The Will to Adorn, the will to tell: Ethnography and an app meet at the Smithsonian

“The Will to Adorn” is both the name of an app and of an ongoing ethnographic study run by the Smithsonian Institution (SI). Though planning began before 2013, the app debuted at the SI annual Folklife Festival in the summer of 2013. This post will provide a summary of the project’s objectives and purpose, highlights of its user-friendly interface, and some connections to this week’s readings on the spatial turn and AR platforms for cultural institutions

About the project

“The Will to Adorn: African American Diversity, Style, and Identity” is a project that “explores the diversity of African American identities as expressed through the cultural aesthetics and traditional arts of the body, dress, and adornment.” Aside from background research of various cultural traditions and styles and crafts that pertain to clothing, jewelry, and even tattoo art, much of the information collected are oral testimonies from individuals describing what they are wearing at that time, why they chose to wear it, what certain articles of clothing mean to them, and how it fits in with their communities, immediate or diasporic. The project also seeks to fill significant gaps in the SI collections where stylistic examples, collected from “African American ‘artisans of style,'” should be. The term ‘artisans of style’ refer to shoemakers, hatters, and other craftspeople who make clothing representative of African heritage.

While the project intends to fill gaps in our understanding of how diverse African American communities express identity and a sense of community through dress, it also carries with it deeper meaning. Its namesake is an observation made by Zora Neale Hurston, who was herself an anthropologist. According to the project website, Hurston once observed that ‘the will to adorn’ ranks among the most important manners in which African American communities express identity, ideas, and cultural knowledge. Such information transmitted through dress has been filtered through centuries-worth of experience, influenced in part by the legacy of slavery and of social, political, and cultural movements to claim agency and control in every aspect of daily life. In the spirit of Hurston’s observation, this project’s creators and supporters view every day dress as one such act in claiming identity. The project is therefore more than a tool; it is a platform on which individuals and communities can preserve the profundity that is woven, beaded, sewn, and threaded in one’s choice of dress.

The anthropological lens of “The Will to Adorn” bifurcates people’s dress into a reflection of contemporary culture and a link to the history of crafts and the craft of history, a craft that every person engages with whenever they reach into their wardrobe.

How to use “The Will to Adorn”

While the website contains significant detail about the project and purpose of the app, the app is relatively simple and, for lack of a better phrase, gets the job done. It is also free to download, which makes it accessible to anyone with access to a smartphone.

The welcome page provides two options. The first is to make and upload an up-to three minute recording about what you the user is wearing. Selecting this option will bring you to a set of four required questions: 1) What is your age range?; 2) What gender are you? (The options listed are male, female, trans, and other.); 3) What part of the U.S. are you from?. The fourth question asks you to select a prompt regarding your outfit that you would like to answer. This is a simple yet creative way for the SI staff to organize the data collected for research and user purposes (to be discussed in the section below on the “listen” option). The prompt options are as follows:

  • What is your inspiration for how you are dressed?
  • What do you consider to be the most important part of looking good?
  • Describe what you are wearing today.
  • What does what you are wearing say about who you are?
  • What would you never want to wear? Why?

Once finished, the app will provide an opportunity for you to make your recording, to listen to your recording, to re-record yourself speaking if you would like to change your recording, and to upload your recording.

Selecting the “Listen” option brings you to a page on which recordings collected since 2013 begin to play. Pressing “more” brings you to a series of criteria that allow you to limit the types of recordings that you would like to hear. For example, you can listen to recordings by individuals of ages between 20 and 29, by males and trans individuals, individuals from the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, and by individuals who chose to respond to the “What does what you are wearing say about who you are?” prompt. Selecting “apply” will make a playlist of recordings by individuals to whom those criteria apply. Note: no recordings fit all of the above criteria in my example, so if you fit those criteria, make a recording! The SI wants to hear what you have to say about the choices you make about what to wear and why you wear it.

Together, these features make it more likely that users and contributors will return more than once, perhaps even regularly if they are so inclined.

But therein lies a problem. Unless the user is particularly fond of the project or interested in its content, there is little chance that he, she, or they will continue to use the app or add further descriptions of their chosen outfit to those which have been collected since 2013. Nevertheless, the app does the job it was created to do.

“The Will to Adorn” and the Spatial Turn

“The Will to Adorn” sits at an odd but noteworthy intersection of sweeping trends in historical study such as the spatial turn and the digitization of museum collections. The app is unlike others by cultural institutions which are themselves intended to orient the user in spaces in ways they may never would have considered. As John Russick observes, most cultural museums using AR to share collections to wider audiences have relied on overlaying images of objects on maps relevant to those objects. “The Will to Adorn” has no maps. The closest it gets to orienting the user within a set space is by asking where he, she, or they is from, or by allowing listeners to hear recordings provided by contributors from specific regions in the U.S. The app combines the crowdsourcing method of collecting with methods in oral history that allow the user to place themselves within those broad geographies, which are spatial, as well as within space demarcated by a certain diasporic community, which is less concretely spatial yet spatial nonetheless. For researchers, the app’s recording feature may, however, allow for a greater understanding of African American cultural expression, through style, connects to specific localities.

