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‘Searchable Museum’ launched by National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Searchable Museum is a new digital initiative by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) that offers online exhibitions, virtual symposia and digital programmes.

As the museum, located on the National Mall in Washington DC, celebrates its fifth anniversary the launch of the Searchable Museum allows it to continue its engagement with audiences worldwide with the ultimate aim of bringing all of its exhibitions online.

The first digital exhibition to be shared on the Searchable Museum site is Slavery and Freedom with users able to virtually experience recreations of striking moments and objects from the physical exhibition in the David M Rubenstein History Galleries.

Compelling online experience

The physical exhibition has been entirely reimagined for the digital space, transforming it into a compelling online experience combining existing and newly created digital collection assets, digitised exhibition content, multimedia components, such as 3D models, videos and audio podcasts, and cutting edge technologies to deliver an innovative, virtual exhibition.

It uses emerging technologies and scholarly expertise to ‘break beyond the museum walls’ and draw from what the museum says ‘is the transformative narrative structure and tone of its gallery experience while offering virtual visitors the flexibility to explore the exhibition content at their own pace’.

“By marshalling the latest technology and harnessing the scholarly and educational experience of the museum’s teams, the Searchable Museum tells the complex story of our nation’s history in ways only the National Museum of African American History and Culture can,” said Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the museum.

“This ongoing project provides a chance for Americans to realize our shared past, bringing the unique museum experience to their homes and on their phones. Allowing the public to virtually revisit the originating struggle for American freedom in the ‘Slavery and Freedom’ exhibition reminds us of the centrality of the African American journey to the American experience – a story of triumph, resilience and joy over the centuries. With this launch, we look forward to continuing the museum’s digital outreach and efforts.”

Largest digital undertaking

More than a year in the making, the Searchable Museum initiative is one of the museum’s largest digital undertakings and has been made possible through the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The virtual exhibition, similar to the in-person exhibition, explores the story of slavery and freedom – the core of America’s founding ­– beginning in the 14th century and concluding with the Civil War and Reconstruction.

It is broken up into four parts, each with its own chapters and additional sections giving a comprehensive deep-dive into the subject matter, through first-person accounts and artefacts.

The online version is responsive to user interests and offers opportunities for inquiry into specific topics via links to related online content and educational resources. It has also been possible to share new artefacts from the museum’s collections online for the first time.

The exhibition examines the economic and political legacies of the making of modern slavery and the concept of freedom, both of which were foundational in the development of the United States and the museum says, most importantly, that the exhibition considers the resistance, resilience and survival of enslaved African Americans as they fought to hold on to their humanity through inhumane conditions and free and enslaved African Americans’ contributions to the making of America.

In spring 2022, the museum plans to launch the exhibition Making a Way Out of No Way on the new platform.

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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