May 31 and June 1 marked the centennial of one of America’s darkest (and most forgotten) moments: the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, when mobs of white people destroyed the city’s prosperous Greenwood District (aka Black Wall Street), reportedly going so far as to use planes to drop bombs on civilians. Tulsa marked the occasion this summer by welcoming the $20 million Greenwood Rising: Black Wall Street History Center, which honors the lives lost and looks toward an anti-racist future.
The museum invites visitors to explore history through immersive experiences. One particularly affecting display is an interactive space in which holographic barbers tell stories about Greenwood as they seem to cut your hair. It’s an impressive trick that seems high-tech, but it’s actually just a sophisticated twist on Pepper’s Ghost, a theatrical illusion using mirrors and projections that was perfected in the 1860s. In the centerpiece exhibit, meanwhile, projections of the destruction are paired with audio recordings of real survivors.
These kinds of works have become a trademark of Local Projects, the experience design studio that the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission tapped to bring Greenwood Rising to life. Founded by Jake Barton in 2002, the firm has also completed such projects as Philadelphia’s Faith and Liberty Discovery Center and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York. Barton came to exhibit design in a roundabout way, after a post-college foray into Broadway set design. But, as he sees it, museums “deserve just as much sizzle and excitement, as much respect and depth, as any other form of storytelling.”
Storytelling—and the impulse to let people tell their own stories—has always been central to Local Projects. Shortly after establishing the firm, Barton worked with StoryCorps, a national oral history archive, to create special recording booths, the first of which debuted in Grand Central Terminal. Inspired by the WPA oral histories of the 1930s, these booths hosted two participants, who entered and talked for 40 minutes, and the ensuing conversations were archived at the Library of Congress.
Local Projects would go on to combine technology with storytelling to even greater effect. For example, at The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which opened in 2018, the firm assisted the Equal Justice Initiative in designing exhibits, including “holograms” of enslaved people that tell harrowing true tales from inside darkened cells.
“All technologies exist within a continuum and change and evolve over time,” says Barton, who along with the rest of the firm won the 2013 National Design Award for Interaction Design. “What was once cutting-edge and controversial can quickly become status quo.” He offers as an example the dioramas at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, which now seem almost quaint “but were so cutting-edge at the time of their debut that teachers held protests outside the museum to decry the fancy Hollywood trickery that was going on and ruining that museum.”
Local Projects’ designs seem a far cry from dioramas. Take the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, where an augmented-reality app brings artworks to life, or the voice-activated PlanetWord, which opened in Washington, D.C., last year, where guests speak to the installations to learn about the beauty and power of language.
The biggest change Barton has witnessed over the course of his career? “How museums have learned to put the visitor at the center of the experience.” While old-school curators scoffed at such interactivity two decades ago, Barton says that having “whole sections authored by the visitors themselves” allows guests to process the information through their own experiences.
At Greenwood Rising, that idea comes to life most vividly at the end of the museum experience, where conversation prompts are projected on the walls of an amphitheater-like seating area to spark dialogue between guests. Visitors then enter a “commitment space,” where they’re invited to visit kiosks and type in actionable ways they plan to work toward racial reconciliation. The answers then populate a wall of messages meant to inspire concrete change.
“We need space to convene a public, to create a public, to imagine the future of that public as a collective,” Barton says. “Museums at their best can offer us a forum for awareness between people with very different points of view and [a place] to try to find some degree of dialogue—if not common ground—to be able to make progress together.”