Hi-Tech Renovations Bring the Past to Life at Landmark Black History...

Diversity and Equity

Hi-Tech Renovations Bring the Past to Life at Landmark Black History Research Center

By Jenny Abamu     Feb 9, 2017

Hi-Tech Renovations Bring the Past to Life at Landmark Black History Research Center

“Black Power!” The compelling phrase appears unapologetically all around the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. It is also the title of one of two new exhibits displayed on glossy touch-screen machines in the center. After receiving national historic landmark status from the federal government this past January, the center is finally ready to reveal some of its multi-million dollar renovations and hi-tech exhibits—that EdSurge got to preview.

Schomburg, part of the New York public library system, has been in the Harlem neighborhood for over 90 years. The center is sprawling with resources to teach the history and cultures of people of African descent in the U.S. and the greater diaspora. It is known for its rich archive of Afrocentric artifacts, holding over 10 million pieces from famous people like Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass (who, thanks in part to the President, are getting “more and more recognized").

“This has been a very extensive project that has been going on for a couple of years now,” says Candice Frederick, the communications manager for the center. “Our audiences are constantly evolving, and we are changing how we are reaching them.”

According to a press release, the $22 million cost of renovations is covered by a combination of city and state grants supported by local officials and the Ford Foundation. They also received a $10 million federal tax credit for the projects.

The Media Gallery

Walking into the new media gallery, slated to launch next week, feels like walking into something out of a Star Wars film. The dark room has five towering, mobile, rectangular screens hanging from the ceiling. Each screen is programmed to allow users to interact with the collections in different ways. There are currently four different interactive experiences, two coming next week and the other two will be available in April.

One of the experiences is a Google Map tour around the world following the path of notable peoples of African descent. On the tour about Josephine Baker’s life, users immerse themselves in the large screen in a way that feels like flying. As users ‘land’ in a particular part of the world, the vivid landscape almost appears 3-dimensional. Then images and information from the Schomburg collection reveal Baker’s story, specifically citing what she did in that location. From Tokyo to New York City, the French singer’s global imprint is now visual.

Also, users will be able to “pin-in” the locations of where they have come from on the map—to highlight the diversity of peoples entering the space.

Another experience will showcase the online exhibitions currently on the public library website. The current “Black Power 50” online exhibition was created in partnership with the Google Art and Culture Institute. The center is leveraging resources from its digital collections so users can access it from the media library.

“People can come in, put in a keyword search and from there go down a rabbit hole building their own digital exhibits through artifacts, artwork or books,” said Frederick, explaining the work her small team of two staff members and outside consultants have been creating. “The onus is on the person engaging with the kiosk. They now can feel like they are part of their own exploration, learning more about themselves and this country.”

They aim to make these media experiences accessible to a variety of people by making it responsive at the top and bottoms of the screens, so children, adults or even individuals with disabilities are able to engage.

The Digital Signage Project

The digital signage project uses high-definition LED signage systems in the Schomburg lobby to promote information detailing upcoming research, programs and events. These signs will be visible from the street, in hopes that people from the Harlem community will be able to engage with the collections.

Black Power! exhibit, part of the digital signage project

Black Power 50

Upon entering the center, the beginning of the signage project is already visible. The Black Power! exhibit is on display through posters and small electronic tablets mounted in front of the wall.

“The exhibition will connect with various aspects of Black power including education and fashion, and how we are exploring the facets of Black power through the digital space,“ said Frederick.

This media showcase will include excerpts from blaxploitation movies, which is a genre that launched from the Black Power movement. Other parts of the exhibit display the first issue of The Black Panther from 1967, a letter from the Arab Women’s League to support Angela Davis while she was imprisoned, and photos of the Black Panthers in Israel who were part of the Mizrahi community fighting for civil rights.

“Not only black people but most educators and scholars want to learn more about their history and blackness across the diaspora. It is a significant part of American history,” says Frederick.

The center has a rich history and draws a diverse group of students, tours and supporters. The center’s last Black comic book festival had an estimated 6,000 participants. During our visit, Everfi, an edtech company, partnered with the New York Knicks to host a Black History discussion for approximately 20 high school students in the Langston Hughes Lobby. (Fun fact: the lobby, currently undergoing a few renovations, was built on the famous poet’s ashes.)

“Arturo Schomburg [whose collections started the center] wanted to define self-worth,” explains Frederick, “and we have a history worth talking about and preserving. History has informed our present, and it will define our future.”

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