When the Petersen House closed in December 2017 for restoration and renovation work, we knew there would be a gap in the visitor experience at Ford’s. We had to think creatively about how to tell thousands of visitors about what happened after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination without showing them inside the space where he died.
The National Park Service and Ford’s Theatre Society partnered with TimeLooper, an app that brings historical events to present-day spaces through virtual and augmented reality. TimeLooper offers virtual reality experiences in cities around the world, including several experiences along the National Mall. While the Petersen House is inaccessible, visitors can download the TimeLooper app and take a virtual tour of the Petersen House, including the front and back parlors and the bedroom where Lincoln died.
Virtual Reality can immerse viewers in historical places where the physical space may have changed over the years or just isn’t available. To deepen this experience, we included first-person accounts to bring visitors back to the night of Lincoln’s death.
In the app about the Petersen House, you can hear reactions from Clara Harris and her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone, who accompanied the Lincolns to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, and followed them across the street to the Petersen House after President was shot. Harris’ account recalls her bloodstained dress and Mary Lincoln’s intense grief. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles also gave an account of Lincoln’s last moments. Through technology, their real-life experiences now enhance our 21st-century understanding of what happened at the Petersen House.
Since its launch in February 2018, visitors to Ford’s have used the app on site with the help of National Park Service Rangers. Both visitors and rangers are fascinated by the technology and the history. Rangers are excited that they can bring different perspectives to visitors, comparing it to reenactors who have visited Ford’s in the past to share eyewitness accounts.
And, we love that you don’t even have to be on-site to use this free app and experience the Petersen House on April 14, 1865! Simply look for TimeLooper in the iOS and Android app stores. Then, once you download, you can visit the Petersen House virtually. You can use a 3-D viewer, like Google Cardboard, to get the complete immersive experience, or look at it on your phone’s screen.
Aislinn Rubinic is an education intern at Ford’s Theatre. She is a history major at the Catholic University of America.