Monthly Archives: August 2012

Australia: MONA’s “The O” post-visit website

The “O” Part Two
This is the last post on my recent visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. The first post dealt with my overall impressions of this groundbreaking private museum. The second post covered the “O”, the customized iPod Touch-based guide given to each visitor to MONA. This post will specifically address the post-visit experience – what happens when you get home to find an email from MONA.

Logging in

What you see when you go to the MONA site.

MONA’s website is a bit of a tease. You can’t really get much about the MONA experience from looking at the site. They taken Koven Smith’s advice to heart and haven’t made another Conestoga Wagon for the 21st century. Their site has a very unusual purpose and audience. It exists to allow you to recall your visit to MONA in great detail. If you haven’t been, the site will be of little use to you. And the looping soundtrack might make you cranky. The merits and problems associated with this exclusivity are certainly worthy of discussion, but I found it a bit refreshing that they had chosen their audience, and it wasn’t the usual “everyone who might be interested in our collecting area, plus more people every year”  audience. Their website is not an analogue to the physical structure – it is something completely different. It’s a record of your relationship with MONA.

Visualizing a visit

Your visit presented to you in map form.

When you input the email address you entered when you got the device, you are confronted with this screen (as long as you’re not looking at it on an iDevice, hence the delay in me getting round to it) which presents you with a wireframe map of MONA, a list of the visits you’ve made, and the ability to toggle between looking at the works you saw on that visit, and those you didn’t.

The map
After reading Seb’s review, I was really keen to see the map. From a content creator’s standpoint, the ability to know what objects people were looking at, and to aggregate those data to make real heatmaps of where people were going in the museum sounded like Nirvana. From a visitor standpoint, I wanted to see how well it recalled my visit to me, after a period of weeks.  When we were at MONA, I was a bit taken aback to find they weren’t using the data they were collecting much. It’s still early days for them I suppose, but if I were there, I’d be crawling all over those data, just to see what I could learn from them.

From a visitor standpoint, I found it worked really well. The map is rotatable (though not zoomable) and the dots each represent an artwork you called up on the O. They are timestamped, so you can playback your visit and watch how you moved through the space. Given how lost I felt in MONA, it was a surprise to see how regular the floorplan is. Clicking on any dot, brings up the icon of the artwork and title, plus all it’s O content. I like the way you can build a mental model of your visit with pretty high fidelity. The use of images was helpful, since I seem to have trouble recalling titles from this visit. It might have something to do with there being no label in my visual memory of the artworks. I dunno… Always good to have pictures. I wish they led to bigger ones. One of my biggest disappointments in using the site was not being able to see big, clear images of the art. But more on that later.

 

Selecting an artwork you studied.

The promise of more
I loved the “Filters” and “Your tours” features of the site, because they both encourage you to think about having a relationship with MONA that lasts longer than one visit. The Filters buttons, presents you with either the list of everything you accessed during your visit (the default) or the list of everything you didn’t access. After reliving my tour in some depth, I found myself going back to see the things I didn’t look at, and thinking “Next time I’m at MONA, I want to…” The same with “Your tours”. It’s not “Your tour”. That use of the plural is the best invitation I’ve seen in a museum webiste. It invites without asking. I could easily imagine a long list of dates I’d been to MONA and imagine comparing my visits over time, what objects I kept going back to, and so on.

Brilliant thus far. But what about the content? What goodies are waiting for me?

Drilling down

I had no idea what kind of content awaited me when I clicked on an object. When I selected one, I got familiar text, and the same choices I’d had on my O. In the case of Candle Describing a Sphere, a piece that had Jen and me riveted, there was an Art Wank, and Audio. No larger image, no different content. Just what was on the O, without even the voting results to tell me how many other visitors loved or hated this piece. I tried a few other pieces and sure enough, all you can get is what you get in the museum.

The content from the O on that object.

The lack of unique content on the website is the O’s greatest lack as far as I’m concerned. Decent images is a close second. At first I was taken aback, but I understand the realities of trying to get something done in time for opening and the need to scope a project appropriately, even if it means launching without all the bells and whistles it might have. And when I look at what MONA have done with the app and the website, they’ve done a lot. I hope they do more in the next version, but what’s there is pretty impressive when you step back and compare it with what a visitor to any other museum on Earth will get at the end of their visit.

