Nevermore Park and the Art of Experience Design

A fully immersive, experiential space that is both for-profit and substantive, Nevermore Park breaks the established paradigm of a pop-up museum and begs the question, “what could museums be?” 

As Hebru Brantley, the artist behind Nevermore Park, said, “on a surface level, [Nevermore Park is] an extremely fun, engaging, interactive experience—it could be easily just an Instagrammable moment for people.”

But, on a deeper level,

“[Nevermore is] about reclaiming history—both in the United States and the city of Chicago—through a lens that speaks to empowerment and giving agency to a historically disenfranchised community.” 

TLDR: Brantley’s Nevermore Park schools both museums and instagrammable pop-ups on experience design. 

Here are the lessons he’s teaching:

Establish the norms of the space up front

As soon as I entered Nevermore Park, friendly staff members at a welcome desk informed me that Nevermore was the fully immersive home of Brantley’s characters Flyboy and Lil Mama. They invited me to pick up or photograph whatever I wanted, walk wherever I pleased, and view the space in any order that I chose. 

Once the staff had verbally established the norms of the place, they socialized me to them by explicitly giving me a choice about how I would experience the space. I could take one of the Flyboy newspapers at the beginning of my experience, as a set-up to the scene I was about to witness, or at the end, as a revelation. I chose to take it at the end. 

I continued into a gallery that looked just like a classic contemporary art gallery: white walls, paintings laid out with generous space between them, an “art speak” introduction to the space in small black letters applied to the wall. “Am I invited to touch here? Really?” I thought.  

Upon reaching the back of the gallery, I saw a canvas ripped open with newspapers flying out of it. Loud noises pulsated through the space.

Brantley started with a classic museum space to literally rip it apart, to highlight the difference between the norms of Nevermore Park and the norms of an art museum. As Brantley said,

“There is a heavy stigma with the general public and museums – especially art museums where your average person is very standoffish in terms of their relationship to a museum or a gallery. It can be daunting, these huge spaces with all white walls and everyone is having ‘art speak.’ You might just be a person who just wants to come in and look.”

Every detail is a part of world-building

Brantley’s world-building is incredibly meticulous, resulting in a space that brings Afrofuturism to life in physical form. Small items strewn throughout Nevermore Park highlighted the black history of Chicago, allowing me to craft a narrative of the space as an alternate South Side spacetime.

Afrofuturism: In the 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” cultural critic Mark Devry coined Afrofuturism, defining it as “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth century technoculture- and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” Afrofuturism is fiction that centers black culture and begs the question, “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?”

World-building: a term commonly used in the science fiction and fantasy community, World-building is the process of crafting an authentic fictional universe by carefully mapping out its geography, cultures, social classes, history, and laws of nature.

I walked through the ripped canvas in the back of the gallery and entered a tunnel of newspapers. The papers started at the present day and then went back in time. The tunnel ended at a newsstand covered in Jet and Ebony magazines and newspapers from the 1970s to the present day. Perusing these newspapers, I knew I had entered a time warp that twisted the past seventy five years into a single spacetime. I also knew that I had entered a black community space.

Jet and Ebony: Black media moguland ChicagoanJohn H. Johnson created Jet and Ebony as two of the first magazines catering to African American audiences. Founded in 1945, Johnson started Ebony to “mirror the happier side of Negro life — the positive everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood.” In 1951, he started Jet, which relayed community news, famously covering key moments Civil Rights movement.

Exiting the news stand, I came across a workshop full of cogs and tools where, hidden in a corner, I spotted the flag of the Tuskeegee Airmen.

Tuskegee Airmen: the first African-American pilots in the U.S. military, the Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves during World War II.

Strewn across a nearby chair, I saw a Tuskegee Airman’s jacket. “Whoever this workshop belongs to,” I thought. “He was either a great admirer of the Tuskegee airmen or one of them.” Then it dawned on me, “Tuskegee airmen = Flyboy.”

Moving past the workshop, I entered a recreation of an L station labeled “Pullman,” referencing the famous Pullman Porters. 70’s-style advertisements featuring illustrations of black figures lined the walls.

Pullman Porters: Pullman Porters staffed the first class sleeper cars in the trains that crossed the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. The Porters were systematically exploited by their employers, working 400 hours a month and forced to pay for their food and uniforms. In response, they banded together to form the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porter, the first African American labor union to reach an agreement with a major corporation.

Across the room, wheatpaste posters featured black stars of twentieth century music with strong Chicago ties, such as Louis Armstrong, Mahlia Jackson, and Jimmy Reed.

Louis Armstrong: arguably the famous Jazz cornetist to have ever lived, Armstrong got his start in Chicago – its where he made his first record in his own name. 

Mahlia Jackson: The Queen of Gospel, Mahlia Jackson moved to Chicago as a young woman and called it home for the rest of her life.

Jimmy Reed: a famous blues artist of the 1960s and 70s, Reed began his career busquing on Chicago’s streets.

Entering the restroom near these posters, I was excited to discover even the bathroom was a part of the experience. Soft Jazz played from an old radio on the wall, next to photographs of more black Chicago musicians.

Every visitor will explore differently

The most magical part of Nevermore Park was that my experience was both completely personal and fundamentally dependent on my interactions with other visitors.

I entered a shed with toys strewn everywhere. A black boy around the age of eight stumbled in after me and began to play with some legos. He moved through the space as if he owned it, totally absorbed in his play as his mother lovingly watched him. I felt as if I was really seeing the real Fly Boy in his element. The child’s decision to play beside me shaped my entire experience of the space. 

