Tucked away in the National Museum of African American Culture and History’s collections is a white metal pinback button from the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At its center, an illustration of the United States Capitol hovers over blue text declaring, “I was there.”
Protestors attending the march sported this and other 25-cent buttons to raise awareness of racial inequality experienced by African Americans, as well as Congress’ longstanding failure to pass civil rights legislation.
“[The buttons] were a way of putting on your own body your thoughts, your values,” says William Pretzer, the museum’s senior curator for history. “But in order for somebody else to know those values, they had to be up close to you physically. And sometimes you want to bring people up close to those objects.”
Thanks to “The March,” an upcoming virtual reality exhibit centered on the 1963 protest, these buttons are set to take on a whole new meaning. Debuting February 28 at the DuSable Museum of African American History, a Smithsonian affiliate in Chicago, the interactive experience brings an array of close-up details to life, giving museumgoers the opportunity to join the narrative and say, “I was there, too.”
Created in collaboration with Time Studios, the ten-minute VR exhibit recreates Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. “The March,” which marks the first-ever virtual reality depiction of King, also allows visitors to walk alongside a crowd of more than 250,000 peaceful protestors gathered in the nation’s capital to hear the civil rights activist speak.
“The goal with this project is to take an event in our history that is so famous and so often misunderstood, and put you in the middle of it,” says Mia Tramz, co-creator of “The March” and Time’s editorial director of immersive experiences, “to have you understand not just what it was, but the power of nonviolent protest … and our right to assemble as Americans to make change in our country.”
“The March” features around 25 to 30 minutes of education, immersive realism and reflection. First, visitors enter a “sound bath” spatial audio experience where they hear from the likes of Rosa Park’s attorney Fred Gray; Freedom Rider Henry “Hank” James Thomas; and Reverend Gwendolyn Cook Webb, a participant in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. Then, they are transported to the heart of the 1963 march, becoming a member of the crowd fighting for racial equality and a witness to one of the greatest speeches in United States history. Viola Davis, actress and executive producer of “The March,” serves as participants’ narrator, guiding them through the VR exhibit.
After exiting the virtual world, visitors can reflect on their experience by “speaking” with Joyce Ladner, an organizer and activist who attended the March on Washington, via an artificial intelligence interview portal. In total, says Tramz, Ladner recorded around eight hours’ worth of dialogue.
More than 200 people from seven different companies collaborated to virtually render the events of 1963, according to Tramz. Digital Domain, a visual effects and production company known for its work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Titanic and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, built the groundbreaking digital recreation of King and the surrounding scene. Using a custom-built wireless headset that renders King in real time, visitors will be able to walk around the famous activist and observe him up close as he gives his speech.
Animators spent nearly three months perfecting King’s likeness and mannerisms, reports Patrick Lucas Austin for Time.
“You cannot have a rubbery Dr. King delivering this speech as though he was in Call of Duty,” lead producer Ari Palitz tells Time. “It needed to look like Dr. King.”
Because the bulk of the virtual reality exhibit is centered on the crowds marching down Constitution Avenue and the National Mall, the team opted to individualize each scene. Rather than replicating a set of moments, says Tramz, Digital Domain scanned unique performances of 80 actors in hopes of achieving a sense of realism and historical accuracy.
One of these actors, 8-year-old LaVell Thompson, brought a personal connection to the project. His great-grandfather, 90-year-old Reverend Jeffrey Joseph, attended the 1963 march and stood about 50 feet from King during his speech. To pay tribute to this multigenerational experience, says Alton Glass, co-creator of “The March” and founder of GRX Immersive Labs, specialists captured footage of Thompson and Joseph walking down Constitution Avenue together.
Says Glass, “[The exhibit] gives you an opportunity to bridge the gap between the youth and older people who have experienced the civil rights movement, and to have a deeper conversation about these experiences.”
What makes “The March” truly groundbreaking is its array of authentic details. Time Studios pulled data from original photographs and drew on vintage clothing from the time period to create actors’ costumes. These detailed outfits, including dresses, suits and police uniforms, were then scanned into the game engine to simulate the attendees’ “Sunday’s best,” according to Glass.
Another crucial element of the exhibit is its audio components. “The March” will showcase a rare recording of King’s speech from the Motown Records’ archives; the audio, taken from one of the master tapes recorded directly at the podium, is much clearer than the scratchy footage heard by the majority of the crowd. When participants are “standing in the crowd,” says Tramz, they’ll hear the real voices of the men and women who attended the march, as captured in reporter Walter Nixon’s previously unreleased tapes.
Listen closely, and you may even hear cicadas hissing—a specific detail brought to light by the new project.
As technology continues to evolve and push boundaries, museums are often among the first on the front lines. For Sara Snyder, chief of external affairs and digital strategies at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery, virtual reality has become an important tool for building the most memorable user experiences.
“When you’re in a virtual reality world … you get to break the rules of time and space,” says Snyder. “For storytellers, this is an incredible platform that they have at their disposal now to be able to create experiences for visitors and for users.”
Attracting the next generation of learners will push museums in new directions, according to Pretzer.
“[A]s audience experiences change over time,” he says, “their expectations of a museum experience change over time.”
Through virtual reality, the education industry faces a promising disruption: Younger audiences now have the opportunity to feel a deeper level of emotion and empathy than that sparked by distant words in a textbook.
“I do think you will see a flowering of museum virtual reality projects in the future,” says Snyder. “In the beginning, it’s still very expensive to produce the 3-D world in a way that is realistic. But in the future, those costs will also go down and you'll see an increase and a flourishing in creativity in that space.”
To Tramz, “The March” paves the way for a broader understanding of how to give meaning to historical movements—and their moments—that become difficult to grasp as time passes.
“Our hope is, as creators of this project, that you walk out of this experience, not only understanding the march and the civil rights movement in a different way,” she says, “but really understanding the shoulders that we stand on today, the work that was done that led to where we’re at currently.”
“The March” is on view at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago from February 28 to November 2020.