J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Boston N.H.P. Welcomes Visitors Real and Virtual Today

This morning Boston National Historical Park opens its new visitor center in Faneuil Hall—the reason I’ve been exploring stories of that landmark this week. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who oversees the National Park Service, will be in town for the public opening at 11:30 A.M., along with elected officials.

Yesterday the park released an “NPS Boston” app for mobile devices, produced with GuideOne and available through iTunes. (An Android version is on the way.) I downloaded this to my iPad and tried it out.

The app is designed to help people plan their visit to the historic sites in Boston linked to the park and find their way from one site to another. It also augments such a visit with a little background information.

At least in its iPad form, the app has to be used in landscape mode. It starts with a map of Boston, the relevant sites marked with blue teardrop pins and little diagrams. “Sites” under the top menu choice have two or more photographs each. Some points in the Charlestown Navy Yard even come with short videos, but those show industrial ropemaking and the like, so they might not satisfy visitors looking for Revolutionary history.

“Sites” covers all the locations on the Freedom Trail, the Black Heritage Trail, landmarks of the Charlestown Navy Yard, and Dorchester Heights. Most are clustered in central Boston, with another concentration in Charlestown. Dorchester Heights remains off on its own, but at least it has equal billing.

The Boston Harbor Islands and Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters sites are parts of different national parks, and are therefore noted only on the Massachusetts map and at the end of the F.A.Q. list, though they also have Revolutionary significance and are within reach for people visiting the city for a day. Other maps show all the country’s other national parks, including Minute Man, Adams, Salem Maritime, Springfield Armory, and so on.

The “Tours” section of the app starts with the complete Freedom Trail, a shorter version for people who don’t want to spend “4-8 hours,” the Black Heritage Trail (now starting from Faneuil Hall rather than the monument to the U.S. 54th Regiment), and a “Create Your Tour” feature that will highlight the sites the user chooses. The last checks those pins on the map, but doesn’t calculate a route or walking time.

There are also “Thematic Tours,” all starting from Faneuil Hall. These include “Paul Revere’s Boston” and two tours of different lengths that combine sites on the Freedom Trail and Black Heritage Trail under the theme of political activism and rights. Another tour focuses on the Navy Yard only. All these thematic tours include very short audio recordings.

The app works best when one has a good wireless or cell connection. It appears to download elements as requested, so simply downloading the app and then going out of range means you might well be missing images, recordings, or the F.A.Q. It can use your own location information, though I’m not sure how that works since I was well off the map while testing.

I hope the programming contains room for expansion. For example, one question describes how much Boston has been expanded by landfill; a link to the peninsula’s original dimensions on the main map could show that more powerfully. A timeline could remind users of how the major events in Boston history line up. And the keyword “restroom” is nowhere to be found, though I have to believe it appears in a frequently asked question.

Free and up-to-date, the “NPS Boston” app is a useful program for iPhone and iPad owners visiting from near or far. For deeper information, visitors should still consult books, guides, and signage at the sites.


Anonymous said...

The Freedom Trail Foundation app (IPad) is perhaps a better source of information.

J. L. Bell said...

Potential customers should know that app costs $4.99 while the Boston N.P.S. app is free. There are several other apps linked to the Freedom Trail name. The officially endorsed one has an "FT" logo and was developed by Toura.