C&G Partners has created a compelling new interactive documentary that takes a unique approach in telling the often-overlooked story of slavery in the colonial North: from the perspective of the enslaved individuals themselves. The digital project gives voices to 18th-century enslaved African Americans, delivering a personalized narrative of the past that connects with issues of race still present today in America.
Created on behalf of not-for-profit educational organization Historic Hudson Valley, People Not Property: Stories of Slavery in the Colonial North is a content-rich educational resource that uses original short-form films, extensive historic documentation and responsive design to tell this neglected story in a fact-based but heartfelt way.
"The site design and user experience put people at the forefront of the experience, telling the story on the human level," said Maya Kopytman, partner-in-charge of the project for C&G Partners, New York. "It was carefully developed to bring these poignant stories to life in a way that provides viewers of all ages with a broad understanding of slavery in the colonial North, and offers numerous layers of content as a way for site visitors to learn more about this often-overlooked chapter in American history."
Historic Hudson Valley (HHV) is a not-for-profit educational organization that interprets and promotes historic landmarks of national significance in New York's Hudson Valley. For more than 20 years, HHV has been committed to telling the story of slavery in the colonial North through its Philipsburg Manor historic site and museum and a range of programs. Design, UX, development and media production teams at C&G Partners worked with HHV for more than four years on the interactive documentary, enlisting support from scholars, historic site interpreters, artists, and filmmakers to bring this web experience to life.
C&G Partners took its extensive experience in the design of physical exhibitions for museums and applied those principals to the People Not Property online visitor experience. Site architecture enables users of all ages to engage at different levels, providing satisfying top-line summaries of information for casual viewers and enabling viewers with greater interest to go deeper into additional topics and enslaved individuals' stories by reading, watching videos, exploring interactive documents, answering questions, and making comparisons.
Site color palette and aesthetics convey the serious nature of the content with the use of dark tones. The muted palette is also more conducive to watching video content, and historical documents emerge from the darkness, inviting exploration. Interactive elements include a questionnaire of situations and choices that leads users to stories of enslaved individuals, interpretive tools to decipher historical documentation, and a glossary of terms. A unique "TimeMap" navigation element enables viewers to learn what was happening at different points and places in history and links back into the main stories of the website.
The interactive elements are uniquely suited to the type and quantity of content available on a given topic. For example, content that's heavily reliant on facts and figures is depicted in easy to understand infographic animations.
The heart of People Not Property is the numerous original short-form films covering dozens of important subject areas. C&G Partners had the rare opportunity to bring this story to life by filming reenactment videos of the documented activities of enslaved individuals in the Colonial North.
The videos were shot on location at an actual northern provisioning plantation at Philipsburg Manor Upper Mills, an HHV property in Sleepy Hollow, NY where enslaved individuals worked and lived. Some videos are based on educational reenactments that take place at the manor for visitors and school groups.
To convey the appropriate tone and level of scholarly rigor, the videos were created as interpretations without dialogue between characters or a musical score to avoid dramatizing the events. These vignettes focus on the human element, based entirely on the facts of how enslaved individuals lived and worked, or the situations they were in based on primary documentation.
"The videos present reenactments and facts of the personal life and labor of enslaved individuals, and tell their stories in simple and direct ways for audiences of all ages," explained Leslie Dann, associate partner, and media experience producer at C&G Partners, who produced the video content. "They drive the online interactive documentary with a variety of voices that really connect with people, the emotional side of the story being implied by factual actions and narrative."
The site's People Not Property focus posed a unique challenge to the studio in terms of visual presentation, since sparse historical documentation about enslaved individuals is available. C&G Partners analyzed the available information to determine the most appropriate digital format for each story that would engage viewers in understanding the basic facts of this history.
For example, one story of a family whose members transitioned between slavery and freedom is told through a series of original illustrations and animated silhouettes, since no actual portraits of them exist. Another story uses an image of an enslaver's certificate of ownership alongside a modern-day birth certificate to compare how each document tells a person's life story in a way that modern viewers can relate to.
Central to the site's design was making the extensive content into an educational resource, developed with an eye towards the topic being taught to middle and high school students.
One of a series of HHV educational projects funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the People Not Property interactive documentary is designed to drive engagement through prompted questions and encouragement of critical thinking.
Images: Courtesy of C&G Partners