SAAM Will Debut Immersive Experience To Limited Group Ahead Of Spring Opening

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Southampton African American Museum Executive Director Brenda Simmons next to a painting that will be part of the interactive experience being integrated into the museum this spring. The painting will provide a jumping off point for visitors to learn about Black hairstyles and the history and culture surrounding Black hair care for women.

The story of Pyrrhus Concer’s life is an important one, a vital part of both American and local history, and Black history in particular. It’s also a story that has been overlooked.

Southampton African American Museum Executive Director Brenda Simmons is intent on changing that. Starting next month, the compelling tale of the Southampton resident who began his life enslaved, became a skilled steerer on the whaling ship, Manhattan, was the first Black man to visit Japan, and became a landowner and philanthropist in Southampton in the mid-1800s will be available in a thrilling and immersive new way.

The museum is planning what Simmons called a “soft launch” of a new technology, called Digital Tapestry, a historically focused virtual and augmented reality experience which uses a cell phone app to bring certain aspects of a museum to life in a new way for visitors and even those who cannot be at the museum in person. The technology will work off an actual tapestry that is one of the centerpieces of the SAAM, a work of art created by David Bunn Martine of the Shinnecock Nation. It depicts various scenes representative of Black history in Southampton, including a likeness of Concer, images of African Americans who left their homes in the South in droves to come work on farms in the North — including on eastern Long Island — as part of the Great Migration of the middle of the 20th century, and depictions of both juke joints and Randy’s Barber Shop, which was housed where the museum now stands in Southampton Village.

Other aspects of the museum, such as a large canvas painting of an African American woman, will also be digitized and made part of the immersive experience. The technology was put together by Seattle-based startup 360 XR, and funded by a $125,000 grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, which will allow the museum to implement the technology both on site and as an educational program that can be brought to area schools.

“This project is beyond an exhibition,” said Kathryn M. Curran, executive director of the foundation. “It brings our historic stewards a new audience, technology that visitors are seeking, and educational outreach, hopefully leading to their sustainability.”

The mural at the Southampton African American Museum, created by artist David Martine of the Shinnecock Nation, will be fully interactive for visitors this spring through the use of an app designed by Seattle-based startup 360 XR.

The company behind the technology, 360 XR, creates both augmented and virtual reality experiences for museums, creating a more immersive and rich experience not only for visitors to the museum but for those who may not be able to visit in person. The technology allows the museum to come to them, whether the audience is a classroom full of children in another town, or a senior center whose residents can’t make the trip to the museum in person.

A select group of visitors to the SAAM will be part of the soft launch of the system in February. Through the use of the app, visitors will be able to scan certain parts of the tapestry with their phones, and go deeper inside the stories.

The mural is broken down into five “stops” on what amounts to an augmented reality tour. When visitors aim their phone camera at the first stop, a 3D likeness of Pyrrhus Concer will appear on their phones, and his story will be narrated by an actor in character as Concer, telling his life story from a first-person perspective.

“You’ll see a 3D model of Southampton circa 1850, with images of Coopers Hall, the Presbyterian Church, Concer’s house, and the ferry service he ran on Lake Agawam,” said Jack Stevenson of 360 XR. “And he’s telling his story.”

The app will give users a similar experience at other “stops” throughout the museum, both on the mural (which has a total of five stops) and on other displays of art present in the museum. The importance of the local juke joint will be explored, giving viewers insight into the importance of African American culture in shaping popular culture, and popular music throughout the world, from generations ago and continuing today, with stories related specifically to Southampton. Other stops will explore the importance of Black barber shops and beauty salons, and the importance of both in Southampton. Emmanuel Seymore, the original owner of the barber shop that later became widely known as Randy’s Barber Shop — located where the museum sits today — narrates that stop, in the same way the 3D likeness and voice of Concer narrates his own tale.

“It makes for a very personal experience,” Stevenson said.

A black and white painting with an up close image of a Black woman, painted like a bust, from the shoulders up, with a focus on her face and hair — which is put up in a head wrap — takes viewers inside the world of Black beauty salons, with a focus on Evelyn’s Beauty Shop, which operated for many years next door to Emmanuel Seymore’s Barber Shop on North Sea Road. A 3D likeness of the woman from the painting narrates that portion, focusing on the history of Evelyn’s and talking about the specifics of African American hair care and hairstyles, the vital role beauty shops played in Black culture, how they provided important business opportunities for Black women, and more.

The company is also working on a specific online experience for the museum, using sophisticated video equipment to take a 3D scan of the entire museum, which can be viewed both online or with VR goggles.

“You can walk through the museum and look at all the exhibits, just like you’re there,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson’s company is also in the process of creating a printout of the mural, also digitized and compatible with the app, that Simmons can take with her for school visits.

Simmons is excited for the expanded opportunities and reach the app and online experience will create, opening the museum experience up to a wider audience, and making the overall experience richer for both in-person visitors and those for whom the technology represents the only way to experience the museum.

“It’s so exciting that not only can people come in and use the app, but we can actually take it to schools to help educate students,” she said. “There is so much local history that’s not being talked about.” Simmons added that in the recent past, she’s asked teachers and students if Pyrrhus Concer’s story is being taught in schools, and the answer has been no, an issue that the museum can now be a part of changing.

Next month’s soft launch will give Simmons and 360 XR a chance to get some feedback on the app and the work they’ve put into the experience, and work out any possible changes or tweaks ahead of the museum’s opening to the public in mid-May, when the app will make its wide debut.

The SAAM is one of several museums on Long Island that will enhance its visitor experience with the use of 360 XR’s technology. The same kind of app-based, augmented reality experience is already being offered at Raynham Hall, a museum in Oyster Bay centered around the time period of the American Revolution, as well as at the Ketchum Inn, Three Village Historical and Shelter Island Historical Society. Stevenson said more than 2,000 visitors have used the technology at Raynham Hall, and he said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People are saying, ‘Wow, that’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,’” he said. “And that goes for kids from as young as 5 to as old as 95.”

The SAAM will be the second Long Island museum to debut the augmented reality and app-based technology from 360 XR, and the museums will then work to cross-promote each other.

“So when you’re at Raynham Hall, at the end [of the virtual tour], it will say something like, ‘Hey, if you liked this, you should go check out the SAAM in Southampton,’” Stevenson said.

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