Back in March, we all found ourselves shutting our doors and sheltering in place as COVID-19 swept across the U.S. The museum was in a unique situation with no doors yet to close, as construction on our new museum had yet to begin. However, the walking tours we had been giving since the late 80s suddenly came to halt. We have spent the past five months working away at designing exhibits and collecting artifacts, putting our walking tours off until it was again safe to gather.
Then, in late July, we received a request for a tour from Michael Goldman, chaplain at the Georgetown Law Center. The museum had been taking incoming law students on walking tours for many years. Our connections with this group are numerous, from the law school being our neighbor to Michael himself, who got married in our historic synagogue. We were not sure how to continue this tradition in a safe way. Though the tours are outdoors, we could not ask a large group to gather, especially now that a major COVID testing site is right along our tour route on F St NW. What were we to do?
Rewinding back to late March, I was browsing through the Library of Congress online archives (as one does at the start of a global pandemic) when I stumbled upon their Washington, DC streetscape photos. This collection consists of tens of thousands of images of various streetscapes in DC from the 19th century through present day. With everything shut down, all that remained open were the streets, so I began to walk- exploring the neighborhoods I could reach with my feet. I sifted through those historic streetscape images and began to recreate the present-day view, showing what had changed, and what parts of historic Washington remained very much the same. I shared these images on my personal social media, much to the excitement of my followers.
So, when Georgetown reached out to us about the walking tour, I thought to myself, why not make it virtual? Much like with the LoC photographs, I gathered the images we had in our collection that we typically use on our walking tour of historic downtown Washington. I got on a city bike at 6am and began snapping photos all around downtown. Stitching them together, I was bringing this history to life, connecting the past to present in ways we had not been able to before. Each tour guide can usually take 10-15 people around, but on a virtual zoom tour, my colleague Stephany and I were able to speak directly to 35 individuals. Furthermore, we no longer had to account for walking times between each stop, allowing us to dive more deeply into much of this history.
Nothing can replace human interaction or the ability to stand in front of a building and see it with your own eyes while learning about its past. Yet, until it is safe for us to gather again, it seems this virtual tour will allow us to continue to share this history and continue to spark new conversations with and about this place we call home. We are excited to offer these virtual tours to groups beginning this Fall. Check the museum’s website in October to learn more.