iPads bring 18th-century Cloister into 21st century

By on March 6, 2019

Beginning on Sunday, March 10, visitors touring the Ephrata Cloister will be able to view scenes from the historic site’s past as well as images of upper story rooms that are all but inaccessible to the public.

Thanks to grant monies from both the Anne Brossman Sweigart Charitable Foundation and the Irene B. Weidman Charitable Trust, guides at the Cloister will be carrying Apple iPads loaded with rare photographs of the site and its upstairs secrets. The three iPads, costing about $1,000 each, were purchased by the Ephrata Cloister Associates and will be ready for use on Sunday, which is Charter Day when all state museum’s offer free admission.

For those who guide the tours, the prospect opens whole new vistas to their presentations.

Lydia, a tour guide with the Ephrata Cloister, demonstrates the use of an iPad at the facility

“This will add a greater depth to our tours than we have now,” said Elizabeth Bertheaud, site administrator for the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission. “When we get to the front of the Saron (Sister’s House) we talk about the restoration. Now we can pull up photos and give people a little more knowledge of what it looked like both before and during restoration. If people ask what’s upstairs, we can show them the floor plan as well as actual pictures.”

The iPads are part of the Cloister’s diversity plan that calls for providing accessibility to the site for all. Whereas the buildings with their narrow hallways, steps and low ceilings often present problems for those with mobility concerns and prohibit them from seeing interesting portions of the site, those inaccessible portions can now be brought to them.

For example, the Physician’s House has a five-plate stove used for heating.

“Go out and ask anyone on the street what a five-plate stove looks like and they won’t have any idea,” Bertheaud said. “With this, we can show them a picture of one.”

The iPads, she said, “will give people more context.”

“It will increase visitors’ understanding of the way these people lived,” she said.

A virtual tour is also being planned, Bertheaud said, “so that if a visitor is not able to walk far or has to be in a wheelchair, they can sit in a chair and just go through the virtual tour.”
Bertheaud has also loaded a six minute video that demonstrates brick oven baking such as was done by the Cloister inhabitants.

“It’s done in German but it’s all about baking in ovens just like ours here at the Cloister,” she said. “What I’m hoping to do is get this up on some little stand at the bakery for Charter Day. It really shows how baking bread took place. It’s the same technique that was used here.”

A third floor room in the Sister’s House

She also hopes to upload videos of weaving and paper-making, other activities performed by the Cloister members.

The iPads contain a photo of the Brother’s House, which was razed around 1910, as well as pre-restoration photos of the Sister’s House and the print shop. One rare photo taken during restoration of the Sister’s House, done after the state purchased the property in 1941, depicts a second doorway that was uncovered close to the doorway that exists today. This doorway harkens back to when the building was called the Hebron and housed both men and women. Each had their own doorway.

One question often asked of guides in the Saron is what do the upper floors look like? The second and third floors are rarely opened to the public due to the treacherous nature of the curved stairways. But with photos loaded onto the iPads, this question is easily answered both through photos and floor plans. There is also a photo of the attic, which is closed to the public because it is accessed only by a very steep ladder-like stairway. The attic photo shows that it is criss-crossed by modern-day fire suppression pipes.

The idea for the iPads began with Bertheaud who saw them in use at an historic site in Massachusetts. She brought the idea home and loaded photos on her own iPad. Sue Fisher, an ECA board member, picked up on the idea.

“Last fall, on a day when the upper floors were open, I was stationed at the Sisters House and Elizabeth came in with a group of visitors,” Fisher said. “She pulled out her iPad and began showing the pictures of the upstairs and other spots around the site and I thought ‘we need this for all of the guides.’ It would just make the tours so much better.”

She brought the idea to the ECA board who voted to expend grant money on three iPads.

“I’m deliriously excited about this,” Fisher said. “From the moment I saw Elizabeth with the iPad I’ve just been thinking about how it will give our tours that extra dimension.” Bertheaud agreed that the iPads will enhance the Cloister experience for visitors, but said caution must be used by the guides so as not to prolong tours to the point where “we have to send out search parties.” That will begin by having training programs for the guides on how to use the iPads effectively without stretching tours out indefinitely.

On tours, guides wearing period Cloister garb will carry their iPads in cloth haversacks slung over a shoulder to mitigate, at least to some extent, the anachronism of 18th century brethren of this monastic community toting 21st century technology that would leave the original inhabitants speechless. 

“We’ll have to feel our way with this for a little while, but it’ll be really nice,” Bertheaud said. “We can talk about Fraktur writing and show examples. When we talk about the hymn books, we can show illustrations. It can be visitor led. If someone asks a question, the guide can show them and say ‘this is what I was talking about.’”

“There are so many opportunities,” Fisher said. “I can take the museum with me on the tour. I can cater the tour to what the individuals want to see or learn about.”

Mark Alcott, who wrote the initial grant applications, said the iPads may remind visitors to stop by the museum before they leave. He said individuals often enter the Visitors’ Center and go straight to the auditorium for the video orientation film, neglecting the museum.

“Having photos of some of the stuff that’s in the museum available on the iPads may serve to remind them to stop in,” he said. “This will tell them what they can see if they care to explore the property.”

In addition to iPads, Olcott said, several new benches for the site will be bought with grant money.

Fisher is hoping to take members of the Brossman and Weidman foundations on an iPad tour to show them how their money was spent.

“I’d like them to see the end result,” she said.

Larry Alexander is a freelance columnist based in Ephrata. He is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He can be contacted at larry2851@yahoo.com. 

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