At the University of Florida late last week, I heard a presentation by the staff of Local Projects, a design firm that creates interactive public installations that provoke constructive discussions. For instance, in StoryCorps, people enter a kiosk in pairs, interview each other, and their taped interview becomes part of a digital archive. When Local History created the installation for the National September 11 Memorial Museum, they asked people to contribute their own photos and text from 9/11 and produced a repository that is also accessible via one of the top iPhone apps. At the Contemporary Issues Forum of the National Museum of American Jewish History (shown below), visitors tape their answers to controversial questions. (The fact that participants’ arguments are recorded along with their real names and faces inhibits incivility.)
Advanced technology helps but isn’t essential. An early project involved a memorial in Washington for the New York City victims of 9/11. It was a large paper map of New York, onto which visitors could post their own hand-written notes on semi-transparent paper. Not only did the map become a repository of memories, but strangers had moving conversations.
There are precedents. In 1773, Philippe d’Orleans rebuilt the Palais-Royale in Paris with open arcades for cafes and entertainments. Throughout the Revolution, those spaces were bedecked with posters, pamphlets, and broadsides that prompted all kinds of conversations, including the famous speech of Camille Desmoulins that helped cause the Storming of the Bastille. Or consider the Egyptian Army tanks that are currently covered with democratic slogans. But despite these precedents, museum installations that create archives of visitors’ contributions seem to me basically a new genre–and full of democratic possibilities.