NMAAHC’s “Slavery & Freedom”: A Practicum in African American History, Studies of Slavery, and the History of the United States | Site Contributor Lauren Pfeil

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

“Today” is where visitors come aboard the elevator.
(The convenient lack of a specific date no doubt helps the webmaster take one thing off of their to-do list.)2

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.

The first Black woman to be elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm, continued to chip away at the glass ceiling; 1972 saw Chisholm rise to become both the first Black candidate from a major party and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination.5

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.

After a short text description explaining the methodological processes and usage of oral history, NMAAHC offers expertise from within, utilizing the skills of Kelly Navies.6
Watch the video here: https://youtu.be/6NK-WfV5VTE

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.



  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “Homepage,” Searchable Museum, National Museum of African American History and Culture, accessed March 18, 2022, https://www.searchablemuseum.com/
  4. “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/.
  5. “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.
  6. “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: laurenspfeil@gmail.com

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.


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!