Since opening in 2016, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has been a DC destination.
The Museum centers the African American story as central to American history, after the experience has long been marginalized, and offers a comprehensive and emotional experience that connects the present to the past. A memorable way this plays out is through an elevator ride that opens the museum’s Slavery and Freedom exhibit by illustrating moments in history from 2017 to 1400.
And thanks to a new virtual experience for the Smithsonian that was developed through work with Baltimore digital services firm Fearless, visitors don’t have to go to the museum to be immersed in that descent.
The Searchable Museum, which launched last week, brings the NMAAHC’s Slavery and Freedom exhibit online, extending the experience and resources beyond the museum’s walls. The effort to expand access using digital tools was in motion before 2020 as a means to reach classrooms, as well as those who couldn’t afford a trip to DC. It became especially important in the wake of pandemic, which limited visitor access, and the rekindled Black Lives Matter movement that followed George Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020.
For Dzirasa and the fast-growing Fearless team, it was a particularly meaningful project win. Dzirasa recalls screaming with joy in the office upon hearing that Fearless won the contract. It was a high-profile project with a mission that matters and the potential to impact millions of people, he said, and there was a connection to the team’s internal conversations about racial equity that were galvanized in the 2020 summer of protest.
“This was the one … It meant the world to us,” he said.
Alongside the honor of being selected, the team made a commitment to create a quality product. The in-person experience at the museum is carefully constructed, from dark, narrow hallways that are designed to simulate the experience of being inside a slave ship, to the calming fountain waters of the Contemplative Court that offers space for reflection.
“Everyone was in from day one that we’ve got to make it special,” Dzirasa said.
That’s why evoking the elevator ride was just as important as laying out the chapters that make up the exhibit. And along with a chronological, chapter-driven version of the exhibit, another area of the Searchable Museum allows users to click on objects like the Point of Pines Slave Cabin and Harriet Tubman’s shawl as an entry point to these stories. A third, “behind the scenes” section offers a look at lesser-told African American stories, and resources the museum’s exhibitions draw on.
Going forward, the site indicates that the Smithsonian plans to continue adding exhibits, as well as features. It shows how a museum’s website can not only inform potential visitors about what’s available and supplement their collections, but also create a way to experience the museum all their own.
“Our hope is that this type of experience can grow to other museums,” Dzirasa said.-30-