The Fantastic World of Mr. Phelps by Dalit Shalom
This blog post is by Dalit Shalom, writing as a guest of NYPL. Dalit is a designer, creative technologist, and Masters candidate at New York University's Interactive Telecommunication Program. In 2015, Dalit contacted Library staff about an exceptional project she'd been developing. Through what began as open-ended research in the Picture Colleciton, Dalit discovered intimate fragments of a person's life: Walter Phelps Warren. She then pursued Mr. Phelps across NYPL research divisions, found many more fragments, and began connecting them in a sort of experiential portrait, complete with a VR app, that blurs fact and fantasy with a researcher's process. Dalit's work challenges our notions of biography in an era of hyper-connected data, and raises the exciting question of who else is living at the Library.
Postcards have been cherished by people as tokens of memory since at least the 1800s. This is something I’ve known since I was a kid, but never really thought about until I worked on a research and design project centered on the postcard collection at the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection. The project led me to one man in particular who collected postcards sent from his friends who traveled the world. His postcards took me on an unforgettable journey. That man was Mr. Walter Phelps Warren.
Postcards have been used for sending greetings from afar and expressing to a loved one how you wished they were with you. These capsules of time, landmarks and monuments attempt to capture places in order to showcase them to those who are not there. Do postcards successfully depict a place? Do culture, behavior and current events come across in this media? Are postcards like the social media we use today? These questions and many others were the base for one of the most memorable research projects I’ve ever conducted.
Many postcards across the years and from across the globe, seem to illustrate a place through a naive and pleasing lens. Taking a look at landmarks that have been documented over time, it can even seem as if there is an ideal place to take the winning shot. By practicing this imaginary documentation, we create false images that appear to be timeless, when inherit characteristics that define a location are its beat, its change, and its people. If postcards genuinely represented places, we would witness more conflict, more surprise and more everyday life.
In many ways, the sharing of postcards can be seen as a former version of the social media channels we use today. Over the past century, distinct patterns have emerged in the way a place is portrayed, but also in the way people communicate to one another. Friends, family, colleagues and lovers have scribed their most personal feelings—completely exposed for the world to see. As tokens from territories, postcards have been known to communicate short bursts of excitement and intimate dialog with a close person. They can even be written in code that only the two will know how to decipher, just because of the nature of closeness between the sender and the receiver. The image on the front side resembles the essence of Instagram, sharing curated and filtered photos with friends. The front also resembles the location-based app Foursquare, as it is a location-based recommendation or suggestion. On the opposite side, a memo can be written in the designated area, similar to the way messages and comments are written on Facebook. The Twitter format is also echoed on the back side of postcards, as brevity is one of the elements that distinguish them from other traditional types of correspondence. These are interesting points to think about today, when social media drives us to create an extreme amount of content, reaching an extreme amount of people, with presumably less intention than the intimate and personal expression postcards offer.
Discovering Mr. Phelps
My adventure started on a trip to the New York Public Library as part of an assignment for a class called Cabinets of Wonder, a class examining museums and design for public spaces taught at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU. The assignment was to experience and observe any one of the library branches, and I found myself browsing the Picture Collection located on the third floor of the Mid-Manhattan branch. At first I was a bit confused as to why such a collection would be important to a library as opposed to a museum, but after examining some of the items there, it made sense to me. At the Picture Collection, images are cataloged in a similar way to books—by subject heading and in alphabetical order. Folders per subject heading can be found with images of pandas, orange groves, politicians, ancient maps, and many many more. And you can borrow them if you have a library card.
A remarkable compilation within the Picture Collection is one of postcards, all categorized by their place of origin. I was immediately drawn to them, and after going through several postcards, I noticed two addresses that kept coming up. I didn’t give it much thought other than just being a coincidence, until the following week when I found six more postcards addressed to that same person. I then started to look for cards sent to this individual, and wondered if any more could be found. At the end of a five-hour rummage through the collection, there were sixty postcards addressed to Mr. Walter Phelps Warren on the table.
My first reaction to this discovery was the fascination of having access to the personal correspondence of a stranger. What details could be revealed about this character and what relationships did he have with the people sending them? Staring at the pile of postcards without a clue about where to begin, I was determined to uncover any information possible and begin my investigation of Mr. Phelps.
Since there was no distinct starting point for my exploration, I did the first obvious thing that came to mind and looked up the locations of Mr. Phelps’s residence on Google maps.
I noticed that both locations were on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and fairly close to one another. The buildings looked beautiful on Google Street View, and one of the locations looked especially luxurious. I wondered about the lifestyle and background of someone who could afford such a lovely place. With the little information just uncovered, an image of Mr. Phelps began to emerge of an important businessman and socialite.
