Virtual Pompeii and Public Expectations Surrounding the Digital Humanities

As technology becomes more and more integrated into daily life it is natural to try and push it to its absolute limit. In the realm of historical research this has lead to incredible gains in terms of enabling the general public to view primary source material that was previously reserved for a limited academic elite. The main downside to this otherwise incredible leap is that the public is now in a place of transitioning expectations regarding historical material. Most people have an expectation of what they will experience when they enter a physical museum. The ease of accessibility and availability of information are expected to be high because that’s what the museum aims to do. Similarly, when people use the Internet, they have an idea of the quality of service they should expect. Web design is now at the point where many people think there is something wrong with a website if it isn’t as easily navigable as the polished interfaces they are most used to.

These two ideas can come into conflict in a project that aims to create a playable experience such as the digital model of a house in Pompeii produced by the University of Arkansas. It doesn’t line up perfectly with one expectation or the other and can thus seem like a let down. However, one can fully appreciate the work when looking at it not simply as an online museum or a game with some historical content, but as a work of digital humanities with its own aims and expectations surrounding it.

The project aims to create a searchable repository of art from Pompeii that pairs with a 3D model run in the Unity game engine. The project does an effective job at presenting these two parts individually. The database is easy to search and provides detailed information about all of the art that’s been tagged. The model itself is also well put together and provides a good sense of the physicality of the art as it would have originally been displayed. However, the two parts aren’t well linked together. When one is using the model, there isn’t an easy way to connect the images to the information in the database.

This is where the idea of expectations creates a stumbling block for the project. It’s not a traditional museum in the sense that the information isn’t physically juxtaposed. It also doesn’t fit the average persons definition of an effective website due to its lacking connectivity. However, this does not mean the project has failed at its aims. It has successfully created an interface that allows users to learn about art in Pompeii and see it in context. It just requires a transition from the existing expectations surrounding the digital world and humanities to a new expectation governing how one looks at digital humanities as a combined concept to be fully appreciated.

Child’s Workhouse Uniform Shoes

These rounded, sturdy-looking, brown leather child’s shoes are a replica of one in the October 26, 1806 inventory of the Staplehurst Parish Workhouse in Kent.

In the context of a museum exhibition, these child’s shoes can support the messages of other displays to help give visitors a more complete sense of a cobbler’s process, the workhouse uniform, or the life of children in the workhouse.

For a shoemaking exhibit, shoes can either act as a hands-on display using a replica or 3D digital rendering to help visitors understand the weight, feel, and size of uniform shoes, or as the image of a final product.

In an exhibit (physical or digital) on the uniform or the life of children, shoes can help illustrate the simple functionality of the pauper’s uniform, and if combined with a digital form of inventory/minute records, shoes could be used to help bring to life the wear and tear of workhouse life on the uniform. This digital tool can also reveal how often children received new shoes, combining the total institution feel of the workhouse with the evidence of some governing committee’s care for the maintenance of children’s uniforms.


Photos by Susannah Ottaway.

“An Inventory of All and Singular the Good and Chattels of the Work-house of the Parish of Staplehurst Kent as taken the 24th of October 1806 by order of the Overseers Messrs Ts. Simmons & Ts Bromley at the Death of the late Master Daniel Axell.” Kent Library P.347/18/1.


Blue Furniture


During the October 24, 1806 inventory in the workhouse of Staplehurst Kent, some “Blue Furniture” would have created a splash of color in the “Nursery Chamber.” In this case, furniture refers to fabric or linens, most likely those used as a bed curtain.

One way to display this fabric in a museum would be on a bed frame. Let alone, the furniture would remain shapeless and not evoke the shelter it might have given to inmates experiencing childbirth or illness in the workhouse. Visitors could even climb into a model bed to experience the curtains surrounding them.

However, hanging this fabric on a physical bed in a museum exhibit fixes its meaning. As Bayne, Ross, and Williamson note, “Where the material object is stable in time and space, the digital object is both mobile and volatile” (112). Using a digital tool might enable visitors to manipulate the fabric themselves, and explore how it might function as covers, as window curtains, or even as repurposed cloth for rags. Even the scenario I describe limits interpretations, but it might begin to transfer the opportunity to interpret into the audience’s hands.


Bayne, Siân, Jen Ross, and Zoe Williamson. “Objects, subjects, bits and bytes: learning from the digital collections of National Museums.” Museum and Society 7, no. 2 (July 2009): 110-124. ISSN 1479-8360.

“An Inventory of All and Singular the Good and Chattels of the Work-house of the Parish of Staplehurst Kent as taken the 24th of October 1806 by order of the Overseers Messrs Ts. Simmons & Ts Bromley at the Death of the late Master Daniel Axell.” Kent Library P.347/18/1.

Earthenware Teapots

The above image features the typical teapot or kettle found in British workhouses in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Although the one depicted is ‘bronze-glazed’ earthenware (pottery made from hardened clay), there are accounts of copper-glazed and ‘Old Fashioned’ earthenware teapots. In addition, it is likely that tin-glazed teapots were commonly found.These teapots were placed all through the workhouse in common spaces, more private bedded wards, and even authority chambers.

In the museum context, it would be most intuitive for visitors to first engage with the teapot as part of a larger–perhaps interactive–display of tableware in kitchen and pantry settings. The display would ideally convey some background information on the commodification of tin-glazed and earthenware items, as well as provide an interactive experience on the cooking of food in the workhouse. Maybe a digitization/projection of a cook at work would be appropriate here; the hologram cook could beckon visitors to take a look at the bowls on display, in which images of onion gruel/other foods could be projected on cue, and then it could encourage visitors to pour out tea or water from the kettle.

