As a teaser for the upcoming salon on September 18th, I, Amanda, interviewed Tim Wright about his recent transition from Museum education to designing walking tours at Attucks Adams, and finally, to taking those tours online. The following is an excerpt from my interview with commentary and editing for length:
Amanda: What designed aspects of DC speak to you?
Tim: This question really made me think because for the past decade I have been training myself to first notice what is missing regarding designed aspects of the city. In a way, and the intentions aren’t cynical, but in a way, identifying deficits in design, infrastructure, and adornment often leads to the most engaging parts of a tour. Contrasting designed elements that seem universally good (the Metro subway system or intentionally placed murals and interesting statues) vs missing infrastructure (no public seating in areas people arguably need it, or flawed macro-level design related to zoning of housing stock) can lead to good discussion, or at least a cogent narrative on tour.
As far as actual design, the physical layout of DC –including the road and transit infrastructure, combined with major geographical dividers (Rock Creek Park/valley and the Anacostia River)– makes for solid dividing lines, and in turn helps create distinct neighborhoods. So many neighborhoods have really developed their own identity, culture, and stable of events only associated with their square block area. Even within DC, and often within individual municipal wards, there are multiple cultures and historical bases from which to create a meaningful narrative when conveying the DC experience to a visitor.
For example, one of my tours starts on a short block of T Street NW. On the block are a Chinese food restaurant, a brewery/restaurant, a large musical theatre, a smaller music venue, a bank, and other retail and services. It’s a short block, the 600 block of T Street. However, along with the buildings that line the streets, the city has added other, almost decorative elements to tell the story of that block.
- On one end is a 2012 sculpture of Duke Ellington, born in DC, and someone who played many shows at Howard Theatre, located on the same block.
- In the alleys of T Street are two murals that picture musical stars of DC from (again) Duke Ellington, Wale, Kelela, Oddisee, Billy Taylor, Ron Holloway, and many more.
- Embedded in the sidewalk is a series of medallions highlighting the top artists to play Howard Theatre over the years; Chuck Brown, Marvin Gaye, Moms Mabley, and others are featured.
- The perpendicular streets that form the intersection –7th Street and T Street– are named, respectively, Chuck Brown Way and Duke Ellington Plaza.
- Finally, the streets and sidewalk themselves have been altered. Instead of the standard brick sidewalk of the surrounding neighborhood, this block has a distinctive and patterned light grey cobblestone like paver, a distinct break from the surrounding streets. And the roadway also uses the light grey pavers in contrast to the standard black asphalt of the surrounding streets. A subtle distinction, but a distinction.
All of these changes are telling a visitor “This block is special.” These are the kinds of design flourishes I appreciate. And I also use them on tour.
Amanda: Tell us more about the online experience and walking tour experiences you highlight. For example, I went on two of your tours, the Georgetown neighborhood tour and the Art & Soul of Black Broadway U Street tour.
Tim: Designing neighborhood tours for a wide audience has been one of the more challenging and rewarding parts of my job for a few specific reasons:
1) Since I have lived in DC for nearly 20 years, I do truly feel like any neighborhood tour is a reflection of me because I identify with the District as my home and the other residents here as my people. Even if I don’t live in the neighborhoods in which I tour, the interpretations of neighborhood history are by definition, personal and the narratives I present are subjective.
2) American regional quirks are somewhat dead as far as I am concerned; or at least have become flattened with globalization, access to the internet, and the brutality of the retail economy. However, I do think some American cities are associated with a certain cultural affect and DC is definitely one of those. The tours aren’t meant to necessarily refute anyone’s preconceived notions of DC, but to complement them. I want to design neighborhood tours that add nuance to the understanding of the District of Columbia outside of being the seat of the federal government.
3) A significant number of people who take the Art & Soul of Black Broadway tour (U Street NW area of DC) are also from other American cities. They tend to have an understanding of the unique challenges related to gentrification, the retention of culture specifically in cities, and more often than not, they have some understanding of the Black American experience re: urban life and how racism has shaped the Black experience in American cities. In my opinion, all of those factors have to be acknowledged at the very least, and perhaps play a role within the narrative of a tour about one of America’s most important Black cities, in one of its historically Black neighborhoods.