My online search continued, but without much success. The last name ‘Warren’ is a fairly common one, and it seemed unlikely to find a result on Google that would be the exact person I was looking for. It was only when “Walter Phelps Warren New York” was entered that more results came up (and with much excitement I vigorously opened them all). From the links it looked as though there was indeed a person with the same exact name, but from Troy, New York. The evidence from the postcards clearly stated two primary locations, both in Manhattan. I saved these links for later since they were probably relevant, but premature for my current stage in the research process. The search I conducted on Google gave me fairly limited results, so my investigation continued, but this time back at the New York Public Library. A researcher recommended digging in the archives over at the Division of Local History and Genealogy. He mentioned they had documentation of the Federal Census over years, birth certificates, obituaries and more.
The librarian at the Division of Local History and Genealogy showed me how records and documents referencing people can be found on Ancestry and what the ideal search entries for finding them were. Many results can come up with just a name and an address, or even just a name and a date of birth. I felt in the perfect spot because I had both of those details (Mr. Phelps’s date of birth came up in a previous search of mine). Conducting a search on Ancestry with these bits of information lead me to references in the New York City directory, a few mentions from the Federal Census, newspaper clippings, and a family book.
The family book was the first item I located and carefully examined the pages so not to miss any next clues. One detail that started connecting dots for me was the discovery that Mr. Phelps’s father and grandfather were also named Walter Phelps Warren. I also learned the family had been based in Troy, New York for several years. Later, documents from the Federal Census proved the Warrens were a well-established family living in Troy for at least several decades.
Another exciting discovery was learning about a company co-founded by Mr. Phelps. The New York City directory, which can be accessed by viewing scans on microfilms, pointed me to an address of a wallpaper and interior decor company owned by him named “Katzenbach & Warren”, and, when I returned to the postcards at the Picture Collection, indeed, a postcard in the collection was addressed to the same exact address as the company. Searching for “Katzenbach & Warren” online lead be to an even more remarkable discovery—a collection of the actual wallpaper samples archived at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
A similar stunning revelation happened by repeatedly reading the postcards, and coming across a friend congratulating Mr. Phelps on writing a book about Irish Glass. It wasn’t long before I located the book in the Art and Architecture Collection, but, when conducting an online search, I found myself once again directed to the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, where Mr. Phelps's entire Irish Glass collection is kept.
The Fantastic World of Mr. Phelps
All these discoveries seemed too good to be true. I spent long hours thinking about the best way to tell the story of this person while showcasing all the clues that helped me assemble the character of Mr. Phelps. On one hand, exhibiting the artifacts seemed necessary and interesting, but I strongly wanted the visitors of my exhibition to experience a bit of the exhilaration in the uncovering of Mr. Phelps as I did.
For this, it seemed appropriate to bring the visitors in to the world of Phelps, and surround them with the breathtaking imagery of the postcards. I could not think of better way to do that then to create an experience traveling through Mr. Phelps postcards in virtual reality (VR).
My final presentation for the Cabinets of Wonder class was an immersive installation was designed to be part exploratory (visuals and clues from my research posted on a wall) and part experiential (getting inside the head of Mr. Phelps). Visitors can examine documents from up close and witness the connections I made along my journey. The installation climaxes with the experiential part, which is a series of imaginary worlds assembled as collages from the original postcards, experienced in virtual reality, viewed through a custom-made viewer.
The participant is seamlessly transported to 360° worlds by inserting a postcard with a hidden NFC (Near Field Communication) sticker into the viewer. When the sticker registers communication with the mobile device inside the viewer, a particular application projecting an imaginary world is triggered to start. Beyond the immersive environments viewed in virtual reality, the experience includes sound clips of narration from the original postcards, sound effects, and slight animations that bring elements in the worlds to life once gazed upon in virtual reality (watch a short demo of the virtual reality experience).
Experiencing virtual realities is not uncommon these days. That said, many are the times virtual reality projects can be found as a gimmick or have a lack of justification as to why that particular medium was used. I strongly believe that when used as a time-travel tool, especially for traveling to imaginary places we are unable to travel to in real life, this emerging technology can do much justice in illustrating visual concepts in one's mind and opens boundless possibilities for the future of storytelling. I hope that your visit to the Fantastic World of Mr. Phelps will not only be magical, but will allow you to look at the world we live in, as well as the medium of postcards with new and fresh eyes.
Dalit Shalom is a designer and creative technologist living in New York City, and is a Masters candidate at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP, Class of 2016). As an insatiably curiosity individual and storyteller at heart, Dalit experiments with new technologies and media, aspiring to bring memorable and meaningful experiences to the lives of others.