Work and Culture, Interactive Museum Memories

Woonsocket Works a new exhibit under development at the Museum of Work & CultureExhibit sketch using the Blackstone River as a metaphor, visitors learn through interactive exhibits about how the mills changed the historical landscape

Anne Conway, the director of the Museum of Work and Culture,  is the driving force behind “Woonsocket Works” a new exhibit that will give visitors the opportunity to learn through interactive experiences about the hundreds of mills in the city during the region’s industrial heyday, shaping the city and the lives and culture of its people. During her 20 years with the museum, she has enhanced the original exhibit plan with additions that connect the institution with the community around it.

The Mill Memory Bank is an interactive database that tells the stories of the workers from the Blackstone Valley

“The Mill Memory Bank” is an interactive database that tells the stories of the workers from the Blackstone Valley. Continuously updated by Museum staff as individuals make their contributions, either on-line or in person, these records become an important part of the collection. On the large gallery screen a dynamic display of the visitor’s entry will also appear (see above).  Read here how families and friends gather to watch as their history becomes a part of the museum. Now we are developing a touch screen interface that will allow users to interact with history on their terms, searching the database and watching interviews with mill workers and owners.

Accessibility Testing Mill Memory BankEd Malouf of Content Design works with Jill Domenici and Bruce Spero of Trivium Interactive to test user accessibility

The next phase of “Woonsocket Works” will develop the exhibit space with graphics and a multi-touch table experience bringing the history of this corner of the  Blackstone Valley to life with interactive maps and the cultural stories that have shaped the vibrant community of Woonsocket. This variety of experiences will address the needs of all types of museum visitors, including the streaker, the stroller, and the studier. With the completed “Woonsocket Works” gallery there will be exhibits organized to respond to all three.

“We can’t talk about the mills without talking about the workers,” Conway said. “That’s what the Museum of Work and Culture is about. It’s about people.”

Why is there a lighthouse on top of a mountain?


The War Memorial on top of Mount Greylock

It is not a lighthouse, it is a beacon.

What is the difference? It is all a matter of context; a lighthouse is specifically designed to guide ocean-going vessels away from treacherous shores and help in pinpointing their location. A beacon is more general, “a fire or light that is set up in high position.” However, when the beacon atop Mount Greylock was built in 1931 it was the golden age of aviation, well before IFR and GPS. Pilots depended on landmarks they could see on the ground while flying their Ford Trimotor passenger planes. This is not to take away from the symbolic meaning of the beacon, the light is a memorial for all men and women who gave their lives in war.
Today the new LED based lighting system shines at 1.9 million lumens, four times the strength of the previous light system. The tower has been refinished for the third time in its history, now with a new silicone grout system that holds great promise for keeping out the water that has plagued the structure for most of its 86 years. The inner chamber was restored as well. It is an ethereal space with a gold-leafed conical ceiling and quotations inscribed along the perimeter wall. If you are game you can climb the internal spiral staircase 50 feet above to view points of interest in New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire as well as Massachusetts. This vantage point also orients you to your immediate surroundings, Bascom Lodge and the Overlook.

But most visitors choose not to, or are unable to, climb the stairs, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, in keeping with its mission of making all of its sites accessible, selected Content•Design to develop a way in which the tower experience could be made accessible. In our previous blog we discuss how we approached the a alternative experience development. Below is a description of the installed exhibits.

Tower interpretive panel

The Monument tower interpretation panel recently installed atop Mount Greylock.

The Bronze panel informs the visitor what is inside the inner chamber, dimensional elements reveal the interior of the tower, especially the inner chamber and spiral staircase. These are in extreme relief and provide a tactile experience. Other elements such as the eagle above the door and the US Army medallion in the chamber floor are depicted. The three-0foot wide panel is set on a Barrie, VT granite block that is a match for the other granite elements on site.

On the newly refurbished parapet that surrounds the Mounument, a wayside reproduces the views in each cardinal direction. The images not only show the distant landmarks but also places near the tower, a challenge to the designers since no single image from each direction taken by the photo drone would provide the view a visitor would see.


