How one woman is creating ‘virtual field trips’ to give students of colour more access to history.
by Caroline O'Neill
Kai Frazier has worked at some of the top museums in Washington, D.C., but she left it all behind to bring history into hands of students of colour through what she calls virtual reality (VR) field trips. Now she spends her days filming museums and monuments across America to create videos that students can watch on virtual reality headsets. She’s bringing the stories of Martin Luther King Jr and Barack Obama into the hands of students at an earlier age. She says she hopes this will create a supplementary resource for teachers and encourage cultural institutions that diverse outreach should be a priority.
Virtual reality is uncharted territory in a lot of ways, but Kai’s relocated to California to work with innovative leaders in Silicon Valley. Her work is already causing waves in the museum community and she was recently appointed to the board of directors for the Museum Computer Network, an organization helping cultural institutions grow their digital capacities.
I phoned Kai in California, where she’s working to create more content for the next generation of learners.
When the kids put on the headsets they are immediately immersed in a new environment whether it be a cultural institution, a new landmark, a memorial or even a cultural event. Instantly they’re hearing new sounds, seeing sights so they can, in about five minutes, get a taste of a new culture.
Your company, Curated x Kai, creates VR field trip for students. How do you explain these unconventional field trips?
CO You worked at some of the most well-known museums in the world in Washington, D.C. but you found they can be unwelcoming to people of colour. How would you suggest the improve how they welcome different types of people?KF I think there’s something to be said for when you walk into a museum and you see nothing that looks like you or speaks to your experience. (Museums) are supposed to represent their communities or community stories. We’re not seeing a lot of that.
I hated the fact that at museum events people would hand me their empty champagne glasses. I worked at the Holocaust Museum; sitting up front to do their social media, people would tell me the seat’s reserved, I have to move.
That’s just what I experienced on a typical day-to-day basis but in most museums there’s so many barriers to entry. Whether it be a the cost, they can’t afford to get to the museum or something like the writing on the wall—it’s written to a high readability level and they can’t even understand it. A lot of that is because it’s a balancing act pleasing the patrons and donors that have been there, and then engaging new people who don’t always have disposable income for memberships and donations. When you have communities who don’t have a lot of money because of history, they don’t always have money for memberships, but does that mean that they don’t get to be included in the museum? Maybe they would have money for memberships if they saw themselves included. The African American Museum was funded by a lot of students who put 50 dollars down or 25 dollars down a month for five years. They played a huge role in getting it built. That’s mostly black and brown kids. They could relate to something so they made that a priority.
There are things that can be done instead of saying, well they don’t buy memberships, they’re not donors. They can be and they will be if they feel like they’re being represented.
CO What monuments and museums have you filmed so far?KF The first filming was the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. and that was important because this is 50 years since his assassination and King is also the first African American to be memorialized on the National Mall. We filmed that in 360 and then I had some of my students record excerpts of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in English and Spanish so my former students who are Dreamers and English language learners could actually understand the speech, because they had never heard it in a language they could make sense of.
We went to the National Museum of Women in the Arts and we filmed some portraits by Amy Sherald, which was important because our third filming was the Obama portraits. Amy Sherald did the Michelle Obama portrait and Kehinde Wiley did the Barack Obama portrait. With the help of Amy Sherald herself, we were able to film those portraits and bring it to a lot of people all across the US.
I also filmed the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. They have an exhibition called Divine Bodies which talks about Hinduism and Buddhism, which I wanted to film because those are two topics that we don’t have a lot of resources for.
CO Is there any monument or museum on your bucket list to film?KF I really would like to do a VR experience at the African museum with John Lewis (a democratic representative and civil rights hero). He also did the legislation in part to take the floor so the museum could be built. I would love to film him in the museum about the sections and sit-ins in the museum that he played a part in. When you are dealing with people who are little bit older in age, there’s always some urgency that we need to get everything filmed now, because we don’t know how much longer they have. I also would like to film Margit Meissner (a survivor who volunteers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), talking about her experience in the Holocaust while she’s still with us.
