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London Projects Provide a Passport to the City’s Cultural Treasures

By Joan Killough-Miller
Photography by Patrick O’Connor

Drawing on unique research methods and technical expertise, students were able to bring London’s rich history and contemporary arts to those who cannot manage the trip.

Access can mean many things to many people. To a wheelchair user, it could mean viewing the upstairs chambers of Charles Dickens’ London home. A jazz fan looking to hook up with the local music scene might never discover the city’s smaller, unadvertised clubs without an insider’s guide. Even a lack of Internet skills can be a real handicap to those devoted to preserving London’s grand history and making it accessible to a twenty-first century audience.

Students at the London Project Center spent last spring and summer finding new ways to make the city’s cultural treasures more approachable to more people. Drawing on unique research methods and technical expertise, students were able to enrich the experience of actual visitors and bring London’s rich history and contemporary arts to those who cannot manage the trip.

“I call it the music and museums summer,” says adjunct instructor of music John F. Delorey, who relished the opportunity to show students around the city where he did his graduate research. One of his students, Jamie Mitchell ’07, focused his humanities and arts project on the city’s jazz scene. Mitchell, a drummer and guitarist, began with this question: “Is there such a thing as ‘London Jazz’? Or is it just that there is jazz in London?”

Hardly a subject for library research, the project had Mitchell out late at night, scoping out lesser-known clubs. He interviewed owners, audience members, and players, who took him to after-hours jam sessions and introduced him to a network of freelance musicians. His research took him into areas not typically visited by tourists, where he found a diverse and thriving musical idiom, and a shared optimism that “jazz is on the up” in London. As an American, Mitchell gained entré into this subculture as a respected “jazz ambassador,” Delorey notes. (“We sort of borrowed your art, didn’t we?” one Londoner remarked.)

Mitchell’s project report included a historical overview and an analysis of stylistic and attitudinal differences between London and the United States, as well as transcripts of his interviews. Going beyond the typical humanities and arts project, Mitchell designed a map-linked database of jazz venues, modeled on destination city guides such as “Time Out.” He included a rating system for music and food, performance schedules, nearby tube stations, and clear directions. “They gave him a lot in seven weeks,” said Delorey. “I did almost nothing except read his work.”

Beyond opera

Reaching back to the music of a bygone era, Delorey also advised an IQP team working with the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society. Sullivan (1842–1900) is best known for his collaboration with W. S. Gilbert on The Pirates of Penzance and other comic operettas, but this is only one facet of his life’s work. “His work has huge historical significance,” Delorey says. “It is light opera, yes, but of the highest quality. One hundred years later, you still can’t dispute that.” Delorey recently came into possession of a collection of Sullivan memorabilia, including complete scores, facsimiles, and concert programs. In addition to cataloging the collection for scholarly use, he would like to establish a tradition of musical theatre for WPI’s orchestra and vocal groups.

When Delorey heard that the Sullivan Society wanted to enhance its Internet presence, he saw a wonderful opportunity to bring WPI’s Web design talent into play. He describes the society’s membership as British—including some nobles—but lacking in IT skills. Michael Kristan ’07 and Christopher Sweeney ’06 embarked on an IQP project to improve the focus and functionality of the society’s Web site. More than just a facelift, their recommendations—which were resoundingly accepted by the society’s Board of Directors—helped the nonprofit organization emphasize its academic stature and offer a higher level of services to members. Upgraded server capacity and modernized e-commerce technology were designed to make it easier to join the society, purchase goods, and collaborate with other scholars. The students left behind a complete manual for site upgrades and maintenance. They also added a new feature—a virtual walking tour, with street maps and directions for those who wish to take the actual tour on foot.

Access for all

At the Charles Dickens Museum, an IQP team advised by professors John Sanbonmatsu (philosophy) and Guillermo F. Salazar (civil engineering) joined forces on a very different challenge. The United Kingdom’s Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 requires handicapped access to public places. But major renovations to the author’s former home could detract from the building’s historical value, and even conflict with the museum’s stated mission to “protect and preserve 48 Doughty Street...for the appreciation of the life and work of Charles Dickens.” The 12-room home was saved from destruction in 1923 by the Dickens Fellowship. Its steep staircases and tight corridors make the usual accommodations—such as ramps and lifts—unfeasible, and it is doubtful that the structure could support an elevator.

Rather than bring handicapped visitors to the museum’s inaccessible spaces, Carol Carveth ’06, Matthew Densmore ’06, Shawn Donovan ’06, and Brenton Dwyer ’06 created a virtual tour that brings the museum to them, combining text and panoramic photography to give an inside view of the building’s major attractions. “I chose the project at the Dickens Museum because the results would make an impact right away,” Dwyer says. “Hopefully, the virtual tour will give visitors a more complete experience.” Virtual visitors are free to choose their own path, or to follow a guided tour. Hyperlinks offer close-ups of objects of interest as well as links to further information and outside resources. The students also put together an online tutorial to help those new to the Web navigate the various features. In their research they used a visitor’s survey and received feedback from representatives of disabled rights groups. The tour includes views of historic portraits and artifacts that influenced the author’s life, such as the attic window he gazed through from his childhood bedroom, the study where he completed The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, and an eerie door knocker that later haunted the dreams of Ebenezer Scrooge.

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Last modified: Dec 20, 2005, 17:25 EST
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