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Greenwood Rising and the Ethics of Immersive Storytelling

Museums that provide insight into social-political issues by documenting important moments in history often face the challenge of having to share difficult truths in the most powerful way possible. It can be difficult to facilitate an environment that allows visitors to engage with historical events and the museum’s message without telling the visitors how they should feel.

At the MuseumNext Digital Summit 2022, Phil Armstrong, Interim Executive Director of Greenwood Rising and L’Rai Arthur-Mensah, Project Director with Local Projects discussed their experiences of including communities in the process of developing and sharing work.

The Greenwood Rising Museum has created an immersive experience to help visitors from all kinds of backgrounds to understand how systematic racism can boil over and create events like the Tulsa Race Massacre. Their approach takes museum visitors on a journey in 3 parts.

Background

One of the main goals of the Greenwood Rising Museum has been to humanise history through immersive storytelling. The experience starts in a virtual black barbershop, the heart of the black community in Greenwood. It was a place where people would gather to share news and gossip, and discuss the events of the week.

The intention of this introduction is to enable museum visitors to hear from business owners and connect with them on a human level, helping them to empathise with their personal experiences and loss as they moved through the gallery.

The visitors become emotionally invested in the narrative and the characters they are meeting. They learn about the town through the eyes of the residents and hear about each of the character’s lots in life. This helps them to step into the shoes of the different characters when they learn about the massacre.

The Event

As Phil and L’Rai explain, the second part of the experience explores the events leading up to the massacre. It explores the political and social discourse that fostered a mindset of white supremacy and the nuance of the challenges the black community of Greenwood faced. It also explores the accomplishments that were on display before, during, and after the massacre.

This part of the museum covers around 80 years of history. Visitors can see how the community rebuilt itself and the spirit that was displayed in the face of overwhelming adversity.

One of the challenges the Greenwood Rising Museum faced was how to tell the facts in a way that was clear and left no room for misunderstanding. As is discussed in this presentation, it was critical to not shy away from telling the truth and to be unapologetic and raw in documenting the attitudes of the time.

The museum deals with the social, political, and economic systems that uphold white supremacy, many of which are still in place today, so it would have been easy to shy away from presenting the truth in such a raw manner. But the museum shares first-hand accounts and oral recounts of survivors, so it was important to them that they did these stories justice.

Interpretation

The final part of the customer journey is called “Journey Towards Reconciliation.” This series of galleries give the visitor the chance to digest the information they have learned and reflect on how what they have learned changes the way they view the current social-political climate.

These galleries provide the museum visitor with thinking points and encourages them to engage in discussions with other museum visitors.

The museum has a room for decompression and dialogue where visitors can ideate with others about their perspective following the museum visit and what action it compels them to take. The goal of the Greenwood Rising Museum is to apply their understanding of the history to the current context and think about the change they would like to see. In the room, there are discussion topics to provide museum visitors with talking points to reflect on the immersive experience.

At the end of the experience, the museum asks visitors how they are going to change their attitudes and actions moving forward. The final room invites museum visitors to leave a commitment. They have been receiving some interesting commitments and positive feedback about this part of the experience.

Insights

The Greenwood Rising Museum has received positive feedback both locally and globally from the innovative way they tackle recounting a historical event that could be seen as a sensitive topic. Using technology to create human characters to engage museum visitors allows the museum visitors to empathise with individual experiences because they have a person to relate to. It is an innovative approach to communicating the devastation of historical events.

Phil Armstrong and L’Rai Arthur-Mensah spoke at the MuseumNext Digital Summit in June 2022. Find out how you can watch all the presentations from this event on-demand here.

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