I believe that understanding the past is essential to better perceiving the present and future.
This project seeks to highlight the history of Oakland’s Slave Square and African American Grounds through the purview of African American women in the waning years of Reconstruction. Oakland Cemetery makes conscious efforts to restore and enhance the historical character of Oakland while limiting disruptive or damaging additions to the site (Stantec, 2018). To achieve the goal of revealing history while maintaining the site, I explored the value of novel custom-built wearable interfaces to support historic tours and reenactment practices. This work is an example of emphasizing cultural heritage through digital means and is important for the fields of Digital Humanities as well as Interaction Design.
These projects provide several lessons for potential Oakland designs. Participants appreciate conventions. When asked to perform or engage, users want to be sure that their expertise and previous experiences are appropriate for the task (Honauer, et al, 2020). Participants in this case may be amenable to adjusting expectations if they are provided time to ease into novel designs. Modifications to conventions may also be acceptable in more culturally sensitive areas, such as cemeteries, if they do not commodify emotional and personal culture and practices (Hakkila, et al, 2019). This is not to imply that participants are unwilling to share vulnerabilities and cherished personal memories. As noted in the cultural probe, sharing within a group setting builds comradery between participants. Performance may also provide successful means of exploring sensitive topics by providing “roles” for participants (Demetriou, et al, 2017). In these assigned “roles” participants are provided opportunity to explore the personal narratives and emotions of a “character” outside of themselves (Isbister & Abe, 2015). Group-based projects provide opportunities for more dynamic exploration over solo experiences. Aesthetic immersive elements such as props can either enhance or hinder a project (Isbister & Abe, 2015). Difficult to operate, physically uncomfortable, and thematically inappropriate elements distract from interpersonal dialogue. Successful props meld into the surroundings and build immersion instead of distracting users and spectators.
“Exploring spatial narratives and mixed reality experiences in Oakland Cemetery” (Dow, et al, 2005) produced a drama-based tour of various gravesites, where users could listen to actor-voiced narrations of cemetery residents via a portable audio device.
“Designing an interactive gravestone display” by Hakkila, et al (2019) sought a method of connecting the digital and physical to create interactive in-situ memorials which would enhance gravesite visitation.
Costumes as Game Controllers: An Exploration of Wearables to Suit Social Play (Isbister & Abe, 2015) unfolded as a collaboration between a game designer and a costume designer. Rather than play as a virtual character, the interactors can put on costumes and “become” game characters.
Overcoming Reserve-Supporting Professional Appropriation of Interactive Costumes (Honauer, et al, 2020) created digitally enhanced costumes for a ballet based on dancer and audience feedback and criteria.
The importance of identity and social standing are etched onto the landscape of Oakland Cemetery. The uncertainty of the Reconstruction and post-bellum years provided opportunities for women to carve out unique social and political identities of their own (Janney, 2008). Reconstruction was to be a death knell to America’s previous racist hierarchy, but the influence of White-only organizations like the Ladies Memorial Association limited Reconstruction’s success. Though Black women’s lobbying lacked the overt visibility and funding that White women enjoyed, legal freedom afforded Black women opportunities to partake in nineteenth-century femininity that were denied to them under enslavement (Forbes, 1998). Rather than fully embrace Anglo-American traditions in the Reconstruction era, black women continued to meld Anglo and African traditions and used mourning customs to uphold these values (Henderson, 2008).
The route loops to four stops.
Four sites within the cemetery are reviewed for this tour: 1) Slave Square, 2) Confederate Grounds Monuments, 3) African American Burial Grounds, and 4) Georgia Harris’s Gravesite.
The interpreter, in character and costume, gives a tour from the perspective of an African American woman living at the end of Reconstruction. The events of the tour are framed to occur on national Memorial Day (regardless of the actual date). The interpreter has taken the opportunity to use this Decoration Day to adorn the grave of a loved-one, and has invited friends (visitors) to participate. This loved-one was originally buried in Slave Square but was disinterred in 1877. The tour stops create a loop as participants walk from Slave Square, through the Confederate Grounds, to the African American grounds, and finally ending a few yards from Slave Square at the grave of Georgia Harris. The content of the tour allows interpreters to take advantage of the geographic placement of each stop, where meaning can be gleaned from the historical racism imbedded into the cemetery (Flowers, 2007).
Stop #1 Slave Square
Example of Whitbey-style beaded necklace, from Victorian Women of Color: 32 Photos of Beauty In The Age Of Hatred [Photograph]. (n.d.). Flashback.com. https://flashbak.com/victorian-women-of-color-32-photos-of-beauty-in-the-age-of-hatred-31918/
Guide assembling beads. Button-chatelaine belt for audio tour hang from waistband.
Stop #2 Confederate Grounds
Hammock, C. C. (1875, April 25). Proclamation! The Atlanta Constitution, p. 2.
Stop #3 African American Burial Grounds
Brooch worn to activate skirt .
Stop #4 Georgia Harris
Illuminated skirt with floral pattern.
Mourning ribbons with sound boards created for the tour.
The completed garment.