the TAG app, MHS built five interactive tours, loaded over 100 digital manuscripts and drawings, and embedded 20 short videos of top experts on our third President. On site visitors can now explore this digital content in immense detail on a 65” touch-screen monitor in the first room of our show or with smaller monitors in the other rooms.  These TAG experiences are also available to download as a Windows app (entering “” into the server field) so that people unable to travel to Boston in person can also explore these artifacts and stories.

The tours and the videos allow people to learn about parts of Jefferson’s life from leading experts on the subjects. However, unlike the videos, during the tours a user can touch the screen to stop the tour, zoom in or out on the manuscript or artwork displayed, move them around the screen, read additional information about the material and, when their ready, restart the tour from where they stopped.

Visitors can explore the documents and architectural drawings using Microsoft’s deep zoom and MHS’s meta data. They can use a split screen tool to look at two documents side by side, while maintaining full zoom capability. So you can now compare the subtle differences in the drafts of the Declaration or zoom in to compare the quality of the paper used by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The additional information and the embedded videos add volumes of content that deepens the visitors experience but would never have fit on a display label.

Thomas Jefferson has been described as the American Sphinx and is considered by many to be enigmatic. This exhibition aimed to peel back the mysteries around this founding father and show the person who has become one of the most famous Americans. “While we are confident that the answers to our questions exist with the nearly 10,000 manuscripts we hold in Jefferson’s hand, our show would never have been able to make this story available to the public without the technology that Microsoft made available to us,” said Gavin Kleespies, Director of Programs at MHS.

MHS is also enabling classrooms around the globe to experience the incredible information included within this exhibit through help from Skype Virtual Field Trips. The first Virtual Field Trip looks specifically at Jefferson’s groundbreaking architectural plans – including Jefferson’s farm and garden books, plans for Monticello, and drawing of the Virginia State Capital. The second Virtual Field Trip looks more closely at the letters, writings, and intellectual development of this founding father – including the drafts and the Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence, the manuscript draft of Notes on the State of Virginia, and a sampling of his correspondence. It is exciting to be able to break down geographic barriers through platforms such as Skype in the Classroom to empower educators and students from around the world to share in this amazing history that MHS has preserved and breathed new life into.

The Massachusetts Historical Society’s 225th Anniversary Exhibit “The Private Jefferson” is on display through May 20, 2016. Visit the Massachusetts Historical Society from 10am to 4pm Monday through Saturday at 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, MA.