Local Projects is the 2021 Design Company of the Year

In a Q&A, founder and principal Jake Barton describes how the New York-based design firm creates compelling multimedia museum experiences, from the National September 11 Memorial to Tulsa’s new retrospective on the Greenwood massacre.

During the night of May 31, 1921, mobs of white people stormed the thriving Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. With some individuals deputized by local officials, they burned more than 1,000 Black-owned homes and businesses and killed upwards of 300 people. The full tally of the dead is unknown because the horrific event was not investigated seriously in the Jim Crow era, and it was deliberately left out of history books in the decades that followed.

Now, the full story is being told. Greenwood Rising, a new museum that opened in the historic neighborhood in early August, explores the tragedy of the massacre in vivid ways. Through video mapping and an audiovisual depiction of the event based on oral histories of survivors, the museum reconstructs one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history.

But it also tells a broader narrative about the thriving economy known in the early 20th century as Black Wall Street, including how the community developed and the systems of oppression that allowed such violence to tear it all apart.

The multimedia museum experience was designed by Local Projects, the New York–based firm known for its work on the National September 11 Memorial Museum, as well as nuanced historical venues such as Hyde Park Barracks, a museum focused on the early days and mixed impacts of colonialism in Australia.

As Local Projects founder and principal Jake Barton explains, Greenwood Rising is about more than the violence of one night. By exploring what led to the massacre, and the effects still being felt today, the museum aims to inspire action against racism in America.

Fast Company: How do you design a museum experience around a historical event that was barely recorded, and in some cases actively erased from memory?

Jake Barton: [The museum] aspires to make echoes between the past and the present, and specifically to have people rethink the future together. Within that context, one of the biggest challenges for both Greenwood as a community and for telling the story around the Tulsa Race Massacre is the incredible disparity around heritage, archives, and just telling the story of the massacre itself. It’s one thing to have the massacre, this incredible and tragic holocaust [of] that moment. It’s another to understand how the deployment of resources to bury that story, destroy that narrative, and undermine a community’s own memory of that event furthers the holocaust. There wasn’t very much for us to put on display, like a typical museum would. Nobody collected objects around the race massacre at the time. Nobody told the story accurately at the time. Nobody captured oral histories at the time. We focused on oral histories that were [drawn from] survivors, with great forethought, in the ’80s and ’90s, and that becomes the beating heart of the entire institution. We tell that chapter of the larger Greenwood story through these authentic oral histories and allow people to, in a safe way, expand their own empathetic imagination to what it would feel like to be in your home and have your neighbors come burn it down and try to kill you and your family.

The massacre itself is a major element of the museum, and you’ve re-created it quite viscerally through video mapping and an audiovisual experience. How did you figure out how to convey such graphic material to museumgoers?

It would be irresponsible to try and [make] a literal re-creation of the massacre itself, not just because of [some] facts and the figures are unknown, but because it would be far too graphic and arguably exploitative. So what we focus on are these lived memories of survivors who made their way through the massacre and who can describe some of the memories that they carried for decades. That level of powerful emotion and memory is able to communicate the horror of that moment in a way that no literal re-creation could offer. We also focus, frankly, on restoring the voice and the humanity to survivors of the massacre itself.

Long-brewing tensions over reparations for ancestors of the victims and survivors of the massacre led to the cancellation in May of a major event marking its 100th anniversary. What is it like to work on a project some people think was taking up funds that should have gone toward reparations?

It’s famously been documented that people in Greenwood itself, a generation and a half later, literally hadn’t heard about the race massacre. The destruction of memory is its own form of holocaust. The museum is a way to restore that memory, across Tulsa and across the nation, even to the extent that President Biden would come [to Greenwood] and honor the survivors of that event. Having questions and argument around reparations is front and center for that community, despite the conflict; that’s part of the job of a museum, to raise that in people’s minds. [The museum tells] a story, it’s going to be there for generations, and it raised the question of reparations in everyone’s minds quite effectively. So there’s a good argument for why you would want to build a museum, because if people don’t believe it happened or don’t know about it, of course they’re not going to want to do anything about it.

Oklahoma is a very red part of the country, and mere ideas of racial injustice and inequity are topics of highly partisan debates. How did you approach telling a historically accurate narrative in a place that may not have wanted to hear it?

Nobody wants to argue about the past. What they want to argue about is the future. And in the context of Greenwood Rising, what they’re arguing is the past is passed; let’s move forward. Whereas in our museum, we first identify what we call the “systems of anti-Blackness” that led to the massacre. We talk about the political landscape, the economic oppression, the social frameworks that led to not just a few bad apples that perpetrated this massacre, but that whole dynamic, [to a] countrywide system of different forms and layers of oppression. So we end the museum [experience by] saying, Here are how those systems exist today. Here’s voter suppression. Here’s mass incarceration. Here’s the educational divide. Here’s the wealth divide. Do you recognize these? These are other systems of anti-Blackness. So you don’t need to look at the past to be outraged at how America is treating fellow citizens. You can do that, but you should use that new understanding of what produced the Tulsa Race Massacre and pivot to today. We end specifically with asking people what concrete actions they’re going to take to dismantle or confront today’s systems of anti-Blackness. That’s really the challenge that we face. If you’re just looking at the past, you’re missing how there’s a continuum of different policies that oppress Black and brown people, and how they can and should be confronted today.

Local Projects has tackled many delicate subjects and traumatic events, most notably the 9/11 Memorial Museum. In what ways did that work inform your approach to Greenwood Rising?

One is a sensitive awareness to the diversity of psyches for visitors. For some people, going to the 9/11 Memorial Museum and, frankly, to Greenwood Rising, this is a dip into a moment of horror. If I’m a 17-year-old going to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, I cannot believe this occurred. Or if I’m a visitor who’s not from Tulsa, maybe who’s not from America, I go to Greenwood Rising and it is a shock that this happened. But at the same time, there are people living inside that narrative, who have either experienced or been exposed to that level of trauma and carried that within their own fragile human psyche. That’s a really different circumstance. So in both cases, we developed flagging and literal different pathways through the museum that allow those who self-identify as having been traumatized to attend to themselves. Even as they get the story, they’re able to exit, they’re able to avoid some of the harsher and more graphic, more challenging material in order to preserve their own experience and/or psyche. In the case of Greenwood Rising, this alternate pathway ensures that we can effectively invite school groups, [even] young children, through the experience, and that we give parents the option to secure a route for their kids that they feel much more comfortable with. That a museum is there to attempt a public witnessing, in a way that acknowledges the humanity and sometimes legitimate fragility of its visitors, just offers up another level of respect and partnership that this institution is trying to make with every visitor.

See more from Fast Company’2021 Innovation by Design Awards. Our new book, Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform the Way We Live and Work (Abrams, 2021), is on sale now.

COALESCENCEGreenwood Rising