On December 5,2017, life-size silhouettes and two large images of the same place—150 years apart—greeted visitors to Tenth Street between Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House. Our team comprised several Ford’s staff members and Kate Haley Goldman, facilitator and evaluator. This is all part of our prototyping project Design Research at Ford’s Theatre (D.R.A.F.T.).
Getting to the Ideas
The primary focus of this grant, and by extension, these sprints, is to craft new, more effective ways for students and others to connect to the content and themes of Ford’s. As the project has evolved, we have the opportunity not only to add layered supplemental content for students during their visits, but rethink the visitor experience and the interpretative themes. This opportunity opens up a universe of possibilities—and makes our testing more complex.
When we first proposed this project, we envisioned testing different methods to keep students interested in our site’s history. Instead, we are at a place where we can revisit both the overall interpretive themes of Ford’s Theatre and how we convey those ideas to the public.
If you’re not familiar with our physical location, we operate a multi-building campus on 10th Street NW, where different portions of the story are told in different areas, sometimes buildings, and we can’t count on visitors seeing all of the different areas of the site.
During our first session for this sprint on Friday, December 1, we mapped out the visitor journey in a purely practical sense: where do visitors go?
Based on this exercise, we realized that whether visitors are seeing all the areas of the site, or just one, they are on the street at multiple points during their visit. That streetscape, a vital place in the story of Lincoln’s assassination, doesn’t feature any interpretation. So, we decided to focus on infusing the streetscape with the reactions and emotions of eyewitnesses and bystanders.
We focused on crafting ideas around this central question:
How might we make visitors feel what it was like to be on the street after the Lincoln assassination?
Our team brainstormed a number of ideas to convey what that rainy, muddy April 1865 night would have been like. The noise, community shock, confusion, chaos, rumors and fear were rampant that night as word spread that the president had been shot.
We narrowed down a number of possible ideas to two solutions for our first prototyping round:
Character silhouettes of eyewitnesses were placed on the street accompanied by first-person quotations about what it felt like for them be present that night on 10th Street. To make the silhouettes, we covered life-size cardboard figures in black butcher paper, then printed quotations from the night of April 14, 1865, onto speech bubbles.
On easels, a large copy of Carl Bersch’s 1865 eyewitness painting of Lincoln being carried from Ford’s Theatre displayed alongside a photo of the crowds on 10th Street in 2015, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death.
In addition to listing short explanatory text with each item on the street, we added a few questions to these posters:
- What person or situation is important enough to you that you would stand outside all night?
- Why do you think so many people came to Ford’s to mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death?
- What does Lincoln’s legacy mean to you?
After the brainstorming session on Friday, we spent the rest of that day and day prior preparing the silhouettes and posters. Per previous findings with prototyping, the silhouettes were not meant to look too realistic—although Ford’s Design Director, Gary Erskine, and Education Intern Ashley Johnson, do such excellent work that one could easily believe the posters were a finished exhibit element.
The Testing Day: What We Did
By Tuesday morning–the testing day–the three silhouette figures and two posters were ready. Eight D.R.A.F.T. team members placed them on the street and, after some jury-rigging, had everything in place. We then spent the day talking with visitors. In the interest of experimentation, we learned some important lessons about what worked and didn’t from a logistical standpoint:
At the beginning of the day, each of us took on a defined role—indeed, many of us were asking for those. One person was the Approacher, one the Questioner, one the Notetaker, one the observer. As the day went on, though, we all realized that at various times, each one of us needed to be ready to do all those roles. Next time, we’ll discuss the questions in advance and all be prepared.
Having too many of us on the street at one time—typically four D.R.A.F.T. people per side—might not have been the best idea. We noticed some visitors seemed a bit intimidated by a bunch of staff members standing around and asking questions.
To visitors, it wasn’t obvious that we were Ford’s staff at all. We were wearing lanyards with the lovely logo for D.R.A.F.T.,but since it was a December day, so we were in coats so perhaps looked like visitors ourselves. Plus, we realized that many organizations collecting donations in downtown D.C. wear similar lanyards, so perhaps visitors didn’t identify us immediately as Ford’s staff. Next time, we may try some more obvious markers.
We also found that we had too many questions—seven in total. Visitors, understandably,grew tired of the conversation quickly.
Our questions may have been too leading. At times, sticking to the script stifled conversation. At other times, the conversation flowed freely,and question prompts weren’t needed.
Overall, as a group we could use more training in working with the visitors on evaluating prototypes.
