Portfolio: Many Languages
In 2013, the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Institution, was interested in putting on an exhibit showcasing the history of the interactions of the government of the United States with the tribes of Native Americans, both as documented in the treaties between the two nations and, later, how the United States refused to abide by the terms it itself dictated.
Interface Media Group is well-known in DC for its expertise on storytelling, both in the political arena and in the realm of museums. Having offered several multimedia exhibits for NMAI previously, including a long-lived video wall in the museum's entrance when it opened a decade previous, NMAI counted on Interface Media to deliver an immersive, high-quality experience. Interface Media, in turn, contracted to me.
Many Languages is an interactive showing guests excerpts from the negotiations of the 1851 Horse Creek Treaty between the United States and nine Native American tribes, six of which are represented there. The excerpts are both written and spoken in the tribes' native languages, and an English translation is provided.
NMAI initially presented the user experience in their request for proposal as a simple jukebox: there would be a button for each tribe, which would show the text side-by-side and play the audio, without any further interactivity. Interface Media's creative team was concerned that this would not be sufficiently engaging, and I worked with them on a counter-proposal that offered much more to interest guests.
Each of the six tribes available for this interactive is represented by a stylized clay coin, arranged in a circle, which can be picked up and placed in a central location. Doing so "inks" the words of that tribe's statement into a parchment background. The statement is read by a native speaker of that language, and as they read the words are replaced with a glowy, fiery English translation. Additionally, guests can turn on "interpreter mode", where key clauses in the treaty are highlighted and the guest is asked to choose between a more modern translation and a literal (but wrong) interpretation, highlighting the difficulty that can come with translating between different languages.
The experience was built primarily using built-in WPF controls with custom presentations. The coins' initial arrangement is done by a normal
ListBox with a custom layout container. The coins themselves are databound WPF
Images, with an animation to increase scale and add a mild drop shadow to show that a coin has been lifted; they use the built-in Windows manipulation system to allow guests to drag them around the screen. The inking and fire effects are done with careful application of drop shadows and custom HLSL shaders. All of the text was laid out as normal text in WPF, over the objection of the graphics team, allowing for rapid iteration as the tribe representatives negotiated alterations as well as future accessibility. The transition animation as the translation replaces the original text is created dynamically based on key points in the audio and how the text is laid out on screen, but executed using the standard WPF animation engine. The project required use of a specific commercial font to fit in with the rest of the exhibit, but two of the languages required special diacritics and letterforms that weren't available, so based on the handwritten samples provided by the tribes' representatives and with permission from the font licensor I extended the font to include the extra letterforms. The text in the interactive appears exactly as how members of the tribes would record it, instead of being altered for our convenience.
Sticking with standard functionality as much as possible makes the interactive significantly easier to iterate and maintain, as well as lets guests interact with the kiosk in an intuitive and familiar way, while WPF's flexibility when it comes to presentation allows for broad creative freedom in design.
Many Languages is near the middle of the exhibit, next to artifacts from the signing of the Horse Creek Treaty. It was praised by the Washington Post and won a gold Excellence in Exhibition award from the American Association of Museums. It is scheduled to be decommissioned sometime in late 2021. Plans to add an additional three statements and languages were unfortunately shelved due to cost overruns by other vendors in later exhibits.