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Four cards with pictures of 19th century figures lean against a window. Through the window Ford's Theatre is visible.
Photo by David McKenzie.

Prototyping Historical Figure Cards at Ford’s Theatre: Sprint 2, Round 2

7 min read

Student groups visiting Ford’s Theatre on the morning of Wednesday, April 11, 2018, got something that visitors normally don’t receive: Character cards, in the style of trading cards, with pictures of historical figures. Students then entered the Museum to find flip doors that showed stories about each person. This was the second round of the second sprint of experiments in our prototyping project: Design Research at Ford’s Theatre (D.R.A.F.T.). Our team comprised several Ford’s staff members and facilitator and evaluator Kate Haley Goldman

The Idea

The D.R.A.F.T. (Design Research at Ford’s Theatre) team had previously agreed both rounds of this sprint would focus on low-cost, short-term solutions that will increase the visitor’s sense of relevance of the content and their emotional connection to the content. 

Rather than brainstorm yet another set of interpretative interventions, we made use of the bank of ideas the team had previously brainstormed. The week before our kickoff meeting, staff members ranked their choices. We then used these rankings as a jumping-off point for further discussion. 

This led us more quickly to a concrete concept. Website Manager Alysse Bortolotto noted Ford’s staff members have, for years, discussed the concept of “character cards.” Although many had initially ranked that idea in the middle, the discussion led to consensus that we should give this a try, and the team moved forward with developing paper cards to be given out to students.

Our last sprint used paper “flip-up” elements around the exhibition with success, so, in addition to the cards, we worked on writing a few sentences of third-person content for each of four historical figures.

The tested character cards feature a portrait of each person and their name. Left to right: Julia Taft, Elizabeth Keckly, James Tanner and William Seward.
Character cards for persons Julia Taft, Elizabeth Keckly, James Tanner and William Seward before they were tested with visitors in the museum. Photo by David McKenzie.

The Experiment

From an initial list of 10 historical figures selected and researched by different staff members in a 24-hour period, we chose four:

  1. Elizabeth Keckly a formerly enslaved African-American woman who became a dressmaker for elite Washington during the Civil War and a close confidante of First Lady Mary Lincoln.
  2. William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State and the second victim of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination plot.
  3. James Tanner, a soldier who lost both legs at the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862, later becoming a government clerk in Washington and taking shorthand of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s interrogations of Lincoln assassination witnesses in the Petersen House.
  4. Julia Taft the teenage sister of two playmates to President Lincoln’s sons Willie and Tad, who offered an inside perspective on the Lincoln White House.

These four figures represented a balance of male and female, different ages, different races and a mix of well-known and “regular” people.

When students arrived, we handed cards to grop leaders–in the spirit of prototyping, simply printed on Avery 5390 name badge inserts (easy to print and tear!)–with a photo and one-sentence description of each historical figure. The idea was to reference a baseball card-like format.

Two middle school female visitors interact with the flip-door factoids being tested in the Ford's Museum.
Students interact with the flip doors in the Ford’s Museum. Photo by Kate Haley Goldman.

After the group leaders handed out the cards, students proceeded through the museum looking for the flip doors that corresponded with their figures. Each flip door highlighted a particular aspect of that figure’s experience, related to the content of that section of the exhibition. As often happens with exhibition development, we struggled with keeping text concise but informative and engaging.

Unlike the last sprint, we met with little resistance to participation in this experiment. The only time a group leader refused her group’s participation was when she thought that the group would not have enough time in the museum. When Creative Projects Manager Franc Alicea reminded the group leader that the students would be spending 30 minutes in the museum before going to see the one-act play One Destiny, the group leader agreed.

A group of 10+ students provide feedback to Ford's staff in the Ford's Theatre museum.
Visitor Services Manager Colleen Prior and Education Programs Manager Alex Wood discuss the experiment with a group of visiting students. Photo by David McKenzie.

