Project Statement: Decatur House Slave Quarters

by lisafthenakis

As we are coming to the end of the semester, I am wrapping up my work on my final project, an app interpreting the Slave Quarters of Decatur House. While I wish I could share the wireframes and script, I do have a few thoughts that I rounded up in a final project statement.

Decatur House Slave Quarters App

Goals of The Project

Our main goal for this app is to provide interpretation of the Decatur House Slave Quarters space. Though it is not currently open to visitors, our online exhibit fills this need by providing an exploration and interpretation of this space for visitors not on site. Our app compliments this online experience by taking evidence and interpretation of people who lived and worked in this space and making it accessible for visitors who are physically in the Slave Quarters. This project directly addresses the biggest challenge of interpretation in the Slave Quarters: the space cannot be furnished and needs to remain a multi-use room for White House Historical Association school programs. These limitations mean that visual interest in the space is initially limited as visitors encounter a sparse architectural space, with exposed brick fireplaces and timber framing as main points of interest. An app allows us to make the most of these architectural details, showing visitors evidence they provide and bring other visuals into the space to illustrate themes we discuss.

It was important to us to focus on the people who lived here and the hard work they did each and every day. This focus allows us to complicate the typical house museum narrative, and provide a richer understanding of the past. (See Richard Moe, “Are There Too Many House Museums?” Forum Journal 16:1 2002. ) By interpreting information that the historical record does provide about enslaved and free servants that lived here over the course of the nineteenth century along with evidence of the type of work they would have been asked to do and tools we know they had at their disposal, a picture begins to emerge of the people who made Decatur House run. Because there is little visual interest in the room itself, we focused primarily on providing access to artifacts and primary sources, with our interpretation taking a supporting role to direct interaction with the artifacts. This provides visual interest and asks visitors to engage directly with artifacts presented to them through the app. I hope that this approach will help visitors think and ask questions about the kind of lives these people led and make the servants of Decatur House come alive in the imagination of our visitors.

Another benefit that was significant in our decision to focus on an app, was the flexibility and accessibility it offers to visitors. An app allows the White House Historical Association to offer tours and interpretation of the Slave Quarters without needing to hire or train tour guides. An app also allows visitors to focus on what interests them most, moving at their own speed through rooms. This, as Paul Reber of Stratford Hall stated in our class discussion, is what the modern visitor is most interested in. Our app allows people to move at their own speed through the rooms of the Slave Quarters, stop and start as necessary, and visit rooms in whatever order interests them. These options allow visitors to customize the tour to their needs with no additional strain on the White House Historical Association.

Rooms Navigation Page

Connections to other Projects

Nancy Proctor‘s discussion of mobile media and reading about the various Smithsonian apps also shaped my understanding of our project. The Smart Phone Services for Smithsonian Visitors report highlighted the need for navigation and way-signing for out of town visitors. While the White House Historical Association’s small footprint dramatically reduces the need for this type of information, we did choose to prominently include floor plans of the Slave Quarters and provide an anchoring photo for each room to provide navigational tools for visitors. We also chose to include a Maps section of the app that grounds Decatur House in the surrounding neighborhood to provide additional context for visitors. This seamlessly provides navigational aids and situates visitors in each space, both within the house and the house within the neighborhood.

I was also inspired by the National Park Service National Mall app which allows visitors to access information about monuments from many points. Users can access site pages through a map of the mall, a listing of the sites or pre-planned tours based on length of time and distance. Each site offers information about the space and access to primary sources. This inspired us to provide information and interpretation accessible is as many ways as possible. By offering floor plans and room listings before sorting information by time period, we made it as easy as possible for visitors to quickly access the specific information they are interested in.

Main House Page

Personal Reflections

Personally, this project reinforced how critical good project management is for any new media project. While new media has its own unique challenges, it still benefits from the organization and structure of good project management. As Dan Brown makes very clear in Communicating Design, good project management is a matter of communication and making sure everyone is on the same page. Each project requires its own style of communication based on the people involved. This project has progressed smoothly, and I think that has been in large part due to the fact that project goals were clear, tasks were divided in manageable chunks, and my partner and I were accountable to each other.

This project is an example of how historians can transform the way they present history through the use of new media tools. Given the restrictions on the use of this space, traditional methods of interpretation have very limited ability to present this history. Building an app allows the White House Historical Association to interpret a central, yet often overlooked, part of Decatur House’s history that they would not be able to do without new media. Not only does this use of new media allow for new ways to engage visitors, it circumvents logistical limitations to allow for a fuller, more inclusive interpretation of Decatur House.