The Testing Day: Silhouettes
Silhouettes were more successful with adults than student visitors. Silhouettes also succeeded in increasing engagement from office workers and other individuals passing by, who said things like, “I didn’t ever realize the assassination was part of a conspiracy!”
Generally, the silhouettes, as designed them in the previous day and a half of work (!), raised issues that could be solved in future iterations.
The decontextualized silhouettes confused visitors. Some said they thought there was a protest happening. For a future iteration, we could fix this with full images of actual individuals or, at least, some stylized version (like those that appear in Bersch’s painting), to clarify they were real people.
Another thing that needs refinement is our use of quotations without a broader context. One visitor commented that she was confused by not seeing names of the people quoted while in she had been in museum or theatre. Admittedly, we just gave the silhouettes the historic individuals’ names without explanation of their role or viewpoint.
When we explained the context of the quotations and the people named as our silhouettes, visitors did report that the printed info did help them understand the sense of chaos on Tenth Street after Lincoln’s assassination. Those who stopped to read the longest of the three quotations—from Elizabeth Keckly, an African-American dressmaker and confidante of Mary Lincoln—found it powerful. That said, because of its length, we noticed not many stopped to read the Keckly account.
The verdict about whether we’d use silhouettes on-site in the future was a resounding, “Perhaps.” This idea clearly needs more work, and a lot more testing, before we invest in making a permanent version.
Testing the Images
Having large images on the street engaged bystanders and visitors, perhaps more than we expected. Partially this was due to the awesome facilitation by Associate Director for Museum Education Jake Flack. Jake easily elicited visitors’ opinions of Abraham Lincoln and his role in our country, as well as their own sense of what it must have felt like to live through the assassination. People discussed with us their own memories of confusion,chaos and of rumors flying, from their personal recollections of 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination.
In our debrief two days later, our D.R.A.F.T. team discussed whether the images would work in a stand-alone fashion without staff interpretation and how to adapt them so they could stand alone. Gary noted that the painting is difficult to see without additional interpretation and that future versions we should have enlargements of detailed sections, so that visitors can easily understand what the painting is expressing.
One of the student groups we talked with emphasized that they better understand and are more interested when history is presented as a story, with main characters and action proceeding from one event to the next. They gave graphic novels as an example.
The D.R.A.F.T. team discussed how we could iterate on the single image to tell the assassination and/or streetscape story in a more straightforward fashion, rather than make students assemble the story themselves. We noted that students visiting Ford’s are often visiting as part of seeing four to six other sites that day, and the content needs to be clear and cohesive if students are going to connect with it among everything else they are seeing.
Standing out in the street most of the day taught us more about how visitors generally interact with the site, which will help with future placements of interpretive interventions.
Visitors on the theatre side of the street seemed to be hurrying toward the Petersen House, since that was the next step of the visit, and weren’t ready to talk with staff.
When they were waiting to go into the Petersen House, by contrast, they were ready to talk with us and engage with the additional interpretive content. This follows the work of others in reinforcing that visitors first needed to know where to go, and only after that most basic wayfinding need was solved were they ready to engage with content.
This first sprint prompted several staff realizations:
- our cross-department team can collaborate effectively
- we can definitely have an impact on the streetscape in the future using content
- we take a lot for granted as “insiders” with this history
- visitors are divided about speaking with staff about our on-site content—some really want to, others not so much;when visitors do engage, they are really open and enthusiastic
- talking about Lincoln can become political very quickly
- people really do have opinions about, and are reflective about, Lincoln’s impact on our nation
We’re doing our sprints in rounds of two, so we can build up our muscle memory in prototyping and capitalize on our momentum. The second round of this first sprint will start later this week, when we’ll begin brainstorming again. We already have a suite of ideas to discuss. Stay tuned for our blog posts on progress in the next couple of weeks!
This project is made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, grant number MA-10-16-0180-16.
David McKenzie is Associate Director for Interpretive Resources at Ford’s Theatre. He also is currently a History Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history. Before coming to Ford’s in 2013, he worked at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, The Design Minds, Inc. and at the Alamo. Chat with him on Twitter @dpmckenzie.
Kate Haley Goldman is an Evaluator and Strategist, currently working with Ford’s Theatre Society, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, AAAS, and others. She works on projects with difficult cultural history, citizen science, digital storytelling, data-based decision-making, institutional capacity building, and long-term visitor outcomes. Chat with her on Twitter @KateHG4.