Ice Cream and Listening Tour – July 17, 2021

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 0_poster_pennEast-01-top.jpg

Join us for ice cream this Saturday the 17th as we record stories with the Humanities Truck in the Penn Ave EAST neighborhood. Each location has its own time slot:

  • 10am at Anacostia Park (between the Skate Park and river; park on the west side of the Skate Park — see this Google Map)
  • 11:15am at Thai Orchid’s Kitchen (near the mural on the alley, around the corner from the Soufside Market; see map for directions)
  • 12:30pm at Francis A Gregory Library (just in front of the library, see map)
The Humanities Truck

We will be gathering stories in several ways, including short video interviews, quotes, and cellphone photographs. Your stories will be shared with community organizations working to tell the story of Penn Ave SE, as well as the DC Office of Planning.

Can we ask you? Your voice is needed by neighborhood organizations, the DC Office of Planning, and will be posted to our website.

How will these stories help? More than $450,000 in funds were recently allocated to Penn Ave SE to revise the neighborhood Small Area Plan, and for a Main Street Program (see “DC Council Approves $450K…” in DCist, 7/25/2020).

If you can’t make it for ice cream, leave your comments and suggestions online on the Office of Planning’s project page for the Small Area Plan.

Details on our team’s involvement and approach are spelled out in a little more detail on our own project page for Penn Ave SE.

Additional media assets for use on social media:

Juneteenth recording with Penn Ave EAST

Join us this Saturday the 19th from 10am-12pm as we record stories with the Humanities Truck in the Penn Ave EAST neighborhood. We will specifically be at the Shops at Penn Branch.

Can we ask you? Your voice is needed by neighborhood organizations, the DC Office of Planning, and will be posted to our website.

Which nearby neighborhoods? What organizations will we share the stories with? Our goal is to help Penn Ave community organizations (like civic associations and churches) to tell the neighborhood story by recording resident stories and providing the organizations with the video clips so they can get out the word.

Details are on our project page for Penn Ave SE.

Highlights from the DC Storytelling System

From 2018-2020, the DC Storytelling System has been collecting local neighborhood stories directly from members of the community. Over the past two years, we’ve collected dozens of recordings that capture the history of DC and what it’s like to live in this city. Today, we would like to take a moment to share a couple favorites.

Clip #1: Phil Muse, Architect

Listen to Phil Muse, who works as an architect in Chinatown, and who saw the exhibition in person.

One simple goal of our system was to offer a means for gathering reflections on the show. We also posted callers’ stories to the hotline alongside excerpts from “A Right to the City” that were chosen by the show’s curators.

Clip #2: Godson of a Film Legend

This story was recorded at the Adams Morgan Day Festival.

The caller reveals he is the godson of legendary DC film producer  “Topper” Carew (who was the creator of the hit TV series “Martin” starring Martin Lawrence, and behind hits like “DC Cab”). The caller shares memories of living, participating and playing music in the Adams Morgan community. The story was recorded live at the annual Adams Morgan Day Festival (where we brought a payphone!).

Topper Carew had already been featured in the Smithsonian show. However, the godson’s story revealed new details of how the family had persisted, and how the legend was being retold — including at street festivals and in ordinary conversation. In practice, our storytelling system simultaneously elevates some of the museum exhibition’s core stories to broader distribution, even as it makes for a more participatory process of hearing feedback on the stories and understanding some of their impact.

Clip #3: Shepherds of Shaw

Knowing the local neighborhood history can create a sense of place and collective identity. For D.C. resident John E. Richardson, Jr., his local church community in Shaw created a connection and identity that has made a lasting impact on his life.

The caller introduces the Shepherds of Shaw, a group of African American pastors in the Shaw neighborhood who played a pivotal role in providing affordable housing to their congregation and the wider community. The recording is a good example of how our system provides residents with a way to add their own frame to local history, and in their own voices. Such callers bring their own analysis of how local church leaders participated in creating a better community through community and housing development.

Clip #4: Linda Horton on Chinatown (and falling in love)

In this story, the love of a city and a specific person connect Linda Horton to D.C. — and Chinatown.

The story is a reminder of the many layers of connection and identity that are bound to neighborhoods, family, and identity. Callers who see their own family in the exhibition may be particularly motivated, and their reflections in turn bring new networks of interest. We see the storytelling system as a way of making more of these ties explicit by continuing to listen after the exhibition opens, and across institutions (like our listening stations at the front desk of DC libraries).

