America I AM: The African American Imprint

Review

of an Exhibition

by Kara Hershorin

Published on March 02, 2011

  • Description:

    Last year I passed up a chance to visit the blockbuster exhibition, Terra Cotta Warriors. Determined not to miss another epic exhibit, I visited the award-winning touring show America I AM: The African American Imprint at the National Geographic Museum.

    America I AM is a multimedia experience that commemorates black achievements through artifacts, photographic images, text, lighting, audio, and video. Covering 500 years of history, the exhibition conveys and celebrates the undeniable imprint African Americans have had on the country and the world. Twelve exhibition galleries lead visitors through time on a journey that begins with struggle and culminates with triumph.

    The visual presentation is spectacular and America I AM excites the senses! You can view impressive artifacts, listen to the songs from the slave fields, and watch musical performances from icons like James Brown and Prince. The eye-popping design is combined with state-of-the-art technology to create a powerful exhibition.

    Each gallery incorporates technology to enhance the viewer’s experience. In the thematic section that describes the slave trade, visitors note the shadow of chains projected onto the gallery floor while sounds of crying captives, lashing of a whip, clanking chains and African chants play in the background. The sound was perfectly incorporated into the exhibit and combined with the dramatic lighting effect made for an incredibly emotive experience.

    America I AM also contains numerous video tributes that attract and entertain visitors. I especially enjoyed the inspiring video presentation celebrating the cultural imprint left by African Americans. One particular segment featured a split screen image of Big Mama Thornton singing “You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog” side-by-side with Elvis Presley singing his iconic rendition of the same number. These videos left an impression on visitors and effectively conveyed the great impact African Americans have had on American culture.

    Occasionally, technology overpowers and actually competes with the exhibition. The “Spirit” and “Patriotic” galleries are located side by side and both feature documentary videos. Unfortunately, the sound bleeds between the two exhibits and visitors are forced to stand extremely close to the projection screen in order to hear clearly. The National Geographic Museum does provide laminated transcripts for each film. Although not ideal, this helps make video content more accessible.

    Information in the exhibition is broadly focused, so text panels periodically invite visitors to dive deeper by going to the Web site (www.americaiam.org) for more information. As technology partner, the Microsoft Corporation relaunched the new America I AM website. The online experience allows users to explore the exhibition through highlighted objects and view a video log of visitor comments about their experience in the exhibition. The website features a gorgeous design, intuitive interface, and user-friendly experience. Like the travelling exhibition, the website is full of sights and sounds. Unfortunately content is limited and the website actually feels empty. I was disappointed to see that users could not access in-depth information about the African American experience, which text panels in the exhibition led me to believe.*

    I had hoped that the exhibition would stimulate discussion about race and challenge visitors to reflect on the current status of African Americans. After reflecting on 500 years of African American history, I was eager to continue the dialogue. Unfortunately, American I AM did not provide an effective mechanism for furthering discussion. As visitors exit, they see a video depiction of Tavis Smiley restating Du Bois’ question: “Would America be America without her Negro people?” This is accompanied by a logbook where visitors can make brief comments about their exhibition experience. Placed near the alluring gift shop, there was little incentive to read or contribute.

    The exhibition should have encouraged visitors to reflect on their personal experiences. Technology would be the perfect medium to accomplish this. Several cities that hosted the travelling exhibit incorporated a recording booth that allowed visitors to leave a video recording of what the African American imprint has meant to them. These video “imprints” were compiled and posted online. Other possible outlets might be social media sites or blogging. The America I AM website should also provide the opportunity for dialogue and feedback with other users. The National Geographic Museum missed a wonderful opportunity to engage its visitors in sharing experiences and building community.

    With Microsoft as the highly advertised technology sponsor, I expected to see emerging technology tools such as touch tables or personal tablets in the exhibition. However, America I AM is a four-year travelling exhibition and must consider sustainability. Testing new technology platforms would be risky and not feasible at all museums on the tour.

    *Please note that as of 9 pm on March 1st the website www.americaiam.org appears to no longer exist. This is a major problem for the exhibition! Hopefully, the issue will be resolved quickly.

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