Stepping into history

Have you ever looked at a historic photo and wished you could step into it? (I have, look for it at the end of this post.)

I made my annual trip to the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis recently, to teach a class at the Seminar for Historical Administration. IHS has a unique history experience called “You are There,” where visitors literally walk into historic photos. They accomplish this feat by recreating the photo scene and populating the space with actors portraying historic people – it’s a first person Fog screenexperience where you can have a conversation about a particular time period and topic from Indiana history. To access the “exhibit” you must walk through a fog screen with the photo projected onto it. It is truly one of the more creative ideas I’ve seen in a while.

I visited two photos. One depicted Wulf’s Hall Relief Station on the west side of downtown Indianapolis in the days following the Great Flood in 1913. The other, portrayed Charles Miner’s photo studio in 1904 Fort Wayne. I learned about the innovative technology of the photographic process. Here’s the historic photo:


And here is the depiction:








I chatted with WP_000805Mr. Miner about the great Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. He didn’t seem to be a fan of Brady’s. I also asked if he’d seen the famous photograph of the Wright Brothers and their flyer at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina taken the year before. Yes, he’d seen it.

1904 imageOf course the best part of this scenario was that Mr. Miner offered to take my photo. I sat in the chair and he got behind the huge camera and did something. I wasn’t sure what, click a shutter? Sadly I didn’t have time to ask exactly how the camera works. His assistant gave me a claim ticket and said it would explain how I could receive the photo. The ticket directed me to enter my negative number at a website. Ingenious!

But it got better. On the website, I could choose a historic portrait from a variety of photos of people dressed up for the camera. I could cut out my head and paste it onto one of tim in 1904these photos and share it with my friends.

The Indiana Historical Society usually offers three “You are There” scenes. Past photos I’ve jumped into covered prohibition, the polio vaccine, a WWII store, a violin maker’s shop, and even a hologram of Robert Kennedy talking to an Indianapolis crowd about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

Of course for this to work, visitors must be willing to suspend disbelief and to play along with the game. They must be willing to engage with the actors and want to make the most of the experience. Over the years, IHS has added more context for each scenario to help visitors be comfortable in this unique history program.

What photo would I like to jump into? Here’s one of my grandfather (and his three brothers) and great grandfather with their mules in about 1914 in Lancaster County, PA. What was life like for them?

mules - Copy lo res

What photo would you jump into?


Check out this video about You Are There.

Related post: One of America’s best war monuments

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
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2 Responses to Stepping into history

  1. Nancy says:

    Great exhibit idea

  2. SarahJencks says:

    Thanks for this post, Tim. Great programmatic food for thought.

    Sarah Jencks Director of Education Programming Ford’s Theatre | Where Lincoln’s Legacy Lives

    Sent remotely. Mobile 202.841.5513 Office 202.639.1580

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