Clip #5: Betty B. of Brookland on 50 years of change

In this story, longtime D.C. Resident Betty Barksdale shares her story of Brookland as a changing neighborhood identity over 50 years.

Gentrification shifts the physical and mental landscape of a community. In this call, Betty describes how she moved to Brookland in 1964 and some of how it has changed due to urban renewal, as well as reminders of how modern institutions like Providence Hospital were once farmland. Local stories like Betty are important for historical preservation and creating community-led narratives.

Clip #6: Mt. Pleasant Library

We were proud to install storytelling phones in the DC Public Library. In this story, a library patron shares how one library (the Mt. Pleasant branch) created a sense of belonging for her, tracing back to the the 1980s.

Libraries were just one of our “hubs” for storytelling. Taken as a group, we see the storytelling system as a kind of infrastructure for listening and sharing — to help situate history more immediately in community life across civic institutions.

Thank you to everyone that has called into the hotline and shared their stories.

This project was made possible thanks to our incredible collaborators. Thank you to the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, DC Public Library, the Leimert Phone Company, the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, American University’s School of Communication, the AU Humanities Truck, and the AU Playful City Lab.

Using the Truck to Spur Digital Experiences (Experiments at Adams Morgan Day 2020)

How could a truck spur digital experiences, especially during a pandemic? This was our third year for experiments at Adams Morgan Day, the longest-running neighborhood festival in DC. We knew things would be different, both for the pandemic and the immediacy of the protests around the murder of George Floyd.

We chose a hybrid approach that combined physical media (prints, signs, fliers, and video) with three kinds of digital interactivity: (1) mural hunt game; (2) trivia map activity; and (3) audio tour. Along the way, we tested our new game engine for cities, Hive Mechanic.

A masked passerby at the AU Humanities Truck on Adams Morgan Day 2020.
Photo Credit: Hazel Arroyo

Humanities Truck as a Socially Distant Hub: Balancing Curated Content and Local History

We took several steps to use the Humanities Truck in a socially distant way, while still showcasing content from the Smithsonian and DC Public Library. First, we closed the interior to the public, and posted all materials to the exterior. Second, we positioned the truck so that the back was visible from all sides of an intersection. Normally the streets are closed to cars for Adams Morgan Day, but for the pandemic the city requested we avoid drawing crowds, per se. We used the back of the truck to hang signage about the larger day — which proved surprisingly effective; on more than one occasion, we overheard passersby commenting, “Oh, that’s right; AdMo Day is today.”

For content, we had historic prints from Nancy Shia, content from the Smithsonian’s exhibition “A Right to the City” focused on Adams Morgan, fliers for the audio tour and mural hunt, and a video running on the outdoor monitor with additional content from “A Right to the City.” Nancy’s work emerged as a real crossover, since her photographs were also in some of the posters for “A Right to the City” and in the video.

In part, the truck served as a theatrical prop to spur digital interactions. Similarly, our print media served as a starting point for more in-depth digital activities. Selfies and social media were in turn generated by our activities.

Our New Scavenger Hunt: Murals and Activist Art

A selfie we received as part of the mechanics of the mural scavenger hunt.

Following the murder of George Floyd, we were eager to highlight protest art as a longstanding tradition in the neighborhood. We were recruited to make this activity by Margaux Granat, the History and Culture content organizer for AdMo Day 2020. We were thrilled to have her join as a co-designer.

The final game (“Mural, Mural, on the Wall”) was a scavenger hunt-style game that guides players physically around the neighborhood, showcasing the murals and protest art along their path. Participating in the game automatically enrolled players in a raffle where the winner won a shirt designed by a local artist. (The prior year we had tested the raffle as a driver of activity, but this year it would be secondary.)

For recruiting, we assumed many players would already be enthralled by the art and history of the neighborhood (i.e., significant extrinsic motivation). The hunt itself is driven by a narrative that is written from the perspective of Margaux and is embedded with riddles, clues, and copious emojis. The playfulness of walking around and taking pictures with beautiful pieces of art was at the center of our experience goal.

To make people aware of the game, we used a combination of online marketing (thanks volunteers for Adams Morgan Day 2020!), and physical fliers that were hung at the truck and around the neighborhood. In retrospect, we would’ve liked to have used more 3-foot sandwich boards, and moved the truck to different intersections throughout the day.