I can tell you a lot about what I looked at while in MONA, and I already feel like I need to go back. Those reasons are enough to win them some praise from the rest of us. I can’t wait to see what improvements they make on the system.

Next Drinking About Museums: BOS Weds 29 August, 2012

August Drinking About Museums: Boston
29 August, 2012, 5:30pm
496 Green St. Cambridge

The house is set back from the street and you might not see it at first. Come through the gate marked 496 and we’ll be in the front garden.

Hola colleagues!

Summer ain’t over yet! There’s still time to squeeze in one more DAM:BOS before the school year.  This month, Sandy Goldberg has offered to host our gathering at her home in Central Square, Cambridge on the evening of Wednesday, August 29.  She has a nice garden where we can enjoy a late summer evening.  If it rains we will go to Cambridge Brewing Company on Thursday August 30 instead.

In lieu of an onsite visit somewhere, I’ll will bring pictures of my trip to Australia.

Australia: MONA’s “The O” mobile guide

The “O”
This is the second post on my recent visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. The first post dealt with my overall impressions of this groundbreaking private museum. This post will specifically address the customized iPod Touch-based guide given to each visitor to MONA.

Perhaps separating the O from it’s setting is a mistake, but I kept switching back and forth while trying to describe my visitor experience, so I opted to give the O it’s own post. You’ll have to judge for yourself whether it was a wise idea.

Giving it away
The O comes with your admission to MONA, along with pretty sweet headphones which feature retractable cables! Why haven’t I seen these before? There goes one of my pet peeves; cable tangle. I was very impressed with the ease with which the front of house staff dispensed units, got you oriented, and sent you off. Perhaps its a sign of the changing times that handheld devices aren’t as big a deal as they once were. I think it’s also a sign of how well thought-out MONA’s visitor services are. Seb already mentioned the signage in his review of the O. I had a similar experience. Even my lovely and talented wife Jennifer, who tends to approach touch screens as though she’s poking a venomous animal got hers going on the first attempt. The whole encounter didn’t feel like it took any extra time on top of getting our tickets and orientation.

Obviously, MONA wouldn’t work without the O, so bundling the cost in the admission and making it universally distributed makes sense. I wish more institutions would take the same plunge. In my museum career, I’ve worked on my share of audio and multimedia tours for exhibitions. And I can confidently state that as a content creator, nothing is as soul-crushing as developing content that you know 80-90 percent of your potential audience will never encounter, because it’s stuck on a device you have to pay extra for on top of museum admission, and probably special exhibition admission, too. I understand the reasons behind it, but that doesn’t make it suck any less when you’re on deadline trying to make an engaging, unique experience for the visitors. Knowing that all visitors to the museum at least have access to all the content on the O resonated deeply with me. This same dynamic applies to a lot of mobile content. Give it away if you can. Charge for it only if you can clearly make your value proposition to your audience.

This will not be a technical review, since I haven’t talked to any of the technical staff about the guts of the device. Come to MCN2012 in Seattle if you want to get the skinny from the creators. I was interested in how the device shaped my visit, and focused on that. For other reviews, check out Nancy Proctor’s and Seb Chan’s.

Having to work to get information changed the way I interacted
I have a confession to make. Most art museum object labels make me nuts. I think it’s telling that they are referred to in in the field as “tombstone” labels, because I think for many visitors, tombstone labels are where their interest in an object goes to die. Is the general public interested in the accession number? Does everyone really have to know whose bequest funded the purchase of every single piece in the entire museum? And nothing else? Aiya! Don’t get me wrong, I use accession numbers all the time in my work, and I take a certain geeky pleasure in parsing a well-formed one. I also owe my livelihood to funders and am endlessly grateful to them for their philanthropy. I just think that even a one sentence description of an object would be more useful to more visitors than all the accession # and donor/funder credits on Earth. So I was predisposed to think the O might be another way worth considering.

Once in the museum and confronted with a gallery full of objects, I found myself doing the “Where should I go?” visual scan, and without the comfort of directional signage and labels it was hard to get started. As a learner, I guess am one of those “advanced organizer” types. I want to have a map in front of me, and be able to see where I am and where I can go. Not having those cues (I did have a map in my pocket) was a bit unsettling. I wanted to be told “Start here!” In the end, I chose an Egyptian relief and went up to it and started looking at it. In hindsight, it was a “safe” choice for me, since I’ve been to Egypt, done Egyptian exhibitions before and felt able to look at the object cold without feeling the way I often feel when looking at contemporary art – confused and unsure.

