Students collaborate on virtual tour of city's arts history

January 19, 2023
Screenshot of arts history tour launching Jan 2023
Capture of screenshot of Fitchburg Athenaeum on virtual arts history tour
This screenshot of the virtual tour shows some of the elements for the stop dedicated to the Fitchburg Athenaeum on Main Street.

Did you ever wish you could go back in time and tour the era when Fitchburg erected so many of its magnificent buildings? If so, your wish is about to be granted, thanks to a newly launched virtual walking tour created by Fitchburg State University students in collaboration with the Fitchburg Historical Society and Fitchburg Historical Commission.

Students in Assistant Professor J.J. Sylvia IV’s Communications Media classes worked with Fitchburg Historical Society Executive Director Susan Navarre to create the interactive tour, wherein visitors to Main Street may locate directions to significant buildings using their phone and be enlightened by voice or text about their history.

Sylvia said the project originated with the city’s Historical Commission, which contacted the university’s Crocker Center for Civic Engagement about launching a collaboration to create a walking tour. The project began with a student-designed brochure and street signs and was followed by curation of the tour itself with students in Sylvia’s Introduction to Communication and Media Studies course. Two cohorts of students have worked on the walking tour project to date. The focus of the latest class was creating a virtual tour celebrating the city’s history in the arts.

“I believe the students can benefit from an experience like this in several different ways,” Sylvia said. “At the most practical level, this project gives them an opportunity to work on a hands-on, community-based project in their first year at Fitchburg State. This offers them real-world professional experience that they can use for their portfolios and resumes to demonstrate the type of collaborative work they're capable of producing. Through this process they are not only getting experience working with a client, but learning valuable research and digital media production skills, as well.”

Sylvia said he also appreciates how the work deepens students’ connection with the city in which they are studying. 

“There is real value in understanding the historical context of the places that we live, work, and learn,” he said. “A project like this allows students to develop new ways of thinking about the community around them, and this way of seeing the world is something that I hope they take with them as they graduate from Fitchburg State and may go on to live and work in other communities.”

Sophia Moore, a first-year Fitchburg State student from Connecticut, chose to research content for the tour stop dedicated to the Fitchburg Athenaeum. The site notes that the organization, formed in 1852, had a small private library housed in a room of Fitchburg’s newly built town hall and became a forum for community discussion and welcomed guest speakers including Henry David Thoreau.

“There’s a lot of history in Fitchburg,” said Moore. “All of my group members were from Fitchburg, but everything we learned in our project was new to them, too. I’ve never been a big history person, but I did gain an interest through this project, to see the differences from then to now.”

Moore is majoring in Communications Media with a focus on public relations and advertising. She is also a member of the university’s women’s soccer team.

“This type of assignment uses an open pedagogy approach that respects students' agency, giving them significant input and control in the final projects that they create, which extend beyond the walls of the classroom and make an impact in the larger community,” Sylvia said.

“What I like best about this project is that Professor Sylvia’s students are visiting our offices on Main Street and using our wealth of primary source materials rather than the internet to tell their stories,” Navarre said. “It will be a wonderful resource, not only for visitors to Fitchburg, but to residents who want to know more about their city. It is almost like actual, physical time travel.”

Stops on the virtual tour include the Whitney Opera Theater, the WFGL radio station, the Iver Johnson Building, the Fitchburg Athenaeum, the Fitchburg Art Museum, and the Rollstone boulder. The tour created by students in Spring 2022 highlighted the city’s historic districts.