This past summer, the website for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was awarded with both the People’s Voice and overall Webby Award in the Cultural Institutions category. As we still reel from the excitement of the award ceremony in New York, we are honored to see that the website is additionally featured in the Webby for Good project. The following are the responses Forum One gave to the Webby for Good team on what inspired our team throughout the web design process.
Describe your nominated project.
Forum One partnered with the Smithsonian Institution to welcome online visitors to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which opened in late 2016 on the National Mall in Washington, DC. As the newest museum in the Smithsonian family, the NMAAHC wanted its website to stand out with a bold visual presence befitting its physical architecture — one that goes beyond simply providing visitor information to convey a powerful and immersive virtual experience.
What key challenges did you face with this project? And how did you overcome them?
Given that the Museum was still a relatively new organization, managing competing priorities and stakeholders was oftentimes a challenge in developing a first iteration of the new website. Our design project was also time-sensitive, since all digital assets needed to be ready by the Museum’s opening day. We worked closely with multiple stakeholders to define a solid visual direction and in identifying user needs early on. Combined with an agile/scrum approach, we were able to prioritize and create in an iterative fashion to have a beautiful, bold-looking website ready before opening day in 2016.
This website represents one of the premiere new museum openings in the last decade. The challenge was to create an encompassing online experience for both those who will visit the museum and for those who might never have the opportunity to set foot in the physical space. We knew the online experience couldn’t replicate the museum experience, and so made it richer and deeper in the ability to experience ALL of the artifacts in the collection and read compelling text about every item (which just isn’t possible in the physical space).
We were challenged to work within the curators, exhibit designers, and architects’ vision of the museum — and conveying those visions through the online experience. This was especially difficult since we could not experience the physical museum during the website build (which was under construction as the website was being developed). One underlying theme in the museum, for example, is moving from darkness (e.g., starting in the basement in the hull of a slave ship) to light (e.g., moving up to an open floor plan with views of the National Mall). Our designers were challenged to bring those same themes of darkness to light into the website design as well.
What was the most rewarding aspect of working on this project?
Our ability to contribute to the rich African American experience and history was our biggest motivator and reward. From Forum One Art Director Corey Jones:
“I have worked on some amazing project in my career, but this was the most significant because of what it meant for us as a society, and the history it carries. The concept of an African American Museum on the National Mall has been a century in the making. This project was truly rewarding because, as an African American, this museum represents my heritage. Being a footnote as one contributor to its legacy is amazing.”
Why this particular cause as the subject of your project/campaign?
The NMAAHC’s opening is the culmination of more than 100 years of work on behalf of presidents, members of Congress, historians, artists, veterans, civic leaders and ordinary citizens to share the African American experience with all Americans through a permanent, prominent home on the National Mall. To have had the opportunity to play a role in the creation of this historical museum as the designers of its online identity is a true honor; one that pushed us to be creative in so many new and exciting ways to ensure that the digital experience for all visitors across the globe was powerful, impactful and seamless.
When working on this project, what were some of the most important conversations you had with your team?
We had to get ourselves in the mindset of creating a user experience that dealt with a range of emotional themes. When considering the needs of users, we had to wrap our heads about the fact that some people would never be able to physically set foot in the Museum, and the digital space had to be a suitable proxy. This led to careful considerations, from the visual approach to the technical decisions we took, to the proposed content structures, we knew we would be telling different stories to numerous communities. These conversations were among some of the most emotional and challenging we’ve had as a creative team.
We also had to define continuity between the site’s visual design and the physical architecture and exhibition design. These conversations were crucial to presenting a consistent identity for this new institution.
What did you learn from working on this project that you didn’t know going into it? Did anything come out of it that surprised you, or that you weren’t expecting?
We met with the architecture firm who helped to design and build the museum. It was fascinating to compare notes on how we thought about the audiences, the physical and online spaces, and the user experience. Some of the differences between designing and building the museum website versus the museum building include: two dimensional versus three dimensional, 9 months versus 9 years to build, hundreds of thousands of dollars versus hundreds of millions of dollars.
What surprised all of us, of course, is just how popular the website and the museum are. People stay in the average museum for less than 2 hours. For this museum the average ‘linger time’ is about 6 hours.