Greylock North View Wayside Panel
The new wayside interpretive panel looking north

The North view is a good example of how limited a visitors view can be from the parapet, the panel image allows visitors to look over the trees in front. We deliberately chose to keep the waysides simple. No other stories although Greylock is the source of so many good stories, true and fanciful. That is left to the visitor center eight miles below, here we keep the visitor focused on the view and identifying landmarks. Note the use of stainless steel posts for durability in the boreal conditions. The phenolic panel is supplied by Fossil Industries .

The granite was supplied by Barrie Granite in Vermont, and the bronze panel cast by Matthews International . Both were installed by Berkshire Monumental Works  of North Adams.


The Geometry of Giving

Modest as it may be, the donor panel symbolizes something critical; it represents the generosity of the person to whom the building or exhibit owes its existence. Once a neglected design genre, donor panel systems are now striking features in the public spaces of building lobbies. They have grown in sophistication along with the architecture around it. Digital systems respond to visitors interactions, beautiful sandblasted glass panels enhance the texture of a feature wall. Two examples shown below depict extremes of recognition, the Dell Children’s Medical Center in Texas by Fd2s Design Consultants is interactive; visitors create butterflies when they touch the glowing plaques. The New York University Medical Center by Poulin Morris is an elegant marriage of type and texture. Each is a form of permanent recognition; these will remain in place for the life of the building. Also, each depicts a single level of giving.  Located elsewhere are other giving levels.


Left: Dell Children’s Medical Center donor recognition program by F2Ds   Right: New York University Medical Center by Poulin Morris

Capital Campaigns are a different challenge, they are for a particular project and need to represent all levels of giving in one location. Relative scale is essential, with larger donors having the biggest plaque and tallest cap height. It’s a challenge to differentiate a $25 gift and a $ 25,000 all on the same wall.  A proportional typographic treatment could lead to extreme proportions. If the top donor has a 1.5” letter height how small is the smallest donor, 1/16th of an inch? The designer goes beyond scale and uses material and color to help solve the design problem. Smaller donors can also be clustered onto a single panel within the system, creating a more appropriate relationship to the larger forms of recognition.

The following installations show scale and architectural integration. At the Clark Center designed by Tadao Ando and Gensler, a connecting corridor portrays three levels of giving. It dynamically carries you through space with etched and filled lettering on acrylic is backed by a metallic film creating a subtle drop shadow. Shown in the corridor of the PETA headquarters designed by Lawrence + Beaven Design is a full range of scale with at least five levels of giving represented by typographic scale and weight. Finally, an unidentified Capitol Campaign shown on Pinterest, it appears to be at a Temple, is playful and wonderfully integrated with the textural color of the wall.


Top left: Clart Art Center by Tadao Ando and Gensler    Top right: PETA Headquarters by Lawrence + Beaven Design    Bottom:  Captial Campaign recognition program, designer and location unknown

This design we found most inspirational for our giving recognition challenge, the donor system for the Parker’s Revenge Archeological Project at the Minuteman National Park Site in Lincoln, Massachusetts. This landmark project has revealed much about how this well-known skirmish, for instance, the pattern of musket balls found in the metallic survey reveals much about the number and location of the combatants. Our fundraising recognition for the project and exhibit will share the same wood-paneled wall as the exhibit. It must represent a large range of giving within the four linear feet dedicated to the system.

Our project is in design development, and the park manager is excited by our design with a variety of wood stain color with routed and printed lettering.



Above are two studies we developed showing a looser and tighter design grid. By mounting the plaques to a backer board, we limit the impact on the paneled wall. Inspired by the stained wood finish made for another project, the Norman Bird Sanctuary signage fabricated by Wood and Wood Signs in Waitsfield, Vermont. By using the right kind of wood with a pronounced grain, in this instance ash, creating a visual link between the wood panel wall and donor system.

Making the Magic of Mount Greylock Accessible

Pottermore website with image of Llvermorny School exterior exhibits provide access, meaning, and magic

To the residents of western Massachusetts, selecting Mount Greylock as the scene for a supernatural thriller is as natural as the clouds that envelope the peak giving it its name. After all, they are familiar with sightings of Bigfoot (of course), and ghostly “Old Coot”, a restless Civil War veteran. Nathaniel Hawthorne added to the mystery with his story of Ethan Brand who conjured up supernatural beings in his lime kiln. The Greylock experience has always had a touch of the supernatural.