4) Since DC has such a shared history for many, even those that have never lived here or aren’t from here, I can reference our shared history and play off of it to create narratives and understanding about local DC history. For example, many visitors are familiar with the Harlem Renaissance; or the Great Migration; or the March on Washington. So much of “American history” intersects with “DC history,” I can bridge the gaps on the tour and reach people closer to where they are as far as knowledge about music, the arts, sociology, history, or even architecture and the built environment. This is especially true in using the arts. So many guests are willing to take a chance to hear, see, and otherwise observe the unknown and music and visual arts vs just solely listening to a lecture-like explanation of history. So I play music and use murals in the neighborhood to bolster the tour experiences and draw folks into the history.
Amanda: Tell me about your transition from the National Building Museum to developing walking tours, how did you design the themes, and what helped you develop experiences for your patrons?
Tim: The transition from museum ed, specifically focused on teacher professional development, to providing walking tours for a more general audience was not as stark as you might imagine. I say this because the museum in question was indeed the National Building Museum. Since the museum was essentially focused on telling stories about the built environment, I was already thinking in terms of how to use the built environment of Washington, DC to tell the stories of the people who live and lived here.
For purposes of working at the museum, I considered the “built environment” all human-built structures & buildings, including the spaces in between buildings. I try to use this same definition on tour if we are specifically discussing built structures and our place within them.
So with that premise, I initially set out to create tours about familiar areas of DC including the monuments, memorials, and well-known government buildings located downtown. The first tours I developed, regarding the monuments for example, were about the subjects of the monument, but also how the materials used and the design process used to create the monument complemented the story of that subject’s contributions. For example, the states where the stone was quarried for the Lincoln Memorial help tell the story of national unity, a theme present throughout any tour I would give at this memorial.
Taking cues from the actual building or structure, its design, and its materials became central to the tour narrative. That’s not so different from leveraging the engineering process involved in building a skyscraper to teach about, say jobs in the built environment, or disaster mitigation, or computer programming. My work at the museum was a decade’s long practice in studying the design process across disciplines and eventually applying the same process to tour creation while peeling back the curtain of building design just a bit to add a twist to traditional tours.
For my tours, the experience is all about narrative. If I can craft a compelling narrative with the right amount of historical content, bite-sized storytelling, opportunities for guest discovery, and clear expectations about what the overall theme is, there’s a good chance my clients walk away having learned something new having had an engaging 90 minutes.
Amanda: Can you walk us (pun intended) through your transitional design process for one of those tours?
Tim: Designing these tours for visitors while we could actually tour in person was a challenge, time wise. For most of the 90 minutes, I wanted the bulk of the narrative to include an even split of discussing people, places (music venues and other businesses), and events; enough to provide a basic understanding of the community we now call Black Broadway. However, the first few minutes were dedicated to orienting visitors to the area to give some context about where we actually were within DC (referencing nearby Howard University, Ledroit Park, Strivers Section, and other neighborhoods). Below, see the photo of Howard University Hospital, visible through the vista looking north of Howard Theatre. I could always reference this, quickly, to help ground the guests in the character of the neighborhood.
Placing the Shaw neighborhood in relation to others (or even more known landmarks like the White House or the Smithsonian Museums) added to guest understanding.
However, that has become a whole new obstacle to presenting the tour online. I can no longer use vistas to gesture to buildings in the background or otherwise set the scene to ground guests in the physical setting of DC. If there exists no comparable photo in my archives, I’ve had to use maps or verbally describe the location of the neighborhood. It’s a completely different experience.
As you can see, Tim draws on his observations and curiosities as a resident of DC coupled with his background in civic education to craft opportunities for people to consider the ideas behind, bounded, and beyond the built environment. Join us on September 18th, for a one-hour conversation with Tim where he will share more thoughts about informal education, designed spaces, Attucks Adams, and DC, the city he calls home.