Skip to content

DIGITAL DIASPORA FAMILY REUNION: Curating Family Stories in The Digital Museum

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Recently, reading EmcArts’ Audio Postcards documenting the 2011 Rockefeller Foundation Cultural Innovation Fund (CIF) awardees, this video caught my attention:

“These guys may not know it,” I thought, “but they are creating a crowdsourced virtual museum.” So I got in touch with them to learn more. Today’s guest post is by “these guys”—Thomas Allen Harris and Don Perry. Harris is an award-winning film & transmedia maker and founder of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion. He’s a graduate of Harvard College and the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. Perry is a writer/producer for Chimpanzee Productions, Inc., an independent film and multimedia company “dedicated to producing unique audio-visual experiences that illuminate the human condition and the search for identity, family and spirituality.”

“I knew a world of people who dressed fabulously, who led interesting lives and who were represented in my family albums and in other photographic contexts in a very celebratory way, and I would go into museums and I wouldn’t see any of that material at all.” —Rick Powell, Interview Subject, Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.

As avid museum-goers, we are quite often struck by what is absent …not so much as among the crowds of fellow devotees, but rather in the stories of people, cultures and groups who have been marginalized or gone missing or worse, whose narratives have been delimited to a fairly narrow range of experience that fails to present a fully nuanced perspective as to who they were, how they lived, their loves, hopes, dreams and aspirations. Our latest documentary film, inspired by the pioneering work of photo-historian Dr. Deborah Willis, Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, seeks to fill in some of the gaps in the historical record of the African American experience by illuminating the rich legacy of photographic images made by Black photographers and their subjects. The film aims to ignite a movement of people exploring their own photographic archives—the scrapbooks, photo albums, boxes of old slides, negatives, Polaroids, etc.—and examining the connections to the larger historical narrative that exist within it. We want people to take a closer look at how their family, group, culture is portrayed in their own photographic archive and to compare that interior portrait with the external images of themselves frequently represented in popular culture…including the confines of museums. It was with this goal in mind that we began our transmedia social engagement initiative, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion: One World, One Family (DDFR), which is open to the world.

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

DDFR seeks to mutually support and amplify intergenerational dialogues among youths (especially ethnic and minority youths) and their elders around the images and stories contained in their family photographic albums. DDFR consists of a touring live-event, DDFR ROADSHOW and a Web portal, which together uncover, illuminate, educate and entertain participants about their hidden history as captured in their family photo albums, creating in essence a “people’s history” of our world. DDFR has been to Atlanta, Silver Spring, Md., Jersey City, Boston, Brooklyn and Harlem so far. We received a Rockefeller Foundation Cultural Innovation Fund grant to take DDFR to all 5-boroughs of New York City in 2012. We are hoping that this will be a model for tours to cities across North America and beyond. For each DDFR Roadshow we formed critical partnerships with museums, libraries, historical societies and others.

DDFR engages with its audience to create new communities around collective story-telling on three levels:

  1. DDFR holds community photo-sharing events, where our production team and participants jointly create a narrative from participants’ family photo archives. These events, held over a 3-5 day period, are the precursors to a larger public presentation
  2. The DDFR ROADSHOW GRAND FINALE is where the audience participates in a journey of discovery through family photographs, creating a communal experience in which images help to illuminate our shared humanity. This event is streamed live online and invites viewers to share in the process by asking questions or contributing comments via social media which are then shared with the live community.
  3. Each individual photo-journey gathered during the DDFR event is edited into a short module and streamed on our website.

In this way, DDFR exposes hidden photographs from private worlds and brings into the public realm stories and histories that would otherwise remain outside of the larger collective narrative. By encouraging people to share their stories online as part of the DDFR SocialNet, we are curating a digital archive of vernacular history that provides a unique portrait of people we would not otherwise be privy to.

DDFR is building on the explosion of interest in genealogy, family history and personal biography—which is being driven by new online technologies and accessibility to digitized databases. In addition, we are in effect “crowdsourcing” self-curated content that is not part of museum collections, but very much could be. Museums can utilize this digital vernacular history to comment on and augment materials in their own collections, thus providing alternative perspectives on events and filling in some of the absences in the public record. For museums of the future, accessing the kinds of digital collections that DDFR represents allows them to expand their curatorial offerings and engage in unique dialogs with their users in a way that promotes greater inclusion in the curatorial process and in shaping the narrative voice with which exhibitions address their audiences.

As one commenter in the recent Ethics Forecast pointed out, too much “stuff” being generated in the world today for museums to collect everything that is important. DDFR is an interesting model for digitizing and preserving records and the stories associated with them, working outside the constraints of museums’ capacity to collect and store historic material. Like StoryCorps, DDFR can engender interest and enthusiasm, creating scores of “citizen historians” and laying the groundwork to connect their stories to a broader historical narrative. Where could this model go from here? Could the physical photographs brought to DDFR events be tagged with RFIDs or barcodes to connect them to their digitized records? Can museums mine DDFR or similar projects for content, and shepherding some private collections into the public realm? Your thoughts welcome…

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership



  1. I am intrigued by the group photosharing events–it is almost as if flickr becomes live. It makes me think of some recent conversations I have had about the relationship between online museum activities and offline events.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.