What does it take to make history?

A Revolutionary Woman – Deborah Sampson

Deborah Sampson, History at Play
Deborah Sampson, History at Play

During Women’s History Month we think back to an inspired performance at History Camp Boston 2017 featuring Deborah Sampson, a Contiental Army soldier from 1782 to 1783. This powerful performance created an emotional connection to the past and helped us to understand what it takes to make history.

Interpretive performance at History Camp 

This performance by History at Play helped us to see Deborah Sampson as a person who was courageous enough to serve in battle and at the same time lived in fear of being being discovered for assuming another person’s identity. Her secret was discovered when she was wounded in 1782, but her superior General John Paterson was so impressed with her bravery that she received an honorable discharge at West Point. Between 1792 and 1806, with the help of neighbor Paul Revere, she was able to obtain back pay, which had been denied her because of gender, and a pension.

See History at Play at History Camp Boston 2019 this Saturday featuring The House of Hancock.

Deborah receives her pension letter, photo by Dick McCreight/bluestemlight.com.
Deborah receives her pension letter, photo by Dick McCreight/bluestemlight.com.

A Women’s Champion

Boston Latin headmaster, author, and a beacon of learning, Charles K. Dillaway provided education to his daughters and their friends in the mid-1800s before women were given the legal right to education. His home, now the Dillaway-Thomas House in Roxbury, was a genteel center for the education of the young women friends of his daughter Emma, who were denied higher education by the culture of the time. We developed the interpretive program at the Dillaway-Thomas House at the Roxbury Heritage State Park and used the beautifully pensive painting Girl Reading, by Edmund Tarbell, to illustrate this moment in history.

“The school was kept in his study, a small, pleasant room at the back of his house completely lined with shelves crowded with [books] … The whole mental atmosphere of the school was sunny and loving. Great stress was laid upon English composition and upon Latin …. At recess we walked in the garden back of the house or were allowed to go into the parlor and use the piano.”

“Reminiscences” by P.R.H. from Roxbury Magazine, 1899
Girl Reading, Edmund Tarbell, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Above is a sample of the graphic interpretation at the Dillaway-House exhibits, come on Patriots Day when it is open to the public and experience the full experiences of the history of Roxbury.

It takes a village of institutions to make an exhibit

John Eliot, Jesus College Cambridge, artist unknown;  Malcolm X, c1950, Shomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL, photographer unknown
John Eliot, Jesus College Cambridge, artist unknown;  Malcolm X, c1950, Shomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL, photographer unknown

Telling the history of Roxbury, Massachusetts in SO many pictures

Let us imagine a time warp where the 17th-century preacher and evangelist John Eliot is saying “good day” to 20th-century activist Malcolm Little, aka Malcolm X, while on his way to the First Church in Roxbury meetinghouse in the center of town. They each formed their identity in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Eliot as an evangelist to the Nipmuc and other tribes and pastor at First Church, Little as a future activist while living in the house of his half-sister, Ella Little-Collins, on Dale Street. Each man would make his mark in history inspired by religion to change society in markedly different ways.

This juxtaposition demonstrates the challenge of interpreting 388 years of history in Roxbury, one of the six founding towns of the Bay Colony. For the first 138 years of its existence, Roxbury grew from a village to a city, before the citizens voted to be it absorbed by its wealthy neighbor, the “Athens of the East,” Boston.

The image research task was daunting, 87 individual images encompassing the entire range of western image making; manuscripts, engravings, oil painting, watercolors, pastels, as well as that standby, photography. The sources were equally diverse, 16 different collections, from art museums to postcard collections, plus commissioned illustrations and photography. And this is just the gallery graphics, there are another 80 or more images in the time-traveling media programs and interviews.

Our first featured image hails all the way from the Chicago Institute of Art, “Meetinghouse Hill” by John Ritto Penniman. Why had this painting, created by the man who designed the City of Boston seal in 1822, ended up in the Windy City? The unfortunate geographic dislocation is now corrected, a reproduction will now hang in the Dillaway-Thomas House. You can see the House, it is visible in the painting on the right.

“Meetinghouse Hill, Roxbury, Massachusetts”, by John Ritto Penniman 1799, oil on canvas

You may heard about the Reverend John Eliot, “Apostle to the Indians”—but how about the venerable General John Thomas who directed the southern wing of militia blocking the British troops from marching out of the besieged city of Boston? He appears kindly, if not strikingly handsome, in this portrait. A devoted husband, it is through letters to his wife Hannah we know much about the events of March 1776, when he oversaw the occupation of the nearby Dorchester Heights, forcing the British to evacuate Boston.

