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: firstname.lastname@example.org