Piloting an Audio Tour from a Local Historian

Flier for the audio tour we piloted, in collaboration with local historian, Eddie Becker.
Graphic Design Credit: Meagan Couture

We also tested an “audio-plus-photographs” collaboration with Eddie Becker, a local historian who runs tours of the neighborhood. His tours frequently highlight slavery, institutional segregation, bank red-lining, the riots and police occupation of the 1960s, immigrants, housing displacement, and gentrification from the 1980s through present day. Eddie was interested in making his tours work for a socially distant audience.

Our audio tour centered on Kalorama Park, where players might pick a bench and listen on their own phones. The twist is that our hotline also sent historic photos to callers phones, timed to Eddie’s voice. To create the tour, we had Eddie record the audio and we put it together into a hotline format, something we’ve had a bit of practice designing and operating.

Postcard for the Adams Morgan Trivia Map. Graphic Design Credit: Carolyn Thaw

Return of the Adams Morgan Trivia Map

As in previous years, the Adams Morgan trivia map made a return. Hundreds of postcards were distributed to local businesses in advance of Adams Morgan Day. The map was originally created to be deliberately evergreen to distribute quality content for years to come. We also had the cards at the Humanities Truck.

Challenge: Getting the Word Out

A woman scanning a QR code to start the mural hunt. Photo Credit: Hazel Arroyo

Our biggest challenge in the pandemic was getting the word out — without overdoing it. Normally the closed streets do all the work for us. But this year, despite being featured in numerous radio and newspaper stories, there was hardly any foot traffic. Instead, the nearby park served as the draw — with dozens of people going in an out every fifteen minutes.

For live recruiting, the attention and visibility of the Humanities Truck was powerful in physical space. At the same time, we feel that we missed an opportunity by not including sandwich board signs as part of our strategy. With so many activities, the side of the Humanities Truck became a bit cluttered. In retrospect, it would have been great to use the sandwich boards to bring attention to each of the interactive experiences, allowing the truck space to be dedicated for the video and physical content (“A Right to the City” content and Nancy Shia’s prints). Another idea that occurred to us afterward was to offer more of a “menu” of activities with time estimates for each one, and thereby offer a clearer vision of what each activity might involve for choosy participants.

This post was contributed by Hazel Arroyo, a professional game designer and member of The Playful City Lab.

Live event: A New Kind of Neighborhood Storytelling? Connecting Libraries, Museums and Technology in “A Right to the City”

UPDATE: Video below!

Join us this Thursday, October 8th at 7pm EST (live via YouTube stream or our FB event page).

Should DC neighborhoods have a new kind of exhibit, beyond museum walls? This panel analyzes our bold experiment, including Smithsonian pop-ups in branch libraries, trucks with history archives at street festivals, and hotlines for residents to leave neighborhood stories.

Speakers will include:

  • Samir Meghelli, Senior Curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum
  • Benjamin Stokes, Assistant Professor, American University
  • Michelle Casto, Librarian, DC Public Library
  • Eric White, Librarian, DC Public Library

To celebrate the culmination of the A Right to the City pop-up exhibits in four of our neighborhood libraries, join us for a panel discussion of the exhibition and how participatory storytelling happened across the Smithsonian Institution Anacostia Community Museum, the DC Public Library, and new kinds of exhibition spaces like the Humanities Truck. We will discuss the exhibit’s stories of DC neighborhoods and how they organized to make change for their communities. In addition to hearing from the lead organizers of the exhibit and its programming, we will hear recordings from community members gathered at our libraries and at street festivals.

Video from the event:

Continue reading Live event: A New Kind of Neighborhood Storytelling? Connecting Libraries, Museums and Technology in “A Right to the City”

#Moments of Resilience — and coverage (NPR, WUSA9)

Some news: we have repurposed our DC storytelling system to start gathering stories of community resilience around Covid-19 and recent protests. This effort is based at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, and was profiled by NPR and WUSA9 (see below).

Callers can still hear amazing oral histories of DC residents from the exhibition A Right to the City (including recordings from prior callers). But the hotline has also become a way to gather audio stories from the street and from residents without easy access to fancy apps or recording equipment. Initially, we were focused purely on Covid-19, but once the protests arose, the museum’s director embraced the need to capture resilience around the “dual pandemic” on DC streets.