Major General John Thomas Benjamin Blyth, ca. 1775, pastel on paper, Massachusetts Historical Society

Our next topic was more difficult to illustrate, it is the typical interpretive conundrum of finding first-hand non-pejorative illustrations of the disenfranchised. Where will we locate first-hand images of African American revolutionary war soldiers, even just one? Never mind that on the spot illustrations of anything from the Revolutionary War is rare. This was very important, Roxbury is the center of African American culture in Boston. It turns out that the most requested item, according to Peter Harrington of the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University, is this watercolor of soldiers and militia, possibly at the surrender of the British at Yorktown. The Rhode Island Militia had a contingent of African Americans, one of who posed for this picture by a French artist.

“Soldiers in Uniform” by Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library

Moving into the 1830s, the namesake of our noble House, Charles K. Dillawa,y and wife Martha presided over a busy household that included three children, two sisters-in-law, a cousin Mary who gave music lessons, and a domestic staff. Mr. Dillaway was an enlightened man, publishing books on Roman Antiquities, helping found the Boston Society of Natural History, and teaching young women at his home who we barred from seeking higher education. Oh, and of course, his day job was headmaster of Boston Latin.

It is no wonder he would play host to the first ever Japanese exchange student program. Don’t let the swords distract you, the samurai class was one of the most progressive in mid-19th century Japan. The fellow on the left, with the distinct profile, Hanabusa Yoshimoto, went on to direct the Japanese Red Cross. The other men would also go on to leadership positions in Japan.

Dillaway with students, Antoine Sonrel, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

By 1868 the industrial revolution caught up with Roxbury and to cope with the services needed to care for its growing immigrant population Roxbury merged with Boston. To represent this pivotal moment we selected this birds-eye view of the July 4th, 1870 celebration in Boston. See the re-enactors on Boston Common? No hatch shell and duck boats yet. This is from the versatile collection at the Boston Public Library, maps and drawings from their collection make up a quarter of the images used in the exhibit.

View of Boston July 4th 1870,” Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library 

This takes us up to the 20th century, and our work just got harder, the number of people and nationalities filling up Roxbury was tremendous, for instance, why is there a Pompeii Street no one goes to Roxbury for Italian food! But in the early 20th century there was once a thriving community living and serving marinara sauce in the neighborhood of Roxbury near today’s Newmarket District. The Latvians too, yes, really, appeared as trouble makers in Roxbury, see Dennis Lehane’s “The Given Day,” The Irish, (think Mayor Curley) Germans, and Eastern European Jews are all part of Roxbury’s heritage.

Now we are in the mid-twentieth century and African Americans finding opportunities in our segregated society non-existed before because of the manpower shortages caused by World War II. This theme was eloquently illustrated by famous hometown artist John Wilson. His drawing was explicitly made to address this issue. Images like “Streetcar Scene” demonstrate the power of fine art to communicate interpretive messages in a manner more poignant than commissioned illustration.

“Streetcar Scene” by John Wilson, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Finally, this photo from the Associated Press captures a historic moment when Roxbury is recognized as a hub for African American political leadership. Martin Luther King Jr. held his first rally outside of the south in Roxbury, leading thousands on a march to the Boston Common where he led a rally seeking fair wages and workers rights.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., accompanied by Ralph Abernathy, right, and Rev. Virgil Wood, head of the Boston branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference , AP Photo

Members of the Roxbury Historical Society identified several other people in the photograph whom they knew personally; Roxbury has activism in its DNA!

When the exhibit opens later this spring, Roxbury residents might not realize the host of institutions that have been marshaled to tell their neighborhood’s story. They provide the first-ever comprehensive permanent exhibit of the city that was, and the vibrant neighborhood that is, Roxbury, Massachusetts.

20 Years Along the Blackstone River

The falls that made Woonsocket famous

Creating a the Anniversary Exhibit

With the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Museum of Work and Culture, part of the Rhode Island Historical Society, director Anne Conway knew what was needed to complement the existing exhibits. Well-represented in the Museum is the story of French-Canadian immigration, life on the mill floor, and the religious and cultural impact on Woonsocket created by  Christopher Chadbourne’s firm in the environmental exhibits style for which they were well-known. But the story of the mills themselves that brought the workers from Quebec province in Canada and all around the world did not have a place in the Museum. It was time to tell the complicated story of how the mills along the Blackstone Valley changed the landscape of Woonsocket using the new technologies now available.

