Visiting Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture can be profound, says Travis McPhail, and his team’s touch-screen project enriches the experience by letting visitors explore the vast collection of artifacts in 3D.
He started deep underground, as everyone must, and then slowly made his way up and out to the light of modern day. To the way things are.
“It is a lot to take in,” Travis McPhail said of his first visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. “It is a very serious moment, walking through. You can’t digest it all in a single visit, or in a couple of visits.”
Lucky for him, McPhail was able to visit the museum several times as part of a team that developed a 3D, interactive exhibit that doesn’t just engage museum visitors, but has allowed him to leave his own mark on African-American history.
McPhail, 36, an engineering manager for Google Maps in Seattle, was inspired to volunteer to work on the project by NMAAHC Founding Director Ronnie G. Bunch III, who visited Google’s California headquarters a few years ago to meet with members of the Black Googlers resource group.
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The group, started several years ago, works “to increase the voice of people in black and brown communities in tech,” McPhail said, with hack-a-thons and outreach trips, but also with an eye on retention, promotion and career growth for minorities.
At the meeting, Bunch shared the 100-year vision of the museum, which opened in September 2016, and said he wanted the NMAAHC to redefine how stories are told.
“He laid it all out, and it resonated with me,” McPhail said. “I wanted to provide a tool of technology to show that these are not only black stories.
“To understand the American story, you need to have context on these stories,” he said. “Anyone who goes through that process will be far more enriched.”
Google employees are encouraged to dedicate 20 percent of their time to something meaningful, and the museum exhibit became McPhail’s passion.
“This was definitely a labor of love,” he said. “This wasn’t an assignment that was handed down from executive leadership. This was a project that came from me.”
He purposely built a multiracial team, with an equal number of men and women.
“I wanted people to be able to see themselves in the people who created the exhibit,” he said.
They developed a touch-screen exhibit that allows visitors to view in 3D the artifacts from the museum’s 40,000-piece collection that couldn’t fit in exhibit spaces. Visitors use a joystick to turn them and zoom in for more detail.
That is paired with “journeys” of video and text that illustrate how each artifact fits into the American narrative.
The team also provided the museum with 3D scanners and software to eventually catalog all of its artifacts.
“The museum can take it and run with it without our interference,” he said.
At the Feb. 1 opening of the exhibit, McPhail and his wife, Ana (“She’s the smart one, I’m the showpiece”) watched as their 9-month-old son, Cayden, tapped the screens and gazed at the artifacts. (“He gave a laugh of approval, which was endearing.”)
McPhail hopes to accompany his grandmother — whose grandmother lived during slavery — to the museum to see her grandson’s contribution.
“She would have an appreciation for the museum that I would not have,” he said.
In truth, though, we all need to see it.
“Anyone that has pride in America and feels like they understand the American narrative, I would challenge them to go to this museum and really take in the stories they find when they get there,” he said. “See how that informs their understanding of America.”
Only then, he said, can they ask how that walk from three levels below ground to the light of current day — and everything in between — has changed him.
“I have a better appreciation for how truly connected things are,” he said. “And for people who ask me about it directly, I tell them we can have a conversation after they’ve gone.
“I don’t want to taint someone else’s journey (through the museum),” he said. “I want to discuss each other’s journey after the fact.”