The Free and Equal project created a museum-without-walls experience for the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park that connects its various sites and with audiences.
In his last week in office in 2017, President Barack Obama created the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort, South Carolina. In his presidential proclamation, he noted, “The significant historical events that transpired in Beaufort County make it an ideal place to tell stories of experimentation, potential transformation, hope, accomplishment, and disappointment.” The site experienced Black freedom before any other Confederate county and was one of the last places to have that freedom revoked by Jim Crow laws.
While Reconstruction is often portrayed as a brief, ineffectual period, in Beaufort the rights the era conferred on African Americans were sustained for decades. Thus, Beaufort’s post-Civil War history conjures deep questions about what Black freedom could have been and what it should be today. The park contains sites stretched across three Lowcountry islands: an area of stunning waterways, dripping moss, a stately main street, and remnants of the wealthiest plantation system in the South.
Four years ago, a local group of history buffs and National Park Service (NPS) representatives brought me into this story. They were interested in creating a local Reconstruction museum project titled Free and Equal, a museum-without-walls experience for the park that would connect its various sites and engage a range of cultural tourists and younger audiences. I’m primarily a writer and interactive media producer, most interested in how mobile technology can take audiences deep into landscapes, discovering history, power structures, and memorable characters.
We decided to create a mobile-guided drive through the park featuring audio, augmented reality, and several stops where audiences could go on short walks to discover artifacts from the story. The drive also forms an interpretive “connective tissue” between the three NPS stations in the park: a refurbished Negro chapel, a main interpretive center in Beaufort, and a lecture hall in a Civil War–era African American school, each of which is separated by a 15-minute drive.
Walking Cinema’s Approach
While Walking Cinema’s work is a descendent of the museum audio guide, the core experience is more akin to documentary film and public radio. Our productions find a story hook and then, scene by scene, take audiences into a very specific world through the viewpoint of a central character. Most site-based museum productions start by identifying points of interest, but we start by identifying people of interest, not just from the time period, but from the present day.
A white, San Francisco–based producer telling the story of a Black community in South Carolina could be considered a stretch, but my team and I saw this as a productive bridge. The stretching we’d have to do to tell a story that felt authentic would be similar to the stretching visitors would be experiencing learning about this overlooked chapter in American history and the unique Gullah culture of the Sea Islands. And the key was to involve the local community in the storytelling and curation process. In landscape-based storytelling, local people become the hosts, the extras, and the x-factor for a successful audience experience.
We began the project with research, both reading books and meeting many locals, and we found an incredibly active genealogy community in the area. Many African Americans are able to trace their history there because, for many decades, nearby Charleston was the largest port of entry for enslaved people. This active world of genealogical research held the promise of a storyline that many visitors could relate to while not eschewing the underlying brutality of the time period.
After dozens of emails to various genealogists trying to find the right family to focus on, Toni Carrier, the director of the Center for Family History for the International African American Museum (projected to open in spring 2022), told us, “You’ve got to talk with Darius Brown.” Darius is a 22-year-old African American living in Beaufort in a small, Black community called Grays Hill.
Using DNA testing, ancestry.com, phone calls, archives, and many instant messages with Toni, Darius has found 3,000 of his relatives, 23 of whom served in the Civil War. In talking with him, we learned a fascinating mix of current events, family love, and connection to particular places that was, well, mystical. His story felt like something a broad range of audiences would enjoy, especially younger audiences who might not seek out a Reconstruction museum.
Working closely with a panel of experts, including Reconstruction historian Eric Foner, Walking Cinema’s team was able to dig deeper into the experience of Darius’ family members: where they resided, what hung in the balance for them, and how this concept of freedom was evolving in their minds during the Reconstruction era. We decided to focus our story on Darius’ great-great-great-grandfather, Isaiah Brown, who was a sergeant in the 33rd United States Colored Troops and one of the first freed people to enlist in the Union Army. Through Freedman’s Bank cards, marching songs, diaries, early photography, deeds, and pension files, we were able to see the first moments of Reconstruction and Black civil rights from the vantage point of a freed person.