Lastly, some food for thought: Given its simplicity, how might the app and project be further developed to translate people’s responses to prompts provided onto a map or other methods of displaying “space”? Or, is the app as functional as it needs to be?

Digital Project Proposal, Kevin Lukacs

Shirtless George, a Party River

It was 2017, and I was turning 25 years old. My friend Alec came down from Pittsburgh to celebrate. He brought a six pack of Firehouse Red from North Country Brewery, and a six pack of Yuengling. There was much celebrating that weekend, and between Pennsylvania beers and the best pizza Del Ray has to offer, we took some time to explore the National Museum of American History.

This ridiculous statue is always on display, and it never disappoints.

The American History Museum is packed to the brim with interesting artifacts. One particular display caught my attention. It was a graphic of American political parties, from the start of the nation into the 20th century. It was colorful, detailed, and the twisting turns were reminiscent of a river system as complex and important to America as the Mississippi. The visualization is prominently displayed and accessible, but there’s an opportunity here to make an interesting digital exhibit, with an air of discovery and accessibility to the history of American political parties.

Did I over-hype it? I over-hyped it, didn’t I?

The Gist of It

The basic concept of this digital project is to put this image, or a facsimile of it, onto a website. The image will be split up into separate, but connected pieces, and each party or unique phase of a party will be hyperlinked to a digital exhibit page. The exhibit page will contain useful information such as the start and end dates, key issues, relevant legislation, key figures, and of course historiographically supported causes contributing to the rise and fall of the party. WordPress will be the platform for the website, as it is easy and free to use, as well as a platform I am familiar working with.

Who’s Gonna Click It?

I want the digital exhibit to be accessible to as many people as possible, by keeping the language simple and absent of jargon. A resource like this could be a fun overview for students of all ages. The website should contain enough critical and relevant information to be interesting to adults as well. The image by itself is an incredible reminder that American politics hasn’t always been what Kendrick Lamar called the Democrips and Rebloodicans, and will hopefully be an eye-opening experience for casual and curious learners.

Inspiration

In terms of existing projects, this digital exhibit is really inspired by the Smithsonian website. The Smithsonian site is full of digital exhibits that not only offer information on much of their exhaustive collection, but contain quality images of artifacts as well. It’s an incredible resource that can be tapped by anyone with a computer. The site is very functional and easy to navigate, but it isn’t any fun. And it could be.

As a class, we looked at HistoryWired, an earlier version of the Smithsonian site that did not age well and was taken down. HistoryWired had some great ideas that really could use a second look. With this digital exhibit, I want to make exploring a key part of using this image/artifact from the vast Smithsonian collection. While this digital exhibit won’t be the funnest thing ever, it will have a level of interaction and discovery that feels somewhat absent in the current Smithsonian site.

With a Little Help From My Friends

As far as getting the project out and known, I’ve always had success sharing projects with Reddit. The subreddit r/history gets a lot of traffic in a day, and projects/blogs I have shared on there before have been able to collect thousands of views in a few hours, and sparked some interesting conversation along the way.

Not everything on r/history is paradigm shifting discourse, but it has its moments.

It never hurts to get a little help from the network as well. I work at and have worked with several historical sites that interpret American politics, and would love to show them the project and perhaps ask them to share it.

Beyond just putting the project under the nose of the internet, it would be really important if it could be used as a teaching resource. I would enjoy putting the digital exhibit into the hands of teachers, and see if its something that could benefit a classroom of whatever age group.

Given that this project is centered around using a Smithsonian artifact, it would also be important to share the concept with them. It would be a joy to see the Smithsonian’s digital presence to be more engaging and fun. Perhaps this could inspire a second look at their website.

But is it Any Good?

To evaluate the project, I’m going to use a WordPress plug in that analyses metrics of engagement. Views of the homepage and of individual articles/party exhibits will be handy, but it will be more important to know how long people are staying on a page. Are they reading the information or just skimming? Knowing the bounce rate and exit rate will tell me if people are only checking out the home page or one article and exiting out. The bounce rate will help me to discern if people are really exploring and taking in the experience. The hardest part of this project will be giving it a longer shelf life, so that people are visiting the site without my having to post a link on Reddit or send out a tweet. This can be tremendously affected by making sure the website has a good SEO score, that it has optimal conditions to be found organically via searches.

So that’s pretty much the thing. Is this something you’d want to check out? What information would you expect to see on a site like this? Is there a better platform for this project? Will there ever be a party that sounds as cool as Bull-Moose? Let me know your thoughts below!