In America: Remember — How participatory exhibition design sparks civic dialogue for participants
“June Marie Gavin Wood, 10.14.1921–11.4.2020, Died of COVID19, not dementia in Santa Fe, NM USA…”
I didn’t know June Marie, but she was one of the over 700,000 people who died of COVID-19 in the US since quarantine began in the United States in 2020. Her family’s message was delivered via the “In America: Remember ‘’ memorial website, transmitted to a group of volunteers, of which I was a part, who transcribed the message onto a white flag. Like the others, June’s flag was placed in a grid across the National Mall for the website’s companion art installation just under the Washington Monument this past month to represent the lives lost to COVID-19.
The exhibit is the work of artist Suzanne Firstenberg and is the “largest public, participatory art exhibition on the National Mall since presentation of the AIDS Quilt.” This is the second time Firstenberg has created a memorial during the COVID-19 pandemic having completed one in October 2020 with much of the same elements and configurations titled “In America: How could this happen?”.
The UX of volunteering
While I heard about the installation, I hadn’t learned of the opportunity to be a volunteer until about halfway through its runtime. A professor of Anthropology and Interaction Design introduced me to the opportunity, and I signed up shortly thereafter.
What I learned from the professor, the installation website, and its presence on social media was that the organizers needed help transcribing the thousands of messages they received onto flags, replanting them across the installation, and cataloging them for the digital archive of the installation that would be permanently available to the public.
The process of learning, attempting, and implementing the plan was not without its challenges. I created a user journey map to describe the experience and the opportunities for improvement should the artist or another organizer attempt a participatory art installation in the future. A user journey map is essentially a visual representation of a person’s experience to complete a goal.
How can organizers find more potential volunteers?
I was excited to learn about the opportunity to help and the impact I could create. I put myself into the shoes of one of the event organizers and asked, “How could the team repeat this volunteer’s discovery experience with other potential volunteers? How can I find more of these potential volunteers?”
Could this process be automated?
Volunteers were required to sign up online and were told via email that they would be given login credentials for the installation’s ESRI app. Unfortunately, my peers and I never received login credentials prior to arriving at the installation site.
How might app users more easily understand the volunteering expectations?
Volunteers were also instructed to view a training video before arriving at the site. The video instructed app users on the process of planting flags. The video lacked examples showing the instructions in practice. Without being on the site, in context, it was difficult to keep up with the video’s details, and it felt like an overwhelming amount of information.
Volunteer Engagement Phase
How can volunteers more efficiently use their time?
Traveling to the site was fairly confusing, which reduced the time we could spend on cataloging the individual flags. Despite using email messages, Google Maps, the installation website, the available signage on site, and the visitor’s information booth, we could not locate the Geolocation Volunteers’ tent where we should have started. It took about 20 minutes from arriving to get to the tent.
When we did arrive at the site, we were given the task of transcribing the messages submitted to the site from friends and families of the deceased onto white flags. The Volunteer coordinator taught us how to format the messages, but some messages were in different languages and others were formatted differently. I was worried about dishonoring the memories of families and their intended message by formatting the message incorrectly.
I was then put on the editing detail where I was more comfortable. I was told to redo any flags that were incorrectly transcribed. It was emotional to read and reread the stories of families. The individualized stories of the disease that had been swept into larger less nuanced narratives became clear.
It was emotional to read and reread the stories of families. The individualized stories of the disease that had been swept into larger less nuanced narratives became clear.
Geolocation was also difficult. I and many others struggled with logging into the app. Once we had, we struggled with taking pictures of the flags which were required to be within a particular format that the wind made nearly impossible. I thought about putting a weight (perhaps a penny) taped at the bottom of the flag to keep it stable.
It was also difficult to geolocate the flag on the app’s map. There was no way except educated guessing to determine how far the flag was from other flags on the numbered grid. Volunteers had to guess where the flag was in relation to others. The numbered grids were not divided into smaller plots.
Post Engagement Phase
How can more volunteers be found for the culmination of the physical exhibit?
While I wish I could have been a part of the clean up of the memorial, I wondered how the organizers could find other interested participants to volunteer their time. They found me through a professor. Were there other professors or teachers who could provide the same access to interested potential volunteers?
Emotional Impact of the experience
The “In America: Remember” memorial is one of several others on the Mall. Like the Vietnam War Memorial, a core aspect of it is to provide an individualized context of the person who suffered a death from COVID, a person whose death has been politicized. The memorial allows families to give their account of the person who has died, offer the family members space to heal, and reclaim the textured story of their loved one amidst national narratives with less nuance. The Vietnam War Memorial engulfs visitors in the individual names of the casualties of war. Family and friends continue to memorialize their family members through mementos and messages in a similar fashion.
Interactivity, reflection give family members a way to process their emotions. My final question about this exhibit and other participatory installations like it: How could the active creation of a participatory exhibit enable people to access the thoughts and feelings of others in a way that inspires empathy, civic dialogue, and compassion?
How could the active creation of a participatory exhibit enable people to access the thoughts and feelings of others in a way that inspires empathy, civic dialogue, and compassion?
There aren’t any straightforward answers. However, there is precedent for the benefit of this type of work. Consider student participation to the Peace Memorial Park in Japan honoring victims of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and promoting world peace. Over 10 million paper cranes are sent to the Park each year and contribute to a global civic dialogue about anti-violence with people who are in their formative years.
Whatever the next steps of the “In America: Remember” exhibit are, it’s already had a deep effect on me and the volunteers with whom I worked.