Stories can be called or emailed in:

NPR broadcast a story about the project nationally (“The Smithsonian Is Collecting Coronavirus ‘Artifacts’ To Document The Pandemic” by Mikaela Lefrak, May 20, 2020).

WUSA9 also covered the project on TV news (“Anacostia Community Museum wants your local ‘Moments of Resilience’ stories for digital exhibit” by Mikea Turner, May 27 2020).

Playful Reflections (pt.2): Future Design Ideas

This is part 2 of my personal reflection on the DC Storytelling System and the AU Humanities Truck. If you have not read part 1 about my insights on designing playful community experiences, you can do so here.

In my previous post, I shared some of my insights from working on the DC Storytelling System. Now I want to share some of our playful ideas that build on our previous experience and take advantage of the affordances of Hive Mechanic, the AU Humanities Truck, and our existing system. Some of these ideas are ones we are working on now or planning to implement in the future, while others could serve as inspiration for others who want to pursue similar playful projects.

Concept 1: Oral History Audio Tour

Our current hotline does a pretty good job sharing interesting audio stories, but could be more effective at tying the stories to physical locations. Thankfully, the Humanities Truck provides a great anchor to embed the stories within their communities of origin. We could park the Humanities Truck in a central location in the community and use it as a starting point to direct participants to notable places in the area. When participants arrived at those locations, they could call/text the hotline and hear original recordings about those locations.

Our postcard map for the Adams Morgan Day Scavenger Hunt, as well as a sample historical image sent by the system.
Photo credit: Benjamin Stokes

This is similar to what we’ve done before with the Adams Morgan Day Scavenger Hunt, except it takes full advantage of the audio capabilities of Hive Mechanic. Alternatively, you could also use a platform like ARIS to help strengthen the connection between story and place. If participants ever get lost, or if they want to learn more, they could return to the Humanities Truck and expert guides could provide them with more information. Multiple audio tours could be created for multiple communities across DC, and the Humanities Truck could drive to those various locations to help initiate and facilitate their interactive audio tours.

Concept 2: Community Photo Sharing

Recently I worked on a project in collaboration with the Playful City Lab and El Studio called Alley Hoppin’. Alley Hoppin’ is an exhibition designed to change the way we think about alleyways and showcase interesting ways that alleys are being used in DC. One of the notable features of the exhibition is its interactive alley collage. Participants take photographs of their alleys on their phones and text them in to a system we built in Hive Mechanic. That photo is then automatically printed out from a wireless printer and then added to the growing physical collage of DC alleyways.

Our wireless printer from the Alley Hoppin’ exhibition set to automatically print out user-submitted photos of alleyways.
Photo credit: Benjamin Stokes

We could easily implement a similar system designed specifically for the Humanities Truck. During public events featuring the truck, we could encourage participants to share photos with us that fit a given theme. As the photos are texted in, we could print them out automatically using a wireless printer connected to the Humanities Truck’s wi-fi. Once printed, we could then mount the photos (either on the inside or the outside of the truck) so that everyone could see the collage we’ve created together.

Concept 3: Hello Humanities Truck

Similar to the existing project Hello Lamp Post and our current “Talk to a Statue” project, what if people could strike up a conversation with the Humanities Truck itself? Using a tool like Hive Mechanic, we could create an interactive chat bot using SMS. Players could send text messages to the Humanities Truck (possibly initialized with the phrase “Hello Humanities Truck”), and then have a conversation with it. We could give the truck a personality (i.e. maybe it’s friendly? Funny? Sarcastic?), use it as a way to share content (such as by sending pictures, videos, audio files, or links through text messages), or more use it to share more information about the truck and its ongoing projects.

Concept 4: Hive Mechanic Game Jam

During Global Game Jam 2020, the Playful City Lab hosted a short jam session focused on building games in Hive Mechanic. While this was a fun and informative experience, it showed us that there is plenty of room to expand it into a full event. What if we invited coders, hackers, designers, and community organizers to come together and create playful community experiences in Hive Mechanic? We could either focus the jam on a specific problem or theme (e.g. what games could we design for the Humanities Truck?) or leave it open for people to focus on their own local communities.

