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published: March 2004
Explaining One of Mexico's Most Vital Musical Traditions: The Corridos sin Fronteras Traveling Exhibition and Educational Web Site
Evelyn Figueroa, Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services, and Tim Songer, Interactive Knowledge, Inc., USA
Museums are fundamental for communities to protect their identity and for their cultural preservation. By expanding outreach efforts and providing the community with access to knowledge and information, museums contribute greatly to strengthening the communities' capability to confront the challenges that 21st century globalization presents. A traveling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) titled, Corridos sin Fronteras, includes an educational web site that is designed to archive and explain one of Mexico's musical and historical traditions, "the corrido" a Mexican folk ballad.
The Corridos web site (www.corridos.org) was designed and developed by Interactive Knowledge (IK). The site is completely bilingual and designed to make the content from the Corridos sin Fronteras exhibition widely accessible. One critical goal at the outset of the web site design project was to make sure that the content was regarded as the Mexican cultural treasure that it is. In order to do that, SITES insisted that the English and Spanish languages be treated as equal in importance to visitors to the site. One result is that the language can be switched on any screen. There is an option at the top of each screen that allows users to switch languages at will.
In this fast changing world, technology and the use of multimedia experiences in museums are effective and accessible solutions that help museums achieve their goals of community outreach and meeting the community's demands. This paper will address philosophical principles and practical applications on the use of multimedia experiences in museums. By using the exhibition Corridos sin Fronteras: A New World Ballad Tradition as a model, panelists will analyze technological and outreach strategies and the public's response to new multimedia learning experiences, and how it can enrich the museum experience for a diverse community.
Keywords: Corridos, Cultural Heritage, Folk Traditions, Mexico, Ballads, Bilingual, Globalization
In an era of globalization and diversity, museums confront great challenges when performing their social function as institutions for the diffusion of knowledge. One of these challenges is how museums can outreach and provide access to knowledge and education to a diverse population with complex cultural characteristics and traditions. How do museums represent cultural issues that by nature are dynamic and in continuous evolution, into a rationally planned and statically ordered format, and at the same time, spark visitor's curiosity, engage their participation and interaction and be culturally accurate and respectful? What educational experiences can we provide to the public that can enrich their lives and increase their understanding and appreciation of the society where they live?
Multimedia experiences are effective tools, yet challenging ones, that museums can use to face and respond to the demands of a dynamic and complex society. This paper discusses the traveling exhibition and Web site project Corridos sin fronteras, A New World Ballad Tradition. It discusses philosophical, cultural, and practical principles, involved in the use of multimedia technology to enhance and expand the museum experience for visitors and to outreach and engage a diverse community.
The Exhibition Project
Corridos sin fronteras: A New World Ballad Tradition is a music-based, interactive traveling exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), on tour throughout the United States until the year 2005. The exhibition explores the corrido tradition in the New World and the significance of this popular oral convention as an expression of community life, tracing its historical development in the New World over the past two hundred years. Corridos are narrative songs or ballads whose characters, events, and themes are representative of the values and history of local communities in Mexico and the United States. In corrido stories, topics range from the history of Mexican revolutionary heroes, to a woman who shoots her lover because he is about to leave her, to a local hero who dies attempting to save a town of thousands of people. These ballads have survived through centuries and will continue to be passed down to successive generations.
Fully bilingual (Spanish/English), Corridos Sin Fronteras (Ballads without Borders) re-creates the historical development of the corrido through vintage and modern recordings, broadsides, photographs, posters, musical instruments, and other treasured memorabilia. Corridos recordings can be heard throughout the exhibition, through a state-of-the-art audio wand system and interactive units, allowing visitors to embark on a musical and visual journey through stories sung in Mexico and United States communities.
Fig. 1 The Corridos sin Fronteras Exhibition at the Arts & Industry Building in Washington DC. Section 2 of the exhibition Corridos sin Fronteras tells the story of Emiliano Zapata and Francisco "Pancho" Villa, heroes of the Mexican Revolution. Smithsonian Institution, 2002.