In the beginning: Museum staff, Foundation members, and development team discuss goals and opportunities

The project start-up meeting included a tour around Woonsocket by NPS Blackstone Valley ranger Kevin Klyberg to view the mills some producing woolen goods for the US military others repurposed as living and maker spaces. As the project team absorbed the geography of the city and observed the 30-foot drop of the falls in front of the Museum, they pondered the task set out by the President of the Museum Foundation, Paul Bourget. Develop an exhibit that time travels over the topography of Woonsocket, and create a database of the people who worked there. Our 600sf exhibit now had two major components! 

Fortunately, the museum had professional video interviews made possible by a grant from the Blackstone Heritage Corridor for the team to draw on. Our team capped off this phase of work with an animated conceptual design, including a user interface for a gestural touchtable, along with a series of edited interviews by Northern Light Productions. This promotional animation created an effective fundraising and project awareness tool and was first featured by Anne Conway and Ed Malouf at the fall 2015 meeting of the Woonsocket Rotary Club.

Next up was a late night presentation at the Museum during the Murder in the Mill gala event which included actors from a local theater troupe. Is there a better time to present a new project than to a lively audience shortly after a murder mystery is solved? Spirits were indeed high, and after Anne and Ed finished their presentation a textile mill owner in the audience pledged $ 10,000 to the exhibit. This mixture of community, pleasure, and commitment proved to be a hallmark of Anne Conway and the Historical Society for raising awareness and funds for the project.

Mill Memory Alpha testing at Trivium Interactive in Boston

Utilizing the video interview collection, the Museum decided to implement a beta version of the database portion of the exhibit, called the Mill Memory Bank for the annual labor day event on September 26, 2016. Now known as the Mill Memory Bank exhibit, Trivium Interactive of Boston was engaged in developing more than a stand-alone kiosk exhibit, but a website for anyone to enter the information about a friend or relative who worked at a mill along the Blackstone Valley in return for a small donation to the Museum. We may find online forms tedious at times, but a great deal of work goes into them!

Final exhibit content plan overlaid on the former Woonsocket Works gallery

Exhibit development continued with the new location on the second floor. The gallery had five content areas, The Falls, The Mills of Woonsocket, Mill Memory Bank, and Woonsocket Works. Together they provided a variety of experiences; The Falls was a projection of the waterfall on a translucent screen with roaring water soundscape and an introduction banner that showed the original five Woonsocket Villages. The Mills Ideum touchtable had a docent mode which depicted Woonsocket one era at a time as well as the four-use mode where each visitor could time travel as they wished. The Mill Memory Bank was a list of the who’s who in the community and Woonsocket Works told the workers and products story and their artifacts.  An arch representing the famous Alice Mill keeps with the scenic approach to the exhibits at the museum. Would it be built of brick or scenically painted? During a community-wide presentation the Mayor of Woonsocket, Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, suggested we use actual bricks from the Alice Mill which burned down in 2011. The bricks were eventually located and wonderfully integrated into the final exhibit.


July Presentation to the Foundation and Society with installed Mill Memory exhibit

It is May 2017; the grand opening is only five months away. A google drive database created by the Museum’s Assistant Director Sarah Carr provided a place for researchers to add the information found about each mill. Each mill location had two characteristics, a name which might change if the owner changed, and a product, a mill that spun cotton in 1890 might be spinning nylon in 1930. When Sarah finished writing, there were 130 individual data points, with 98 of them requiring captions and images. This collection of data was an unprecedented documenting of the mills of Woonsocket. Content•Design visited the RIHS Library on Hope Street in search of reference maps and manufacturers advertisements so the streets and railroad lines would appear accurately on each era. Manufacturers advertisements provided images for the graphic murals. 

More support and content came from the community. A member of the Finkelstein family provided photographs of workers from his father’s mill that were taken by a fashion photographer. Stitching rubber garments never looked so good on film. These photos enhanced the exhibit quality significantly. The Woonsocket Historical Society provided artifacts of product promotional items and workforce motivation pins. A local Polish market allowed the use of a publicity photo so we could complete our “Communities of Woonsocket” section. 

