Bringing the National Museum of African American History and Culture to the world

In 2022, with the pandemic subsiding, the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, once again served more than 1 million visitors. But thanks to an inventive digital offering, called Searchable Museum, the museum has been able to reach even more.

The searchable replica of the museum, which launched in November 2021, allows anyone around the globe to experience all elements of the museum, even with low-latency internet and inexpensive phones and tablets — a big benefit, especially for those without the means to visit the physical museum, which opened to much fanfare in 2016, including the attendance of then President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush.

“After we opened the museum, the director and curatorial staff were talking about how to how to reach even more people who wouldn’t be able to come to the museum and experience it,” says Jill Roberts, program manager of the Searchable Museum at the Office of Digital Strategy and Engagement (ODSE).  “We wanted a digital platform that would bring the museum to other people in the world.”

Curators and IT experts who designed the digital replica continue to enhance the platform with technologies that make it not only more widely accessible but also replete with fresh, robust content. The project was awarded a 2022 US CIO 100 Award for leadership and innovation.

And it’s working. To date, the Searchable Museum has served more than 1.6 million page views, with more than 65% of that traffic coming from mobile phones, Roberts says. A good deal of the traffic has been driven by a QR code deployed across social media channels and other communications outlets to promote awareness of the digital museum’s existence.

Digital storytelling

To entice a technical partner to build the digital site, the ODSE published an RFP and received 15 qualified IT specialists that wanted to take on the immense task of digitally recreating a multifloor museum.

Digital designer Fearless of Baltimore was awarded the contract to build and maintain the Smithsonian’s first and only digital museum. The startup focused on federal contracts and earned its first contract with the Secret Service in 2017. Today, it employs more than 200.

John Foster, COO of Fearless, says the project goes beyond the term ‘searchable’ to provide instead a digital storytelling of the African American experience as depicted in the physical National Museum of African American History and Culture.  

John Foster, COO, Fearless


The digital version’s first exhibit on the site, “Slavery and Freedom,” is a foundational aspect of the physical museum followed by 10 additional exhibits found in the physical and digital museums.  

To develop the project, Fearless leveraged Smithsonian’s APIs to access a massive catalog of digital content, including 3D models, videos, podcasts, and imagery not available in the physical building in order to create an immersive, rich experience that rivals a walk-through.

“From the beginning, we challenged ourselves to follow a more audience-centered, data-informed approach to its design and development,” says Adam Martin, CDO of the museum. “Together with our partners, the museum engaged in an iterative process to reimagine and transform the in-person visitor experience for online audiences.”

Adam Martin, chief digital officer, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution

NMAAHC, Smithsonian Institution

For instance, the History Elevator transports visitors to the early 1400s using images from various centuries, narrated by Maya Angelou, as well as digital displays and statistics of the 40,000 slave ships of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as a feature on the domestic slave trade that displays authentic excerpts of bills of sale of human beings and slave auction lists of names. The “Paradox of Liberty” exhibit depicts Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of 609 slaves, as well as Sugar Pot and Tower of Cotton artifacts that depict the “juxtaposition of profit and power and the human cost” of slave production.

The Searchable Museum also features content not available in the physical museum. For instance, while the museum features a replica of the Point of Pines Slave Cabin, one of two highly protected slave cabins on Edistro Island, S.C., only the digital Searchable Museum offers a 360-degree look inside the cabin.

Fearless software engineer Avery Smith agreed that leading-edge technologies ushered in by the metaverse might one day be able to transport a museum visitor digitally using virtual reality and augmented reality technologies but he — and all those involved in Searchable Museum — insist they want to prevent making the digital museum inaccessible. A VR/AR experience requires the use of headsets that can often cost hundreds of dollars, he reminds.

The primary aim of the Searchable Museum, after all, is to lower the barrier to entry for all and make it widely accessible globally. To date, visitors from nearly 50 nations outside of the US have accessed the Searchable Museum. Foster is proud that his team accomplished its mission without shortchanging any of the experiences or content in the building.

“I can experience that story on my laptop as well as on my phone,” Foster says of the digital replica, which mimics the multifloor building, starting with a darker tone for the slavery exhibit on the bottom floor and progressing to brighter tones as the viewers ascends through the stairs of African American history.

 “As you go through the history, the higher you get, the feeling of lightness should come about because you see some of the progress being made in the African American story,” Foster says.

The technology behind the Searchable Museum

The Searchable Museum runs on Amazon Web Services and uses APIs created by the Smithsonian IT team to access all the metadata available in the massive catalog of artifacts, images, video clips, 3D objects, and other components that reside within the 11 inaugural exhibitions in the building.

Fearless designers also employed unique technologies to ensure viewers have a speedy, rich experience regardless of the device they use. Many of these technologies are time-tested frameworks and tools that don’t get a lot of publicity but are known platforms that have evolved and aged well. Fearless chose Gatsby, a JavaScript framework for fast web page creation, and Craft CMS, which provides a speedy yet robust reach into the museum’s sizable catalog of metadata stored in AWS S3.

The Gatsby static-site generator scaffolds the front end of the website, enabling developers to build ultrafast web page rendering, while the headless CMS fetches and renders the metadata stored in the back-end cloud systems at high speeds.

“Gatsby takes all that processing that used to happen in real-time and runs the processing before the website is deployed,” says Smith, of Fearless, about the pre-rendering framework. “I advocated for its use with React instead of JavaScript because of my experience working with the Small Business Administration. I learned with Gatsby how clever it is and how it allows for a very, very, very fast web experience … and those speed gains are important for an image-heavy website.”

Avery Smith, software engineer, Fearless 


Smith also notes that the Smithsonian’s APIs provide access to 3D images in various resolutions that are immensely helpful for the curators designing the content and to the IT experts delivering on their vision. “Technology doesn’t need to be super complex to get the job done,” Smith says.

The Searchable Museum continues adding compelling content such as a special exhibit on Afrofuturism in March and its technology partners are exploring technologies such as geofencing, which will allow students to play games and learn along the way. But the most important aspect of the Searchable Museum, all say, is accessibility — and Fearless deployed unique, not bleeding-edge technologies to deliver on that dream.

“Technology doesn’t need to be super complex to get the job done,” Smith says.

CIO 100, Digital Transformation, Government IT