CO How have students responded? And teachers?KF A lot of them have never done VR before so they’re just enamored that they can actually see something in a new world like that. We have an underwater one to show them from the Discovery Channel, a shark expedition. For that one I have a lot of kids take off their headset because they get really afraid, but it’s interesting that a VR headset can scare kids, like that’s how new it is to them.
The Obama portraits are cool but you gotta think that the generation of kids, if they’re maybe eight to ten, all they know is a black president. For people who have seen so many other presidents, they really appreciate Obama portraits because it's a big deal. People have been thrilled to see so many experiences and I’m hoping we can bring more to them but that is really dependent if museums really put diverse outreach into their budgets.
CO You’ve recently moved to California to take CuratedxKai to the next level. What sort of support have you received?KF It was a very big risk. I basically sold everything I had to move across the country to California to be closer to more resources and funding. Since moving here, it’s been amazing because there are so many communities that are here to support, to connect me with new people and to be an encouragement. I went to Stanford and their first VR conference has given me global projections for VR in 2020. That’s just the difference in the magnitude of VR that they’re doing out here. It’s been great to be around people who are at the speed where I need to be at, to push forward and make good strides.
CO You initially created Curated x Kai as a blog. How did you switch to VR?KF When I first started, I thought that I would do a blog which would break down easily for people how to visit a museum. Little by little I kept on getting pulled into the virtual reality sector. I thought if I could pull this off, it could really be a way to increase accessibility beyond a blog, but I was very hesitant to do that because I have no tech background. It was Georgetown University that reached out to me first and invited me to their Maker Hub to see what VR could do. They gave me my first VR camera. Then I went to Silicon Valley for my first time to check out the different tech companies. It was at Facebook that I ran into the Oculus VR policy team and they told me about the funds, the programs and what they envisioned for the future of VR. It’s just about not being afraid to try new things and ask questions, and to think bigger than me. In Silicon Valley if I can think big enough, someone can build it.
CO What kind of support do you get from Facebook?KF Right now, I’m in their program which is called Oculus Launch Pad. They support diverse VR creators, whether they are VR composers, VR filmmakers or even game Unity (a platform that makes VR games) developers. It brings everybody together and gives them resources, training—and it’s a competition. At the end of the three month program we submit our prototypes and they decide if they’re going to fund it. They fund about one out of three people. We just reached the halfway point. We’re going to submit a proposal for feedback and we get it back and then we take it and start to actually build out the prototype.
CO What’s next for Curated x Kai?KF One thing is that we (want to) get museums to buy-in and look into new and innovative ways to engage new audiences. What I’ve learned, unfortunately, is that when museums want to engage new audiences sometimes that means engaging the friends, family and network of the current people who are already at the museum. However, all of our research shows us that if museums don’t do a better job at engaging diverse audiences, they’ll be irrelevant. I think the stat is something like by 2033 there will be about 46 per cent of people of colour in the US. However, only nine per cent of people of colour will visit museums and that’s a huge problem.
Two, I’m hoping that by showing students museums at an earlier age, they’re interested in museum careers. Therefore we can have people inside museums that can help tell their own stories. Right now it’s like four per cent of blacks work in art museums in professional roles; I want to say it’s like three percent of Hispanics. And this is how we get whole museums that are not giving voices to diverse groups. I’m hoping that teachers have a diverse resource they can use to engage to students that are traditionally hard to reach. A lot of my students in underserved communities may be difficult in the classroom but they understand technology. We have to try some different, new, innovative, creative ways to reach these kids. I’m hoping that when the kids have the VR experiences they are exposed to worlds that are bigger than theirs so they can dream bigger and think past their immediate lives. Maybe they think in (terms of) the next two years, three years. Or maybe (they think), I want to be a teacher, or maybe, I want to work in a museum.
But really, you can build your own museum.
Caroline O'Neill is an Ottawa based morning reporter with Aboriginal Peoples Television Network's radio station, ELMNT FM. She is a graduate from Carleton University's School of Journalism and holds a degree in human rights. Caroline has also worked in Washington, D.C., Sri Lanka and Toronto.
To read more stories like this from Caroline and other writers, become a kaur. member.