SITES organized the exhibition in collaboration with the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center and the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives. The exhibition goals are:
To fulfill SITES' educational mission, each exhibition is accompanied by an educational component to outreach broad national and international audiences. In many instances, these educational components follow traditional formats (education resource guides, education trunks, teacher and student manuals) which are distributed to exhibitors on the exhibition tour and used by them to plan and develop education and outreach programs for their local communities. As a music-based, multimedia exhibition, Corridos sin fronteras presented a great challenge for SITES: how to develop an education component geared toward national and international diverse audiences that would be creative, multi-sensorial, interactive, engaging, visually and linguistically accessible, multifunctional and rich in information, could provide a rich, engaging and complete exhibition experience for visitors, and would give longevity to the exhibition. While fulfilling all of these goals, its production would not exceed the project's limited budget. In addition, the education component needed to follow ADA requirements for accessibility and national education standards in order to be used by school systems throughout the country.
To meet this challenge SITES decided to explore and use multimedia technology, a medium flexible enough to accommodate all the above requirements and capable of expanding the concept of a "real museum visit". To that purpose SITES consulted, commissioned and worked very closely with Interactive Knowledge, Inc to conceptualize and create the educational multimedia interactive web site Corridos sin Fronteras, available at www.corridos.org.
Fig. 2 The Home Page of the Corridos sin Fronteras web site.
Corridos sin Fronteras: The Web Site
To kick off the development of the Corridos web site, Interactive Knowledge, Inc (IK)'s Vice President for Design and Development, Chuck Barger participated in a 2-day exhibit design meeting in December 2000. This meeting included representatives from around the US who were working on any aspect of the project, including curators, public relations, marketing, exhibit designers, audiovisual consultants, fabrication, consultants on Latino issues, video producers, educators and the web site design and production. The meeting's goal was to examine all parts of the project components as a whole entity. IK left the meeting with a list of site requirements, a preliminary exhibit script, a CD of recorded music, and a variety of images and support text materials. (Note: This meeting took place on a consultation basis)
Back in the office, the IK design team studied SITES' requests and the initial content. In January 2001, IK produced an initial site flowchart, design document and budget. IK submitted the materials to SITES for review. Through phone conversations and e-mails the final design concept and budget were refined and agreed upon.
In the months to follow, SITES concentrated on producing the exhibit and raising the financial resources needed for the production of the web site. When funds were secured, IK wrote a "Statement of Work" document and submitted it to SITES who began the contracting process. A contract was signed in September 2001 and work began immediately. IK traveled to Washington, at the invitation of SITES, to present the initial design, navigation, and sample interactions to the design team in October. (Note that because of funding issues and an adjustment of the exhibition traveling schedule the exhibition would open before the web site went live.)
From October to March, IK continued work on the site. Through phone, e-mail and express mail services, SITES delivered text, music, video, and images to the web design team. SITES reviewed and commented on the process by viewing screen captures, presented as printouts and an "under development" web site. This method of virtual meetings worked well for both the developer and the client since it forced a high level of organization and accountability on the project. IK kept a running, numbered list of its information / image / translation requests and were able at any given time to know the status of content items still needed and sections that were ready for review. In February 2002, IK traveled to DC for another design team meeting to present the web site and bring back the last batch of content.
Throughout the project, text was first written and edited in English. When a final draft of the English text was available, IK created a Word document with two identical tables. One table held the English text sections. The other table was empty. The document was emailed to the Corridos Project Director, Evelyn Figueroa for final review and editing. Once Evelyn completed her final edit of the English text, she translated each section to Spanish. The Spanish text was inserted in the empty table directly opposite the translated English text. As each document received final sign off and translation from the client, it was returned to IK. These documents were copied into the web site's content management system and became the source of the dynamic, bilingual experience that visitors to the site enjoy. Every English word on the site was translated, including button text, all directions, instructional and informational text, photo captions, video subtitles as well as the lyrics to all twenty corridos.