Concept 5: Arcade Mounts

Our mounts have already gone through numerous iterations to become more professional and engaging. But what if they were even more playful? Currently our team is experimenting adding various new ways to interact with the mounts beyond just the phones. Some of the ideas we are testing include using embedded touch screens, arcade buttons using Makey Makey, interactive LEDs, and raspberry pis. This could offer many more ways to create games that could utilize our mounts…

Concept 6: Arcade Truck

…But why stop at just making the mounts more interactive? What if we turned the Humanities Truck itself into a game controller?!? We could set up buttons on the inside and the outside of the truck and then use the interior and exterior screens to display feedback and instructions. Maybe players inside the truck have to relay information to players outside the truck so that they can push the correct buttons on the exterior of the truck? Maybe the truck could serve as a command center that sends instructions out to players within the community using Hive Mechanic? By changing or creating new ways to interact and play, we can create a wide variety of novel games that capitalize on the affordances of the Humanities Truck.

This post was contributed by Mitchell Loewen, a Game Design graduate student at American University, with feedback from the team at The Playful City Lab.

Playful Reflections (pt.1): Personal Insights

Over the past year, I’ve been iterating on the interactivity of the DC Storytelling System. Primarily, I’ve worked on updating the hotline, deploying installations at DC Public Libraries, and sharing our system at a variety of community events with the AU Humanities Truck (such as Adams Morgan Day, DCPS Development Day, and Busboys & Poets’ Saving DC’s History & Culture). I’ve learned a lot from working on these projects, and I want to share some of my personal insights on designing playful community experiences. While this won’t be an exhaustive list of all of our lessons and findings, I hope that my insights are helpful to others who want to create their own playful experiences.

Insight 1: Use physical objects and staging to spark curiosity

When people initially encounter our system at events featuring the Humanities Truck or our desk payphone, their first question is often “what is this?” While at first blush this question might seem negative, it’s precisely the question you want to provoke. Curiosity can be powerful, especially when it drives us to explore and engage with things we don’t understand. So when someone asks “what is this?”, we see it as a solid signal that they are willing to engage.

Our mobile payphone (using a cellular data plan) at a Chinatown event for the A Right to the City exhibition
Photo credit: Benjamin Stokes

One way I’ve found to consistently pique curiosity is by using physical objects in unexpected places. Payphones today are becoming rare, so seeing one at an event immediately makes people wonder why it’s there. Similarly, a large, bright red truck parked in an unusual locations (i.e., the AU Humanities Truck) makes people want to know what’s inside. Both of these are examples of how staging physical objects in unusual contexts can help attract people to your system that normally may have been overlooked.

Insight 2: Continuous systems need a sense of urgency

The DC Storytelling System was intentionally designed to be as accessible as possible. It can be accessed in person from the “A Right to the City” exhibition at the Anacostia Community Museum, and at several installations at DC Public Libraries, or from anywhere in the world using your personal mobile device. But while the system is technically accessible from anywhere at any time, a significant proportion of our recordings have specifically come from community events. This is due in part to the number of people at these events, but I also think it’s at least partially due to the urgency and interpersonal connection that events can bring.

A collection of some of the locations where you can access our system.
Photo credits: Benjamin Stokes

Technically speaking, our system can be accessible long after an event is complete. For some people, calling later on their own phone might be much more convenient. But when people feel like they can do something at any time, many will put it off and forget about it. But because the event itself is only happening for a limited time, people feel a sense of urgency to use the system immediately. This sense of urgency can be extremely effective at boosting engagement for a continuous system.

Insight 3: You always need to compete for attention

Just because you have a booth or a tent at a community event does not mean people are going to pay attention to you. Often there will be many other exciting things happening at the same time that are also fighting for attention. If you want people to notice you, you’ll need something that helps you stand out. For us this was often the Humanities Truck, but as mentioned before anything that sparks curiosity can be very effective for this.

However, it’s very important to remember that the fight for attention never ends. Even after you’ve managed to convince someone to try your system, you need to hook them and keep them engaged. Otherwise, they’ll just move on to something else that feels more exciting. Through repeated iteration we’ve managed to make our system more engaging in a few ways:

  • Polished Mounts: Our mounts have gone through numerous iterations to look more visually appealing and professional. This is especially helpful for initially drawing people in.
  • Radio-Style Introduction: We’ve stitched together clips from various stories on the hotline and put it as the first thing you hear when you pick up the phone. This does a much better job of setting the stage and hooking the audience than immediately launching into a dry navigation menu.
  • Random User-Submitted Stories: We’re curated a selection of user-submitted stories and hosted them on the hotline for people to listen to. The user-submitted story you get to listen to is random so that there’s a reason to return to the hotline multiple times.

