With each passing September 11 anniversary, the headlines drift a little further down the front page. The moments of silence feel a little shorter. Painful memories fade.
In another era, our shared recollections of such a world-historical event might have drifted slowly out of the news cycle and into the long-term cultural memory of museums and history books. Today, however, the process of making history edges into the present tense, as a vast outpouring of personal memories linger online in the form of blogs, photos, videos, and individual stories that now comprise an essential part of the historical record.
In a world where anyone can publish, and seemingly everyone does, what is the role of cultural institutions in curating our collective memory? Can “official” institutional versions of history coexist with this proliferation of constantly shifting personal expressionor is such a distinction growing increasingly meaningless in a networked world?
Jake Barton of Local Projects has been wrestling with these questions for the past few years as he works with the National September 11 Museum & Memorial team to build Make History (http://makehistory.national911memorial.org/), a new site that allows individuals to share their photos, videos, and personal stories of the event.
Since the site launched in September 2009, about 1,000 visitors have contributed more than 3,000 photos, videos, and stories. When the memorial eventually takes shape in lower Manhattan, this virtual repository will find a permanent physical home.
Recently Barton and I discussed the project, the challenges of designing interactive storytelling environments, and the long-term vision for the memorial.
Alex Wright: Can you give us a little background on the project? How did you first get in touch with the National September 11 Memorial team?
Jake Barton: Around three years ago, I was approached by Tom Hennes of Thinc design, an exhibition design firm, to partner for an international competition to design the National September 11 Memorial Museum. There were 16 firms in the running, and our team, Thinc Design with Local Projects, made it through a few rounds until there were just three firms leftone led by my former mentor, Ralph Appelbaum, which was quite awkward. The three firms were given a three-week design charrette to create an exhibit in a small space, and we developed a few strong design ideas that we visualized in a very specific fly-through. I think the client was able to really experience our ideas, which became the most compelling argument for hiring us.
Alex: Over the past few years, you have worked on a number of projects involving personal storytelling. What are the ingredients for a successful collaborative storytelling environment?
Jake: People must care about the topic. I’ve turned down many projects, both commercial and non, because I just didn’t think the topic would garner enough of a passionate or critical response. Formally, the key to collaborative storytelling is the right mixture of freedom and constraints. Like a good sonnet or limerick, a collaborative storytelling project needs a formal structure that brings out creativity from its participants. The worst thing is a blank page or open microphone; you need a clearly defined rule-set that inspires people. The five-word biography, the Twitter update, the conversation of a lifetimeall of these structures inspire people to be more creative because they are constrained.
Alex: Local Projects is perhaps best known for the StoryCorps project, which has allowed users to contribute oral histories via special recording booths in Grand Central Station, the World Trade Center, and elsewhere. What lessons have you learned from StoryCorps that informed your approach to the NS11MM project?
Jake: The 9/11 Memorial Museum will be the first major museum of the 21st century, and in many ways it’s poised to really evolve what a museum can be. Some of that is because it’s the newest, but much of that is because of the specific facts of 9/11. Because 9/11 is a very recent event whose impact is still evolving, and because it was experienced by a third of the world live within 24 hours, there is a very concrete sense that the definitive “history” of 9/11 has yet to be written. The 9/11 Memorial Museum will take many of the methods of collaborative storytelling that we started working with in StoryCorps, and apply them to the history of 9/11, without presuming, or imposing, a prime narrative. There will be spaces that are pulling stories randomly from a massive archive of accounts, giving visitors both specific accounts, and also the sense that for each story, there are hundreds or thousands of similar stories. There will be multiple moments for visitors to put in their own stories of the event, as well as reflections on the significance of the event.
Unlike StoryCorps, where the thrill is really in either making the recordings for personal use, or in listening to one of the few edited pieces, the 9/11 Memorial Museum will do much more to shape and aggregate the entire archive that is created. To date, 911history.org is the best example; visitors can participate by either putting materials in, or shape the history by playing specific searches, locations, or times of day from the archive itself.
One other lesson has to do with the feeling of the project. StoryCorps is a very human project. It has the subversive goal of getting people to talk to each other. Whether it’s the questions you could never ask your father, or your grandmother’s past you never knew, the project aims to make listening a transcendent experience. At the 9/11 Memorial Museum, whether through the physical exhibitions that Thinc Design and Local Projects are making, or through the interactives or media, we’re looking at ways to embed listening, dialogue, and the making of history into the visitor experience.
Alex: What were the major design challenges with this project?
Jake: While there are many in the large suite of media pieces we are designing for the exhibitions, the main challenges for 911history.org involved making a project that really spoke to where we are now, somewhere between 9/11 as a raw and recent event, and 9/11 as a receding historic moment. For many, the events of 9/11 are still very much present, a daily reality of grief and pain, while others have seemingly moved on and give it little thought. We wanted Make History to match this moment when the past and present are starting to become distanced, and so we turned to overlaying historic photos over street-view images of the present, giving a “double exposure” that speaks to where we are right now. Further, this technique underscored that history was made in the same streets and roads all around New York City, the other sites, the nation and the world. At many churches or mosques or city halls, historic vigils linked communities together, and these were also historic events.
Alex: How do you see this project unfolding over the long term? Once the memorial is built, how will the interactive elements evolve in concert with the physical installation?
Jake: Many of our interactive installations have been created specifically to evolve over time, allowing the exhibitions to respond and progress to changing times. The Memorial Museum will actively pursue the general goals of Make History by continuing to gather stories, photos, and videos of experiences of 9/11 and the aftermath, and adding these newly gathered materials to many different exhibitions inside the museum. Visitors will not just witness history, but participate in the documentation and making of history through the exhibitions.
Further, there will be an exhibit piece that will analyze the post-9/11 world, using current events, semantic analysis, and ongoing research to try and define just what the post-9/11 world is. Whether through inference, connections between keywords, evolving thoughts on 9/11 themes, this series of visualization and collaboration will allow visitors in the present and future to try and define the post-9/11 world, even as the meaning is evolving into the future.
And finally, there will be a space for visitors to reflect on the meaning of 9/11 within their own personal experience. These voices and reflections will make up a diverse and dynamic display that will evolve as time moves forward, giving the museum a historic record of the changing meaning of 9/11 over time.
Alex Wright is the author of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. He has led user experience design initiatives for the New York Times, Yahoo!, Microsoft, IBM, Harvard University, and the Long Now Foundation, among others. His writing has appeared in Salon.com, the Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Magazine, and other publications. He writes regularly about technology and design at http://www.alexwright.org.
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