In the first week of April 2002, SITES conducted its sign-off review and the site went live the following week. A gala and media event were planned in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industry Building (where the exhibition was installed) for the launch. Since that time, the exhibit has traveled around the country. The web site has been an integral part of the museum experience at each venue. A number of goals were established for the web site project that are currently being evaluated.
Web Site Goals
Features of the Corridos Sin Fronteras Web Site
The site is divided into three major categories plus additional sections including a bilingual Glossary, lesson plans for Teachers and a growing Resources section.
Learn about Corridos
This section opens with the option to view four short video clips that have been re-purposed from a documentary film that was produced for the exhibit. The clips introduce corridos as an art form and highlight the importance of corridos to the Mexican culture in the past and the present. The main activity in this section is viewing and interacting with an historical timeline that begins with the Spanish conquest of the New World and continues to the present day. The timeline features detailed information on over thirty critical events and concepts. Visitors to this section can learn about corridos by reading text, looking at photographs, hearing complete corridos, and viewing video.
Fig. 3 The Menu Screen for the Learn About Corridos section of the web site. Promotional Postcard of Corridos sin fronteras Web site. Interactive Knowledge, 2002.
Listen to Corridos
This section is organized to reflect the design of the Corridos sin Fronteras exhibition. Recordings of sixteen corridos are featured and, like the exhibit, are separated into four subdivisions based on the history of this musical tradition. Each of the four subdivisions includes four corridos. Visitors to this section can read about each of the sixteen corrido's history, view photos and video related to the corrido, listen to the entire song, or choose an option titled Sing Along. The Sing Along feature plays the entire corrido using streaming audio while each stanza is displayed (in Spanish with an English translation) in time with the music. This unique approach assures that both English and Spanish speaking visitors to the site can understand and appreciate the wonderful stories told in each of the featured songs.
Fig. 4 The Menu Screen for the Listen to Corridos section of the web site.
Write Your Own Corrido
Anyone visiting the site will be inspired by the rich history and beautiful music of corridos. Because this art form is from the folk tradition, it is accessible to anyone who is moved by the struggles of common people. An important educational goal of the web site is to provide visitors with the experience of writing their own corrido. This section introduces an original, contemporary corrido that is used as a model for writing a new corrido. A visitor to this section of the site can review the corrido music and compose a corrido one stanza at a time. An easy to use online form displays the corrido structure and provides a simple word processor utility for budding composers to use. The final product of this section is one (or more) printed original corridos that can be sung accompanied by an instrumental corridos tune.
Fig. 5 The Opening Screen for the Write Your Own Corrido section of the web site.
An online, bilingual glossary provides one-click-away information on 30 terms pertinent to the content of the site. In addition to providing background information, the glossary directs users to places on the site where they can get more information on the selected topic.
This section contains lesson plans (PDFs) and suggestions on how to use the web site in the classroom. Lesson plans, for older elementary, middle and high school students, contain activities that integrate the content into the language arts, social studies and geography curriculum. This section also provides practical suggestions that classroom teachers can use to incorporate the web site into classroom activities for ESL, EFL, and music.
The Resources section is one of the most dynamic areas of this web site. Because the Corridos exhibit is scheduled to travel through 2005, SITES wanted to assure that current content was available on the site long after IK completed it's development work. The Resources section is a bilingual database that includes detailed information on a wide variety of topics related to Corridos including, Films and Videos, Musical Recordings, Speakers, Performers, Online Articles, Books and Publications, and Web Links. Visitors to the site can browse any of these topic areas and sort the list of information in a number of useful ways. The database includes hundreds of links to additional Corridos-related content that is available on the Internet. In addition, anyone can suggest a new resource from this section of the site. The database was initially populated with content suggested by the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA. New resources are being suggested weekly by visitors to the site. SITES staff review these suggestions and upload the most appropriate new resources using a convenient back-end site management tool.
