New tools to peel back the history of the Rideau Locks

At the Carleton Immersive Media Studio, Stephen Fai (left) discusses one of the Rideau Canal models with Azrieli School graduate student Ken Percy. (Susan Hickman Photo)

The architectural and cultural history of the construction of the Rideau Canal, considered a World Heritage Site, will soon be available as a unique web-based virtual museum.

The online exhibit is being developed in partnership with the Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC), an initiative of the Department of Canadian Heritage. Thanks to VMC’s $273,000 investment, Carleton University library’s Archives and Research Collections (ARC) is merging its archival holdings with digital interfaces to create a web-based tour of the 19th century engineering marvel.

“It’s a novel combination of material history and new technology,” says associate English Prof. Brian Greenspan, who is involved in the project in partnership with the Bytown Museum, ARC head Patti Harper and Stephen Fai, associate professor in the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism. The focus of the initiative, called Heritage Passages: Bytown and the Rideau Canal, is the first section of the Rideau Canal locks at the Ottawa River.

Harper says the project, expected to wrap up by May 2012, is allowing a diverse group of experts to use digitized artifacts, texts, photos, and architectural and engineering drawings to create a series of intertwined narratives of the building of the canal between 1826 and 1855.

An expert on Carleton’s heritage, Harper wants people to understand not only how innovative the canal construction was for its time, but also its significance in shaping the various communities that make up Ottawa.

The VMC was established as a partnership with more than 1,500 Canadian heritage institutions. Its website ( is a unique portal to the countless stories and treasures held in trust by Canada’s museums, and is part of the Government of Canada’s strategy to promote Canada’s culture online.

The Rideau Canal is the best preserved canal in North America from the great canal-building era of the early 1800s that is still operational along its original line with most of the original structures intact.

The Bytown Museum has such artifacts as construction tools and oxen yokes, which will be photographed in 360-degree images for the new virtual museum. Parks Canada has detailed manuscripts dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, and the heritage community has significant research papers on various aspects of the canal. But some records – maps and drawings, for example – are housed in archives in the United Kingdom.

“For something that is so central to Ottawa, the archival documents are incredibly scattered,” says Harper. “What I am really excited about is being able to further the archival quest on the Rideau Canal by bringing the evidence together in one place.”

Fai, director of the Carleton Immersive Media Studio (CIMS), and his team of graduate students are currently creating detailed digital three-dimensional architectural models of the locks and associated buildings that were constructed and demolished between the East Block of Parliament Hill and the Chateau Laurier, north to the Ottawa River and south to Rideau St.

“Based on the archeological evidence, we are documenting the development of Upper Town and Lower Town in a way that will engage people,” explains Fai. “Using knowledge we have and based on period paintings and buildings to inform our decisions about the way buildings might have been built, we are speculating a bit.”

When the website is up and running, browsers will be able to follow interpretive narrative paths through the material and link to a navigable timeline of the canal’s conception and construction. They will discover the military connection, the living conditions of the time and the health of the canal workers, for example.

“We are definitely pushing a boundary with this unique website,” says Fai. “There are going to be some technical challenges, but the experience will be quite novel.”

Greenspan, who is the designer and founding director of the Hypertext and Hypermedia Lab, explains that virtual visitors will also be able to download a GPS-enabled “augmented reality” smartphone application. StoryTrek, developed in Greenspan’s lab, will provide on-site access to interpretive paths directly from significant locations along the canal.

“Our system will cater to your interests and your method of navigation,” Greenspan says. “We are interested in new ways of telling the stories and the students have come up with all sorts of different ways to use the devices. This is quite different from anything that’s out there.”

This entry was written by Susan Hickman and posted in the issue. Tags applied to this article are: , , , , . Leave a comment, bookmark the permalink or share the following short URL for this article via social media:

Susan Hickman

By Susan Hickman

For nearly four decades, journalist Susan Hickman has written about every imaginable subject for sundry newspapers and magazines in Canada and abroad, as well as for CBC TV and CBC Radio. She has also managed various publications, including academic newspapers and technology magazines, and was recently commissioned to write a guide for foreign missions serving in Canada. Currently, she is working on a couple of personal memoirs.

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