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Smithsonian African American museum launches online interactive access

The new ‘Searchable Museum’ will bring a trove of artifacts, stories and images to the Internet

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture launched a sophisticated digital platform Thursday that brings a trove of interactive stories, images and video about the Black experience out of the museum and onto the Internet.

Called the Searchable Museum, it is designed to present the treasures of the five-year-old landmark on the National Mall in Washington to a broader audience, said museum director Kevin Young. The museum, which opened to the public on Sept. 24, 2016, has 40,000 artifacts.

“I used to talk about the digital future, but it’s really the digital present,” Young said. “We’re bringing the museum beyond its four walls. … It’s like a museum in your pocket.”

“The goal was really to think about how we could bring history in your hands,” he said Wednesday. “I really think the experience of going to the museum … is transformative. And … what we wanted out of the site is something transformative as well.”

Young said the digital access will allow the public to view exhibits at their own pace and in their own time. “I really see it as an incredible resource for visitors … who really want to either experience the museum for the first time or return again and again online,” he said.

“And there’s things you can see [virtually] that you can’t see in person,” he said.

For example, a meticulously preserved slave cabin from Edisto Island, S.C., is on display in the museum. “What you can’t do in the museum is go inside it,” Young said. But now you can, digitally.

The visitor can also take a grim 3-D virtual tour of the slave ship L’Aurore, for which a complete set of building plans survives.

Haunting relics from a slave ship headed for African American museum

In 1784, the ship, specifically designed to transport enslaved people, carried 600 captives from West Africa to what is now Haiti to work on sugar and coffee plantations, according to the museum.

There’s also a time-lapse video showing the movement of 31,042 slave ships that carried millions of captive people from Africa to Europe, the Caribbean, and North and South America between 1514 and 1860.

Also, a chilling video depicts the toll the sea voyage took on the enslaved. Tens of thousands perished on the journey.

In 1704, the French slave ship Badine, sailing out of La Rochelle, took on 700 captives in Whydah, in modern-day Benin.

When the ship arrived at the slave port of Cartagena, now in Colombia, only 14 of the captives had survived.

“Every morning, perhaps more instances than one are found of the living and the dead … fastened together,” recalled John Newton, an English slave ship captain who later became an abolitionist and wrote the words to “Amazing Grace.”

The cruelty was unimaginable. The enslaved were beaten, branded and kept shackled. One image shows an English slave trader tasting an enslaved man’s sweat to detect disease.

Another story is told of a group of captured Africans, members of the Ibo people, who in 1803 overpowered the crew of their slave ship, and then, still chained together, drowned themselves at a place in southeast Georgia now called Ibo Landing.

Digital visitors can see the shawl given by Britain’s Queen Victoria to the famous underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, as well as a simple straw hat owned by the civil rights and bus boycott leader Rosa Parks.

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There is a pocket version of the Emancipation Proclamation carried during the Civil War by Union soldiers to inform the enslaved in rebel states that they were free, and a striking photo of an African American laundress.

She wears an American flag attached to her dress and is believed to have worked for soldiers in the Union Army.

Another image shows Queen Nzingha, who in the 1600s ruled the Mbundu people in the state of Ndongo, located in Kongo, the exhibition says.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was an educated Muslim slave trader who was captured in 1731 and enslaved on a tobacco plantation in Annapolis. He was eventually freed, returned to Gambia, and ransomed fellow Muslims who were enslaved.

The exhibition is “searchable within the museum but also searchable expanding across the Smithsonian and further out,” said Mary Elliott, the curator of the museum’s first digital exhibition, called “Slavery and Freedom.”

Other stories abound — like that of Ellen and William Craft, whose escape from slavery involved a daring racial and gender masquerade.

Ellen Craft, a light-skinned enslaved woman, disguised herself as a frail White man who was traveling with his servant, portrayed by Craft’s dark-skinned enslaved husband, William.

In December 1848, in Macon, Ga., the couple planned to cross hundreds of miles of hostile, slaveholding country to reach the safety of Philadelphia. (Slavery had been outlawed in Pennsylvania the year before.)

But they knew that a White woman would not customarily travel with an enslaved male servant. So Ellen had to become a man.

William cut his wife’s hair short. She put on a top hat, and pretended she was deaf. She bandaged her face to hide the absence of a beard, and put her arm in a sling, so she wouldn’t have to sign anything. Neither Ellen nor William could then read or write.

“When the time had arrived for us to start, we blew out the lights, knelt down and prayed to our Heavenly Father mercifully to assist us as he did his people of old to escape from cruel bondage,” the couple wrote in a book years later.

“I took my wife by the hand, stepped softly to the door … [and] whispered …‘Come my dear. Let us make a desperate leap for liberty,’ ” William said, in their account.

With hair-raising close calls, they traveled to Richmond, Washington and Baltimore and reached Philadelphia and freedom on Christmas Day, 1848.

“That’s one of those stories that should be better known,” Young said. “It’s a powerful story. … It also thinks about race, gender and class.”

“People now, for many reasons, are talking about ‘passing,’ ” for White, he said. “And that story talks about that.”

The project, more than a year in the making, has been made possible through the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, the museum said.

Other digital exhibitions are planned after “Slavery and Freedom.”

“This is just the start,” Young said. “We’re looking right now at phase two and stories we can tell next.”

“This is African American history, which is central to American history,” he said. “To understand American history, we have to understand this. We have to understand the impact of slavery on life today. This is true for everyone.”

The exhibition opens with words from the late African American poet Maya Angelou: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”