Corridos Web Site and Public Access
One of SITES responsibilities is to provide cultural access through accurate interpretation of cultural issues in its exhibition projects and educational components. To that effect, it is crucial to include accurate representation of the voices of culture in order to achieve a successful exhibition presentation, provide an effective education service, and receive a positive response from the public and the community. Both, the Corridos exhibition and Web site were carefully developed, using primary community resources and extensive curatorial consultation to ensure the inclusion and correct interpretation of the corrido tradition and the cultural issues related to it, and as such, guaranteeing the access of correct cultural information for Latino and Non-Latino audiences.
Corridos are songs, music, and oral history, full of life, drama, and passion that reflect complex layers of Latino history, cultural expressions and idiosyncrasies. The semantic expressed in these songs can't be constrained within the physical and sometimes static space of an exhibition. By creating a multimedia experience in both the exhibition and the Web Site component, SITES has been able to covey the complex cultural layers and identity of Mexican and Mexican American cultures contained in corridos. By using multimedia, SITES has been able to offer to the public, a multisensorial experience and at the same time convey many layers of cultural information. The use of multimedia also provides choices to visitors who respond to the experience based on age, education level, or cultural background.
As in the exhibition, the Web site Corridos sin fronteras reflects the dynamic nature of corridos as a form of oral history and as expression of cultural evolution. It also translates the cross cultural similarities of the corrido tradition, providing a sense of place where visitors can go not only to find information about corridos, but also where they can find and experience something familiar or of interest to them, regardless of their cultural background or ethnic origin. The comments by a German visitor to the exhibition during its presentation at the Smithsonian Institution reflect very well this concept:
Another level of access achieved by the Corridos Web site is the equal linguistic accessibility for visitors. The Web site is fully bilingual (Spanish / English) and provides visitors with instant access to text in either language. This linguistic element is crucial for reaching all levels of Latino population nationally and internationally. Language is a common thread among Latino cultures in the United States and a large percentage of Latinos still face language barriers. The Corridos Web site provides the opportunity for Latinos to "feel closer to home", sparking their interest and facilitating a new learning experience among a population for which historically, museums have been outside of their life experience.
Fig. 6 Visitors to the Corridos sin Fronteras web site can view the site in English or Spanish or switch between languages on any screen, instantly.
The same linguistic barriers exist in countries in Latin America, where English as a language, is not included in traditional education systems. During a visit to El Salvador in Central America in November 2002, we had the opportunity to exchange professional experiences with a large group of museum professionals from public and private museums who expressed their frustration when using the Internet, because "everything is in English" and therefore, not accessible for them as they don't know the language. In an interview on November 5, 2002 with Mauricio Granados, Director of the Patronato Pro Patrimonio Cultural de El Salvador (Foundation for the Preservation of the Cultural Patrimony of El Salvador), he expressed:
"In El Salvador and all Latin America we have a great need for bilingual Internet information. The great thing about the Corridos web site is that I could understand the information presented because it is also in the Spanish language. I was able to identify myself with the subject of corridos because in El Salvador, we also have a corrido tradition. It was great to learn how similar are Mexico and El Salvador's oral history traditions."
Access to information should not be limited only to the use of technology. It must also provide linguistic accessibility to facilitate the understanding of the information. The Corridos web site performs this function very effectively and it is a great tool to provide a "Corrido museum experience" to a bilingual worldwide community.
In the world of cyberspace intricacies, the Corridos web site is a functional tool for technical access. The graphic design of the site is simple, yet effective for a wide audience from sophisticated users to children and adults who are new to the Internet. Many Corridos fans in the United States and Latin America are viewing the Corridos site because of their love for the topic, not because the Internet is a common source of information for them. Interactive Knowledge has over fifteen years experience designing educational software for a broad audience from college students to low-literate adults. Each screen on the Corridos site is designed to offer clear choices. The navigation is simple and options are clear. The addition of a bilingual option has opened this site to a much larger audience than other Smithsonian web sites have been able to reach.
