By Jen Giambrone, Historian
It’s HAI’s 40th anniversary! Founded in 1981, History Associates Incorporated has grown and evolved quite a bit over the past four decades. Our founders, historians Phil Cantelon, Richard Hewlett, Rodney Carlisle, and Robert Williams, realized that history had value and application outside of academia. Together, they pioneered a company that could put history to use for government agencies, corporations, non-profit organizations, cultural institutions, and law firms. HAI was at the forefront of the emerging field of public history, which also acknowledged that there is a broad demand for and interest in the past.
In honor of our 35th anniversary back in 2016, we created a digital timeline that charts important events in HAI’s history, from moving into our first office in Rockville, Maryland, to our corporate rebranding in early 2020. Read more about that process in the blog post Making the Most of Milestones: Four Tips for Creating Effective History Timelines.
This time around, we teamed up with our friends at Pass It Down to create a digital exhibit that explores our history through the lens of our project work. Collaborating with our clients is at the core of what we do, and our case studies demonstrate how HAI has evolved to offer new services and expertise over time. From the Texas Instruments history project that jumpstarted our archival service line to our longstanding collaboration with the American Battlefield Monuments Commission, the exhibit offers insight into who we’ve worked for, where we’ve worked, and how we’ve helped our clients research, discover, and experience the past in our first 40 years.
The 40th anniversary project also gave our team the opportunity to build a digital exhibit from scratch, a service our Content & Digital Storytelling team offers to our clients. Looking to celebrate a milestone or start a digital history project of your own? Here are some pointers based on our experience with this project and others like it.
Step 1: Conceptualization and Planning
Every project HAI works on—whether we’re developing a digital exhibit or undertaking an in-depth historical investigation for a legal client—begins with a plan.
In the case of a digital exhibit, start with the basics. What is the goal and vision of your project? Who do you want to reach, and how can you reach them? What is the core message at the heart of your project? What themes and stories are the most important to convey? What assets do you have that you can leverage for the project, and where are there gaps? Knowing and asking the right questions at the outset will guide the project and can also help you measure success in the long run.
As the project gets off the ground, also be sure to identify the stakeholders who should be involved along the way. We usually recommend identifying a small group of three to four people who will be involved in the nitty gritty details: participating in all status update meetings and reviewing and providing feedback on all content, for instance. But there may be a larger and more diverse group of stakeholders that should weigh in on the process, too. This may include other colleagues, leadership, subject matter experts, and community members. Plan to involve the larger group in visioning workshops and important project presentations along the way, but be sure to set clear expectations for them about their role and involvement.
At this point, you may also begin to develop a content outline for the exhibit. An outline should capture the central themes and stories in bullet point form. This outline will serve as a roadmap for the exhibit. Planning out all of the stories you want to include will help you determine what multimedia assets you will need to tell those stories. It can also help you keep track of your goals and vision for the project.
For HAI’s 40th exhibit, we wanted to make sure we had case studies that represented all three of our main service lines—Archives & Information Management, Content & Digital Storytelling, and Research & Analysis. We also knew we wanted to highlight projects across time and space, showing that we have four decades of experience for clients around the world. For our outline, we created a table that listed each project we wanted to include, as well as the service line, year, and location. To stay on task and schedule, we had to omit some projects that we would have liked to include (but the good news is that digital exhibits are easy to add to, change, and enhance over time).
Step 2: Pick a Platform
Early on in the process, you’ll also want to decide how you’re going to build and host your exhibit. There are a lot of factors to take into account—especially your budget and in-house IT capabilities. Think about your timeline, too. If you have an important anniversary approaching in two or three years, for instance, you have plenty of time to build a large, custom digital exhibit. If you’re already in your anniversary year, you may need to consider an option that you don’t have to build from scratch.
We chose to work with Pass It Down. Our team has had the opportunity to collaborate with Pass It Down on several client projects now, so we were familiar with their digital design platform. Pass It Down makes it easy to build dynamic, responsive digital experiences designed with both the back-end and front-end users in mind. Each story—which can include text, multimedia content, tags, metadata, a geotag, and more—is uploaded into Pass It Down’s content management system. With the click of a button, you can create collections to organize your stories by theme or category.
A platform like Pass It Down was a good fit for our project. We began to plan in mid-2020, so we knew we couldn’t choose a solution that would take months to build and customize. And admittedly, while our team has a wealth of expertise, we aren’t web developers, so knew we would need to a user-friendly platform. While Pass It Down is extremely easy to use on the back-end, it also offers sophisticated, customizable designs and engaging user experiences. Perhaps the most powerful feature is the ability to toggle between templates with the click of button. In seconds, you can display your stories in the form of an interactive, scrollable timeline. Want to see how they look on a map or a mosaic? An easy click away.
That sort of flexibility ended up being key to our process. Originally, we thought we wanted to display our stories on a map, highlighting the global nature of our work. Late in the process, however, we decided to go with a mosaic story tile exhibit. Typically, a change like that would’ve thrown the project into chaos—and required a great deal of time and money to address. But Pass It Down helped us avoid a late-in-the-game meltdown. In all, it took about two weeks to upload all of our content and finalize our exhibit.
Step 3: Develop Content
We recommend choosing your platform before you start writing any exhibit text to ensure that you are creating content tailored to the features and functionality of that platform.
You can gather information and multimedia for your exhibit from a variety of sources. Consider internal collections, as well as assets that may be available through libraries, archives, and stock photo companies. Remember that some of these assets may require copyright clearance and fees. You may also wish to conduct professional oral histories to capture memories and institutional knowledge of past and present staff, leadership, and stakeholders. Oral histories can inform the content of your exhibit and, edited into short clips, do double duty as multimedia assets.
As you write—keep in mind that you have only a few seconds to grab someone’s attention. Write in short, pithy paragraphs and pack your headlines with descriptive information. Assume that some users will only scan the headlines and multimedia, so make sure they can still take something away from that experience.
Step 4: Launch!
After you upload all of your content and put the finishing touches on your exhibit, it’s time to go public! Share your exhibit on social media. Plan to rotate featured content or add new content to it regularly. Invite guest collaborators to curate their own collections, or ask your audience to submit their own content (another great feature of the Pass It Down platform).
As part of our anniversary campaign, we’re inviting past and present clients, employees, and partners to submit their memories or wish us a happy birthday on our website. All participants will be entered into a raffle to win one of four $40 Visa gift cards. We hope you’ll join the celebration!
Have questions about our process or want to discuss your upcoming anniversary or digital exhibit project? Leave us a comment below or contact HAI today.