Three of us rotated through the museum space observing how students interacted with the cards and flip doors, while two others talked with students before they departed to enter the theatre. Thankfully, visitorswere quite willing to share their feedback!

Main Take-aways

The cards were a hit, and students actively traded the cards in line so as to have the same card as their friends. As Franc noted, “There was hardcore trading in line, I mean Pokemon-level trading.”

Teachers and students reported the cards gave them something on which to actively focus attention and helped frame their paths and gave shape to the visit. Staff observations backed this up.

Students took ownership of their assigned characters and expressed feeling invested in that person. They were less likely to follow the path of characters that were not “theirs,” though some took multiple pathways.

Students felt it was critical that the cards represent real people, not composite historical figures. They liked Julia Taft, saying she was the most relatable because she was their age. We also had multiple requests for cards representing the Lincoln boys.

Students liked having “everyday” people on the cards, noting we should have only a few famous ones. 

Nonetheless, visitors told us that they wanted to see a clear connection between Lincoln and each individual trading card person. Students and teachers both requested language that helped them understand how the individual on the card felt, not just what happened to and around them.

While our flip-door content seemed to be the right length (only a few sentences), multiple students and adults requested a way to find out more once they had become invested in their historical figure. If we decide to pursue this approach long-term, this might involve pointing visitors to content elsewhere in the exhibit or in other Washington-area museums, or developing a button to correspond with the flip-up, where a visitor could hear a first-person account from that individual.

The students had other suggestions for our D.R.A.F.T team:

  • A Buzzfeed-type quiz to find out which character they are most like and then follow that one
  • A special rotating exhibit with a featured character each month
  • Other perspectives, especially those who may not have mourned the news of Lincoln’s assassination

When students suggested we  make the cards even more “Choose your own Adventure”-like or scavenger-hunt based, Visitor Services Manager Colleen asked if they would like that or if scavenger hunts were cheesy. The students replied, “Of course we like those. We’re kids!” 

Teachers requested that the cards contain a question for students to answer or some other form of accountability.

Image of a long line of visitors outside of Ford's Theatre.
Visitors coming to Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Gary Erskine.

Did we succeed?

Our team debated whether we had actually succeeded in achieving our goal with this intervention. 

The students were clearly absorbed in our activity and would freely offer pieces of information about their character and why that was interesting. The tour leaders, teachers and chaperones felt the cards focused the students and gave shape to the visit. 

So on all those levels, this experiment was highly successful.

Yet, our goal was to craft an intervention that increased the relevance of the content for students. On that criterion, we’re not sure we succeeded. With the help of these cards students definitely understood the historical figures’ perspectives better, but didn’t necessarily feel it was more relevant.. As one student said, “The information wasn’t really relevant, but it doesn’t matter–it was still interesting.” Students did note they could relate to some of the cards. The team debated whether being able to relate to an individual was a form of relevance.

Perhaps we achieved garnering a sense of sympathy and compassion, but not relevance per se. The D.R.A.F.T. team agreed character cards were a worthwhile intervention and continue to discuss how we might implement these ideas within the Museum.

This project is made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, grant number MA-10-16-0180-16.

Read more about our prototyping: Introduction to the prototyping process 

David McKenzie is Associate Director for Interpretive Resources at Ford’s Theatre. He also is currently a History Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history. Before coming to Ford’s in 2013, he worked at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, The Design Minds, Inc. and at the Alamo. Chat with him on Twitter @dpmckenzie.

Kate Haley Goldman is an Evaluator and Strategist, currently working with Ford’s Theatre Society, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, AAAS and others. She works on projects with difficult cultural history, citizen science, digital storytelling, data-based decision-making, institutional capacity building and long-term visitor outcomes. Chat with her on Twitter @KateHG4.

Profile photograph of a man with glasses and a light beard.

David McKenzie was Associate Director for Interpretive Resources at Ford’s Theatre.


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