Funding progressed enough, so a carpet that evoked mossy cobblestones and enhanced light adjustments that complemented the new deep blue walls completed the gallery makeover. On November  2, 2017, two days before the 20th-anniversary gala, the builders 42DesignFab made final adjustments to the gallery space and left it gala-ready. The opening party was a smashing success, the exhibit was packed, and these museum visitors stayed until 1:00 in the morning. 

The gallery is ready for the opening gala

Before and after photos of the gallery 

This project met the challenging goals set out by the Museum and Foundation, its development was  hardly linear, but followed the winding Blackstone River as summed up by Anne Conway:

“We embarked on the project wholeheartedly with the confidence that the community and funding partners would embrace the idea and support it. From phase to phase, new fundraising goals were set, and new challenges emerged. Research, exhibit development, and fundraising happened simultaneously. It took a little over two years to complete Mills along the Blackstone, a beautiful new interactive exhibit which brings to life the history of the local mills and its workers.”


Sarah Carr from the Museum asists gala attendees explore mill history

Each visitor has their own portal in which to travel through time for each mill location

Foundation President Paul Bourget and Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt with bricks from the Alice Mill

Museum of Work & Culture

Staying ahead of the current

Missouri State Parks, Big Spring

Planning interpretation along the Current River in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways

Home to the most significant number of first magnitude springs in the world and the Current River, the Riverways has been a National Park for 53 years. Before that, there were several Missouri State Parks, Big Spring and Round Spring for instance, that had been serving the public since the 1920s. So the karst geology and untouched riparian environment have been a destination for paddlers, hikers, birders, hunters, and spelunkers for almost a century. It was time to see how things stood in the interpretive world, time for a new Park Service Long Range Interpretive Plan!

Our first series of workshops and outreach sessions took place in late August, the season was winding down, but there were still thousands of visitors all along the Riverways on a weekday with a ten-fold increase on the weekend. The interpretive staff of four were challenged to remove themselves from their duties for two days to soul-search the Park Interpretive mission. Even during the scoping site visits the Rangers answered visitor’s questions and gave directions. A ranger’s work never stops.

Ozark National Scenic Riverways Visitor Orientation Center

Our tour took us to all the major locations on the upper and lower river and one location on Jacks Fork, site of the Alley Mill, an iconic red building now featured on a commemorative quarter. During our rides in the white NPS van together we learn about the challenges of whiz-bang tourism, how floaters have issues with jet skiers, and they both have problems with horse riders. The constituency is diverse, and one of the most important things these planning projects do it put everyone in the same room. When people are face to face, and not on facebook, they are much more amenable to understanding.

Running a workshop is part showmanship and part storytelling, Faye Goolrick is both of these. Her self-effacing Atlanta manner puts everyone at ease and commands respect. As a designer who is accustomed to creating a consensus for a specific design, workshops like this are opened ended, a catch-all for differing points of view. The strategies that Faye uses are familiar to professional workshop leaders but new to us designers. Everyone might count off and form small groups, discussing “Prioritizing storylines with visitors in mind” or “Issues and influences that impact interpretation” and then reporting back. Other exercises are “What would you do with $100,000?” or “If you had a magic gem with three wishes what would they be?”. By mixing up the seating patterns the college professor might be sitting next to the town of Eminence Museum director, and the representative of the Ozark Equestrian Association might be across from the State Park interpreter of Echo Bluff.


The most contentious issue was media in the parks. Cell signals get sketchy in the Ozark Riverways, and many think that is a good thing. But there is no doubt that millennials consider their smartphone as integral to public life as socks and shoes. It was clear that the room was weighted heavily to the older staff who enjoyed sharing stories of smart-phone gazing hikers walking into trees. The gold standard of interpretation is a knowledgeable ranger, you the visitor, and the scenic wonder at hand. But there are fewer rangers; they cannot be everywhere, cell or hotspot interpretation would be appreciated by many visitors. Wifi at park sites might not impact night-time programs as feared. The oldest participant in the workshop, an esteemed author, and the former ranger had an iPad. Its here, let us take advantage of the various manifestations of new technology, this was the eventual consensus.

