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AROUND R.I.

‘Wish you were here’ -- Postcards exhibit merges past and present

Photographer Bob Martin demonstrated how his interactive exhibit works as he held his phone to see the original postcard in front of the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium in Roger Williams Park.
Photographer Bob Martin demonstrated how his interactive exhibit works as he held his phone to see the original postcard in front of the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium in Roger Williams Park.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

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PROVIDENCE -- Running on the trail in Roger Williams Park one afternoon, I stopped short when I saw an over-sized postcard attached to a tree along Pleasure Lake.

“Dear Pa,” read the careful, old cursive writing, “Arrived in East Providence at 6-15. Got mixed a little on the roads this side of Beverly. They all knew we were coming. Leave me a blueberry pie. Going to Newport tomorrow.”

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The postmark was 1919 and addressed to a man in Warren, Maine, but the QR code on the bottom invited an explanation. Curious, I held up my iPhone, capturing the QR code, and within seconds, a new image flashed: The front of the original postcard -- sent by “Olive” more than a hundred years ago -- photographed from the very spot where I was standing.

The image was a giphy that flashed back and forth, showing the lake and the Dalrymple Boathouse as it is now, and the postcard showing how it looked a century ago.

Fascinating! But were there more? I abandoned my run for a “treasure hunt” to find other historic postcards displayed throughout the park.

This is the reaction that photographer and postcard collector Bob Martin hopes visitors will have when encountering his new exhibit, “Wish You Were Here," which is open until Friday, Sept. 25.

Part of an exhibit called "Wish You Were Here" by photographer Bob Martin in the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium in Roger Williams Park is pictured.
Part of an exhibit called "Wish You Were Here" by photographer Bob Martin in the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium in Roger Williams Park is pictured.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

This interactive exhibit is part of Roger Williams Park Conservancy’s “Art in the Park” series, and includes a display inside the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium of historic postcards from Martin’s collection and the Museum archives and vaults.

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Outside, oversized versions of Martin’s historic postcards are posted at 19 different locations throughout the park, mostly near attractions including the boathouse, carousel, casino, and Lovers' Lane. Visitors can read the text and then use their cell phone to view the postcard scene as it looked a century ago.

“This has brought the past to the park,” said Renée Gamba, director of the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium.

The installation had a serendipitous beginning.

Photographer Bob Martin poses in front of the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium in Roger Williams Park, leaning on a pole holding one of the postcards.
Photographer Bob Martin poses in front of the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium in Roger Williams Park, leaning on a pole holding one of the postcards.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Martin, who is head of the art department and archivist at the Wheeler School, frequently visits the park from his home on the Cranston side of the park. He’s also a postcard collector, ever since his mentor and photography professor David Freund introduced him to the art decades ago.

Martin collects all kinds of old postcards, especially from places he knows well, intrigued by their historic aspect, coupled with the short text from people sharing their experiences.

So he’d bring his collection of postcards of Roger Williams Park on his regular travels here and look for where they had been originally photographed.

“I like standing in the park with these in hand, and then interesting things would happen,” Martin said recently.

He’d wonder about the person who wrote on a postcard of the park’s Roosevelt Lake in November 1911: “That your life may be as calm and peaceful as the surface of this lake -- is the wish of your friend.”

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He’d see how things have changed. Trees have grown. A statue was moved. A zookeeper and the camel “Holy Moses” kept showing up in different postcards at various places in the park.

A few months ago, Martin was visiting the park when he lost one of his favorite postcards. He contacted the conservancy to see if anyone had found it.

Kevin Essington, the conservancy’s executive director, said they happened to be working on ideas for “Art in the Park.” They hadn’t found Martin’s postcard, but would he like to display his collection?

Martin curated his collection and selected 19 postcards for people to seek out in the park. “I like that it makes viewers participate more,” he said.

Postcards are disappearing now, replaced by the instant connection of texting and photos shared by cell phone. Roger Williams Park no longer sells postcards, except for those offered at the Zoo.

This project blends both: The short “text messages” of postcards, the original postcards that can only be seen using a cell phone.

The method of communicating may have changed. The views in the park are also different.

But the impulse to share a message and a photo that documents a moment in your life, Martin says, is timeless.


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.