From Access to Integration

From Access to Integration: Digital Technologies and the Study of Jewish History

An International Conference exploring new approaches to coordinating and integrating the digitization of Jewish historical sources around the world.

Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street New York, NY 10011
Wednesday, November 9

Mapping Ararat:

Research Journeys Toward A Virtual Jewish History

By Professors Melissa Shiff (University of Toronto), Louis Kaplan (University of Toronto), and John Craig Freeman (Emerson College, Boston)



This presentation focuses on the initial stages of a collaborative digital arts and humanities work in progress entitled “Mapping Ararat: An Imaginary Jewish Homelands Project” supported by a Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Development grant.  I will begin today by giving a brief overview of the project as well as a brief description of the technologies utilized. This will be followed by a few selected case studies of the successes as well as challenges that we have faced in our researches thus far. But first, I would like to introduce my  collaborators and myself– I’m artist Melissa Shiff  from the University of Toronto and I’m the project Director, here is Professor Louis Kaplan (University of Toronto) who is our chief researcher,  and Professor John Craig Freeman (Emerson College) who is our new media artist/expert.

“Mapping Ararat” utilizes historical research and artistic creation to image and imagine Mordecai Noah’s early nineteenth century vision of establishing a refuge for the Jews on Grand Island, New York.  He called this place Ararat thereby evoking the story of the Biblical Noah in which he clearly identified.  Employing cutting-edge digital media, this project gives Ararat a virtual chance to become the Jewish homeland that its founder had envisioned.  The final project will operate via the following digital media platforms – an augmented reality walking tour, a virtual cartographic installation, and a website that is linked through social media.

“Mapping Ararat” offers new approaches to coordinating and integrating the digitization of Jewish historical sources and it does so by employing three different digital technologies.

Website and Resources

The first is through the use of the familiar website platform. This approach offers the viewer/participant a rich resource of primary and secondary historical materials drawn from all of the archives where we have conducted our research related to Mordecai Noah’s 1825 Ararat endeavor.

Our website has already begun to collate maps, letters, photographs and newspapers from the period and we do so by either posting links or embedding the material. The website also has a social media component that allows for the wide dissemination of these Jewish historical sources as well as the ability to broadcast upcoming news and events  (such as this one). It also allows users to post comments. It is also the place where the public can access the documentation of the major artistic components of our project that I will further elaborate.

Augmented Reality


Let’s start this section with a look at our virtual flag proudly waving at the port of entry.

With smart phones in hand, visitors to Grand Island New York will be able to take an onsite walking tour of Ararat.

Of course if one visits this site today, they will see no trace of anything remotely Jewish. In fact at the site that Noah demarcated as the epicenter of Ararat there is a decidedly Christian cemetery. But our project will alter the landscape via virtual means. This will be achieved by employing the technology of Augmented Reality. How does this work?

First, one must download a program called Layar onto one’s smart phone. This application allows one to see monuments, buildings and street signs where no such architecture or landmarks actually exists.  These “assets” are not in the physical landscape; instead they are housed on a server and inserted into the landscape virtually enabling them to be viewed on the screen of a mobile phone.

Here you are looking at the Ararat cornerstone that is the only extant object from the period.

Here is the drawing that was found in a book dated from 1841 which shows the obelisk used to house the cornerstone.

Now you see how Craig recreated this form in the 3D modeling program Maya.


And finally, you see it in its augmented reality state onsite. GPS technology allows your phone to pinpoint your exact location and our fictive Jewish town will unfold on screen on that very site.

Therefore this will be an onsite experience where our Ararat tourists encounter such imaginary landmarks as a synagogue, a mikvah, a graveyard, a Jewish casino and a Noah’s ark theme park, that are inserted into the present landscape.

To enrich the landscape even further, we envision that viewers also will have the capability to access primary source materials drawn from our accumulated archives that will provide them with supplementary information onsite thereby allowing for another mode of dissemination of archival materials.

Virtual Ararat


The third component of our project will be an exhibition in a gallery setting. When the viewer enters the gallery, they will see a projection onto the ground of the topography of Grand Island and as they traverse over the island the architectural landmarks that one encounters on the augmented reality walking tour will pop up as they explore and “map” Ararat.  And here you see Craig navigating through Ararat and as he moves over the topography of the island there appear photographs, texts, animations and videos whether historical, contemporary or imaginary. All of our assets are plottable onto the virtual world and you see here already how we have incorporated a few examples for the purposes of this digital demonstration. (Add lib on what they are seeing here.) ( start to read again after we are back at the flag). As you see, we are utilizing a digital map in order to overlay the topography of Grand Island and we are using a gaming software program known as Unity. This enables the participant-observer to chart his/her course through the map using a “joystick” similar to those used in interactive video games.

We consider this map to be one of our most important archival finds because it is the only artifact that writes “Arrarat” (written with three r’s) as an actual geographical location in the real world.  The map is a detail from David H. Burr’s Atlas of the State of New York (1829) and this map has become one of the most important touchstones for the project.

Mapping Ararat, the Exhibition

The exhibition will also include samples of vernacular culture of our imaginary Jewish homeland including Ararat postcards, money, stamps, and newspapers to be juxtaposed with actual Grand Island artifacts such as these postcards that we have already collected from ebay

or newspapers with which Noah was associated such as the National Advocate and the New York Enquirer.