Adding to this mythology famous wizard creator JK Rowling has set her Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry atop Mount Greylock in her new book “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Naturally, if such a structure existed it would be invisible to “muggles” like ourselves. Access to the world of magic is limited in the world of Harry Potter to the magically gifted.

The Massachusetts War Memorial on the left, with a cross-section used in developing the exhibit.

In reality, visitors do not encounter a School of Witchcraft on top of Mount Greylock but rather the Massachusetts War Memorial. But access to the top is difficult for many people. Ascending the 92 tightly coiled steps up to the top of the monument is not for the faint-hearted.  But those that do are rewarded by fantastic views of Connecticut, New York, and Vermont as well as eastern Massachusetts. On a clear day point 90 miles away are visible. Our challenge is to make these views accessible to visitors reluctant to make the climb to the top. A technology solution was out of the question; our exhibit would be located outdoors in the vicinity of the monument structure with subzero wintertime temperatures and gale force winds (only a media wizard with magical touchscreen kiosks could pull this off). Instead, we translated the views into a wayside exhibit that mimic  the panoramic views available from the top of the tower.

Four images were composited together to create this westerly view

Photos by Jeffrey Bryne, magic by photoshop; this panoramic view encompassing more than 90 degrees is a compilation of three photos

Just send up a drone and spin it 360 degrees, right? Not so simple, the human eye is attached to a head that rotates up and down as well as left and right. We needed to capture not only the mountain ranges but the destinations near the tower such as Bascomb Lodge and the Overlook. This required Photoshop magic, which the staff at Content Design is adept at making. The photographer Jeffrey Bryne took photos at two azimuths, cut and blended for a seamless panoramic that was segmented into the four cardinal directions. Set on stainless steel posts fastened onto the Quincy granite parapet our phenolic panels will be unobtrusive and will last until a media wizard arrives with 22nd-century holographic technology placing visitors virtually at the top of the tower.



This mock-up shows the dimensional elements; eagle, medallion, and tower section. These are a boon to sight-impaired people and all visitors love to touch the exhibits!

If this was not enough interpretive enchantment, our team told the story of the War Memorial Tower. Less dramatic than the imagined Ilvermorny School with its turrets, stone walls, and monogrammed gate, it nevertheless could have served as an inspiration for its tapered column and glowing beacon. Erected in the early 20th century to honor World War One veterans who gave their lives, it now stands as a monument for all wars. Writing the text for the bronze plaque format was challenging. Within the space constraints we provided information for all aspects of the tower; the inner chamber, exterior sculpture, staircase and beacon.

Our solution was inspired by other bronze elements on the summit, creating a three-dimensional cross-section of the tower that included the inner chamber, stairs, and beacon, giving visitors a better look at the tower structure than the visitors who entered it.

After the construction fence comes down and the refurbished tower is open to the public in the fall, our exhibits will make accessible aspects of Mount Greylock and the War Memorial that until now have remained hidden to many of us—just like that school for wizards.

The final panels are elegant and inviting, and require a lot less work than climbing 92 stairs

 The final west view panel

Rebalancing the Confederate History Experience

From 1889 to 1946 in Limestone County, Texas, veterans of the Confederate Army and their families gathered at the Confederate Reunion Grounds

Interpretative exhibit design and lessons about American identity and family culture

Our understanding of history changes over time, and the Civil War is a topic that is as alive as ever at the Confederate Reunion Grounds State Historic Site in Mexia, Texas.  Established in 1889 as the Joseph E. Johnston Camp of the United Confederate Veterans at a time when the many veterans and their families were alive and well, the grounds are preserved today as State Historic Site managed by the Texas Historical Commission (THC). After the June 2015 tragedy in Charleston at the famous Bethel AME church when nine parishioners were murdered by a man motivated by racial hatred, the Commission responded to the nationwide debate about the public display of the battle flag of the Confederate States of America by removing the Confederate Flags on display at the Reunion Grounds. What was a straightforward storytelling of local history became part of a national dialogue about a historic flag.

