App available on iOS & Android app stores
This app contains all the essentials needed for visitors – maps, an event calendar, info pages on the museum shop and “Sweet Home Cafe,” language options for English, Spanish, and French, and even a “larger text” option for users that might struggle to navigate small screens. The app also contains a “sensitive content” page, which warns that several exhibitions have been marked with red borders to indicate that they may not be suitable for sensitive visitors or children, such as an exhibition “that shows how violence was used as a tool of oppression.” On the one hand, this design choice helps to shield young children and people with violence-related trauma from seeing profoundly disturbing images; on the other, it may allow some visitors to bypass large and important sections of the African-American experience out of guilt or squeamishness. This dilemma highlights an important debate in the design of public history spaces: should they be designed around a linear narrative structure, or should they be free-form and let the visitor decide where to go and what to think? It’s not an easy choice to make; one choice might force a sexual assault survivor to walk through an exhibit which touches on the horrifying master-slave sexual violence of the Antebellum South, while the other choice might allow white audiences to avoid an uncomfortable but important examination of the relationship between police brutality and white supremacy in the United States.
The app allows you to explore exhibitions item-by item; users have the option to read about each item’s history or have a narrator read it to them. Each item also has a “reaction” button which allows users to select from options like “Proud,” “Stimulated,” “Inspired,” and “I want to know more!” However, the designers wisely decided to let the only non-positive response be “other.” As anyone who has seen a YouTube comment section can testify, a public comment section for an African-American history museum would quickly become a lightning rod for racist comments. Some items also have additional user engagement options – for instance, the section for a 1972 Shirley Chisholm political poster has an option to let users design and share their own posters. The “#APeoplesJourney Video Stories” section includes several animated, narrated films highlighting broad themes like intersectionality in civil rights struggles and the geography of African-American Music.
If I have one complaint, it’s the resolution of images – the museum’s website touts that the app allows you to “zoom in on images of featured objects to discover amazing details,” but I encountered several images, including a graffiti-covered wall from Resurrection City, where important text was rendered illegible by low image quality. I suspect that this was done so as not to eat up cellular data, but considering that the zoom function was a major selling point for the app, it still seems like the app designers could have added some kind of image quality scaling feature (especially since that the app itself exceeds the common 150mb cap on mobile downloads). Otherwise, the app is perfectly functional and well-designed, though not especially creative.