news summary

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

Mapping the story circulation for one neighborhood

by Olivia Williams, PhD Candidate at American University with Benjamin Stokes

To guide our evolving design for the DC Storytelling System, we wanted a “snapshot” of how stories already circulate. I focused on one neighborhood (Woodridge), and mapped the flow of civic stories. My goal was to look across organizations and media channels using a powerful framework from urban sociology.

OUR SUSPICION: Neighborhood leaders struggle to connect their face-to-face organizing with their online organizing to circulate local stories. If successful, our design intervention will significantly increase the impact of neighborhood stories on group cohesion by fitting to the ecosystem currently connecting groups and residents.

FIGURE 1: Different forms of local story circulation; photographs taken by the Playful Cities team

Clockwise from top left: Tweet from DC Public Library about PorchFest, a local event taking place in the Woodridge Neighborhood; Woodridge Neighborhood Library bulletin board (credit: Olivia Williams); our and Smithsonian’s payphone storytelling system in the library for PorchFest (credit: Benjamin Stokes) and a free-standing local history exhibit inside Woodridge Neighborhood Library (credit: Olivia Williams).
Continue reading Mapping the story circulation for one neighborhood

Press release: Smithsonian satellite exhibits launch

The Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood Library features a satellite exhibition of “A Right to the City.” Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Yesterday the DC Public Library and the Smithsonian announced the launch of five satellites exhibits for “A Right to the City.”

Our storytelling system was featured in the release:

The museum has also partnered with the American University School of Communication to develop the DC Storytelling System, which features a telephone hotline—(202) 335-7288—that allows listeners to hear oral history excerpts from the main exhibition and record their own personal stories.

Full release:

Continue reading Press release: Smithsonian satellite exhibits launch

Panels in Libraries (Connecting to our Hotline)

After passing the circulation desk on the main floor of the Mt. Pleasant Library, the satellite exhibit for “A Right to the City” is a prominent feature that demands attention. With its interlocking panels and dynamic visuals, visitors are beckoned to take a closer look at the new structure.

A closer examination reveals the subject of the structure – the neighborhood. For residents, perhaps it speaks about the events that they have witnessed and perhaps they learn about how their neighborhood came into its current state.

For those reminiscing and for those with curiosity, the participatory panel stands out. The dedicated hotline allows for participation for residents who look at the exhibit and think “I remember when…”. It also allows for the curious to explore their neighborhood through the eyes of those who helped shape it.

Library Event: Panel Dialogue at the Woodridge Neighborhood Library

The Woodridge Neighborhood Library sign.

Around DC, a series of events at neighborhood libraries are beginning in collaboration with the exhibit “A Right to the City” at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

Dr. Samir Meghelli (Left) and Dr. Joy Kinard (right) discussing the pushback for building the North Central Freeway.
Continue reading Library Event: Panel Dialogue at the Woodridge Neighborhood Library

Library Event: Coffee and Conversation at the Parklands-Turner Library

Paul Perry (second from left, from the Smithsonian) and Auset Whaley (at center, from the DC Public Library) with two Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (on ends) and a teen volunteer. Credit: Lawrence Clinkscale

Around DC, a series of events at neighborhood libraries are beginning in collaboration with the exhibit “A Right to the City” at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

One of the first took place this past Saturday (Feb. 16, 2019) at the Parklands-Turner Neighborhood Library. Their “coffee and conversation” event presented the project and several opportunities for involvement. Overall, the residents in attendance expressed great interest in seeing more community programs of this nature and are eager to visit the Humanities Truck, either at their local libraries or at local festivals. Residents are also looking forward to contributing their stories and memorabilia for what may evolve into a Congress Heights oral history project.

There will be more public events in the near future to share stories from the exhibit — and to gather more from the public. Stay tuned!

Thanks to Auset Whaley for most of this information, which was posted by Hazel Arroyo of American University.

Planning the DC Public Library Events

Gathering at Washingtoniana / Special Collections of DCPL

We introduced our truck and system to library leaders this week, as part of planning the next nine months of DC activities and the satellite exhibits for A Right to the City. Our location was fitting: the Washintoniana Collection (Feb. 14, 2019), which was a key source for the exhibit, and is part of the Special Collections for DC Public Library (DCPL).

Parking the Humanities Truck — we are still learning how!

