John Ashbery’s Nest is a virtual reality tour of the late poet’s private home in Hudson, New York. Its purpose is to give visitors the opportunity to explore “the spaces and collections that inspired [Ashbery’s] life and work.” The project illuminates connections between Ashbery’s home and writings; what is implied is that Ashbery’s “nest” was a space of intellectual inquiry and discovery that fed the poet’s body of work. As the Flow Chart Foundation, which works closely with the estate of John Ashbery, puts it on their website: “Purposefully constructed spaces that housed Ashbery’s domestic archive both reflect and are reflected in his writing, which itself is heavily involved with other literature, music, the visual and decorative arts, architecture, theater, and film.” So this “domestic archive” complements but does not house or manage Ashbery’s literary works.
The project was lead by Karin Roffman, senior lecturer in the Humanities, English, and American Studies at Yale. Roffman, an Ashbery scholar, is author of the Ashbery biography The Songs We Know Best. Nest is presented by the Digital Humanities Lab at Yale University, and the team responsible for the project included a Yale MFA candidate and several university IT specialists. Notably, the private firm VRH solutions (“a team of photographers, designers and developers providing full service solutions for 360 photo and video experiences”) is also credited. As I explored the project, I wondered about the institutional and financial arrangement that brought this partnership about.
According to the Nest website, Ashbery moved to Hudson, New York “at the age of fifty-one in 1978.” He purchased a 19th century home adjacent to the Columbia County seat and courthouse, and undertook a meticulous restoration over the course of fifteen years. Ashbery’s ornate, four thousand square foot house became a repository and exhibition space for his “hundreds” of collections of antique furnishings and decorative objects, many of which are cataloged in exquisite detail by the Nest team.
From the perspective of the present, Hudson seems a uniquely suitable location for Ashbery’s home archive. The miniature, Hudson River–adjacent city is well-known for its antiques scene, and experienced several waves of gentrification in the late 20th and early 21st centuries implicated with an influx of antique shops and warehouses. (By 2001, according to the New York Times, Hudson had “some of the best antiques shopping in the Northeast.”)
The Nest website is not built on a backend like Omeka or LibGuides. Instead, it presents the “domestic archive” as an interactive, 3D virtual tour, navigable by mouse (or by gesture on a mobile device). Anyone familiar with Google Street View or with the classic PC game Myst will be familiar with the controls. Interactive objects in the virtual environment are tagged with 2D map pins, and clicking these produces a popup with some of the following: a 3D view of the object (or additional photography), scholarship, voiceover (sometimes Ashbery’s), additional readings, and links. Accessibility features are notably absent. The bespoke interface, while slick, does not give the impression of being either the most intuitive or most inclusive format.
There is an alternate method for exploring the nest. A more traditional hyperlink-based format (accessible from the VR tour menu) allows you to browse the “Collections by room,” and breaks the website’s contents down into headings: Hudson House (“History,” “Architectural Documents,” “Room by Room,” “Bibliography,”) The Poet (“John Ashbery,” “House Essays,” “House Interviews,”) and Collections. Though browsing the website this way is an intuitive and pleasant experience, a lack of robust metadata and search tools make the project, as a whole, seem more suited for unguided perusal than concerted study.
Partly for this reason the project seems designed mainly with casual users and Ashbery readers in mind. Like other literary “historic home” projects, John Ashbery’s Nest serves more as an outlet for roving curiosity than rigorous study. With a mix of voiceovers from the poet, snippets of his poems and essays, and informative antiques scholarship, the project seem designed to delight and divert Ashbery’s fans and decorative arts enthusiasts (I personally enjoyed poking around very much). That said, a scholar wishing to make original discoveries around Ashbery’s legacy will want to go directly to the poet’s estate.
The information is presented with verve; it is designed to engage an already-curious audience, and encourages unguided exploration by offering a non-linear, sensory approach to a fascinating collection of digital materials. Exploring the nest is more like visiting a museum than it is like browsing a traditional library’s digitized catalog. A visit supplies a new perspective on the poet’s aesthetic sensibilities. His furnishings, like his poems, are eclectic and baroque, and betray an affinity for a broad array of American vernacular styles.