I used my O to find out what the object was, tried out the summary and the “curator’s wank”, which is what the longer descriptive text are called. I had some trouble with the title, especially after it seemed clear that many of them were written by women, but the actually wanks themselves were pretty straight-up, curatorial texts by and large. About the only major difference I found was that they tended to have more personality to them and were full of personal references that gave me sense of the MONA curators that I don’t usually get at other art museums. Otherwise, they weren’t crazy and way out. That was a bit of a shocker.

Every object has a Love and a Hate button and I was eager to see what this led to, so I loved my stele, whereupon I was told that X other visitors had loved it, too. And that was it. No infographics, or breakdowns on who else in the room loved that object. Just an acknowledgment and a fact. I was a bit surprised, even having read the reviews. I guess I was expecting the Love/Hate act to be more … declarative? … public? I dunno. As I progressed through the museum, though, I found myself asking the question of an object “Do I love this? Do I hate this? How does this object make me feel?” That is not the way I usually behave in an art museum, and it felt like a useful scaffold to me as an art learner to have to go through that exercise. By the end of the visit, though, I know I was loving and hating things because I wanted to remember them, and having only those two choices was limiting to me. I really, really, really wanted a “This object doesn’t speak to me” or “Meh.” button. Maybe in v2?

As I tried other objects and found other content on the O, I listened to audio interviews with artists. Some were interesting and very raw, some of them waffled around and could’ve done with some tighter editing and interviewing. About the only content that surprised me on the O were the songs that were selected to accompany some pieces, including some that were commissioned to be “about” pieces in the collection. I loved the inclusion of poetry that somebody (the curators? Walsh?) thought appropriate. The long and the short of it, though, was that the O didn’t really usurp my experience of looking at the art, which is always the danger with interpretive media. If the interpretation is more engaging than the object, then you wind up with a room full of people looking down at their screens instead of looking around.

Perhaps the most defining moment of our visit came when we got to the entrance of the current special exhibition, “Theatre of the World”. Having dutifully used her O throughout the visit, Jennifer proudly and loudly announced she was turning hers off and not going to use it. She had gotten what the O could provide her, tried it enough, and was ready to fly solo. Being a Star Wars guy, I of course had a momentary image of “Luke, you’ve switched off your targeting computer! What’s wrong?” “Nothing. I’m alright.” She was going in to see what was there, and nothing else. That would be impossible in any other art museum on Earth because the labels would be there, calling out to be read. Being able to choose the level of interpretation she wanted led her to choose none. And that was her favorite part of her visit.

I also found myself using the device less and less frequently as I went along, and “loving” and “hating” things less often as I grew accustomed to what awaited me. I could have the internal conversation without the external act of choosing. I even found myself asking objects, “Do I like you enough to want to bother to find out more?” and deciding the answer was no fairly often. And that freedom to choose what I wanted to engage with and how deeply I wanted to engage with it had everything to do with the information residing in the O and not on the wall. That’s what a successful scaffold is supposed to do, isn’t it? Be useful until you don’t need it and then get out of the way.

It’s not a wayfinding aid
The O didn’t really help me find my way around MONA. This is not a surprise since MONA’s not really built to be navigable in the traditional “Where’s the Impressionists gallery” sense. Even though the device has a pretty good sense of where you are in the building, thanks to a proprietary wayfinding system, the O instead presents you with a thumbnail list of the works that are within a certain radius of your current location. It doesn’t seem to update it’s location on the fly. There’s a big “What’s Nearby?” button on screen. Pressing that pulls up images of nearby works. The system worked remarkably well. Given the nature of the building with its solid stone walls, I can only imagine what kind of brute force method was used to provide (nearly) blanket coverage of the museum. I managed to get my O lost a couple of times, but each time I moved into an adjacent space, the device managed to reorient itself. Really impressive. I was expecting most of my irritation with the device to revolve around location issues, and that wasn’t the case.

