Ignite 2023: Dr. Synatra Smith

Dr. Synatra Smith
Black eXpeRience Researcher

MCN 2023 Conference
November 8, 2023
World Café Live, Philadelphia


Hello everyone. This evening, I'm excited to share some reflections on my work as a cultural anthropologist exploring extended reality, or XR, and other digital tools to enhance museum and library collections. I entered the field at a severely under-resourced, understaffed museum with big ideas. Because of that experience, my approach to any digital project assumes that there is no budget, no technologists, and competing priorities.

During my postdoc, I created a project that blended photogrammetry, story mapping, and augmented reality, or AR, to reimagine public artwork as 3D altars in an effort to celebrate public art in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is known as Mural City, but as I looked for sites, I was quickly confronted with the fact that public art is not permanent. As neighborhoods are gentrified and buildings are torn down, facades adorned with murals are removed. Also, some installations are intentionally temporary, as was the case with the outdoor sculptures included in the 2021 Monumental Tour. The superimposed AR content is my way to celebrate these artworks that have been or may be removed. Sociologist and hip hop scholar Trisha Rose noted, ancestor worship in black culture is a way of countering a historical erasure.

This project uses digital tools to supplant the proverbial flowers that we often give to honor someone toward the end of their life. There were a number of issues along the way, which led to the phrase repeated between a friend and myself: “technology is gonna technology.” While it never immediately eased my irritation, it did remind me that this is supposed to be difficult and to keep pushing.

Another source of frustration lied in the fact that as I combed through online software tutorials (or YouTube University), none of the folks in those videos looked like me. This encouraged me to be patient so that I could contribute to the solution. I've been seeking opportunities to connect with folks as I continue to test workflows and share them broadly within the field to expand methods for curation of black art, history, and culture using free and low-cost tools.

For example, I've been participating in a Mellon-funded working group through the Association of African American Museums, or AAAM, to identify ways to build capacity for member institutions through traveling exhibitions and shared collaborations. This summer, at our annual conference, my AAAM working group curated an AR photo exhibit commemorating the 60th anniversary of 1963 as a demo of a digital curatorial project that could be replicated with free tools and minimal time.

We also had the extreme pleasure of sharing this project with Medgar Evers daughter, Huey Newton's widow, and Malcolm X's daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz. Ms. Shabazz asked essentially, “What contribution can these tools make to fight against white supremacy?” I'm sure most of us in the room have noticed and even participated in symbolic institutional antiracism efforts, but in more practical terms, these institutions are struggling to build relationships with local non-white communities.

My co-conspirator, Dr. Portia Hopkins, and I took some time to reflect on our own experiences working in non-black spaces as black researchers, as we've been developing our own collaborative praxis for research and digital projects. There's a Toni Morrison quote that sums up our ethos pretty well: “If you are free, you need to free somebody else.”

We've started seeking opportunities to collaborate with organizations that are already embedded into their local communities. We've also decided to write a short essay to share this experience with our digital scholarship colleagues to encourage folks at well-resourced institutions to build partnerships with smaller organizations that center audience engagement.

You might be able to see why the order of the show is the way it is. We will also recommend that folks consider three key questions at all stages from planning to implementation.

Number one: Why XR? How is technology enhancing the experience? Are there benefits that do not exist in physical space?

Number two: Is the project accessible? Audio or visual cues may require additional interventions for someone with impaired vision or hearing. Text should be narrated. Audio should be captioned. Emotion effects may trigger sensitive users.

And number three: How will the XR experience be adopted? Identify the target audience and develop a plan to ensure that they will know about the project beyond stumbling upon it online. If they do not have specific hardware to view it, make a plan for providing it directly to them.

If you're interested in ideating around XR and museums or collaborative partnerships, connect with me on LinkedIn or find me during the conference to chat. You can also access my full workflows online at the links on the screen.

Thank you!