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Behind the Kennedy Institute experience with Edwin Schlossberg

The story of the software, the programs, the tablets, and Ted Kennedy’s vision for his institute.

Stephen Wilkes

Edwin Schlossberg.

Ahead of the opening of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate on Tuesday, the Globe Magazine is exploring the history of the project and Kennedy’s vision for it.

The building honors Edward M. Kennedy, but the fingerprints all over what the visitor experience will be belong to Edwin Schlossberg, the husband of Kennedy’s niece, Caroline Kennedy. The founder of ESI Design in New York, Schlossberg created the software that users will play with to experience being a senator, the exhibitions they will interact with as they walk the spacious hallway, and the programs that will fill the time of their visit.

In a wide-ranging conversation with the Globe, Schlossberg talked about his contributions, Kennedy’s vision for it, and what visitors should expect to see.

Can you explain the idea behind the software that people will use at the institute?

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In the conversations I had with Senator Kennedy a long time ago, in 2004, the thing that was so interesting to him about the Senate is that it was a deliberative body, 100 people representing all these people around the United States coming to a consensus about things that were really important. He loved the Senate. He loved being in it. He loved getting bills passed; he loved the process of it. When I said, “What should we do?’’ he said, “This is a place where the visitors make the experience true. They are being given an opportunity to become the vehicles of discovery to how the Senate works. To be senators in training for a time.’’ We wanted everyone to become a senator, to become the process. It’s constituent-based. The idea is you have to become the Senate, through your actions and your behaviors with other people, passing the bills.

How will it work exactly?

The experience is divided into two parts. First is Senate immersion. One hundred people, each a senator, they go through and arrive in the morning. Before they arrive, they find out what date it will be they are discussing in the past. It could be September 25, 1952. Each of the days you arrive, it’s a different date, different set of issues. In two and a half hours, you hear what the bills are, you experience going to caucus, to the cloakroom, and negotiating with the people in your party and other parties in order to figure out whether to pass or defeat the bill, depending on what side you’re on. You learn what the press said, what people in your state said. Then you vote on the bills, and then you see what happened on that date. All the scripting is done by high school groups around New England. We created a development kit. Schools can sign up to do it and do the research, finding the newspaper articles, the speeches, and assemble it for the institute. Twenty-five have already done it. We hope thousands around the United States will do it.

Most political libraries are focused more on the individual. This one seems more devoted to education than the man.

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Senator Kennedy was more interested in the Senate than making a memorial to only his accomplishments. There is still an exact replica of his office. But the environment where this game is played is an exact replica of the Senate.

But there is more than the replicas, right?

The second part of the exhibit is a gallery experience. Everyone gets a tablet, and they can move along and get more information, like how a bill becomes a law. We’ve seen all the studies about poor civic engagement and how little people actually know about their local politicians.

Did that play a role in any of this process?

We wanted it to be a very accessible experience for people who didn’t have time to spend two hours. We didn’t just want them watching a film, so they are engaging in the process. The whole idea is to make it a completely immersive experience. You became responsible for the Senate; there’s no one to blame but yourself for what happened that day in the Senate. The heart of it is learning.

What do you think will surprise people as they come through the institute?

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The idea that it’s civics, engagement theater. It’s more about what contemporary life is about. It’s not a memorial to a single person. It’s designed to explain the inner workings of one of the bodies at the heart of democracy. It’s not a lecture or a book or a movie. It’s a simulated model. We think this can become a more widespread template for ways to learn and to learn in a way that is productive for you.

Speaking of productive, what would Senator Kennedy have thought about today’s nonproductive political climate?

I hesitate to speak for him, but when he passed away, people thought he was responsible for the spirit of the Senate. Everybody is more empowered with access and ideas, and that has changed the way people think. And how money has changed things. But the idea and aspiration of what the Senate is about is a critical piece of the groundwork of the country. Part of the aspiration of this institute is to provide four, five, six simulations a day. Tens of thousands of people will go through this, and maybe that will make a difference.

Was it important for it to be located on Columbia Point, next to the JFK Library?

It evolved. The leadership at UMass was so spectacularly inviting to get that to happen. Teddy was really excited about having it at the University of Massachusetts. And it would be next to the Kennedy Library; that was attractive, too.

The design of the building is almost stark; it’s very simple and clean.

Rafael [the architect, Rafael Vinoly] did a model for Senator Kennedy. It really works beautifully. It’s elegant and inviting. It’s hard if you see it and there are only 10 people in it. But when you see it filled with kids and school groups, it really works beautifully as a streetscape. The noise is very cool.

What about the noise?

The happiness of going through a marketplace. The individuals going through this odyssey of doing things. The space activates beautifully with lots of people in it. And when people walk into the Senate chamber, you can just hear the deep breaths. The authority of the space is sacred; it really grabs people.

Whose idea was the replicated chamber?

Teddy wanted that. He felt it was important, to make it have the gravitas of what we wanted to do.

It sounds like you’ve already had real people come through to test the space out.

We’ve been having lots of play-tests of kids coming through it. All of a sudden, these kids are like, there is a centeredness in their voice, talking about a bill. In one of the simulations, about segregation and allowing slaves to be sold on the streets of Washington, D.C., to see a group of black and white and Asian and Hispanic kids talking about the subject, with their state names on them, and to see them arguing over slavery and to see a kid use a dignified deep voice is really, really cool. The excitement with younger children, all of a sudden they take on the role of an older person, and it’s important to them.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Cheryl Senter

DID YOU KNOW?

1819 — Year the original 48 US Senate desks were built

101 — Number of replica cherry wood desks (right) built for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute by Doug Dimes of Northwood, New Hampshire

1932 — Year of a certificate in Kennedy’s replica Senate office from Herbert Hoover to Rose Kennedy commemorating Ted Kennedy’s birth

$79 million — Cost of the institute

$38 million — Amount paid by taxpayers

$12-$14 — The range of admission fees for Massachusetts residents; free for children and active US armed forces members

68,000 — Square footage of the institute

135,000 — Square footage of the neighboring JFK Library

10 — Grade of the students in Malden High School teacher Greg Hurley’s history class who were among the most active testers of the software at the institute before its opening

750 — Number of Android-based tablets the institute has for visitors to debate the issue of the day and ultimately to vote as if they were US senators

Related coverage:

- Joe Biden recalls Ted Kennedy as mentor who made a difference

- Obamas to attend Edward M. Kennedy Institute dedication in Boston

Doug Most can be reached at dmost@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Globedougmost
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