My wife and I quickly wound up going on separate paths, partly because I was stopping to photograph everything in sight, but at least partly because the lack of labels stopped us from doing the art museum waltz -step over to the object, step up to read the label, step back again, and step to the left to the next object. At least once, I stumbled upon an artwork I wanted Jennifer to see and had to go find her and walk her over to the work in question, because it would’ve been impossible to describe how to get there. I can imagine that would really freak out some people, but it didn’t really bother us. MONA is a place in which to get lost. You get unlost when you come out and that’s the important thing.

Revolutionary, and not
A lot of ink and electrons have already been spilled on how “edgy” MONA is, both in terms of its collections and its approach to interpretation. And it is, but not in the way you might think. A lot of the art is challenging, but so is a lot of contemporary art. No surprise there. The lack of wall labels is certainly a seismic shift in accepted practice, but one people have talked about forever. The O is revolutionary, but not for the reasons I thought it would be. My biggest surprise was how unsurprised I was by the content on the O. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t find it. I found an intriguing collection of mostly texts, many of which wouldn’t seem at all out of place in an art museum or gallery setting. I found an explicit scheme for getting visitors to think about art in emotional terms, and to feel that their personal experience of the art was the most important thing. But what was most revolutionary is not what’s on the device, or how people use the device, but what the absence makes possible. I can think of all sorts of ways I’d want to improve the O if given the chance, but they are all either performance improvements, or additions to the online experience. The O is at heart a way to augment the experience of what you’re looking at in MONA. And on that score, it works. I wanted more, like I always do after any mobile interpretation, and I wanted more different kinds of content. But I think the basic premise is sound, and I look forward to seeing how MONA grows the product and the platform.

Next up: Sydney and more Drinking About Museums!

Australia: MONA – revolutionary, and not

One of my primary motivations for coming to Australia was to go visit the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. It’s been a long time since a single new museum captured so much media attention. For an overview of the founding of the museums and it’s its founder, David Walsh, try here and here. Not since the Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) has one institution provided so much food for thought on the museum experience, just by being different. But where MJT feels like an ironic paean to museums, MONA aims to strip away the layers of practice we have developed over the years, and focus on the central aspect of visiting an art museum – having a personal experience of art.

One of the central features of this philosophy is the complete absence of labels in the museum. No labels. None. All the interpretation, and there’s a lot of it, is carried in customized iPod Touches called “the O” which are handed out to every visitor. As a veteran of exhibition audiotours, which were considered wildly successful if the pickup rate exceeded 20%, the Holy Grail was always “universal distribution” – giving every visitor a unit. Initial reviews were surprisingly positive. Solutions had been developed for the usual technical roadblocks, like interior wayfinding, and associating visitors with the digital information of their visit. Read Nancy Proctor’s and Seb Chan’s assessment of the O for details. If you’re going to be at MCN 2012 in Seattle (you *are* going, right?), the developers of The O will be sharing what they’ve learned. So MONA was interesting both for its philosophy and its inventive, ambitious use of digital media. I had previously met Mary Lijnzaad, the MONA’s numismatics curator and head of library, in Boston and decided to take her up on her offer to come and visit.

A visit to MONA
One of the hallmarks of Walsh’s endeavor seems to be attention to detail. The visitor experience begins the moment you arrive and extends past the end of your physical visit. MONA boasts its own ferry, restaurant, brewery, winery, and luxury accommodations. MONA is a destination with a museum at the center. Following Mary’s advice, we didn’t drive, but took the MONA ferry from Hobart harbor. The ticket counter at the wharf sold tickets for both the museum and the ferry. The staff was minimal and everyone seemed to do at least two jobs. A bucket of umbrellas awaited needy visitors.

Leaving Hobart Harbor with its icebreaker and sailing ships. The bottom of Mt. Wellington can be seen on most days.

The thirty minute trip to the museum passed quickly and we soon found ourselves approaching the dock of a rust-colored slab of building at the end of a point, part fortress, part James Bond villain’s lair. We had arrived, the loudspeaker told us and at the top of the ninety-nine stairs from the dock, we would begin our visit.

Our first glimpse of MONA.

