History in cyberspace

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 February, 2005, 12:00am

IN THE OLD days, the best way to explore New York City's Chinatown was on foot. Now, you can click through recreations of its old, busy eight blocks on the three-dimensional computer program, Mapping Our Heritage, at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas (Moca).

The program uses computerised urban-planning technology and has been designed to store - and allow users to interact with - the museum's archives. Click on a storefront, and a history of the building appears. You might also see a photo of an object that's relevant to the building, or a video of a former inhabitant telling an anecdote.

Users can also inquire about their ancestors. If you think your uncle used to live in Chinatown, type in his name, and you might learn exactly where he lived, or how he spent his time. Or, if you know where your uncle used to live, but the programme doesn't, you can enter that information and expand its database.

The Mapping Our Heritage project sprang from Moca's tradition of involving Chinatown's inhabitants. 'One of the ways we think about history here is as a collection of personal narratives,' says the deputy director of programmes, Cynthia Lee.

'We collect different stories from people and weave them together to form a wide-ranging view of what happened in the community. To do this, we have to make people realise that their personal stories can lead to a greater understanding of the area's history. They have to realise that their stories are important and are worth telling.'

Lee says everyone who has passed through or lived in Chinatown holds a bit of its history. 'Also, people researching urban planning, political science and history hold different pieces of the puzzle,' she says. 'Our archives are filled with oral-history transcripts, photos and historical items, and we thought it would be interesting to merge that with the data of the urban planners - information about buildings and so on. That would give a broad picture of Chinatown.'

Lee says computer images are more instructive than words. 'Visualisation makes [users] think differently about the space around them,' she says. The program is also an interactive information source, she says. 'Some people might look at a street on the simulation and say, 'I know exactly where that is. I recognise the stores.' So, they might want to discover the history behind the building facades,' Lee says. 'Others might be used to passing through the streets of Chinatown, and think of it in terms of a map. We've provided for them, too.'

The museum will update the database as new information is discovered, she says. 'The information a user enters might answer the question of someone further down the line,' Lee says. 'The connections will continue growing and growing. No one knows where they will end up.'

So far, the program is only accessible at the museum, but Lee wants to reach a wider audience. 'The thing about New York's Chinatown is that so many people have passed through it,' she says. 'We hope to put it online, so that a person, say, in Hong Kong, can visit the virtual Chinatown and perhaps submit some stories. We're hoping people will send us stories from all over the world.'

Mapping Our Heritage, Museum of Chinese in the Americas, 2/F 70 Mulberry St, New York City. Inquiries: (1-212) 619 4785 or go to www.moca-nyc.org.