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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Walking Cinema: Murder on Beacon Hill

People's Choice:
1 vote


National Endowment for the Humanities


Untravel Media




Part movie, part stroll, and part distributed museum, WALKING CINEMA: MURDER ON BEACON HILL, is a unique iPhone application that leads audiences through a first-hand experience of one of America’s strangest crimes. Based on the PBS film MURDER AT HARVARD, this location-based app is a series of mapped, high-definition videos that layer over present-day Beacon Hill sites to tell the curious of case of John Webster, a Harvard Professor accused of murdering and dismembering one of Boston’s richest men 160 years ago. The tense narrative of this bizarre case unlocks larger historical themes such as Victorian public and private morality, the professionalization of medicine, and the evolution of circumstantial evidence in criminal law.

The project has been running online and in the streets of Boston continuously since November, 2009 and is the most and highest rated “walking tour” app in the iTunes store. It is the only iPhone App to be screened and win a prize at a major film festival, and has captured the imagination of documentary and new media producers, leading to international screenings and several follow-on projects.


The overall goal of WALKING CINEMA was to give creative travelers and general audiences a hands-on experience of history, bringing archival materials and primary sources out into the sites they are associated with. From an outreach perspective, we were especially interested in developing an experience of local history that would appeal to audiences who don’t typically take an interest in history, museums or audio guides. From a creative standpoint, we wanted to see if we could tell a cinematic story, with strong characters and narrative arc, along a specific walking path in a historic neighborhood. And from a digital media perspective, we wanted to pull online audiences into an outdoor, active experience of history utilizing the locative and rich media capabilities of smartphones.


Audience studies showed that the application was successful in giving participants a feeling of ubiquitous history. The tour was tested on 20 users ranging in age from 6 to 70 and coming to the project in school groups, as travelers, as history buffs, and as curious locals. Overall, users were highly satisfied (9.5 out of 10 star average overall experience rating), reporting to be both entertained and deeply immersed in the history being recounted. A 20-year-old college student reported, “I’d do tours like this in a heartbeat….You’re going out and doing something. Our generation…needs to have constant sensory input. It makes history assignments more relevant because I can put them to a place.” This student’s professor, who leads study travel trips, reported that the format shows great promise for student trips abroad. “History as presented through tourism is my area of expertise, and I’m familiar with various strategies for leading tours and constructing museums, and I thought…being able to integrate the two-dimensional experience on the screen with the three-dimensional experience you’re inhabiting was really, really cool.”

In addition to the handheld media component, the Untravel team partnered with hotels, historic sites, non-profits, and private clubs to host artifacts and pieces of the story. Many participants reported that the little conversations that start when asking for these artifacts and the wink of being in on the story was delightful, especially for those who wouldn’t normally venture into the nooks and crannies of historic neighborhoods.


Possibly the most generative aspect of the project was how a museum-like experience arose from mobile technology, public space and documentary film. The film, MURDER AT HARVARD, like many historic documentaries, prominently featured places. But rather than pull cuts from the film and tag them to a digital map, WALKING CINEMA was designed to extend the story via mobile. We took the film’s themes--the evolution of medicine, fictionalizing mixed with fact, and the role of the public in determining criminality--and further explored them through Beacon Hill’s existing architecture, ruins, quirky museums, and other 19th century haunts that one glimmers in the film but never take center stage. The mobile version references MURDER AT HARVARD, but really stands as a separate story, delving deeper into public perception of the sites mentioned in the film, the role of the press, and the psychological play between Prof. Webster and Dr. Parkman.

At film festivals, conferences, and through professional organizations, we have seen a strong response to this approach in the filmmaker community. Film producers often recognize the importance of multi-platform production in reaching out to fragmented audiences, but have few examples of how their stories can really expand on the mobile platform. WALKING CINEMA’s story-first approach to mobile has inspired many filmmakers to look for innovative partnerships with history sites and museums to extend their films to real spaces. We hope this is the start of a powerful alliance between museums, filmmakers, and mobile developers to make history more accessible, story-driven, and grounded in public space.


Although we talk about how the Web obliterates distance, mobile technology and especially location-based applications, remind us of the power of space. In this project, we were constantly reminded of how evocative and memorable our cityscapes and historical neighborhoods can be.