African American Museum in Philadelphia

 

African American Museum in Philadelphia

 

PHILADELPHIA, PA | COMPLETED 2009

 
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Audacious Freedom

Technology’s future animates Philadelphia’s past in Audacious Freedom, an exhibit that explores the lives of African Americans in our nation’s First City from 1776-1876.

Large-scale, interactive video projections provide multiple perspectives on this complex history, leading visitors to a new appreciation and understanding of the city’s African American citizens during its formative first 100 years.

The immersive environment uses a variety of storytelling mechanisms to explore themes like entrepreneurship, environment, education, religion, and family traditions.

 
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Visitor Experience

The exhibit showcases the rich and multifaceted history of the people, places, and events that made up the African American community of Philadelphia during that century. The overall goal was to show how different the world was then from how it is now, and to see the last 100 years of changes in non-stereotypical terms.

 
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Founders

The new exhibit reflects the museum’s origin as an art gallery. Prominently displayed is an original revision of the iconic Trumbull painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, with then-excluded sectors of the community—African Americans, Native Americans, women—sketched in.

 
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The other “paintings” in this gallery are actually monitors that display slowly-changing artwork that, over several minutes, reveal Foundings—institutions and traditions that began in Philadelphia.

 
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Timeline

An interactive, three-dimensional timeline is a core component of Audacious Freedom's story about the lives of Philadelphians from 1776-1876. The panoramic timeline surrounds visitors with a dense tapestry of people, places, documents, and objects.

An interactive kiosk sits at the center of the room, where visitors can play seven different projection shows. Each show includes unique light projections that play over different elements in the timeline.

These disparate elements are all part of interconnecting story lines that are woven together through a series of lenses. Each show uses one of the lenses-family, religion, politics, laws, economic conditions, and culture-to connect and contextualize the stories, while simultaneously working to distill them into approachable narratives.

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The projections utilize intricate masking techniques and customized 3D graphics to expand on the timeline's visuals. More than a video, the projections act like a docent’s flashlight, playing over the complex graphic assembly to make connections and highlight points of interest.

The projection system was custom-designed and built. It uses three projectors, and to create the "docent's flashlight effect", each timeline object had to be individually, digitally masked off for each story.

This investment in technology allowed Eisterhold Associates to enhance the timeline's story-telling capabilities, engage visitors in the story-telling, and bring history to life through narrative.

 
[The timeline] moves the museum into the 21st century. We wanted to have a level of experience... that our visitors have not seen before.
— Romona Riscoe Benson, Museum President & Chief Executive
 
 
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Conversations

Conversations provides a deeper exploration of the lives of 10 of the historical figures museum visitors meet in the timeline.

As they enter the space visitors join a historical cocktail party alive with moving, talking figures.

This unexpected proximity lets visitors hear first-hand about the lives of these change-makers in Philadelphia's first century.

 
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This proves that individual stories can enhance big-picture history and make what might be a daunting topic accessible and approachable for the average person.
— As one reviewer put it...
 
 

Always in motion, the figures have made more than one visitor jump back in surprise and—then delight—upon entering the room.

The figures that are showcased in Conversations were selected through a research process that included producing a matrix of candidates and then selecting final speakers through public input.

The figures existing on large LCD screens, wrapped in a period cityscape backdrop. Using a doorbell-like touch screen, visitors can select from several conversations with each figure.

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Each conversation asks a question, which is enthusiastically answered as the figures inside regale their stories.

Sound is delivered by directional speakers, ensuring that visitors can hear each speaker clearly, undisturbed by the stories of other speakers or the cocktail party ambience.

 
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Children’s Wall

The African American Museum in Philadelphia’s immersive experience allows visitors of all ages to immerse themselves in the lives of African Americans living from 1776–1876. For younger visitors and families, a key component of the experience is an expansive wall of intricate, floor-to-ceiling illustrations.

 
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The exhibit takes a day-in-the-life view of three historic children, showing how life for these children was very different from children’s lives today.

The wall is full of physical, interactive elements, freeing children to engage the exhibit hands-on.

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Children are engaged through interactive question-and-answer activities, leading them to explore the life and times of children living two centuries ago.

 
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Interpretive Paradigms

Prior to design, we collected the museums objectives in a series of “interpretive paradigms”.

These paradigms were a visual analysis and synthesis of the museum’s ideas and goals, grouped in ways that could be communicated through exhibition media.

 
 

Community Input

Community input at every stage was essential to Eisterhold Associates process.

Community cultural partners helped make our messaging effective.

It also compelled us to broaden the exploration of critical story points. After researching a large pool of historical figures, a public vote determine which figures were needed to tell the story. Based on this vote, half of the historical figures we researched were included in the exhibit.

Late-stage review from scholarly participants also allowed fine tuning of text, tone, and voice.

The result of this community involvement is an exhibit that meets museum objectives, visitor expectations, and the test of historical accuracy.