Ever wonder what that old building you walk by every day used to look like? A new app — Urban Archive — is here to help, mining the collections of New York City’s institutions to create a mobile archive for the public.
Working with Brooklyn Historical Society, the New York Public Library and the Museum of the City of New York, the team behind Urban Archive has already made more than 2,500 historic images accessible and has more than 50,000 queued up and waiting.
The idea for the app began with some brainstorming around the issue of public access to collections. “Institutions often don’t have the capacity to promote the important work that they do or the ability to keep up with changing technology,” noted Urban Archive cofounder Tim Bradley, a board member at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
When Bradley connected with Ben Smyth, the vision for the project expanded, and Urban Archive was born.
At its heart, the app is designed to be a centralized resource for collections — allowing museums and libraries to expand their reach and make materials they already create for exhibits and educational programs available beyond the walls of the institutions. While there are currently three main institutional partners, Urban Archive is looking to add other collections, large and small, in all five boroughs.
On the public end, users can explore the information and images in countless ways as they walk around the city. While it may come in handy for tourists, the app is ideal for curious New Yorkers looking to engage with the history around them.
Want to get a push notification when you walk past a historic site? Set your preferences, and next time you are ambling through the city you can get an alert to check out a historic view. Historic images are pinned to exact addresses, rather than intersections, making it possible to find just the right spot.
The feature most likely to grab snap-happy users is the ability to create then and now images. Just snap a shot of your current view and merge it with the historic image in the app. The collaged images can then be shared on Instagram.
If users want a deeper dive, they can explore tours based around a particular topic or neighborhood. Right now there are about 20 tours — from the walkable, such as a Fort Greene and Clinton Hill tour, to the thematic, such as historic views of gas tanks around the city.
For those curious about famous New Yorkers, the historic profiles section highlights public figures and the buildings and places that were part of their lives.
Urban Archive is a newly formed nonprofit with advisors drawn from a number of New York cultural institutions. The app is currently in beta testing and launched very quietly on the Apple App Store. If you want to test it out, it is available for free download here. Alas, it is currently for iPhone only but will eventually be released for Android.
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