Since the onset of the digital age, the question of how traditional, physical texts such as books and printed displays would remain relevant has been a universal challenge across industries. Museums and other historical institutions have made forays into cyberspace with varying results. While some have gone full-throttle and created immersive exhibits and parallel offerings that rival in-person experiences, others have stayed closer to their roots as organizations steeped in knowledge and research, designing virtual counterparts for scholarly audiences and keeping the materials made for public consumption in more familiar formats. The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which opened the doors of its current site in 2016, has made a marriage between the two paths: Searchable Museum.1
Available at www.searchablemuseum.com, this new format was made possible by the Smithsonian Institution (NMAAHC is only one of the great edifices that line the National Mall) as well as Bloomberg Philanthropies, the organization that manages former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s charitable giving.3 Bloomberg Philanthropies has been a long-time funder of cultural institutions’ paths towards developing modern technologies to keep their work relevant; this program, Bloomberg Connects, is cited as having given over 100 million USD to various institutions since 1999 for that purpose.4
The digital technologies used within Searchable Museum are varied and nuanced. The current exhibition, “Slavery & Freedom,” looks like something out of an Apple Event with smooth, continuously flowing graphic elements and strategic usage of color to maintain the NMAAHC brand. When one scrolls through the framework, the structure becomes more clear. Searchable Museum has certainly borrowed from the world of education in the delineation of chapters and sections (complete with corresponding numbers and Roman numerals, respectively). In a society where few seem to be listening to the voices of teachers, “Slavery & Freedom” has a well-structured, textbook-esque curriculum that is a noticeable nod to American educators.
The secret sauce to “Slavery & Freedom”‘s success is its compelling content. Chronology, as always, creates its place in shaping history. When entering the exhibition, visitors are taken through a timeline “elevator” (linked here) that brings them back in time, punctuated by remarkable dates as they descend (“2009” is shown superimposed over a photo of Barack Obama taking the oath of office; “1524” floats over a map of colonial Florida). The exhibition spans 1400-1877 and is then divided into four chapters, each covering a new era. Sections within each chapters break down into focus areas—some geographic, some thematic—and allow for visitors to clearly note the big idea of the page that they’re looking at, as they’ll have to click on its name. Furthermore, in the Stories portion of Searchable Museum, new perspectives are considered. “Lesser-Known Stories” and “Present to Past” (which considers current problems from a historical lens) are evidently designed to challenge visitors to reconsider if they really have a full picture of what slavery and freedom meant and continue to mean. These sections are so fascinating and offer such excellent new material that one wonders why they are technically separate from the main exhibition itself. That said, because the range of topics housed within each of these two Stories is so diverse and difficult to connect to others in the same story, offering the Stories in this format provides a solid alternative that clearly separates each unrelated topic, allowing for visitors to explore these stories without becoming confused at a narrative that would jump around.
Where practitioners can perhaps benefit the most is within Learn More—a website section that can frequently carry the denotation of “a jumbled page full of malfunctioning links”. Searchable Museum’s Learn More section is positively exemplary; it’s a real asset for anyone curious about how this research was done or how it grew into an exhibition. For practitioners, the Resources page offers links to research projects, institutions, sites, blogs, podcasts and more, helpful for anyone looking to build upon their knowledge of slavery and freedom. A specific subpage—For Educators—again emphasizes due credence being given by NMAAHC. Finally, for anyone curious as to how the sausage gets made, How We Know What We Know is any inquiring mind’s best friend. Methodology and resources, which can often seem inaccessible and confusing to someone unfamiliar with historical research, are presented into neatly portioned and purposefully explained pieces for anyone who finds themselves intrigued. Staff members appear in bite-size videos, as well, to demonstrate how the theory is applied in practice.
A truly worthwhile virtual exhibition can be difficult to find, and Searchable Museum most certainly fits the bill. There is plenty to be found within “Slavery & Freedom” for both an audience of the curious and an audience of curators; the wealth of information is amplified on an exponential level by its format and by its ability to explain the process of its creation to the public. If “Slavery & Freedom” is the benchmark for what NMAAHC can do with its exhibitions in Searchable Museum, it’s safe to say that the museum still has a demonstrably relevant and crucially important place in our digital-age world.
- “About the Museum,” National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, accessed March 18, 2022, http://www.dighist.org/wp-admin/post.php?post=8003&action=edit.
- “Homepage,” Searchable Museum, National Museum of African American History and Culture, accessed March 18, 2022, https://www.searchablemuseum.com/how-we-know-what-we-know.
- “Homepage,” Searchable Museum, National Museum of African American History and Culture, accessed March 18, 2022, https://www.searchablemuseum.com/
- “Connecting Audiences to Culture Online or Onsite,” Bloomberg Philanthropies, Bloomberg IP Holdings LLC, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.org/arts/connecting-audiences-to-culture-online-or-onsite/.
