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Mediating Conflict in Situ


Corcoran School of the Arts and Design



Design Research, Narrative Development,

Graphic Design, 3D Design


Naomi Crellin, Founder and CEO, Storycraft Lab

Nigel Briggs, Exhibition Designer, Smithsonian 

What if disputed land could be activated to build empathy, alleviate hostility, and inspire compromise?

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The Corcoran's exhibition design thesis project starts with a choice of site. A year of research and design development informs the narrative experience, graphic and spatial design, which is shown through a written dissertation, thesis defense presentation, exhibit guidance document, and architectural model. 


McMillan Park was once used as a park space, filled with a diverse community. Below ground, its catacomb-like cells filtered water from the Potomac. Decommissioned and fenced off since WWII, the 26 acre site currently stands in the middle of staggering gentrification in NW Washington, DC, and is the focus of an ongoing battle between developers, community activists, and city officials. 

Place builds on placemaking principles to transform the site into a three month long interactive exhibition, designed as a conduit for resolution, inspiring a path forward for the community and the site through the power of play, story, and collective action.



Place primarily targets NW DC residents, in hopes of encouraging collaboration between residents, new and old. DC city officials, real estate developers, and architects are also targeted to bring all parties to the table to spur action and inspire compromise. Place relies on local partnerships to ​both support NW DC businesses and create programming opportunities that incentivize repeat visits. For example, once a month Place to Eat invites residents to a picnic curated by local neighborhood restaurants. 

Spatial and environmental graphic design leverage the unique qualities of the space, encouraging close observation of McMillan's design and inspiring a new appreciation for its history. The repetitive, rhythmic nature of the site and the circular form of the manhole are carried through the experience design, signifying timelessness, unity, and community. Manhole Messages, covering ten of the park's 2100 manholes, are used as exhibition signage to guide visitors to and through the experience with the voice and wisdom of urban planners. 


Place is designed to encourage multiple levels of experience, physically and mentally. An interactive park space above ground allows for play, while a Community Think Tank below gather visitors to delve deeper into renovation proposals.


Chutes and ladders connect the two levels, encouraging visitors to weave in and out of the site. An augmented reality app, McMillan Time Machine, lets visitors explore McMillan's history, alongside its present, and crowd-sourced designs for its future.

First-person stories of McMillan Park are seeded throughout the experience to accentuate the human side of the debate and build a sense of community.



As the culmination of my graduate school education, this project put my technical skills into practice, while also empowering me to dive into research and narrative development. In the process I learned how to balance the push and pull of design and content in favor of a cohesive experience.

In case you're curious to know how McMillan Park is doing these days, it's still sitting behind its fence, steeped in controversy and debate in the middle of the most rapid growth and development in the country. 


Copyright 2021 by Rachel Matthews