Virtual reality tour offers new look at city's past

A new exhibit at Watkins Community Museum of History mixes history and modern-day technology to give visitors a feel for what Lawrence was like at the time of Quantrill's Raid.

The interactive exhibit, which uses a computer and software designed by Lawrence resident Randy Farr, provides a virtual tour of Lawrence as it appeared in the 1860s.

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Melissa Lacey/Journal-World Photo Illustration

Randy Farr discusses the interactive virtual reality computer exhibit titled "Lawrence, Kansas, 1863," that he created for the Watkins Community Museum of History. The program depicts Lawrence at the time of Quantrill's Raid.

"It's not meant to be a reference (book)," Farr said of his computer program. "It's an active learning experience."

Steve Jansen, historian for the museum, said the interactive display accurately reflects the expanse of land in and around Lawrence in the 1860s.

By guiding a computer mouse, users can click on specific streets, homes and other icons on the computer screen to learn about Lawrence, its buildings, its people and the events leading up to and following William Quantrill's raid.

"It's as accurate as we have information," Jansen said, adding that the program can be updated as more information about Lawrence's history becomes known.

During the course of the program, users will see original computer-generated images by Farr and historic photographs of Lawrence and hear a narrative recorded by Jansen, museum employee Judy Sweets and others.

For example, clicking a mouse on the Eldridge Hotel icon will bring up information about the history of the hotel, historic photos of the hotel, information about Shalor and Thomas Eldridge, a description of William Quantrill as he entered the hotel, how the hotel was occupied by Quantrill's men and how the hotel was surrendered.

Farr approached Jansen with the idea for an interactive exhibit after hearing Jansen speak at a meeting last summer. At that time, he knew little about Lawrence history. He immediately immersed himself in the town's connection to the Civil War.

"I wanted to do this because I knew I'd learn more about it," Farr said.

Jansen said the interactive exhibit is a much-needed addition to the museum, and he credited Lawrence residents Phil Godwin, Marnie Argersinger and Tensie Oldfather for their support and effort to make it happen.

"If we don't have the ability to do this medium, we lack credibility," he said. "We need a one-of-a-kind thing for the museum, and this is one of the things we can do."

Farr said a CD-ROM based on the interactive exhibit will be available in a couple of weeks at the museum. A special version of the CD-ROM and teaching guides for schools also may be available in the future.

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