- “Elevator” Searchable Museum, National Museum of African American History and Culture, accessed March 18, 2022, https://www.searchablemuseum.com/elevator; “Shirley Chisholm for President,” National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, accessed March 20, 2022, https://nmaahc.si.edu/shirley-chisholm-president.
- “How We Know What We Know,” Searchable Museum, National Museum of African American History and Culture, accessed March 19, 2022, https://www.searchablemuseum.com/how-we-know-what-we-know.
Lauren Pfeil is a graduate student at American University. A native of Des Moines, Iowa and a proud alumna of Butler University, she hopes to push the field of public history towards a more inclusive & accessible landscape.
Reach Lauren on Twitter: @lauren_pfeil
Reach Lauren via email: email@example.com
10 Replies to “NMAAHC’s “Slavery & Freedom”: A Practicum in African American History, Studies of Slavery, and the History of the United States | Site Contributor Lauren Pfeil”
Great job on your post! This was really easy to follow and nicely done. I do have a question but you may not be able to answer based off of your reading. Can smaller institutions also ask the Bloomberg Philanthropies for money towards inline exhibits or is it reserved for partner institutions like the Smithsonian? I think it would be cool if they did allow smaller institutions this ability to ask for funding and support since larger institutions like the Smithsonian probably already have a lot of money coming their way.
Hi McKenna and Lauren,
I have a similar thought process as McKenna here. Obviously, the Smithsonian is one of the pioneers of museum innovation. However, I don’t think I’m making a bold claim to say their status is inextricably tied to the vast amounts of funding they receive. Well put together projects, especially digital, require a skill set very few people, comparatively, possess. The Smithsonian attracts the top talent in the field because of their generous funding. It’s no doubt that the material they produce is high quality, but they shouldn’t hold a monopoly on knowledge just because they have the most money.
McKenna, I have no answer to your question. But, I wonder if the Smithsonian ever partners with smaller institutions to help them whether it be financial or other resources.
Great job on the post! We began discussing this in our practicum class this week, but do you feel that the Searchable Museum is adequately marketed? Is it relatively easy to find as a digital visitor to the museum’s website? Have you seen mentions of it on the museum’s social media pages? You might not be able to answer all of these questions, but I do think they are interesting to consider!
Great work with the explanation of this digital collection. I guess I had a thought about the interaction between the museum itself and the online collection. How well do they interact with each other? Can you go to the museum on the mall and find things that point you towards the digital collection for more information?
Well done on your post. It was very easy for me to follow and This made me want to look up this practicum exhibit as I find this is interesting content. I like how you broke down the site in ways that were easy to understand and helped show why the site matters. I especially like how there is links that help people understand how the research was done, as this can be helpful to people who study these topics and wish to learn more information. I really like how you described how it was more modern in style and I wondered if you would agree with me that this might help more people learn about slavery and freedom as they may be more willing to stay and explore the site instead of sites that look like they are from the 90s? I also wanted to ask you was there any part of this site that was confusing or that we should know about if we were going to explore it ourselves?
This was great introduction to the exhibition. I was really impressed by how smoothly everything flowed. As someone who is working on my own online exhibition I really wish they had give some clue as to what software they used! Is it some proprietary Bloomberg thing?!
Hi Lauren, awesome job condensing such a large project into an easy to read blog post! This is such a useful and interesting resource and I love how you emphasized how educators could utilize the exhibition. Just from scrolling through it I was blown away with all of the information and content packed into this exhibition, the temporal scale of this project is so vast (1400-1877). Do you think an exhibition like this (especially a digital exhibition), covering so much time with so much information, is feasible? Was the project was well organized/successful in your opinion?
Lauren – You did a great job condensing such a massive project into a bite-sized post. I walked away being able to have the confidence to navigate this website. I would be interested to know what other museums would be able to use this format to produce digital exhibitions. Were there any works cited to other museums doing similar work? And is there more about information? How much funding goes to maintaining this site? Who maintains this site? What is the future of work like this? I look forward to seeing how work like this continues to push the field!
You did a great job with showing this website. I think this exhibition can be a really good resource for teachers and historians looking to have a basic understanding of African American history. The exhibit is very accessible and very user friendly. I think this is a good example of how museums are taking a different approach of making their resources connect with a broader audience and expanding their online presence.
This was one of my favorite practicums from the semester, Lauren! Personally, the NMAAHC is my favorite Smithsonian museum and I have been following everything related to the museum prior to the grand opening in 2016. The website itself is wildly impressive and engaging. Your blog post and in-person demonstration highlighted that the Searchable Museum is much than aesthetics. This website makes a successful attempt of mirroring the in-person experience of the museum. Your observation of the videos embedded featuring staff was something that I found compelling as well. Especially, the clip of oral historian, Kelly Navies. I attended a virtual lecture a few months ago presented by Navies and the attendees including myself were amazed by the ongoing oral history resources available. I think that it is great that the Searchable Museum including commentary from the staff because the general public may not have the opportunity to interact with the staff.