User interface development workshop

My presentation was on the potential for fixed and portable exhibits at each of the four contact stations and visitor center. It included a chart showing the spectrum of exhibit complexity possible at each location. Followed by examples of all kinds of interpretive tools; kiosks, they need better graphics identity, scenic exhibits, physical and digital interactives, a touch-table. It was a quick taxonomy of the world of exhibits and environmental graphics that was appreciated by the staff. It was followed up by even more blue-sky imagery; the NPS Harpers Ferry representative shared with us the Corning World of Glass video. It features transparent iPad like devices that show dinosaurs on the landscape, advanced plant identification, think Plant-net on steroid, and a host of Minority Report-inspired environmental digital media. This put everyone in the mood for the “100,000 dollars” and “Magic Gem” exercises.

Ozark National Scenic Riverway NPS Interpretive team

What did the Rangers wish for? More staff, another full-time interpreter, an executive assistant, volunteer liaison/videographer. That is what they would do with their first $100K, its all about the people!

It is now time for Faye and myself to look back on our notes and bring the hundreds of post-it notes, scribed comments, and incidental conversations into a dynamic long-range plan that will point the park in the right interpretive direction for the next 25 years.

Audience feedback from workshops and outreach sessions

Illuminating the Luminaries

A space to recognize world-class innovation at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Innovation was a key ingredient in our exhibit which harnessed the power of interactives to extend the WPI Hall of Luminaries brand identity to exhibit graphics, awards, and multi-media. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) alumni have made outsized contributions to the world of scientific innovation. If you see a Segway wiz by or talk to SIRI on your iPhone you are observing the work of WPI alumni. President Laurie Leshin believed WPI’s pioneering spirit deserved a special place at the Institute, a place where their work would serve as a visible reminder of what has been accomplished by men and women educated at the Institute. In her mind, this was not something that existed on a bookshelf, a web page or a plaque or monument on the campus. She wanted it as a place the students gathered and studied—the third floor of the Rubin Campus Center to showcase the WPI Hall of Luminaries.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute photographs of the WPI Hall of Luminaries exhibit and opening event

President Laurie Leshin WPI Hall of Luminaries cuts the ribbon

With only six months to develop and install an exhibit in a student center where a bustling lobby, a conference room, and a large auditorium share the space the team lead by Trivium Interactive with Content•Design as the design lead, also understood that their work needed to be compelling enough for some of the savviest techno geeks in the country. We harnessed innovation and teamwork to bring their stories of the WPI Luminaries to life.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute photographs of the WPI Hall of Luminaries exhibit and opening event

Recognition plaque honoring Dean Kamen a visionary inventor

The Institute provided excellent leadership, the facilities department were proactive in helping us shape a design that would allow existing functions to be unhindered, and yet create a place both dynamic and inspiring. Early ideas considered inclusion of visible examples such as “Ginger” the Segway prototype (Kamen), or even cooler, the rocket (Goddard)! But only a few inductees have work made visible so neatly.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute photographs of the WPI Hall of Luminaries exhibit and opening event

WPI alumni Dean Kamen explores the Wheel of Luminaries

A branding scheme provided by Pop Kitchen featured a sparkler motif with myriad variations, a graphic designers dream. We applied it to the walls, the recognition plaques and the Wheel of Luminaries, an interactive that will peak the interest of students as well as intrigue the Alumni. The feature area was accentuated by a 93-inch tall edge illuminated band that lead visitors from the title-wall to the interactive.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute photographs of the WPI Hall of Luminaries exhibit and opening event

The WPI Hall of Luminaries at the Rubin Campus Center

How do you plan for a recognition program that will last as long as the institution, with new inductees every two years? Content•Design developed an awards wall that featured a grid which will accommodate inductees through 2020. The build partner, 42DesignFab developed a circular edge-lit system to illuminate the recognition plaques, eliminating the need for an unwieldy lightbox.  Additional wall areas will allow the Institute to feature honorees until 2050 and beyond, enough to inspire decades of students.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute photographs of the WPI Hall of Luminaries exhibit and opening event

The award is powered by solar power

The finishing touch to this story of innovation honoring innovation is the Award itself. The concept of light is carried into the design, LEDs hidden in the base of the award, create a sparkle effect that would have made John Boynton, founder of WPI and Luminary, smile.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute photographs of the WPI Hall of Luminaries exhibit and opening event

John Boynton, one of the founders of WPI and one of the Luminaries

We really appreciate having the opportunity to work with a talented team under the direction of Judith Jaeger the Executive Director, Advancement Events & Communications, and University Advancement at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who provided these amazing photographs.