Whether popping up in the installation’s virtual world or appearing on our website, the audience will also encounter video interviews with scholars who will illuminate this material such as Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University.


The vision of the installation is that it will act as the catalyst that will enable us to bring together archival objects, letters, and photographs from all of the institutions where we have found materials and to house them together under one roof.  Another variant idea is that of a museum exhibition of primary source historical artifacts that can constellate around the virtual world installation. In this scenario, we would partner with a museum institution that would help us with obtaining these supplementary historical materials.

Research Challenges

Burr’s Atlas provides a good case study of one of the research challenges that we encountered.  Through our online research, we first found a map detail as part of the Western New York Legacy Project housed at SUNY Fredonia’s Library.  Entitled “Grand Island featuring Arrarat” it is listed there as part of a collection for a project called “1825: A Pivotal Year on the Niagara Frontier.”

We approached the Fredonia library to see if we could obtain the image from them but the librarian referred us to the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library as the owner of this digital image copyright.  We learned that BECPL wanted to charge us a nominal reproduction fee as well as $155.00 to post this image ( only we might add 385K in size) on our website for a 5-10 year period.   The library notes that it is from a “Map of the County of Erie,” but it never states the original source of the image as a page taken from Burr’s Atlas of 1829.

In the meantime, we located the original book at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society and we ascertained the exact connection between the detail, the county map, and the overall atlas.

The size of the greater map is 48 cm by 39 cm.  Being so large, BECHS has not scanned this material so we inquired about how this process could be undertaken. If we had pursued getting the map scanned at BECHS, this would have been quite an expensive proposition.

Fortunately, this user-friendly librarian had another idea.  She suggested that we visit the renowned on-line David Rumsey Map Collection.  It was here that we learned that we could download a high-resolution detail of the map at no cost and, moreover, that Rumsey had attached no copyright restrictions to this map that is now 182 years old.

From this experience, we learned that there is quite a discrepancy between what is available on the web for free and what archives choose to charge as well as between one library’s claim that they hold a copyright to this image vs. a wealthy digital entrepreneur’s view that he should provide open access to these maps in the form of digital files. This case study points to the vastly different policies of a number of library institutions and cartographic collections that we have encountered regarding use and dissemination as we seek to repurpose this unique map as the basis for our virtual cartographic installation.  While this case study offers a happy ending, there is another one still pending also related to BECHS where we would like to obtain scans of the original 1824 survey of Grand Island and the lot information and incorporate these materials into our installation.

The Wandering Ararat Cornerstone

As we have already mentioned, the only extant object that exists from Mordecai Noah’s Ararat scheme is the 400 pound cornerstone that he ordered from Cleveland for the dedication ceremony that was held with great pomp and circumstance on Sept. 15th 1825. The Ararat cornerstone now resides at BECHS and we had the privilege to film it with its glass cover removed over the summer.

We decided that it would be a fascinating exercise to chart the wanderings of this diasporic cornerstone over the course of its history.  We knew that we wanted to enlist the digital technology of Google Maps in order to help us with this aspect of our project.  However, it has not always been exactly clear where the cornerstone was at a number of points in its history.   We discovered a number of different stories and mythologies as to the whereabouts of the cornerstone and sorting all of this out has proven to be something of a research challenge.  Using Google maps, we have succeeded in marking out the various sites of the foundation stone to the best of our ability.

In tandem with this, we have posted the Ararat cornerstone timeline on our website encompassing the current state of our researches.  One particular site for which we have had problems mapping the exact location has been in conjunction with the mythic story of Sheenwater where the stone was placed in the outhouse of a local tavern for a few years during the 1850’s.  As you have already seen, one of the highlights of the cornerstone research has been the virtual recreation of the Ararat obelisk that actually stood in Whitehaven Settlement as a tourist attraction from 1834 to 1850.

Our researches actually began in this very building with the Mordecai Noah papers housed in the American Jewish Historical Society.  While there is a wide selection of Noah materials on various topics and while there are a number of secondary sources dealing with Ararat in this collection, we found only three primary source letters on our topic.

Given that the Mordecai Noah file on Ararat is so scant and scattered, we knew that we had to start looking to other archives. Until now, we have travelled to BECHS,

the  Grand Island Historical Society which is housed in the historic farm house of Riverlea in Beaver Island State Park on Grand Island, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, and, most recently, the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

The venerable Harvard library happens to hold three objects –

two letters and a rare and little known daguerreotype portrait of Noah ca. 1845.

Here you see these images that we are only allowed to show you as part of a teaching demonstration at this juncture since we have not acquired any further permissions for use (e.g., to post on our website).  The dispersal of these archival materials has meant that we have had to travel to these archives for on-site visits in order to assemble and amass this material.  If we did not have our generous grant from SSHRC, then these costly research trips would not have been possible.  From this perspective, our project points to the need for institutions to collaborate in order to build central databases where a search for Mordecai Noah would yield an integrated array of documents, images, maps, etc. for interested researchers.

Given that this digital arts and humanities project is not text based in the traditional academic sense and given that we need all our materials in digital format, we find ourselves necessarily pushing these institutions to digitize their archives.  We hope that our case study in “Mapping Ararat” demonstrates that it is imperative that all relevant data become digitized so that researchers have open access in order to work with these raw materials via on-line databases that have been integrated on a global scale.

Thank you and, by the way, we have placed an augment here at The Center for Jewish History and we will be happy to demonstrate it for you at the conclusion of this session.

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