We the People: Family History Search

Part of Exhibition: Public Vaults



of an Exhibit

by Grace Weltner

Published on March 01, 2011

  • Description:

    The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) does not shy away from frequent use of technology, its visitors are treated to technological interactives in almost every gallery. The Public Vault is a permanent exhibition that introduces the visitor to the massive and diverse collection at NARA, which includes immigration records, patent applications, presidential papers, correspondence, military documents, and video footage among many other things.

    At the start of the exhibition, the We the People gallery explains how citizens can find personal connections at NARA. It includes interactives related to public use of the archives, such as frequently asked questions, immigration information, and family history searches. The gallery space is divided into subsections that focus on immigration papers, the African American Freedman Bureau, Native American treaties, and family history searches.

    The gallery uses technology in the form of multiple kiosks, however here I will focus on only one of these—the family history search kiosks (fig. 1). The gallery includes two kiosks intended to illuminate the process of a family history investigation. These kiosks did not seem to be getting much traffic, at the time of my visit museum visitors seemed to prefer the immigration document kiosks at the entrance of the gallery.

    The family history search kiosks are in a somewhat dark corner of the gallery space and are not immediately noticeable. At the time of my visit, one of the touchscreen kiosks was also down and had no sign stating it was out of order (fig. 2). For these reasons I almost walked by the interactives, however I am glad that I did not. The kiosks are accompanied by two telephone receivers, which usually turns me off as well. It triggers the pay phone effect—I do not love the idea of putting a frequently touched receiver to my ear—though I understand how they function to keep gallery noise to a minimum. However I did appreciate that there were two phone receivers; this helps groups experience the interactive together. There is also a large overhead screen that displays one of the kiosk screens to the rest of the gallery, enabling large groups or other visitors to observe from a distance (fig. 3).

    In order to initially attract the visitors attention black and white photographs from the nineteenth century flash across the touchscreens, as well as the overhead screen. Once the user engages the touchcreen kiosk, the interactive presents the user with a family history situation via a narrative accompanied by charming old photographs and close captioning for the hearing impaired. There are two possible problem scenarios, one must confirm a grandfather’s US citizenship or prove a grandfather’s honorable discharge from the military. Both stories are presented as narratives, as if the real family member is speaking to you. There is also a personal aspect to the interactive as it includes the user in the search by using language such as “your grandfather” (fig. 4). The investigation aspect is attractive, it made the family narrative more entertaining and mysterious, as well as gave the user a tangible goal to go forth and solve.

    The investigation continues as the user is then asked to utilize NARA documents to solve the problem. The user is presented with three possible documents to chose from and examine (fig. 5). The narrative continues and explains why the chosen document would or would not help in the search while zooming in and highlighting relevant details (fig. 6). Some of the documents are helpful and some are not which adds to the investigative aspect, I found myself mentally assessing the merits of the types of documents before I made my choice, hoping to choose the most useful one.

    The Family History Search kiosk was definitely most appropriate for adults due to the narratives, the types of problems presented, and the close reading of the documents. The narratives in particular were rather lengthy, perhaps a bit too long considering how quickly people tend to skim exhibits. However I found it worthwhile to hear a way that the archives might actually be used to solve a realistic problem. The stories and documents were personally relatable as well, dealing with the common historical occurrences of immigration and military duty. I found myself thinking about my own family history of immigration. The investigation and story aspect of the interactive was consequently highly effective for me. I only wish the interactive had offered a way to extend the experience, perhaps providing a link to the genealogy research section of the NARA website or providing tips for performing your own family search.

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