[Updated 2/9/2008, see Suggestion Box below]

Before one brick for the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture has been laid, its online instantiation is already being constructed by those who preserve and people that history. Surely, this is not the first museum to use a website to allow people to shape its history and holdings, but this particular use of the folk gives strong cultural resonance to the use of online social networks.


Established in 2003 (and online as of 2007), The museum was launched with an explicitly social mission. Director Lonnie Bunch writes:

In many ways, there are few things as powerful and as important as a people, as a nation that is steeped in its history. Often America is celebrated as a place that forgets. This museum seeks to help all Americans remember, and by remembering, this institution will stimulate a dialogue about race and help to foster a spirit of reconciliation and healing.

At this point, the “institution” IS the website, as the NMAAHC is the first museum to open its doors on the Web before opening its physical doors.

Navigating the Network of Memory
The “centerpiece” of the museum is its online Memory Book, described here as:

the collected reminiscences of ordinary Americans. These stories, called “memories” are collected as text, images, and audio uploads in the virtual Memory Book where website visitors are encouraged to submit their own histories, traditions, thoughts and ideas. Memories are then associated visually with other aspects of the museum’s holdings and scholarship, such as photographic portraits from the Let Your Motto Be Resistance traveling exhibit or the Save Our African American Treasures program. Memory Book contributions may also be associated with offerings from other visitors, enabling the creation of a dynamic social network for the NMAAHC community.

To help users see the “associations,” the museum uses a dynamic network map, reminiscent of Thinkmap (but built by IBM). The visual effect is the reproduction of a richly interconnected nodal history, with tags such as “resistance,” “Civil Rights,” and “Choices,” linked to events such as “Negro Girl Changes the Color of Class Rooms” and such storied lives of everyday people like Rosetta Riddick as recounted by her grandson. Oral history meets online history, as the network links become a multitude of telephone lines, of postal routes, of hands to cheeks, of family trees.

More than merely decoration, this is a true navigation map that reorients itself to display the readers place within the linked memories and moments, always calling to mind context and connection. Each time the museum goer clicks a node, the map refreshes, growing itself again as if a self-generating network, or a woven fabric that cannot be disconnected.

Hovering over the Help button opens a speech bubble that explains:

The people, place, and artifacts that define African American History and culture are connected to each other in complex and fascinating ways. Threads allow you to explore — discovering how a moment in history is connected to a person, how that person is related to a topic.

This is not an unique visual interface, yet its enframing seems to write it into a deeply cultural and political project — political here in the sense of social movements rather than campaign rhetoric.

James Barnes writes of life in Kansas in an entry described as “black social networks”:

James Barnes: When I was a teenager, I knew just about every black that lived in Eudora. I knew almost all of the blacks that lived in Ottawa. I knew just about most of the blacks that lived in Tonganoxie. I knew a heck of a lot of them that lived in Topeka. I knew a few people in Kansas City. You know, then we went around to all the towns and I just knew a lot of people. When my kids came along and they were growing up, the only people they knew lived in Lawrence, Kansas. They hardly knew a soul from any other town.

Of course, the museum is a new kind of social network that enshrines memories, testimonies.

The museum uses an odd icon for “tags” reminiscent of tags at a sale or chillingly like tags that might be found hanging from bodies.

Collective Griotlage

The website’s accounts have been enriched by collaborators using a more space-based medium, the roving recording booth. StoryCorps in collaboration with the Public Broadcasting System conducted the year-long Griot Project to help collect more accounts. More reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston’s recording projects, this mobile recording team brought its studios to the people, traveling to nine cities. According to the Smithsonian press release (.pdf),

The “griot” is part of a West African tradition of story telling, a highly respected tribe who acted as a living repository of births, deaths, marriages and significant events community. Griots were responsible not only for transmitting oral history through generations, but also for ensuring that people found meaning in their own lives.

Does the IBM network become the Griot in the online museum? Or does the centered authority of the Griot get replaced by the distributed Griotlage of the many?

I cannot help but feel that this particular appropriation of the social function of these textual networks speaks better to the social and historical potential of the Internet than say the infinity of MySpace posts thanking each other for the add. And as a preserver of memories, the online museum offers a chance for social networks to rediscover their deep social links to a past and to people too often omitted from the trackbacks of history.

Suggestion Box:
Having recently attended a conference on Do-It-Yourself video, I’m wondering why the museum does not allow users to submit videos (or audio) of their memories ala vlogs or video testimonials?  It may be possible, but the museum’s instructions (and the current holdings) do not have any indication that video input is possible or invited.  Wouldn’t that form work nicely with the gestures toward oral histories? Why privilege texts in a museum trying to capture the voices of history?

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