As a teaser, we wanted to show what the AU Humanities Truck could do for DCPL outreach. We are adding more approved drivers, and exploring how to best position it for events.

A very early map draft of branch libraries hosting the satellite exhibits

Three main materials were prototyped in preparation for the event: a post card of a hand-drawn partial map of DC with the six participating library locations indicated, a post card to be used in a hypothetical scavenger hunt, and a phone line that corresponds with the scavenger hunt post card.

Reflecting on our event in Adams Morgan: Connecting neighbors to their history

By Olivia Williams, PhD student at American University in the School of Communication

The second weekend of September 2018 saw a throng of people excitedly visiting the Adams Morgan Day event in that culturally diverse and artistic area of Washington D.C. Even the rain couldn’t dampen spirits as families, couples, friends and visitors to the city, wandered from stall to stall and booth to booth.

The Humanities Truck and visitors to the neighbourhood on Adams Morgan Day 2018. Credit Benjamin Stokes

Musicians, artists, poets, chefs, jewelers, dancers, creators of all varieties lined the main street, and there was a celebratory atmosphere which epitomized the well-known creative ‘AdMo’ community. Our Humanities Truck caught the attention of many passersby and the promise of a walk down AdMo memory lane inside encouraged visitors to step inside! The Humanities Truck is one node of a larger project funded by the Smithsonian: a storytelling system that brings the exhibit ‘A Right to the City’ back onto the streets, as  well as recruiting voices from within the community. (See our vision.)

Two Adams Morgan Day visitors step inside the Humanities Truck to look at Nancy Shia’s photographs. Credit Humanities Truck, Flickr

The project combines the digital and the physical to connect stories across places and people. In documenting the project and studying its impact, I began by filming voxpops and interviews with several of the project partners who have successfully brought insights, creativity, energy and knowledge to the projects surrounding the event. Dan Kerr, Director of the Public History program at American University and instigator of the Humanities Truck commented that he hoped the design of the Truck would create a place for community documentation and a community exhibition space, which it certainly did during ADMo Day!

Nancy Shia, Photographer & Activist. Image credit: Olivia Williams

On this occasion, the Truck was used in a variety of ways and visitors to AdMo Day enjoyed watching a slideshow of photographs on a flatscreen embedded into the side of the Truck, musicians performing on the adjacent people’s stage using the truck’s power sockets to electrify instruments and vocals over the speakers and to showcase the photography of Nancy Shia, a local activist and artist who has photographed the Adams Morgan Day Festival since it began in 1978. When I interviewed her she was quick to highlight what doing this kind of work has taught her ‘to be respectful of everyone, regardless of where they came from and who they are’, and she’s noticed a particular interest in her photographs of late as people become more interested in trying to understand how communities evolve and what community means to people.

Michele Casto from the D.C. Public Library. Credit Olivia Williams

Project partners were keen to talk about their motivations for getting involved and share observations from the event itself. Michele Casto from the D.C. Public Library discussed how much change there has been to Adams Morgan in recent decades and yet how, compared with other neighbourhoods, there is so much that has stayed the same and how this balance of old and new allows continuity with the past to remain.

Dr. Samir Meghelli, Chief Curator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in Washington D.C. Credit Olivia Williams

Dr. Samir Meghelli, Chief Curator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C., stated how excited he was to continue the work they’d done at the community museum. In tandem with the community, the museum had been able to document much of the community’s history over the past seven decades showing the energy of the activists living in the neighbourhood and how the community had changes and stayed the same.  With AdMo Day unfolding in front of him, Dr. Meghelli was very pleased to be able to play a role in bringing the stories back out into the streets, in honour of the rich and incredible history of the neighbourhood.  

Adams Morgan Outreach and History Map

We created a map for Adams Morgan history as part of outreach with our community storytelling system.

The clues at right are designed to be provocative… and can be answered by texting our hotline. The twist is that the answer comes in the form of a historic photograph, primarily from the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum’s exhibit “A Right to the City.”

Simply interested in the history?  Cycle through some historic pictures using our hotline with the keyword “PIC.”

Even though the map launched for our activities at Adams Morgan Day (40th annual!), we made it to be evergreen — so we can keep distributing it for future activities and neighborhood outreach.

Thanks to Carolyn Thaw for postcard graphic design; she is also behind the map that covers the Humanities Truck.