As part of a U.S. Congressional requirement, all exhibition projects produced by SITES must comply with the American Disability Act (ADA). SITES' compliance with ADA accessibility requirements expands to the creation of Web sites. The Corridos web site includes several features that greatly increase the accessibility of the site including, large font sizes in many of the sections; contrasting color palette for color-blind accessibility; and high contrast between text and background for readability. The site uses pop-up windows extensively to allow access to a large amount of content with very little navigation. Whenever a pop-up window appears, the background is masked with a grey overlay to emphasize the content in the window and minimize any possibility of background/foreground confusion for visitors with poor eyesight. Though the site uses Flash, the lyrics to all of the corridos used in the site are available via HTML.
Corridos Web Site and its multiple educational functions
The primary purpose of the Corridos Web Site is to introduce a broad and diverse audience to the rich history, evolution, and cultural value of the corrido tradition in Mexican and United States communities. As the educational component of SITES exhibition, it should be used both to expand and enhance the content of the exhibition and to bring a rich museum experience into the school classroom.
Corridos Web site is fundamental to education, both supplementing on-site visits and making resources accessible for distance learning. In the museum context, the Web Site multimedia capabilities enhance the museum experience for the visitor by providing additional detailed information not included in the exhibition due to space constrains. It also extends the visitor's corrido experience outside the museum environment, allowing him/her to continue enjoying his favorites corridos as desired. This extended enjoyable multimedia educational experience is also geared toward groups and families within the home environment.
Successful exhibitions are educational documents that make important intellectual statements on a particular subject. As the first exhibition about corridos oral history tradition that has ever been produced, Corridos sin fronteras and its Web site are groundbreaking tools for research and for building upon the data they represent. Moreover, corridos are a rich multimedia archive of information and a collection of oral history, available to national and international public. The collection of corridos included in Corridos sin Fronteras is a comprehensive compilation of the classic and best samples of this important oral tradition, represented within an accurate historical and social context. The use of multimedia facilitates the growth of this collection as the music genre evolves, provides enough "space" for the augmentation of its rich historical and social context and documentation, and makes it available for public use.
The Corridos Web site is an excellent multimedia resource center that provides access to academic research produced by the Chicano Studies Research Center of UCLA, scholarly research performed by scholars throughout the country, and many other academic resources that, otherwise, are scattered and inaccessible. The Web site links these resources and makes them accessible to schools, students, universities, professors and many others who need to access basic information and resources on the corrido tradition for their investigation work on the subject. A good model of the effectiveness of using multimedia in the academic environment is presented by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese of the University of New Mexico, where a new course of studies focusing on the corrido tradition was offered in the Fall 2002, for which both, the Corridos exhibition and its multimedia Web site were used. By using this multimedia tool right in the classroom, the students had a great opportunity to learn about the corrido tradition from different perspectives and had a rich "museum experience" in the academic environment.
By virtue of their nature, exhibitions have short lives -- Corridos has a three year tour with eleven 12-weeks presentation periods in each community until 2005. The educational interactive Web Site plays an important role in extending the longevity of the exhibition after it closes by continuing to offer a "multimedia museum experience" to the communities throughout the nation. This longevity factor is fundamental for schools where teachers and students will be able to still enjoy the exhibition and to learn about corridos through the multimedia website.
As schools in the United States and other countries move into a new age in the use of technology in classrooms, there is a need for high quality educational programs that can enrich the classroom experience and that can be multidisciplinary in function. Teachers are eager to get access to ready-to-use educational materials and new multimedia resources that can enrich and augment the classroom experience for their student. The Corridos multimedia Web site offers an important multidisciplinary tool that provides contextual information, audiovisual materials, ready-to-use lesson plans, interactive activities and many other resources that meet national education standards.