While “rebalancing” the interpretation of this historic landscape it was important to understand the role that it played in the community. Although the American Civil War ended in 1865, Confederate Army veterans were not permitted to gather in large numbers until seceding states re-established local rule in the 1870s. Afterward, hundreds of reunion organizations sprang up across the South to share memories of the war. In Limestone County thousands of people gathered at the Reunion Grounds for annual camp meetings. Over several days, they enjoyed speeches, concerts, and dances while raising funds for families of fallen comrades.

Mexia, Texas, July 1st, 1905 General Orders No. 22
All members of Joe Johnston Camp, No. 94, U. C. V. are hereby commanded to answer to roll call at the Reunion Grounds on Tuesday, July 18th, 1905, at 10 o’clock a.m. provided with four days rations, armed and equipped to have a good time. Leave all cares behind and “turn yourselves loose” for four days.
Excerpted from the Groesbeck Journal, July 6, 1905

The THC originally asked Content•Design Collaborative to develop an interpretative program that showcases the Reunion Grounds’ rich history, but in addition to implementing a program in which the battle flag of the Confederate States can be displayed in a way acceptable to all visitors. Here is how we brought the story to life for residents and tourists.

Old Val Verde, a Civil War-era cannon that Reunion Grounds campers fired to start and end each day.
Unfold the narrative in pieces. Put historic photographs front and center.

We designed and wrote eight graphic panels that guide visitors through place and time along walking trails and picnic areas. We used captivating images, skillfully preserved by THC researchers and archivists, to give visitors a palpable sense of humanity from long ago. This panel explains the history of Old Val Verde, a Civil War-era cannon that Reunion Grounds campers fired to start and end each day. The weapon symbolized a national movement known as Lost Cause, which sought to strengthen camaraderie among Southern veterans and restore the honor of fallen Confederate soldiers. This image might make the 21st-century viewer think of his regional pride, the US military, or perhaps any political cause championed by parade marchers.


Here, we explain how the Reunion Grounds experienced a second wave of popularity during the 1920s Oil Boom in nearby Mexia [muh-hay-a]. When oil entrepreneur AJ Humphrey damned the Navasota River to harness water for his oil fields, he transformed the Grounds into a popular swimming area complete with bathhouse, water slide, and footbridge.
Mix and match other visual elements

Few trail walkers will pore over a panel offering dry renditions of facts. Instead, our compositions capture the eye through inset orientation maps, subheads, and photo captions. Here, we explain how the Reunion Grounds experienced a second wave of popularity during the 1920s Oil Boom in nearby Mexia [muh-hay-a]. When oil entrepreneur AJ Humphrey damned the Navasota River to harness water for his oil fields, he transformed the Grounds into a popular swimming area complete with bathhouse, water slide, and footbridge. The Reunion Grounds serves as a historically valuable site which provides visitors with the context in which to understand the very complex issues of the past and the present.

Visitors now learn about flags such as Hardee Pattern Battle Flag that was inspired by the Irish Full Moon Rebellion of 1778 or how the 1863 United States 34-star flag contained the stars of the Confederate states because they were still considered part of the Union.
Give a controversial symbol context

Initially, the Reunion Grounds provided a lesson on all the flags flown during the 5-year life of the Confederacy. Few visitors understand that the familiar image of the battle flag was not the official flag of the Confederacy, but only one of many individual army units flags flown by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. The familiar stars and bars pennant was created by the military of northern Virginia but for various reasons became emblematic of the Confederate aspect of the Civil War. Together with the staff of the Commission, we created a graphic display that enabled the staff at the Reunion Grounds to show a total of 14 flags, both Union and Confederate. Visitors now learn about flags such as Hardee Pattern Battle Flag that was inspired by the Irish Full Moon Rebellion of 1778 or how the 1863 United States 34-star flag contained the stars of the Confederate States because they were still considered part of the Union.

Now visitors to the Reunion grounds will not only learn about the famous dance pavilion, a water park on the Navasota River, and the Mexia oil boom, they will get a short lesson in Vexillology, or the study of flags.