The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) launched its newest digital initiative, the Searchable Museum. As part of the museum’s fifth anniversary, NMAAHC continues to engage audiences worldwide with online exhibitions, virtual symposia, and digital programs.
The Searchable Museum reaches beyond the walls of the museum to provide a rich digital experience that includes a multimedia presentation of NMAAHC’s historical narratives, collections, and educational resources. Over a year in the making, the Searchable Museum initiative is one of the museum’s largest digital undertakings, bringing the museum’s evocative content and immersive in-person visitor experience into homes around the world. The Searchable Museum is made possible through the generous support of Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The Searchable Museum’s use of emerging technologies and scholarly expertise allows NMAAHC to draw from the transformative narrative structure and tone of its gallery experience while offering virtual visitors the flexibility to explore the exhibition content at their own pace. Whether someone has not been able to visit yet or wants to relive their time in the museum, Searchable Museum provides the opportunity for people to engage with the museum’s exhibitions through a deeper dive into African American history and culture.
The project’s first digital exhibition to be shared on the site is the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition, a foundational feature from the museum’s David M. Rubenstein History Galleries, entirely reimagined for the digital space.
“By marshaling the latest technology and harnessing the scholarly and educational experience of the museum’s teams, the Searchable Museum tells the complex story of our nation’s history in ways only the National Museum of African American History and Culture can,” said Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the museum. “This ongoing project provides a chance for Americans to realize our shared past, bringing the unique museum experience to their homes and on their phones. Allowing the public to virtually revisit the originating struggle for American freedom in the ‘Slavery and Freedom’ exhibition reminds us of the centrality of the African American journey to the American experience—a story of triumph, resilience, and joy over the centuries. With this launch, we look forward to continuing the museum’s digital outreach and efforts.”
The exhibition has been transformed into an online experience combining existing and newly created digital collection assets, digitized exhibition content, multimedia components, such as 3D models, videos, and audio podcasts, and state-of-the-art technologies to deliver an innovative, virtual exhibition. The site will also be responsive to user interests, offering opportunities for inquiry into specific topics via links to related online content and educational resources, making it possible to share new artifacts from the museum’s collections for the first time.
Similar to the in-person exhibition, the virtual exhibition explores the story of slavery and freedom—the core of America’s founding—beginning in the 14th century and concluding with the Civil War and Reconstruction. Through first-person accounts and artifacts, the exhibition examines the economic and political legacies of the making of modern slavery and the concept of freedom, both of which were foundational in the development of the United States. Most importantly, it considers the resistance, resilience, and survival of enslaved African Americans as they fought to hold on to their humanity through inhumane conditions and free and enslaved African Americans’ contributions to the making of America. Throughout the exhibition, users will virtually experience recreations of striking moments and objects from the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition in the David M. Rubenstein History Galleries:
- The History Elevator transports visitors back in time from the present to the early 1400s through images from different centuries and the powerful words of Maya Angelou.
- Slave Ships of the Transatlantic Slave Trade displays several names and the statistics of the more than 40,000 slave ships that traversed the Atlantic and first-person accounts of the transatlantic slave trade.
- The Domestic Slave Trade features excerpts from bills of sale and slave auction broadsides, highlighting the names of enslaved African American people, descriptors and valuations, and quotes from the WPA Slave Narratives.
- The Paradox of Liberty depicts Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, surrounded by the names of the 609 people he enslaved over his lifetime as well as statistical data and quotes that help illuminate the paradox of the nation.
- The Sugar Pot features a rustic plantation sugar pot surrounded by ornate silver objects and statistics of production and mortality—a visual storytelling of the juxtaposition of profit and power and the human cost.
- The Tower of Cotton—an iconic tower of cotton on the museum floor—is paired with images from the antebellum period and a brief narrative examining the trade in enslaved people and the product of their labor, cotton as the driver of the trade, the violent daily lives of the enslaved and the wealth they generated.
- The Point of Pines Slave Cabin, one of two remaining slave cabins on Edisto Island, South Carolina, held enslaved Africans Americans on the Point of Pines plantation, and it later served as a home to formerly enslaved African Americans after the Civil War until the 1980s. It was photographed as a 3D experience for a first-time look inside the cabin.
The website also features special content that will take users into the behind-the-scenes work of the museum and share detailed connections among the stories told in the museum’s exhibitions:
- Lesser-Known Stories: Presents the stories of people, places and events of historical significance that are not often told, including new scholarship and discoveries in the field.
- Present to Past: Features various themes relevant to the Black experience through a timeline connecting the present to the past and connecting contemporary experiences to the events during the period of slavery in the nation, demonstrating America’s continued obstacles and advancements as a nation.
- How We Know What We Know: A behind-the-scenes look at resources and methodologies that help the museum to understand, authenticate and preserve the history presented, including oral history, archaeology, statistical data, archives, genealogy, conservation and more. The feature includes brief videos of museum practitioners and scholars providing insight on their daily work.
- The Constellation: Users encounter a focal-point object, theme or image that opens related stories in African American history and culture, illuminating the focal point in a new light. Emanating from the constellation are connecting points, including quotes, videos, objects, podcasts and descendants’ and community stories.
- Resources Page: Accessible museum and external links to information relevant to the themes featured on the website, enhancing the content shared in the virtual exhibition. The webpage includes access to podcasts, databases and digital humanities websites, videos, blog posts, collections stories, oral histories, scholar presentations and links to additional history and culture repositories and historic sites.
The museum will continue to update and expand the Searchable Museum with new content, ultimately bringing all of its exhibitions online. In spring 2022, the museum plans to launch the exhibition “Making a Way Out of No Way” on the Searchable Museum platform.
Accessible at www.SearchableMuseum.com, the website is free and does not require registration or sign-up to use.