We’re still trying out new ideas for how to make our system more engaging (some of those ideas are outlined in part 2), but these are a few tested ideas you could try out in your own playful systems.

Insight 4: Your system doesn’t exist in a vacuum

Sometimes it’s easy to think that your system is working in a vacuum. But often, your system exists at the intersection of several other community partners and projects that are working towards similar goals. If you don’t reach out to these potential collaborators, you could be missing out on opportunities to enrich and inspire each other.

One of our proudest inspirations to come out our collaboration is the Brookland Oral History Project. Created by the Brookland Civic Association and students of Brookland Middle School, it is a collective, inter-generational conversation between youth and elders in the Brookland community to break barriers and build better collaboration. It is intended to document and share Brookland’s community stories of history and civic engagement. The people behind this project were directly inspired by our project after Woodridge Library’s Eric White and the President of the Brookland Civic Association Dan Schramm visited our satellite exhibit at the library. Dan recorded an excellent story on the phone. We were thrilled to see how the project then evolved with the students at Brookland Middle School with Smithsonian Chief Curator Samir Meghelli to learn more about oral history, including a visit to the library. The AU Humanities Truck was going to be the perfect platform for the students to share their work and engage the public at Porch Fest 2020.

Unfortunately, due to the situation with COVID-19, the project’s community debut had to be delayed. But we are so excited to see how this project has grown and can’t wait for them to show off their work.

This was part 1 of my personal reflection on the DC Storytelling System and the AU Humanities Truck. If you want to read part 2 about our future design plans, you can do so here.

This post was contributed by Mitchell Loewen, a Game Design graduate student at American University, with feedback from the team at The Playful City Lab.

For Teachers: Bundled Cards and Learning Standards (DCPS Development Day)

Sometimes it’s not so hard. Sometimes an approach “for teachers” can be as simple as putting a rubber band around 20 cards…

One of our big ideas is that our system must be adaptive, and fit to the community in form and function. We have tested our storytelling system in a variety of different settings (from cafés to libraries to street festivals). In this post, we are going to look at how we positioned our storytelling system for DC high school teachers. This is the other half to success, since an adaptive system only helps if you take the time to position it.

The Humanities Truck in front of Cardozo Education Campus for the DCPS Development Day. Photo credit: Benjamin Stokes

Our approach is event-based (i.e., we resist the “anywhere, anytime” mantra as a false and unproductive hope for local organizing). In this case, we attended the DC Public Schools Development Day event hosted at Cardozo Education Campus. This event was primarily attended by high school teachers; they were open to applying alternate teaching methods and materials (such as our storytelling system).

Classroom sized bundles of 20-30 calling cards. Photo credit: Mitchell Loewen

Next, we modified our calling card design to be more applicable to a classroom setting. Unlike our normal cards, these only emphasize listening to our featured stories rather than sharing your own. We then pre-bundled the cards into packages of 20-30 cards so that teachers could easily grab enough cards for their entire class. We packaged our system in this way specifically to make it easier for teachers to use for provoking classroom discussions.

Our handout which highlights the potential uses of our system in a classroom setting. You can view the full pdf here.

We also reframed our system’s potential impact around student learning by creating a learning goals handout. This document was based off the DCPS high school curriculum, specifically the Social Studies and the English Language learning standards. This helped to highlight to teachers the ways our system aligns with their needs and how they can utilize it on their own terms.

Finally, we chose to showcase ourselves in a way that set us apart from the other exhibitors at the event. Rather than tabling inside, we set up outside in front of the school with the Humanities Truck. This gave us more of a presence at the event, as well as gave us the space to set up additional materials such as phone installations and oral history recordings.

To summarize, here’s how we repositioned our system:

  1. Position within a specific event (e.g., DCPS Development Day);
  2. Position the materials for future action (e.g., card bundles that teachers were eager to take for future classroom use);
  3. Position and frame the outcomes in terms of student learning (not just community impact); and
  4. Position physically on our own terms (e.g., with the humanities truck outside, rather than the usual table inside), setting us apart from other presenters.

One lesson: our positioning was not just physical, but social, event-based and even about positioning the outcomes.

This post was contributed by Mitchell Loewen, a Game Design graduate student at American University, with feedback from the team at The Playful City Lab.

