The Greenwood Rising History Center building is complete. Now comes the hard part — filling it with stories.
Workers from 1220 and Local Projects will spend the next month doing just that in the leadup to the centennial commemoration of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
1220 produces and installs museum exhibits. Local Projects designs them. Or, as the company’s website puts it, “We help visitors have a social experience with art.”
“For the most part, we see ourselves as not designers of case work or graphics, but ultimately as designers of behavior,” said Jake Barton, principal and founder of Local Projects. ”We really try and architect the visitor experiences to make a larger, oftentimes argument, if not participatory experience.”
In practice, this has meant different things at different museums. And Local Projects has no lack of examples to reference. It is perhaps best known for its experience design work at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
But the company’s reach is far and wide, from its reimagining of Gallery One at Cleveland Museum of Art to the world’s first voice-activated museum of language, Planet Word, in Washington, D.C., to its immersive telling of the environmental history of Australia at the National Museum of Australia.
The common theme running through each design is visitor engagement. Don’t step into Greenwood Rising — or any Local Projects exhibit around the world — and expect to passively pass the time.
“At the 9/11 Museum, for example, we really focused on the ways in which everybody had a 9/11 story and how they would share that story at the museum and also listen to other people tell their story.” Barton said. “So we saw the museum as a real platform to gather people from around the world, which ultimately made the whole experience far more authentic and raw.
“At the Planet Word Museum, which is a totally different topic, it’s a museum of words and language, we used voice recognition so that visitors can speak and be listened to by the museum itself. The entire museum is like a giant dialogue.”
In telling the story of Greenwood, past, present and future, Local Projects relied heavily on local experts and historians. Ultimately, though, it’s community members themselves who tell the story.
“That happens on a lot of different levels, whether it is through projecting the history onto the façade of a recreation Greenwood store from 1921, or making an introductory experience which is filled with contemporary Greenwood natives, or entering into a lovingly recreated 1921 barbershop to hear three barbers from a century ago debate the politics and economics of Black and white relations as well as on Greenwood as a successful, thriving African American community,” Barton said.
Nowhere in the museum will community voices be heard more loudly than in the retelling of the events of May 31 and June 1, 1921, that left at least 37 people dead, thousands homeless and 35 blocks of Greenwood destroyed.
“We’ve actually used all of the original recordings from survivors themselves,” Barton said. “So very similar, frankly, to the work we did at 9/11, both in terms of the emotion and in terms of the horror of that as a lived experience, relying directly on the first-person memory accounts of the survivors themselves, creates this incredibly powerful sense of the lived presence of the massacre.”
Greenwood Rising is not Local Projects’ first effort to help tell the story of the Black experience in America. The firm helped develop components of the exhibits that were created and designed by Equal Justice Initiative at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and contributed to TIME Studios’ work on the virtual reality exhibit “The March,” which recreates Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Barton said those projects helped inform Local Projects’ work in Tulsa.
“For both cases, they make very strong arguments about the legacy of white supremacy in this country and how it is made manifest on all of America today,” Barton said. “So in the context of again, the Tulsa Race Massacre Museum, I think Greenwood Rising was always seen, even before we got onto the project back to its inception ... it was always meant to be much larger than just the Tulsa Race Massacre.
“It was meant to tell the history of Greenwood before and up to the Massacre and thereafter and that it was always meant to create a much larger sense of context into today and into tomorrow.”
Barton added: “That is the key to the approach — it is not just about the massacre, it’s about the circumstances that led to the massacre, it’s about the resilience of that community after the massacre, it’s about the entire 20th century of Greenwood and the people who live there today and, frankly, it’s about sort of the long-term effect of a lot of these systems of anti-Blackness as they have continued to today.”
Barton, who grew up in New York City, said Local Projects was honored to be asked to consider working on Greenwood Rising, and that he and his staff, as they do with all their projects, have approached it with with a sense of humility and a keen understanding of what their role is, and what it is not.
“And so we are just a conduit to make that sharing, to make that story as powerful as possible,” Barton said. “And we don’t pretend to know that experience inside and out, or to be an insider. Instead we are just a conduit to use the oral histories, to use the memories, to use the stories, to use the artifacts, to have that story tell itself.”
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission is overseeing the $18.2 million project. It is being funded with local and state dollars and private donations.
The History Center is scheduled to be dedicated June 2 as part of the Race Massacre centennial commemoration, with a staggered opening to follow.
Race Massacre survivors, their descendants and the north Tulsa community will receive first access to the History Center.