Outside Exhibits to Tell Stories of Tucson Communities through Virtual Reality

August 30th, 2021

The Arizona State Museum (ASM) and two College of Humanities centers – the Poetry Center and Center for Digital Humanities – have received a $190,953 Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) for a collaborative project entitled, Discovering Community in the Borderlands.

The cross-disciplinary University of Arizona team, in tandem with community partners, proposes to create a digital museum and place virtual exhibits in outdoor locations around the Tucson area. The exhibits will use geolocation technology and offer augmented reality encounters with curators, educators, poets, and tradition bearers. A linked website will reinforce exhibit topics and further introduce users to the peoples, cultures, and histories of the southern Arizona borderlands region. Finally, the team will develop and share accompanying activities for K-12 classrooms.

“We’ve learned from the pandemic that digital technologies are great tools for expanding reach and engaging new audiences,” said Lisa Falk, ASM head of community engagement. “At the same time, social justice movements have revealed the need for more inclusive histories. Through this project, drawing from the collections and resources of ASM, the Poetry Center and our community partners, we propose to share stories which highlight diverse voices and perspectives of our region.” 

The university team together with community partners from the Dunbar Pavilion, Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Mission Garden, will come up with topics and materials to include at each virtual mini exhibit spot. In addition, community partners will receive training on the digital tools in order to creatively engage audiences at their respective locations. 

Among the many exciting outcomes of the project, Tyler Meier, executive director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, feels that the digital innovations “will allow us to connect with audiences in safe ways during the prolonged pandemic, create pathways for healthy and safe participation for lifelong learners and for communities we don't always reach with our programs. This grant is allowing us to expand access, collaborate and cocreate with community partners, and explore exciting new ways to capture and account for community feedback and input.” 

The team expects to launch the first of six virtual exhibits in late Spring 2022. Evaluation will help the team troubleshoot the initial exhibit stops and better plan for the later ones. 

Dr. Bryan Carter, director of the Center for Digital Humanities and an associate professor of Africana Studies, is expert in creating and deploying virtual realities for educational purposes and is excited about offering mini museum experiences through augmented reality. “Digital technologies allow for richer experiences that can significantly enhance learning outcomes,” Carter said. “This grant will allow the team to bring museum exhibitions to life and share the stories of the borderlands in new and exciting ways.”