NMAH: Connecting America - past, present, and future

Smithsonian Institution
Country: United States
City: Washington D.C.
Institution Type: Art, Historic/Heritage
Year Founded: Various
Content Type: Audio, Multimedia
Tour Type: Adult
Exhibit Functionalities: Universal design, Image gallery, Location sensing/Mapping
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Executive summary
Smithsonian institution The National Museum of American History has collaborated with Antenna International to create their first-ever multimedia guide offering tours of five exciting new exhibits about democracy, religion in early America, the “peopling” of America, and other core elements of American identity in the recently refurbished 2 West wing.  Collectively, the five exhibitions are titled ‘The Nation We Build Together’.
Exclusive interviews with two former Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, along with other transformative political figures like David Axelrod, Obama Campaign Strategist and Presidential Advisor, guide visitors through “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith.” The audio throughout 2 West focuses on themes of democratic participation, freedom, liberty and opportunity, transforming how visitors think about and participate in the American experience.
Additional features in the guide such as the ‘Within these Walls’ interactive house, multiple navigation routes, and themed image galleries offer multi-faceted pathways to explore all five exhibitions.
The guide is available in English and will be released in Spanish in Autumn 2017.
Client profile
The National Museum of American History is the largest of the Smithsonian institutions.  Its mission is to help people understand the past, to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future.  The Museum houses more than 3 million artifacts, including some of the nation’s most memorable treasures, like the flag that inspired the “Star Spangled Banner” national anthem
Challenge – transforming how visitors experience American democracy
“I think that our democracy is a truly magical mix between people that are of different backgrounds, but have a commitment to a set of values, which are freedom and democracy and respect for the individual, and respect for the rule of law.”
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith
June 2017 saw the launch of five exhibitions collectively titled ‘The Nation We Build Together’.  The objective of the exhibitions –  ‘American Democracy: A Great Leap Of Faith’, ‘Many Voices, One Nation’, ‘Religion in Early America’,  ‘Within These Walls’ and Unity Square– is to transform how visitors experience American democracy by examining the contributions of indigenous groups and immigrants, the role of religion, and citizen participation in government.
Curators chose Antenna International to develop the Museum’s first multimedia guide to highlight key objects and provide interpretation. The challenge was to combine technology, custom design and original content to create a guide that would engage visitors with just the right amount of content.”
The Antenna International team collaborated with Harry Rubenstein, Chair and Curator of the Division of Political History at the Smithsonian to identify the most fascinating objects – such as Thomas Jefferson’s desk and Abraham Lincoln’s inkstand – and create a handpicked edit to guide visitors through the exhibitions.
Solution – using stories to connect the present to the past
Humans are hardwired to respond to stories, so the team decided to present historical events and objects through the lens of narrative. The stories create a meaningful connection between visitors, objects, and people in the past, and remind individuals that they are the vital components of American history and democracy.
Political luminaries including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Obama Advisor David Axelrod, were asked to share their unique perspectives on democratic participation as part of   ‘American Democracy: A Great Leap Of Faith’. Colin Powell talks the concepts of democracy and liberty; Madeleine Albright describes embracing new prospects to become an American; and David Axelrodexplains how person-to-person conversation invigorates democracy.
The result is an outstanding tour containing thought provoking insight from three of the 21st century’s most significant political minds, among others.  The exclusive interviews lend star power to the guide, attracting more visitors to the Museum, and communicating exhibition themes to the widest possible audience.
For the ‘Within These Walls’ exhibit visitors walk through a reconstructed 200-year-old Massachusetts home, which is rendered as a 3D map within the guide.. By clicking on hotspots aligned to sections of the house, visitors can listen to vivid stories that describe the experiences of five families living between the 1760s to the 1940s, and their contributions to American culture. There is archival interview with a previous resident, Richard Lynch, the grandson of Mary Scott who lived therein 1942. Richard has drawn a map showing how the house used to be divided, also included in the guide. Additional hotspots allow visitors to focus in on detailed object information within the context of the stories.
Available in English and soon to be released in Spanish, the guide is supplied on Antenna’s M3 handheld device, which allows visitors to follow their own curiosity and explore at their own pace. The opening splash screen showcases historical objects, and the navigation offers multiple routes into the tour content via a keypad, grid menu and touchable map.
Sound design is used to great effect throughout the guide to bring the experience to life, from Paul Revere’s bell to the character voices of George Whitefield, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and the singing of the curators from the Library of Congress’s Music Division from the Bay Psalm Book.
Helping visitors understand terminology was crucial. Antenna worked closely with curators to identify and define potentially unfamiliar terms. The term ‘lease’ was definited for the Within These Walls exhibit, in the context of how the term would apply to a slave who lived in the house in the late 1700s, Chance Bradstreet. . Chance was owned by a man who leased him out to the owner of the house at the time, Abraham Dodge. The definition reinforced the concept, Chance was literally being treated as property.
During American Democracy: a Great Leap of Faith, one of the curators mentions Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech of 1952. It is unlikely that all visitors are aware of the particular speech so Antenna consulted with Mr Rubenstein to develop a definition.
Tying deeper information to keywords like this allowed Antenna were able to pack in plenty of content without becoming overwhelming. This level of clever integration is also apparent in the way that the final stop deals with an exhibit of banners displaying quotes in the Religion in the Early Americas exhibit. Visitors access an image gallery and can tap the captions for each banner quote to find out about the person who said it. This works well whether the visitor is text or image focused.
Result – a cohesive set of tours to support the Museum’s objectives
The overall impact is an easy to use guide that offers a cohesive set of tightly edited tours to connect visitors with the objects and themes of the exhibitions. In doing so it supports the Museum’s overarching objectives of transforming how audiences experience American democracy and understand the past to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future.

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