The Museum of English Rural Life closed its door to the public on March 20 in response to the growing threat of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. It’s not alone in trying to “flatten the curve” of the disease, but it does mean that museum patrons can now only interact with its collections online. And they are, by creating artifacts in Animal Crossing: New Horizons — for the real-life museum, not the in-game one.
The Museum of English Rural Life is already famous for its social media presence; in 2018, it went viral after posting an old photo of a ram with a relevant caption: “look at this absolute unit.”
In January, the Museum of English Rural Life outlined its collection of literal animal crossings, like bridges, bolt holes, and fords. So Twitter followers weren’t surprised to see the museum’s account post about Animal Crossing: New Horizons on Wednesday. The ask? To make rural smocks — traditionally used to protect clothes from dirt while doing agricultural work — for Animal Crossing: New Horizons characters to wear.
The Museum of English Rural Life digital editor Joe Vaughan provided some instructions, linking to the museum’s online collection of smocks for inspiration. “We wanna know things like what your smock is made of,” Vaughan tweeted from the institution’s account. “What techniques did you use? What materials? Find inspiration on our online exhibition above, or, you know, your own imagination, which is SO GOOD ALREADY DANG IT.”
All of the player-submitted designs were created using the Custom Design Pro Editor app on the Animal Crossing: New Horizons NookPhone. It’s a very simple, grid-based app that lets the player manipulate pixels, but it’s got enough tools to create spectacularly intricate designs. Real-life costume designer Nicole Cuddihy told Polygon she spent up to an hour on a single smock to “capture some of the delicate embroidery” from the Museum of English Rural Life’s collection and her own design knowledge.
“I’m really excited for any chance to explore costume/fashion history in a digital realm,” Cuddihy said. “I think it’s fantastic that they reached out with an unexpected prompt and was equally pleased to see such a range of creative responses.”
“We’re using history to tell stories, but also to create experiences for people,” Vaughan told Polygon on a phone call Thursday. “Encouraging and facilitating this creativity is amazing. I wasn’t surprised that people took to Animal Crossing so much, but I couldn’t have expected the fantastic quality — like, the historical nuance as well.”
Animal Crossing: New Horizons players have designed dozens of smocks, some citing specific ones in the museum’s collection. Artist Eilidh McNeil chose a blue cotton smock with detailed embroidery.
“The section on embroidered smocks caught my eye immediately and I wanted to make something with that look in the game since it’s much quicker to do it in pixels than it would be with a needle and thread,” McNeil told Polygon. “This particular smock just looked so gorgeous — the intricate cream-colored thread over the pale blue fabric — it felt like a soft spring sky.”
Others added their own details, like muddy hem from trekking through the garden, or took inspiration from their own backyard. For Lyndsay Peters, that’s California, so she dotted her smock with California poppies and a prickly pear cactus. “I’ve been pretty sad I can’t go see the poppies due to stay at home orders,” she said. “It was nice to spend time with the poppies this way instead.”
The Museum of English Rural Life plans to create and share an online exhibition to showcase the community’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons smocks. Digital editor Vaughan said it’ll look similar to the one with the real-life smocks, a carousel gallery with a bit of commentary on the pieces — both the Animal Crossing: New Horizons designs and the real-life inspiration.
It’s an homage to the museum’s work in archiving history and its embrace of digital culture.
“A large part of what we do is made possible because of so much work that takes place behind the scenes and has [been] done over many years, from archivists digitizing our photography collections and uploading digital photos of our objects to our internal databases — e.g. the smocks themselves! — to our conservators keeping our collections in good care,” Vaughan said. “There’s an organization-wide buy-in into the value of digital content, and that’s been super important to all of our success, really. It’s a big team effort.”
Vaughan noted that some of the Museum of English Rural Life staff don’t necessarily know what Animal Crossing is — the museum’s director still needs a lesson, Vaughan laughed — but they appreciate how players can engage with history, even in an uncertain time.
“All of our programs and events had to be canceled or postponed,” Vaughan told Polygon. “We will be affected by this, as well as the entire heritage sector.” It’s Vaughan’s job to keep patrons engaged with the museum, even when they can’t visit it physically.
“We’re interested in generally pushing the boundaries of what a digital offer can be,” he said.
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