To emphasize the ubiquity of the teapot outside the context of meal preparation, multiple replicas could also be placed throughout the museum in different areas. They could be contextualized with plaques varying on this theme: Thirsty? You might be able to find a water fountain right around the corner, but with three strictly regimented meals a day, a pauper might have found oneself craving water outside of mealtime. They could have drank from these common kettles.

The Master’s Chair

A chair like the one cataloged at Assington

Cataloged in 1808, the master’s rush-bottomed armchair from the Assington Poorhouse would have been made of wood and either bulrush or cattail and would have likely been where the Master sat while he conducted official workhouse business.

One way to display the chair could be putting it in a lineup of other rush-bottomed chairs from the workhouse to show how similar the master’s chair was to that of the paupers. It could also be interesting to provide some more comfortable or opulent looking chairs and having visitors guess which one they think the masters was. These modes of display could support the idea of the commonness of the chair and help visitors realize that workhouse masters weren’t surrounded by the kingly luxury they are sometimes credited with.

One way to supplement this with digital tools could be providing an interface that would allow the visitors to go through a normal workday of the master while sitting in a replica of the chair. They could meet with paupers through video or look through shipping manifests on a screen in front of them, creating a physical experience that could emulate the life of the master, contributing to a better understanding about the reality of the situation the masters lived in.

Iron Stove

An iron stove was noted in an inventory of the Carleton Rode House of Industry in 1787. The stove was located in the paupers’ bed chamber and was fixed to the wall. Though a stove is not an intimate, personal object, its function of keeping people warm would have been important at night and in the winter. This object allows us to infer that the chambers of a pauper might have been a relatively comfortable place for them, and possibly even a sanctuary within the workhouse.

An attempt to physically convey the importance of a stove in a museum could engage the senses of a visitor to a museum, and by doing so, help create an authentic representation of the past. Something as simple as placing an iron stove with an electric heater in it in a corner of chilly room allow visitors to experience the comfort this object could have provided, and how important it could be. As visitors gravitate toward its warmth, they would be able to imagine paupers in a workhouse doing the same on a cold winter day. A digital projection of a group of paupers around a similar stove or a fireplace would help them relate this experience to one that an actual inmate may have had.

Wooden Bedstead

Beds were everywhere in the 18th and 19th century workhouses, and everyone spent time sleeping in and tending to their bed. Given their ubiquity, a bedstead would be a crucial piece of a museum exhibit seeking to expose this portion of workhouse life.

One possible means of incorporating digital tools into a bed showcase might be through the use of VR. A replica bed could be placed in an open space, and users could approach the real bed while immersed in a virtually reproduced setting. As the user approaches and examines the bed, the room in which it is located could change, to demonstrate the wide range of rooms in the workhouse that had a bed. One could even imagine creating a game that requires you to clean a dirty bedstead to advance through the sequence of rooms. A simpler display could employ projectors to change the setting for the bed.

Regardless of the means, the bed’s exhibit would serve as a recognizable touchstone to transport visitors into the workhouse setting. We all recognize beds as items central to our lives, and that makes them a good point to compare and contrast our experience with that of a workhouse inmate.


Foundling Hospital Established

In 1739, Thomas Coram, a sea captain turned philanthropist, received a royal charter to establish London’s Foundling Hospital addressing the desperate need of housing London’s abandoned infants. Two years later, on March 25, 1741, the hospital received its first children and it soon found its permanent home in modern-day Bloomsbury. At the grand opening alone, “as many Children were already taken in as Cou’d be made room for in the House,” according to the Daily Committee’s minutes. Except during a Parliament-sponsored period of general admission from 1756-1760, the hospital imposed strict criteria about the age and health of each baby. Jonas Hanway, famous for his subsequent reform of the relief system for poor children, served as governor of the Foundling Hospital during this general admission period.

Catholic countries on the continent already had similar institutions, but eighteenth-century England was mostly reliant on parish poor relief. The Foundling Hospital may have increased the practice of abandonment or served an already growing population of illegitimate and poor children. Regardless, it allowed mothers to leave children to an institution rather than abandoning them publicly or resorting to infanticide. As Britain industrialized and underwent a massive demographic transition during the late 18th century, the Foundling Hospital only became more necessary as a source of relief for childhood poverty.

Composer George Friedrich Handel and visual artist William Hogarth helped Coram establish and fundraise for the Foundling Hospital, linking philanthropy with the arts. Handel’s organ and benefit concerts and Hogarth’s public art gallery at the Foundling Hospital disrupt the notion that eighteenth-century institutions were all bleak places with no room for the arts.

The Foundling Hospital released its last child to the foster care system in 1954 but has continued operating as a charitable organization for vulnerable children. The site of the original building now hosts the Foundling Museum.


Levene, Alysa, “Introduction.” In Childcare, health and mortality in the London Foundling Hospital, 1741–1800: Left to the mercy of the world’, 1-15.
 New York: Manchester University Press, 2007. .

McClure, Ruth K. Coram’s Children: The London Foundling Hospital in the Eighteenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

“Our History.” The Foundling Museuem. 2017. Accessed 21 January 2018.

Taylor, James Stephen. “Hanway, Jonas (bap. 1712, d. 1786), merchant and philanthropist.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, last accessed January 21, 2018.

“What is a Foundling?” The Foundling Museuem. 2017. Accessed 21 January 2018.