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Historic Hudson Valley (HHV) is a not-for-profit education organization in New York that welcomes visitors to historic landmarks of national significance in the Hudson Valley. Among its programs, HHV provides a constellation of on-site, in-school, and digital offerings under the heading Slavery in the Colonial North. “People Not Property: Stories of Slavery in the Colonial North” is intended to introduce students, teachers, and the interested public to the history of Northern enslavement. The project focuses on what is known or may be interpreted about the lives of individual enslaved people, whose stories are rarely highlighted.
C&G Partners was tasked with project design, telling this neglected story in a fact-based yet heartfelt way from the perspective of enslaved individuals. Designed for a broad range of users, the online experience delivers a personalized narrative of the past that connects with issues of race still present in America today.
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.
"People Not Property,” was designed as a compelling, interactive documentary that leverages unique web design and technical characteristics to tell the overlooked story of enslaved individuals in the colonial North.
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. Website architecture enables users of all ages to engage at different levels, while the color palette and aesthetics convey the serious nature of the content through dark tones.
The interactive elements of the website are uniquely suited to the type and quantity of content available on a given topic e.g. facts and figures are depicted in easy-to-understand infographic animations. A section called the TimeMap puts the documentary time period into context by providing historic milestones, including the eras that preceded and followed slavery in the colonial North and early American northern states.
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. Including support from scholars, historic site interpreters, artists, and filmmakers, the heart of "People Not Property" is numerous original short-form films covering dozens of important subject areas. Filming reenactment videos of the documented activities of enslaved individuals in the colonial North that included scholarly interpretation and testimonials to provide commentary and context.
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. 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.
“People Not Property” is intended for a general audience. To ensure effective engagement and optimal user experiences, HHV worked with C&G to define four personas for end-users. The targeted personas HHV has kept in mind while creating People Not Property are: 1) Culture Seeker (someone who often visits museums and historic sites; 2) Popular Culture Visitor (someone who may not identify as regular museum go-er, but who attends popular events such as our seasonal festivals); 3) Teacher; and 4) Middle-to-High School Student. The language of the documentary was written at an 8th-grade level to appeal to a general audience.
“People Not Property,” (PNP) targets these diverse audiences. The most prominent audience consists of teachers and students, who have been introduced to the documentary through a number of venues: in-person presentations by HHV Education staff at conferences and symposia; professional development days onsite at Philipsburg Manor, including a teacher orientation held in conjunction with Pinkster in May 2019; NEH Teachers Institute participating teachers in the summer of 2019 (again in 2021) and teachers leading school groups to HHV sites (over 15,000 students in 2019); and outreach by HHV Education staff to area schools. HHV also plans to conduct a local “implementation tour” to bring the documentary directly to the classroom, where we can help teachers navigate the site, raise awareness of the documentary as a pedagogical resource, and measure its impact on the ground. General culture seekers and popular culture visitors have been introduced to the documentary through a combination of onsite programming and social media marketing. Still another audience, that of other cultural institutions, libraries, churches and education centers have also proven to be deeply interested in the content. Senior HHV staff have presented PNP for a number of these groups, often at the invitation of diversity and inclusion committees. The program has received some local press coverage, including a segment on WNYC, the local NPR affiliate.
In addition to the analytics of the website (14K individual visits to the site), the invitations by groups and the feedback from teachers about the relevancy of the program have shone the positive response to the project, as does the slow and steady increase in audience visitssince the launch in April of 2019.