Iterations on the Mount for the Classic Phone

The classic phone mount has become our most popular way to display our simple installation (including in libraries and the Humanities Truck), both for portability and the small footprint on-site. How did we get here?

The initial box was long and unlabeled:

Classic Mount Prototype during initial discussion and testing meeting.
Continue reading Iterations on the Mount for the Classic Phone

Sharing our model — and slides — at the Connected Learning Summit (CLS19)

Will other cities similarly invest in connected storytelling infrastructure?

We were selected to present at a fantastic venue in California: the Connected Learning Summit. This is one of the country’s leading conferences to bring together academics with practitioners from museums and libraries who care about civic engagement and learning around digital media.

Continue reading Sharing our model — and slides — at the Connected Learning Summit (CLS19)

New voices? Counting photos? Reflections from Adams Morgan Day 2019

A primary hope for our storytelling system is to reach new audiences beyond museum and library walls. Did we do it? How many people participated? One of our researchers shares a few observations from our big outreach at Adams Morgan Day last month.

A quick panorama of our tent, Humanities Truck with exhibition content, and the stage we powered with the truck.

On the beautiful Sunday day afternoon, I walked the Adams Morgan Day festival speaking with the community about the Smithsonian “Right to the City” exhibition — and our storytelling system.

Our approach and the idea of the exhibition were well received. The average person on the street seemed amazed and pleased to hear that such an exhibition exists that tells the stories of the city while also providing a platform for ordinary residents to share their stories.

Most had not been to the museum for the exhibition. Nearly 90% had not visited the museum in the prior two years (88% of the 112 people surveyed). To avoid listening to the choir, we primarily spoke with attendees away from the booth, who I spoke to while walking the festival.

One resident felt ashamed of not visiting but seemed relieved to hear about the upcoming re-opening scheduled for later this month.

A significantly higher percentage of attendees had been to a neighborhood library in the same time period (60%). This affirms our hope that the satellite exhibitions in a handful of libraries were a good idea.

Overall, awareness of the exhibition — including from press, the museum and libraries — was still only at 81% of attendees.

Several residents left testimonies during the event. (We had listening stations in several places in the neighborhood.) What did they sound like? Here is one excerpt:

“….I am from DC and have lived here my whole life. I am Ethiopian, African American and African muslim. Many people don’t know about this culture that comes with our people… and the making of this Chocolate City…”

– A local resident’s story, left during Adams Morgan Day

We were excited to spread history photos to attendees — by text message. (Each photo was chosen by the Smithsonian’s curator for the exhibition to help tell a key story in the neighborhood’s history that relates to its identity today.) Between our history map and raffle, more than 210 people requested history photos during the event. Some repeatedly asked the automated hotline to send them another (and we hope they shared them with friends). After the event, one benefit of the digital system was that we could follow-up with everyone that engaged and provide a link to the exhibition, and instructions on how to request more photos.

Much of our research is focused on the circulation of stories, but as these basic metrics show, our presence at street events does reach a new audience for the exhibition — and a good number of residents left with a history photo on their cell phone as a calling card to learn more.

Photo: Tambra Raye Stevenson

This post was contributed by Tambra Raye Stevenson, who is a Ph.D. student and research assistant at American University School of Communication in Washington, DC, with feedback from the team at The Playful City Lab.

6+ Nodes for a Special Event (Adams Morgan Day, 2019)

Up until now, the most storytelling nodes we’ve launched for a live event was two for a cafe at night. But earlier this month we headed to a neighborhood music festival to test a multi-node approach. Our goal was to see how breadth might add up to more than the sum of the parts.

We successfully featured four phone installations (from restaurant to community center), and two multimedia nodes to spread historic photos by MMS: a treasure hunt and a raffle. We anchored our street presence with the Humanities Truck, including a history exhibition inside and a musical stage on the street.

Our first node was already set up at the nearby Mt. Pleasant Library. Unlike the rest of the nodes for the event, this was a permanent installation, and we hoped to boost awareness of the ongoing opportunity to engage.

The second installation was at the LINE Hotel, with a low-key phone at the entrance to a special exhibit in their community center:

A “classic phone” installation in the LINE Hotel, at the entrance to a special exhibit. Photo Credit: Mitchell Loewen

We were excited to embed the phone at the entrance to the special exhibit from Hola Cultura on Explorando Historia Oral, an oral history project focused on the DC Latino community at the Adams Morgan Neighborhood. Given the similar intentions of our projects, we hoped to cross-promote and build awareness of how stories are circulating in DC.

