Designers Elevating Untold Narratives

Read Time: 3 minutes

Throughout February, SEGD is focusing on the importance of experience design and experience designers to amplify, celebrate and bring Black culture and history to the forefront. To do this, we are sharing a curated weekly series of video presentations from 2020 featuring designers in our SEGD community speaking about their roles in presenting difficult historical topics while engaging audiences through specific design strategies. On February 10, SEGD shares “Designers Elevating Untold Narratives” presented by SEGD Board Member Aki Carpenter and featuring the design work of Ralph Appelbaum Associates on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as the upcoming Obama Presidential Center.

How can designers elevate untold narratives within museum exhibition and experience projects? For the designers at Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), that process begins with the story being told.

“Our approach to design is totally driven by the narrative, by the story,” says Aki Carpenter, Principal and the Director of Social Projects at RAA. In her video presentation “Designers Elevating Untold Narratives” Carpenter explores some of the most effective ways design strategies can convey these stories.

At the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC, the Smithsonian’s 19th museum!), the RAA designers began with an overarching narrative: “Journey to Freedom” which thematically organizes the entire museum. Visitors begin their journey below grade in galleries covering history and then gradually rise up through the building, via zig-zagging ramps, to the top-floor galleries covering contemporary African American culture.

Along the way, they encounter many shorter—yet powerful—narratives which convey the often hidden or untold stories of Black history and culture here in America, by Black people themselves.

For designers to present these narratives in an engaging way, pacing is critical.

“It’s important to create emotionally compelling experiences that are layered with accurate content and provide intervals for contemplation, reflection and dialogue to help visitors process what they’ve seen,” contends Carpenter.

Carpenter then lays out a series of “Guiding Principles” for how designers can further elevate these untold narratives:
·      Respect the narrative and integrate diverse perspectives to tell a balanced story.
·      Promote justice and equality.
·      Feature the authentic.
·      Connect history to the present day.

When asked about the most successful design aspect within the NMAAHC, Carpenter does not pinpoint any one design strategy, but rather an accumulation that leads to rewarding experiences for visitors.

“For me it’s about seeing people and their families in the space –  sharing stories and sharing histories.”

To learn more, watch “Designers Elevating Untold Narratives” here.

In addition to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Carpenter briefly presents two other RAA projects in the video:

Obama Presidential Center will break ground in Chicago later this year in Jackson Park. RAA is designing the Center’s museum which will occupy four floors of “the tower” on the north end of the Center’s campus. In the video, Carpenter explores the challenges of being a socially responsive museum that inspires and empowers visitors as agents of positive change.

Freedom Rides Museum will be housed in a now-vacant Greyhound Bus Terminal in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. The museum will be at a much smaller scale than NMAAHC and the Obama Presidential Center, but will share the same themes of resilience and empowerment, forging links between history and the present moment.

SEGD will be presenting the following videos later in February:

Feb 17 — ”Equity and Justice in the COVID Age” featuring Princeton University — Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding and Google NYC — Rising Together: The Black Experience with Police in America (Isometric Studio)
Feb 24 — ”From Absence to Presence” featuring the commemoration to enslaved peoples at St. Mary’s College, Maryland (RE:site)