Making It Local
We had a compelling, well-researched story, but to integrate it with the landscape and keep audiences engaged, we formed wider collaborations. First, we involved a number of local businesses in the production. So, in addition to seeing Union Army parade grounds, monuments, and historic churches, audiences go into an antique store, an old arsenal, and a marina to see artifacts and learn key story points.
Often museums and historical sites are designed to be self-contained and set apart from the outside world. Yet in our audience testing we found that cultural tourists and students prefer hybrid experiences where they can shop, eat, and walk around while also being in the middle of a National Park experience. This helps seal the concept that history is all around us, not necessarily marked; you just need to know where to look.
We also engaged local talent. The poet laureate from Charleston, Marcus Amaker, helped write and voice the story and Gullah music, and Grammy-winning band Ranky Tanky performed traditional songs for the project. We found a musicologist who gathered students and locals to create stunning renditions of hymns from the time period, giving us one of the few phrases we know Isaiah Brown actually said: “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave/But his soul goes marching on.”
We also worked very closely with NPS to create a mobile app that would tie into its evolving calendar of events and extend its current interpretive plan, which prior to this project was a website, park ranger–led tours, and interpretive signage.
What Drives the Historical Narrative?
In the end, we developed a hybrid digital-analog experience that is significantly different from a typical audio guide. There are no numbers to press, only a route to drive. The text is sparse. The storytelling occurs through audio and direct experience. The model is not one of sites to see, names and dates to know, battles to be analyzed. It is more like a film to watch, but what you are watching is the world around you. When we use augmented reality in the app, it is in concert with the landscape, often highlighting components of the built environment you may not have noticed. (See “Tech in Concert with Surroundings” sidebar above.) The more you scrutinize, the deeper the storytelling.
A potential pitfall in interpreting cultural sites is being too broad and expansive—offering information from all aspects of the time period, becoming more encyclopedic than engaging. In our model, the storyline of the mobile component zooms in on one historical character and his current-day descendent. But as these characters move through time and space, they prompt larger questions and introduce us to other characters.
Audiences can then dig deeper into these larger questions and characters using the project’s website and the app’s resources section. Thus, we hope the mobile experience inspires audiences to continue learning about the story both on their own and, eventually, in a brick-and-mortar museum the project’s founders are planning.
As one college student told us, “I’d do tours like this in a heartbeat….You’re not sitting and reading a book; you’re going out and doing something. Our generation…needs to have constant sensory input.”
Tech in Concert with Surroundings
At Walking Cinema we consider place to be a central character in the stories we tell. So when we use technologies like augmented reality (AR), we want them to drive the story forward and make audiences engage with their surroundings. Here are a few concepts we keep in mind when developing AR moments in our productions.
360-ish Degree Overlays: AR can be great for showing audiences what their surroundings looked like in a key historical moment. But rather than completely immersing them in a 360-degree sphere depicting the time period, we like to gracefully fade out certain sections so the real world bleeds into their view. This helps audiences anchor the scene in their surroundings and naturally scrutinize the slight differences between then and now.
Narrative Surfaces: In typical AR productions, you look for flat surfaces that can “hold” an AR animation: a tabletop, a floor, etc. In our productions, we don’t just want flat surfaces; we want surfaces that are part of the story. For instance, in one scene, we describe President Lincoln navigating a tricky road between freeing the slaves and trying to bring the Confederate states back into the Union. And since audiences are sitting in their parked cars when they hear this content, their own dashboards and windshields animate the tricky road Lincoln was navigating.
Point of View: We use AR with reproductions of historical documents to show audiences how a particular character might view the document. In one scene, we use AR as a sort of magnifying glass on an early plantation photo to highlight our main character’s quest to discover his ancestors and emphasize the power of going beyond the 1870 wall most African Americans encounter when trying to research their families.
The Free and Equal project is free and open to the public. See freeandequalproject.com for more information.
More on Walking Cinema’s work is at walkingcinema.org.
Michael Epstein is the writer/director at Walking Cinema, an award-winning production studio that works with museum and media partners to develop stories that change how we look at the world around us.