Take a tour of Trinidad & Tobago's Virtual Steelpan Museum

Screenshot of the Virtual Steelpan Museum landing page on Spatial.

On August 11, 2023, the inaugural World Steelpan Day, the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago was honoured around the globe as a builder of communities and a driver of cultural, social and economic development — but on that day, the impact of the steelpan also entered the virtual space with the launch of the Virtual Steelpan Museum.

L-R: Deidre Lee Kin and Shawn De Freitas, co-founders of Dingolé Limited, which created the Virtual Steelpan Museum, at the live demo at Mille Fleurs in Port of Spain, Trinidad, August 16, 2023. Photo by Janine Mendes-Franco, used with permission.

Less than a week later, on August 16, Shawn De Freitas, co-founder of Dingolé Limited, the Trinidad-based digital agency that created the museum, conducted an up-close and personal demonstration of the virtual reality tech at Mille Fleurs, a heritage building bordering the Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain, which I attended.

To De Freitas, the creation of the museum was all about “putting our stories in that virtual space.” The idea first came to him while he was attending an augmented reality conference in California; it struck him that the technology “would work perfectly for pan.” Out of that idea emerged Pan Jam, a virtual reality music learning app that reimagined music learning for seniors in order to support healthy ageing and wellbeing.

“The very first iteration of the museum was a feature in that app to onboard new users and introduce them to the steelpan instrument,” De Freitas explains. “We observed that users were spending a lot more time that we expected in the museum, so we decided to expand it and add more content.”

The first independent release of the museum happened at Carifesta, a biannual regional arts festival last hosted in Trinidad and Tobago in 2019. Its success at that event confirmed for De Freitas that the museum could stand alone, so he and his team began development of the Virtual Steelpan Museum, which went through a few unreleased iterations prior to its eventual launch on World Steelpan Day. This final version, De Freitas says, “was driven by universal access and adopted Web 3.0 technologies that allow users to experience it on mobile, desktop and VR.”

De Freitas remains convinced of the importance of the project because while the steelpan has enjoyed a wide international reach, there are still pockets of people who don't know about the instrument. A believer in meeting people where they are, he also saw its usefulness as a tool for youth to consume more easily information about their national instrument.

The medium allowed the platform to scale globally very quickly. It was therefore important to get things right. Part of the challenge with how the steelpan came into being is that it was a community effort, and a lot of the origin stories have been told through oral tradition. The tech team collaborated with journalist Kim Johnson, who has done a lot of research on the steelband movement and written books on the subject, to help ensure that they got things like the developmental timeline as accurate as possible.

Screenshot of the author's avatar checking out the timeline of Trinidad and Tobago's steelband movement.

The designers have been very careful about what they put out on the platform; all information that is shared is properly researched and supported with links to reliable sources. “Pan [has] a million stories, sometimes contradictory,” De Freitas explained. “Editorial decisions were hard to make, considering that there have been so many contributors to the movement.”

As far as building the space was concerned, the challenge was that it was 3D and had to be able to be navigated. The team suddenly found themselves having to understand elements outside of their skill set, like architecture, and how people walk through a space. They needed to be sensitive to textures and material, and understand how best to curate the space for a cohesive experience.

As such, they worked with designers and coders, building the virtual museum almost like a sculpture, in an iterative way, paying attention to everything from aesthetics to narrative. De Freitas is very proud of the accessibility of the space, since users don't have to have virtual reality (VR) sets in order to enjoy it. The site is also quite interactive: “It’s not passive press and play.”

Given that the steelpan is such an integral part of Trinidad and Tobago's annual Carnival celebrations, the virtual museum space wanted to integrate both the street festival and its music (calypso and soca) into the experience.

Screenshots of four of the key galleries in the Virtual Steelpan Museum.

There are four main rooms: the first pays homage to Carnival and key characters in the traditional masquerade; the second to calypso music (the genre that steelbands, in their orchestral configuration, play at Trinidad and Tobago's annual Panorama competition, the world's premier steelpan music contest); the third honours industry pioneers and the fourth is “The Engine Room,” a reference to the percussive section of a steelband that provides the foundation upon which the various sections of the steel orchestra build the communal sound and spirit of the band. This is the area of the museum that showcases the many different types of steelpans.

Screenshots show that the Virtual Steelpan Museum experience includes a sonic timeline of the instrument, and a gallery exhibiting the work of local artists, through which the history of the steelpan is presented in an immersive way.

Other high points include virtually experiencing the vibe of a “panyard,” where the pan orchestras practice, complete with a tuning room; a sonic timeline of the instrument, through which you can hear where it started and how it has evolved, with key milestone markers along the path, and a gallery exhibiting the work of local artists on the theme of the steelpan. Each year, after Panorama, the museum will be updated with the names and performances of the winners.

In the future, De Freitas sees the museum opening up to include social spaces, with as many as 500 people connecting at a time to tune into live-streamed performances and talks. He's very excited to see how users interact with the digital space, which offers fewer constraints than brick-and-mortar museums — “You don’t have to wait for funding or policy, you can just create” — and is eager to connect with other people who may have their own ideas for what the final consumer product could look like.

“People all over the world are now freely and constantly consuming Trinidad and Tobago culture,” De Freitas attests. In the short time since the museum has launched, it has already logged more than 500 visitors, but he still considers the current iteration of the museum “a starting point.” They plan to open up the platform to create links with pan practitioners and enthusiasts in other countries, which can mean adding new rooms; new stories. He believes that it's “good to understand what happens in other spaces; to keep developing, learning and educating people … to be a touch point for people across the world.”

Recalling an experience in Concepción, Colombia, where he was demonstrating the space, De Freitas said people would suddenly take off the VR headsets and hug him, solidifying his hunch that the primary market for the museum is international.

The Virtual Steelpan Museum is free and accessible through the Spatial app, but there are ways of monetising it in the future through events like live performances. At present, the designers are pursuing a sponsorship model, and are hoping that the local private sector will get involved in order to keep the space sustainable.

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