Touching History, May 2017

How the new National Museum of African American History and Culture embraces technology in storytelling

by Prasana William

The gleaming bronze façade of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C., can give the appearance of breathing when cloud shadows drift across its surface. And for three nights in November 2015 the intricate metalwork lattice did come to life thanks to the magic of 3-D projection mapping. The tiered exterior became a canvas for images from the museum’s collection—carefully choreographed to hug each level and make the building glow white hot, surge with the movement captured in the images, and flicker as though lit from within. This digital experience kicked off the countdown to the museum’s grand opening one year later, and set the tone for an institution that relies on modern technology to tell the stories behind the history.

A Living Story

On Sept. 26, 2007, nine years before its official opening on Sept. 24, 2016, NMAAHC became one of the first museums to open virtually on the web. The online museum was designed to make future guests a part of shaping the building’s content and give access to the collections already available for view. IBM’s corporate responsibility arm worked with museum curators to create an online experience that used the latest Internet tools, including budding social media platforms, to offer visitors a feel for the kind of content they would see in the building. The virtual museum wanted to build an international constituency well before the physical location opened—facilitating the educational experience with technology and making learning accessible and more interactive. In a podcast with IBM, NMAAHC’s founding director, Dr. Lonnie Bunch III, said, “The museum on the web allows us to test ideas, research, exhibits, and the kind of artifacts we want to collect so that when the bricks and mortar are up, it is the innovative 21st century museum that we want.”

A hallmark of the pre-opening project was “The Memory Book.” The feature provided a forum for guests to share their own stories from the African American experience. Contributions ranged from notable historical figures to the average guest. It provided the opportunity for historians to collect stories that may have otherwise been forgotten, and encouraged engagement in a living story. “It allows us to fulfill part of our mission—that everybody’s history matters,” said Bunch.

The engagement clearly worked; at press time the museum had surpassed more than 1 million visitors. The line to enter on weekends routinely snakes far from the entrance and down a main D.C. thoroughfare. There is no admission fee to the museums on the National Mall, but Smithsonian has had to release free timed tickets for NMAAHC due to high demand. When tickets are periodically released, months in advance, they’re snatched up within seconds. After weathering technical difficulties during previous releases, Smithsonian revamped its technological infrastructure and temporarily dedicated 75 percent of its web capacity to the museum for its March pass release.

‘Let Content Choose the Technology’

Typical museum dwell time is 75 minutes to two hours. However, visitors to NMAAHC are staying in the facility for about six hours, and even more on weekends, fueling the demand for tickets.

It’s not hard to see why.

The museum bursts like a bronze mountain from the marble edifices lining the Mall. Inside the exhibition design is as memorable as the intricate lace-like structure, formed to replicate a style of West African headwear, wrapped around the exterior of the building.

Upon entering the museum, guests can board an elevator to the lowest level where the journey begins with projections introducing the History Galleries. This subterreanean section chronologically traces African American history from the slave trade to present day. Throughout the exhibits are audio, video, and interactive technologies telling the story.

“The choice of technology is primarily driven by which one delivers the content in the most meaningful and impactful way,” says Bryan Sieling, NMAAHC acting associate director, Office of Project Management and Planning, and assistant director for Exhibit Design and Production. “Additional factors include the format type and quality of content assets available, cost and time required to produce, and cost to maintain. Don’t let technology choose content. If technology is to be considered, let content choose the technology.”

Throughout the museum, this adage holds true. Technology is used much like in the early days of the virtual museum—to further engagement with and education of a certain part of the experience. For example, to teach the first-hand experience of nonviolent resistance, guests interact with a touchscreen activity that guides them through the choices a protester would’ve had to make during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. What elevates this interactive experience is the care taken to combine physical and virtual attributes. This isn’t just an interactive table in an exhibit—it’s designed to look like a lunch counter, a well-known battleground for those protesting segregation. Guests sit on stools, much like those found at lunch counters of the time, and work their way through a choose-your-own-adventure-style interactive storyline of different forms of non-violent resistance, like sit-ins. Technology puts visitors virtually into the mindsets of these historical figures.

The History Galleries are connected by a series of ramps, leading back up to the concourse floor. At the turn of the ramps, guests find a modern technological vestige of  “The Memory Book” from the virtual museum. “Reflections” is a recording booth where guests can pause to think about what they’ve just seen and share their stories with the museum, just as they were invited to do through “The Memory Book.” Each booth is equipped with recording equipment obscured by a mirror, allowing guests to respond without the pressure of being on camera. “The content can be difficult for some and quite new for others, so we wanted to provide some time and space for them to reflect on what they saw,” says William Pretzer, the museum’s curator of history. “We also wanted to learn from our visitors. Much of the history we cover has been held in families and communities for generations. We learned from these histories and memories as we constructed the exhibitions, and we want to keep learning from them.”

Above ground, the museum’s second floor is home to the Explore More! Gallery. The interactive stations on this floor—“Follow the Green Book,” “Search for the São José,” and “Join the Step Show,” were developed “to complement and expand” topics presented in the History, Community, and Culture Galleries, says Kathleen M. Kendrick, NMAAHC exhibitions curator.

“Follow the Green Book” blends linear video with non-linear touch technology to explain the experience African Americans had while traveling during the 1960s. Guests sit inside a facsimile of a car from that era, complete with full-size hood and windshield, but instead of the usual controls of a dashboard, they’re presented with a touchscreen. Linear video runs on the windshield, as though the people and scenes were just as they would appear in real life in front of a car. The choices guests make on the dashboard dictate the linear video that plays and shapes the experience.

In “Join the Step Show,” motion-capture technology allows visitors to participate in a virtual step-dance show, replicating the movements of the dancers on screen. Meanwhile, the most eye-catching exhibit of the gallery is perhaps the arced digital wall, lined with images of artifacts that respond and tell their stories with a touch. “The arc digital wall provides visitors with the opportunity to explore objects from all the exhibitions, and illustrates the thematic connections that link objects and stories throughout the museum,” explains Kendrick.

The Culture and Community Galleries use touchscreen tables to tell stories of art, entertainment, writing, culture, and sports. Each interactive screen is set up as cluster or line of images, looking much like photos would scattered on a table. Guests can flip through these images, enlarge them, and read more about them. The tables provide access to the deep troves of NMAAHC without sacrificing square footage, much like the virtual museum where space was not only scarce, but completely nonexistent.

Built for Yesterday, Today … and   Tomorrow

First proposed in 1916, NMAAHC has its eyes fixed firmly on the future.

Likely the last building to be constructed on the Mall, NMAAHC aims to create a sustainable future for the facility. It is the first Smithsonian to achieve LEED Gold certification thanks to a number of factors, including elements as simple and beautiful as the way the outer lattice can modulate exposure to external light. A green roof helps manage stormwater and rainwater is harvested for irrigation. With 60 percent of the building underground, displaced water is reused in flushing fixtures. Photovoltaic panels also produce electricity to heat water.

A more robust mobile app is in the works to keep the museum current, and a partnership with Google will bring 3-D technology to the building this spring. A team of Google engineers worked with NMAAHC staff to combine 3-D scanning with 360-degree video, touch technology, and more to create an exhibit that allows guests to interact with the physicality of artifacts not on display. Guests will be able to rotate and examine objects from all angles with the new exhibit. In some cases, video and audio will be used to expand the story

The spirit of “The Memory Book” and the early virtual museum live on. Stories recorded during sessions in the “Reflections” booth become part of NMAAHC’s narrative through social media and by informing future exhibits, maintaining the living story that has been the museum’s heart from the beginning.