Interactive storytelling

The Hart Island Project

New York’s Hart Island is the largest tax funded cemetery in the world where mostly unclaimed and unidentified people are buried in mass graves that are inaccessible to the public. Studio AIRPORT created a new website including a searchable database that gives the bereaved the possibility to share stories about their deceased loved-ones and, in this way, bear them in remembrance.

The Assignment

To design a storytelling and visualization platform aimed to preserve the memories of the people buried on Hart Island for present and future generations.

We needed to integrate 63,484 records into the database to enable the public to search for their loved ones among those buried on the island.

“This is my daughter, I did not know she was buried on Hart Island. This is heart breaking to me, I thought she was cremated. I will do what I can to remove her from this place and give her a proper resting place. Thank You, a mystery from my life has now been resolved.”
By Lu Fontanez, added on 03.03.2015

“I never knew what had happened to my father until the Hart Island Project contacted me.”

Concept

We created a method to measure the length of time that the people buried are missing from history. This design solution is called ‘The Clocks of Anonymity’. The clock starts ticking from the moment a person is buried on the island. When a visitor submits a story, photo or video the clock will stop ticking to indicate that the person has been found.

This online identity management system is a growing platform. It gains depth and value the more relatives and other visitors contribute stories, art and poems. History is created through storytelling. Since no one is allowed to visit the gravesite, the website is essential because it’s the only memorial for those who are buried on the island.

Other important features of the website include the interactive map where people can search by plot numbers, the media gallery with art related projects concerning The Hart Island and the news and events section where all the news items about The Hart Island are collected.

The clock starts
ticking from the moment
a person is buried on
the island.

When a visitor
submits a story, photo
or video the clock will stop
ticking and the person is
‘found’ again.

Mass burials on Hart Island began in 1875. A numbered grid system was implemented to facilitate disinterments for later identification at the morgue. Today, most of the buried are identified. The workhouses are long closed. Yet, the system of burials remains unchanged and the cemetery only recently opened to visitation by relatives.

The Client

New York's City Cemetery on Hart Island occupies 101 acres in the Long Island Sound on the eastern edge of the Bronx. Since 1869, prison labor is used to bury unclaimed and unidentified New Yorkers in mass graves that are inaccessible to the public.

The Hart Island Project, founded by Melinda Hunt, assists families and individuals with limited resources in accessing public burial records and information concerning burial procedures on Hart Island, and increases public awareness of the history of Hart Island through engaged storytelling. The project maintains an online database of people buried from 1980 until present day, as well as maps of their grave locations.

Awards

The Hart Island Project has been nominated and won several international awards. Amongst them are a European Design Award and two honorable mentions at the Webby Awards.

Contact

We are excited to hear your story.