The ninenty-nine steps up

The oft-repeated marketing catchphrase is that MONA is “a subversive adult Disneyland” which like a lot of PR fluff, captures some of the emotional appeal, but not much else. MONA isn’t a theme park. It is also not a temple to secular culture the way writers like Alain de Botton have claimed museums have become. It certainly has some of those otherworldly associations; it is a destination if you approach via water ferry; the long climb up, and the descent into the hillside MONA is carved into. If MONA is any kind of temple, it’s more an oracular cave than an edifice of orthodoxy. MONA hints and whispers, it doesn’t proclaim. Nothing about a visit to MONA promotes the comforting reassurance of a traditional art museum visit. There is none of the chronological narrative of eras and cultures, movements and schools and one artist’s influence on another. All there is is you, the art, and “the O”.

Wim Delvoye’s Gothic cement mixer

Closeup

The entrance to MONA

What greeted us upon arrival was a small collection of buildings around a tennis court with strange stools scattered about on the lawn, and a life sized cement mixer truck made entirely of steel cut in elaborate Gothic patterns. In front of a low building with a funhouse mirror facade stood uniformed MONA staff directing visitors inside to get their tickets and “O” guides. MONA is free if you’re Tasmanian, so the early morning crowd was an interesting mix of a few intrepid winter tourists and locals. Upon entering, we were quickly outfitted with guides, a map, and the suggestion that we start at the bottom of the museum and work our way up – another inversion of the usual museum experience. A glass elevator and spiral staircase led down into hillside, but since we were meeting Mary in the Library, which is on the lowest level, we decided to buck the trend and start at the top. And this is what we found.

Kryptos combines cuneiform artifacts with a binary encoding of passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh

Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, a mechanical functional analogue of the human digestive tract. It gets fed twice daily and poos at 2. The smell is quite unlike any museum odor you’ve smelled in a gallery. I’ve loved the piece from afar for a long time. It was great to see it get fed.

;

“Stool for Guard” scared the life out of me. I had the aperture cranked to get enough light, so you have to imagine turning a corner in a much darker space and seeing someone huddled in a ball against the wall, motionless. Aghh! Oh, wait. It’s art.

Adrian Spinks, MONA’s Exhibit Designer, explaining some of the details of their outdoor case. It’s hermetically sealed with a dedicated HVAC system to provide a constant microclimate year-round. An opaque blind covers the front face until a visitor approaches close enough to trigger a motion sensor, which rolls it up. It lights up at night, too. Of course.

Impressions of the experience
MONA is on one level the perfect post-modern art museum. David Walsh has decided to deconstruct the narrative of the art museum visit to it’s barest essential – looking at the art, and reacting to it emotionally. There are no labels, nothing to indicate importance, and the whole design philosophy makes it impossible to even tell what’s old and what’s new. The objects exist only in the context of the gallery and the juxtapositions between objects. Walsh doesn’t want you to come and see the highlights; he wants you to look at art and see what moves you.

MONA also explicitly wants visitors to have an opinion about the art. Friends have complained about the coarseness of boiling down the complicated relationship between viewer and art to either “love” or “hate” but I thought it served as an interesting starting point for visitors who might not feel like they knew enough to have an opinion. By making the voting so central to the experience, MONA gives all its visitors explicit permission to have an opinion. You’re allowed to love or hate (or not feel anything about) a work of art without knowing anything about it other than your personal experience of it. And for that alone, I think MONA is important.

The conceit of having no labels also worked on the whole for me. I was half ready to write it off (pun intended) as a gimmick, but I found it strangely appealing. That’s a lot to admit for someone who writes exhibit labels for a living. More than once I looked at something because I didn’t know what it was, and upon looking it up on my O, found it was something I have told myself I don’t like. The lack of information staring me in the face, combined with the powerful combinations and juxtapositions, totally worked on me. I was also free to ignore objects that didn’t appeal to me, which I would’ve felt compelled to study because of their “importance” had they been labelled. That ugly thing over there looks like a bad Picasso? Turns out it is a Picasso, and I don’t fancy it much, which is a very different way to approach than your typical museum experience.

