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Finally: A Museum That Brings Virtual Reality to Women’s History

Nonny de la Peña, the godmother of VR, makes a flagship experience for the Women’s History Museum.

Josie Thaddeus-Johns

Josie Thaddeus-Johns

Behind the scenes of Emblematic Group's VR experience about the life of Mary Katherine Goddard. Created by Emblematic Group. Produced by Nonny de la Peña with Cedric Gamelin.

In Colonial America, publisher and postmaster Mary Katherine Goddard was the first printer of the Declaration of Independence. Yet, despite this illustrious background and fascinating personal history, not a single biography has been published of this pioneering woman. Immersive journalist and virtual reality innovator Nonny de la Peña redresses this lack of research in a VR experience commissioned for the proposed Women’s History Museum in Washington D.C.

“Unlike a lot of men from that time, there's not a ton written about her. It wasn't like choosing Eleanor Roosevelt!” de la Peña tells The Creators Project.

Having been the only newspaper publisher to continue printing throughout the American Revolutionary War, Goddard then printed and signed her full name on the first Declaration of Independence that contained all the names of its signatories.

Behind the scenes of Emblematic Group's VR experience about the life of Mary Katherine Goddard. Photo courtesy 8i

“It’s a first because it was treason,” de la Peña explains, noting that at the time, the punishment for women who committed treason was being burned alive at the gallows. With the Women’s History Museum proposal, to be submitted to Congress in November 2016, de la Peña wants to break boundaries with her choice of subject in this commission. “Goddard is obviously just a totally badass woman. I wanted to do something that would make Congress feel and understand the value of this particular story.”

Breaking boundaries is something of an everyday occurrence for de la Peña, who has been one of the foremost proponents of virtual reality technology, particularly in terms of mining the possibilities for journalism. Her breakthrough VR work, Hunger In Los Angeles, was a machinima film that showed a man collapsing in line at a food bank from hunger in 2012, and subsequent works (such as Project Syria) have placed the viewer on a street in Aleppo when a bomb goes off, demonstrating the horror of events unfolding in the region in a commission for the World Economic Forum.

Behind the scenes of Emblematic Group's VR experience about the life of Mary Katherine Goddard. Photo courtesy 8i

De la Peña's since extended the technological possibilities of VR immeasurably through her experimentation, and continues to break new ground with the work she hopes to show at the Women’s History Museum. “In order to make this, we're really pushing the boat out. We worked with photogrammetry—photos that you can walk around literally, then videogrammetry. This marriage of technologies has never been done together,” she says.

The project is a pioneering one, as it’s commissioned to be part of the very first museum of women’s history in the United States. In general, the archiving of women’s achievements, even in the more democratic online world, receives morbidly scarce attention and funding. Perhaps this is why the Women’s History Museum is hoping to appeal to a wide range of audiences, with this decision to look to the future in getting its message across.

Behind the scenes of Emblematic Group's VR experience about the life of Mary Katherine Goddard. Photo courtesy Emblematic Group

“This is going to be a very forward-facing museum and it's going to use the kind of tech that will attract all audiences. I'm sure no congressional report has ever had a VR component to it before!” says de la Peña.

de la Peña’s projects in VR have earned her the moniker of “Godmother of VR.” “It would be good to be a ‘pioneer’ and good to be an ‘innovator,’ but I guess I'll just accept ‘godmother’ and go with it,” she says. It’s hard not to see the parallels between de la Peña and Goddard, both of whose revolutionary efforts have changed paradigms, shifting ideas about what can be achieved in their fields.

Nonny de la Peña’s work on Mary Katherine Goddard is currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo. The Women’s History Museum will report to Congress in November 2016.

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