We had a third installation at Songbyrd, a local cafe and music venue:

Songbyrd interior with phone installation
(Photograph by Benjamin Stokes)

…with food and drink, this space for hanging out provided a different set of possibilities for recruiting listeners and stories to local history. The cafe was a primary host of the stage music for Adams Morgan Day, in part because its own basement regularly hosts bands and local shows. The cafe had additional lures for Adams Morgan Day, including specials it advertised outside.

Most visibly, we had our desk payphone on the main street, right beside our Humanities Truck:

Photo Credit: Benjamin Stokes
Continue reading 6+ Nodes for a Special Event (Adams Morgan Day, 2019)

Spanish Hotline and Dual Phones (“not an accident”)

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we created a Spanish version of our hotline and installed a direct line at the Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood Library (on 9/17/2019). This library is a focus for Latino events and activities in the DC area, and was eager to refine their installation for the A Right to the City exhibition.

Our classic phone in Spanish and English. (Photo by Hazel Arroyo.)

Having the two phones next to each other immediately made the entire set-up look much more intentional. This helps with a barrier to use that we had observed with just the English phone: some people still wondered if they were supposed to interact, or if it was an accident. With two physical phones, the intentionality is clear and the invitation is stronger.

Continue reading Spanish Hotline and Dual Phones (“not an accident”)

At a Local Café: Two Phones and a Truck (Busboys & Poets on 14th Street)

Photo Credit: Dan Kerr

How can a sidewalk experience connect to a special event inside a café? We recently tried pairing our truck and phones with an event panel on our Right to the City theme, titled Saving DC’s History & Culture: From Chocolate City to #DontMuteDC.

We used different technology inside and outside, and call this kind of activation “inside-outside storytelling.”

Photo Credit: Dan Kerr
Continue reading At a Local Café: Two Phones and a Truck (Busboys & Poets on 14th Street)

Save the Date! Adams Morgan Day 2019 (Sept. 8, 12-6pm)

The AU Humanities Truck last year at Adams Morgan Day. (Photo credit: Playful City Lab)

We will be returning to Adams Morgan Day for a second year to anchor the “Community History” section of the Festival with the Humanities Truck, an experimental recording and exhibition space on wheels. The truck will feature stories about historic Adams Morgan from the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s “A Right to the City” exhibition, in partnership with the DC Public Library.

We will be featuring several interactive and digital elements of our DC Storytelling System, including a raffle that sends historic photos of Adams Morgan from the event. In addition to everything happening around the truck, we plan to station a couple of our “Classic Phones” at select local businesses for the day so that more community members will be able to participate in the storytelling system.

For the history section, DC Public Library is sponsoring the performance stage of music and dance with an international flair reflective of the diversity of the neighborhood. Stop by the library booth to get a library card, check out books, and learn about neighborhood history resources in Washingtoniana!

This community history section will be at the intersection of 18th and Belmont Streets NW from noon-6pm on September 8, 2019.

For general information on Adams Morgan Day, visit

Here is the official press release from the event organizers:

Continue reading Save the Date! Adams Morgan Day 2019 (Sept. 8, 12-6pm)

Front desk at the library: “classic 1970s” telephone prototype

Beginning this week, you can find a new prototype at the front desk of the Woodridge Neighborhood Library.

We call it the “classic 1970s” telephone. Picking up the handset immediately connects listeners to the same storytelling hotline that is in the museum. Listeners can hear excerpts from oral histories from the Right to the City exhibit, or leave new stories of their own.

Continue reading Front desk at the library: “classic 1970s” telephone prototype

Origin story: “Classic 1970s” Telephone

Beyond nostalgia, the immediate recognition of a classic phone is very useful to set expectations. New kinds of interactivity are often very hard for people to figure out. Visual clues to signal the right verbs (or “frame the mechanics”) are invaluable.

For our recent library desk installation, we used a model that has 80 years of strong visual similarity, and is nearly identical to the 1974 version.

Ours was $45 from Walmart, purchase in 2018:

Model ITT-2500-MD-BK by Cortelco (from Walmart)

Touch-tone only arrived in 1963. Here is the 1964 version, which looks remarkably similar:

Continue reading Origin story: “Classic 1970s” Telephone