As an education resource, the use of the web site is applicable to music, history, social studies, Spanish, literature and many other disciplines that are taught from sixth-grade to university level. It is also a great resource for homework and extra-curricular activities for students. The inclusion of the Corridos website in school curricula is a great alternative for teachers and educators. The site is designed for individualized instruction and can help teachers who are stretched to respond to class demands, constraint of time for lesson preparation, and school budgetary cuts that reduce the access to resources.
Web Site Implementation and Results from the Field
Corridos sin fronteras opened at the Smithsonian Institution in February 2002, where it was presented for a period of ten weeks. Since then, it has traveled, on a 12-week-showing period, to three institutions, the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, CA, the Museo de las Am ricas in Denver, CO, and to the Witte Museum in San Antonio, TX. In each of these institutions the Corridos website was integrated as another component of the exhibition presentation, enhancing the visitor's multimedia learning experience and providing an additional interactive component. All of the institutions planned and implemented education programs around the web site to augment and enrich the "museum experience" for visitors.
At the Smithsonian Institution, the website was located in a section of the exhibition called "Education Center." Teachers and museum educators used this section to teach school groups about the corrido tradition during their visit to the gallery. Another successful program was the implementation of the Web site's "Write Your Own Corrido" section into a Corrido Children's Workshop. During this event, children composed their own corridos and then, they performed their compositions during a Corrido Performance with a group of corridistas (corrido musicians), held at the Smithsonian Discovery Theater (children's theater) on March 23, 2002.
During the exhibition presentation at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, CA, from May-August 2002, teachers developed special activity worksheets with questions and answers based on the Corridos website, which were to be completed by the students during their visit to the exhibition. In addition, the museum has a permanent class schedule for classes that focused on the corrido tradition that were taught using the multimedia website.
The Corridos website is now a permanent component of the regular schedule of education and outreach programs at the Museo de las Am ricas in Denver, CO. The museum has created a computer room designated for the use of the Corridos website on a regular basis, where they provide access and a multimedia learning experience to students and teachers.
At the moment of writing this article, Corridos sin fronteras is being presented at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, TX. As part of this presentation, SITES has developed a precedent setting and unique collaboration with the Witte Museum and The Alameda Center for the development of a Corridos Teacher's workshop. This collaboration will train teachers from the San Antonio region and other cities around the state of Texas, on how to use the multimedia Corridos website and integrate it in schools and classrooms. Schools and a large amount of teachers and educators have expressed great interest and need to learn more about integrating the Corridos website and multimedia experiences in schools classrooms, libraries, cultural centers, and other educational institutions. This response reflects how receptive and interested school systems are toward the inclusion of multimedia and interaction in the classroom in order to provide new alternatives for teaching and learning. It also reflects the existent need on the part of schools and other educational institutions across the nation, to have access to high quality and engaging educational products that can outreach to students, diverse audiences and the community.
The exhibition Corridos sin fronteras: A New Ballad Tradition and its educational web site are more than just an exhibition project. They are engaging multimedia experiences that reaches out beyond the museum's walls in stimulating formats, increasing understanding and knowledge among the community about a the unique Latino cultural expression. By conveying information using multimedia, the Corridos web site offers many layers of interpretive and contextual information that help a worldwide audience learn and understand about the corrido tradition from different perspectives. The use of multimedia in its exhibition and educational products is a fundamental tool to help SITES achieve its mission of increasing and diffusing knowledge among a broad and diverse audience. It is also a great element to improve and expand cultural understanding and encourage the preservation of Latino traditions.
Corridos sin Fronteras (http://www.corridos.org), Smithsonian Institution, 2002.
Corridos sin Fronteras Visitor Comments Book, (non-published), Smithsonian Institution (SITES), 2002.
Granados, Mauricio. Personal interview. El Salvador, November 5, 2002.