“Yours Truly, James Deering” helps Vizcaya’s visitors and online audiences get an answer to their most-asked question: who founded the Estate and why? Despite his great wealth, James Deering was a private person who did not marry or have children. What we know can know of him comes from the letters and telegrams he wrote during the construction of Vizcaya in the 1910s, which to this point have been inaccessible to the public. This project fashions his correspondence into an online storytelling experience that gives the user choices regarding what aspects of Deering’s personality they want to explore and guides them into a process of crafting their own narrative about who he was.
When the user enters the experience they are presented with aspects of Deering’s interests (e.g. books, style, business management, family, etc.). All of these aspects are represented by images and descriptions on the home page, which visitors can scroll and select, or they may use the categories at the top of the page to group these aspects into narrower themes. When they select an image with the magnifying glass icon (eye-spies), they will enter a page that uses a brief description and Deering’s own words as the titles introducing a letter or telegram written by Deering. In one instance, we read two telegrams about Deering’s extreme frustration at his artistic designer’s continually embedding seahorses into walls, ceilings and furniture despite Deering’s express wish that the caravel be the Estate’s emblem. A touch-and-hold magnifier is built into the telegrams so visitors can read them better on their devices and look for clues about the details of these historic pieces of correspondence. The title bar remains persistent so that the user keeps track of the page’s theme even as they may bury themselves in the letters and content. Below each piece of correspondence is a drop down menu with a text transcript of the content. Many of our younger testers had never heard of a telegram before, but perceived a tie to today’s social media communication. The seahorse stop ultimately encourages the user to look around the Main House at Vizcaya and think about which man got their way with the Estate’s emblem. For remote users, a 360 view of one of the rooms of the Main House is embedded.
Besides the letters and 360 tours, other bonus multimedia content is embedded at the bottom of the stop. Visitors can download copies of the original letters from Wikimedia Commons (with collections metadata) and the Commons has been a major remote source of traffic to the site. Several objects related to the stops were also documented with photogrammetry and embedded as interactive models, including the seahorse weathervane that sits atop the Main House.
This became the first time that Vizcaya experimented with video for its interpretive content, and videos featuring the project team are viewable from the home and theme pages with the picture of the interpreter and the media “play” icon. Timelines of the history of Vizcaya and its archives since Deering’s passing in 1925 round out the content offering.
Vizcaya built Yours Truly in collaboration with our audiences over the course of 2019 after being asked by the Knight Foundation to participate in a museum cohort aimed at instilling the values of human-centered design in cultural institutions.
The project’s goals and outcomes include the following:
- Established a digitization plan for archival materials
- Procured modern digitization equipment and digitized more than 3,000 pieces of correspondence
- Development of a responsive CMS based on WordPress that forms the basis of all future interactive experiences on the Estate and online
- Human-centered design process that is now applied for all audience-facing projects
- Installation of site-wide wireless access for visitors to the Estate
- Experimentation with expanded forms of multimedia storytelling
- Development of a user/visitor tracking system “Personamatic” based on Google Sheets/Forms/Data Studio for user studies
The only goal not achieved is that we originally intended kiosks to be part of the storytelling mix. Kiosks were purchased. However, in response to the pandemic, Miami-Dade prohibited the use of kiosks on County-owned properties. The experience remains responsive for any screen, and kiosks may be integrated at a later date.