Introducing 'Faces of Diplomacy' to the American Public: Exhibit Testing at the Smithsonian’s Spark!Lab

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image of woman and young girl looking at a white board with sticky notes on the board under the words "What Does Diplomacy Mean to You?"
Visitors to the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History explore the exhibit.

Introducing 'Faces of Diplomacy' to the American Public: Exhibit Testing at the Smithsonian’s Spark!Lab

Currently under development, the U.S. Diplomacy Center will be our nation’s first museum and education center dedicated to telling the story of American diplomacy. Building a museum in this day and age means that we can take advantage of the newest exhibit design methods, particularly visitor-centric design, and develop our exhibits using prototypes and feedback from our future visitors. To do this, Diplomacy Center staff partnered with Smithsonian Exhibits and the Lemelson Center Spark!Lab at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History and invited museum visitors to interact with a prototype of one of our future exhibits called “Faces of Diplomacy.”

America’s diplomats are on the front lines of foreign affairs, serving our nation 24/7 around the world in ever-increasingly challenging and often dangerous conditions. However, their work is largely unseen, often occurring behind closed doors or in far-flung locations that are inaccessible to the general public. Made possible through a generous grant from Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation, and created through partnerships with The George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design and the Department of Defense’s Combat Camera crew, “Faces of Diplomacy” brings our  American diplomats to life through their portraits and stories. The talented men and women portrayed in the exhibit come from various regions, have diverse backgrounds, and bring a wide range of skills to the work of American diplomacy.

In testing this exhibit, we sought feedback both on whether our prototype was effective in illustrating the role of America’s diplomats in securing our nation’s security and prosperity, and also what we could do better as we develop the exhibit further.

Over the course of an afternoon with our prototype set up at the Spark!Lab, we spoke with over 300 museum visitors from across the United States and the world, getting their reactions to the stories of our nation’s diplomats and gathering their thoughts on the purpose of diplomacy. We used entry and exit surveys to gather data and brought in a whiteboard to allow free-form feedback.

When we asked “what diplomacy means to you” to five-year old Laina, she wrote "Freedom."

We found that the exhibit is largely successful in illuminating the work of America’s diplomats.  By the end of the testing, the whiteboard was filled with words such as communication, negotiation, peace, and freedom.  On average, visitors reported the exhibit increased their knowledge of U.S. diplomacy and its relevance to their own lives.  They also related to the diplomats portrayed and said their identification with diplomats increased.  

We received good social media coverage of the event, with the Department of State highlighting it on its Instagram account and the spokesperson and Director General “re-tweeting” it.  Twitter in particular provided an excellent platform with 1,201 people “engaging” with our tweets (clicking on them, re-tweeting them, liking them, etc.)  Over 36,000 Twitter account holders had our tweets delivered to their feeds. Several missions overseas also picked up on our tweets and translated them into Arabic, Spanish, Russian and Portuguese.

We will continue to expand “Faces of Diplomacy” with additional profiles, build additional interactive and engaging exhibits, and further apply innovative methods of visitor-centric design to our work.

About the Author: Sarah Chacon is a Special Assistant contracted to the Department of State’s U.S. Diplomacy Center.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.

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