Next to the playing child, I began to explore the space, going through the toy chests, unearthing cassette tapes, playing cards, and comic books. When I finished exploring, the room was in a completely different state – items that had previously been on the bottom of a chest were now on the top. Boxes that had been on the bench were now under it. The experience of the next visitor would be colored by my explorations.

Across the space sat a giant L train. Stepping inside, I saw a dark room at the end of the car. It was a Pullman sleeper car, complete with a phonograph and a crystal liquor decanter.

The phonograph cover was up when I entered the Pullman car, obscuring a photo behind it. I put down the cover to reveal the photo. “The visitor after me will immediately see the photo,” I thought, “but will only discover the phonograph if they open it.” 

The gift shop is still a part of the experience

Brantley believes “the exit-through-the -gift-shop mentality” is not antithetical to his art, rather it supports his work. Therefore, he crafted the gift shop as a continuation of Nevermore Park. (PSA: I am not advocating that museums become for-profits like Nevermore Park. However, the fact that funding is not neutral means it is best to have as many diverse funding sources as possible. Adopting for-profit gift shop strategies can help.)

Exiting the L train through the double doors, I found myself in the black and white world of the gift shop. It felt as if I had traveled from inside Brantley’s mind into his sketchbook.

All of the merchandise in the shop was on brand: stickers of Lil’ Mama and Flyboy, backpacks covered in Brantley’s linework, t-shirts featuring beautiful illustrations. The shop offered me the option of bringing a little bit of Nevermore home with me.

Design using a scrum agile approach

Many of the leaders of Chicago’s pop-up museum scene view their pop-ups as a stepping stone to test out designs for permanent institutions, and Brantley is no exception.

Scrum agile process: The scrum agile process is when a team creates a shippable product based on a list of user-focused priorities in short periods of time, called sprints. The team reviews the successes and failures of the product and uses their reflections to create another, better version of it. The team repeats the process until they’re happy with the product.

Like Kendall Bruns of the Pizza Museum and Liz Garibay of the Chicago Brewseum, Hebru Brantley would like to see his pop-up become a significant permanent institution and is using Nevermore Park to test its viability. As Brantley said,

“I think for me personally, I am really looking at this idea going on and continuing and as the universe evolves so does this place and being more of an institution in Chicago because this outlet and level of creative expression is something that I feel is always needed here, I would love that.”

Me and my fiancee at Nevermore Park

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Sources

Blakemore, Erin, “Five Things to Know About Pullman Porters,” Smithsonian, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/five-things-know-about-pullman-porters-180959663/

Broadnax, Jamie, “What The Heck Is Afrofuturism?” Huffpost, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-broadnax-afrofuturism-black-panther_n_5a85f1b9e4b004fc31903b95

Demby, Gene, “After 6 Decades, ‘Jet’ Magazine Decides To Go All-Digital,” NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/05/07/310529571/after-6-decades-jet-magazine-decides-to-go-all-digital

Dery, Mark, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delaney, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” Flamewars: The Discourse of Cyber Culture, https://www.kit.ntnu.no/sites/www.kit.ntnu.no/files/Black%20to%20the%20Future%20(Dery)_0.pdf

Ebony, “Celebrating EBONY Magazine, Which Turns 75 in 2020: Then and Now,” https://www.ebony.com/black-history/ebony-magazine-anniversary/

Estiler, Kieth, “A Look Inside Hebru Brantley’s Monumental “NEVERMORE PARK” Exhibition,” Hypebeast, https://hypebeast.com/2019/10/hebru-brantley-nevermore-exhibition-chicago-recap

Gibbs, Adrienne, “Strolling Through ‘Nevermore Park,’ An Immersive Installation By Visual Artist Hebru Brantley,” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/adriennegibbs/2019/10/21/strolling-through-nevermore-park-an-immersive-installation-by-visual-artist-hebru-brantley/#60821cdf2544

Kai, Maiysha, “For Flyboys, Lil Mamas and Us: Hebru Brantley’s Nevermore Park Imagines a Chicago Made for Dreamers,” The Root, https://www.theroot.com/for-flyboys-lil-mamas-and-us-hebru-brantleys-nevermor-1839367428

Kieffer, Kristen, “An Introduction to World-Building,” Well-storied, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-ent-hebru-brantley-nevermore-park-20191018-20191021-uovuzvdyd5buxp5fu6r7mtpb5m-story.html

Louis Armstrong House, “Biography,” https://www.louisarmstronghouse.org/biography/

Merriam Webster, “What is ‘World-building?’” https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/what-is-world-building

Mississippi Blues Trail, “Jimmy Reed,” http://www.msbluestrail.org/blues-trail-markers/jimmy-reed

Rockett, Darcel, “Hebru Brantley’s aviator-goggle-wearing ‘Flyboy’ gets his own park in Pilsen and it is magical,” Chicago Tribune, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-ent-hebru-brantley-nevermore-park-20191018-20191021-uovuzvdyd5buxp5fu6r7mtpb5m-story.html

Staples, Brent, “The Radical Blackness of EBONY Magazine,” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/11/opinion/ebony-jet-magazine.html?auth=login-email&login=email

Thompkins, Gwen, “Gospel Queen On The King’s Highway,” NPR, https://www.npr.org/2019/09/26/759600078/gospel-queen-on-the-kings-highway

Tuskegee Airmen Inc., “Tuskegee Airmen History,” http://tuskegeeairmen.org/explore-tai/a-brief-history/

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