The Director of Education at the Smithsonian Museum of American Indian (NMAI) asked a question to the effect of “Who here thinks culture is easy to display?” Conveying complex histories and representing cultures accurately are some of the challenges Smithsonian museums are facing. While talking with the staff at NMAI, I noticed parallels in the use of interactives at the National African American Museum of History and Culture (NAAMHC) and the Smithsonian American Indian Museum (SAIM) when approaching difficult stories. Both had engaging “choose your own path/adventure” type of digital media that integrated real world consequences.
The NAAMHC incorporated an interactive based off The Negro Motorist Green Book. The Green Book was a real guide that helped African Americans find restaurants, lodging, and service stations while navigating “segregated realities” in America from 1936-1966. The interactive itself was a touchscreen but placed in the front of a car with a projected screen on the windshield. After a brief introduction, visitors then ‘travelled’ across America as an African American who needed to pack their bags and make decisions of which places to stop with the guide of the Green Book. After each decision, the consequences of their choices were made clear through a role playing scenario projected on the windshield screen.
The NMAI designed an interactive in their Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations exhibit to help visitors learn different perspectives and the choices people had to make during the Indian Removal Act. Visitors watch an introduction that provides context about this particular time in American history. Then, you can choose a person, representative of groups of people, with a real decision they would have made in the past. As the museum staff pointed out, you will not win. They all have harsh realities and unpleasant outcomes. These varied perspectives help tell the stories of many groups dealing with one issue and helps provide numerous lens. Visitors learn the consequences of their choices with actual historical events which I think becomes more powerful instead of just providing imaginary scenarios. I think this interactive makes you think, “what would I do?” and “would have I survived?”
Both of these interactives remind the visitor that choices have consequences which can make a small or huge impact on the present and future. I think giving visitors choices forces them to pause and connect to the bigger idea. I thought that both interactives do a nice job of putting the visitor into ‘the shoes’ of another and create empathy for particular people. At the same time, it helps visitors grapple with difficult and hard realities of the past.