MONA is a total immersion experience, in a way that most museums aren’t. It delights (and sometimes assaults) all the senses. In some ways, it’s more like Sleep No More, devious, theatrical, and all-consuming. And I though I can tell you which pieces struck me the most, I am still struck more by the totality of the visit. Another way it subverts the dominant paradigm is through this revolt against highlight works. One of the pieces that generated much of the initial buzz when the museum opened was Cunts … and Other Conversations, a series of casts of the vaginas of 140 women sculptures of the vulvas of 151 women, which became so popular/controversial that Walsh removed it from display. The thought of the head of a museum removing the most popular object from display because it was distracting seems mind-boggling at first, but in Walsh’s view makes perfect sense. He didn’t want people coming just to see the object everybody said you had to see, like the mobs that fill the Louvre every day waiting their turn to look at Mona Lisa and take a photo of it. Plus he is certainly a showman and the gesture of removing it from display must have been a guaranteed free round of media stories. It also reinforces the story of MONA not being like other museums.

The customer service rocked
One way that the adult Disneyland tag does apply to MONA is in the attention to customer service that it shares with the Magic Kingdom. Our interactions with MONA’s staff were uniformly pleasant, from the ferry, to the front of house staff, to the gallery attendants. I was particularly struck with how engaged the gallery attendants were. For one installation, capacity was limited to one or two visitors at a time. The woman outside had to keep people at bay long enough to allow the visitor in the installation to have their experience. Not an easy job, but she handled it with style, flagging me down as I walked obliviously past, telling me what was inside, and giving me enough information to keep me interested until the previous visitor left. And after I was done, she wanted to know what I thought of it as I was leaving. The staff who handed out and collected our “O”s made sure we’d input our email addresses so we wouldn’t miss out on the web portion of the visit.

The building was beautiful
I’m not a fan of celebrity architect buildings in general, and museums in particular. I usually feel like the objects wind up competing with the building for your attention. MONA is a very different kind of experience. I can’t remember the last time I was in a building that appreciated it’s purpose so much. And it’s a strange building. Levels are stacked haphazardly upon each other, following the contour of the hill. Stairs lead hither and yon, and it’s easy to get turned around. But everywhere you turn, there’s something to see. And the spaces vary from dark to brightly-lit, industrial to naturalistic. MONA is always varied, but never dull. And throughout the museum, one runs into reminders of the hillside you’re inside. Big vertical slabs of exposed rock appear here and there, sensual to touch, and easy on the eye.

MONA is a very singular place, and finding generalizable lessons can be challenging. One thing is clear to me, though. After 4+ hours touring the museum, I wasn’t tired, and I wasn’t ready to leave even though our ferry was departing. Do I wish all art museums were like MONA? No. Am I glad MONA exists? Yes. Most importantly, would I go back? In a heartbeat… or after 20+ hours on a plane.

Next up: The O

Australia: Game Masters review and DAM: Melbourne

Eleanor Whitworth and I had been corresponding about Drinking About Museums, and coincidentally DAM: Melbourne, was having its first get-together at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and viewing their new “Game Masters” exhibition. It started off at ACMI where the organiziers of their new video game exhibition, Game Masters, gave us an introduction to the project and their goals in creating the show. We missed the beginning of the talk, but what we caught was exactly the kind of insider perspective that makes DAM such a valuable experience. Listening to the creators talk about their process, hurdles and decisions, and then being able to hang out with them is priceless.

ACMI

Game Masters presentations
Several years ago, the Barbican toured a video game exhibition called “Game On”, which at first blush would seem to have covered the topic pretty exhaustively. But “Game Masters” has adopted a different focus, giving game designers the kind of treatment usually reserved for auteurs in other media, and presenting video games like other forms of media art. Game designer as artist was a new way for me to look at familiar titles and it works and an interesting way to approach the topic that, I think, will broaden its appeal to an adult audience. There’s a great recap of ACMI’s presentation, which was a full-on, hourlong series of talks by ACMI folks on the technical, curatorial, and online aspects of the project.  Check it out here.  I’ll just add the two things that leapt out at me from the talks.

 Getting visitor participation right
I was impressed with ACMI’s willingness to reach out to a passionate audience to name their favorite video game designers. Given the conceit of the show, which is to focus on a small number of influential designers, a sort of Hall of Fame, it would’ve been very easy for the curators to talk amongst their peers and decide who was important and who wasn’t. Opening it up to the audience pointed them at different people, particularly in the indie game category, and it established their commitment to “getting it right.” It will be interesting to see how (or if) that participation influences their attendance or membership numbers. It seemed like a perfect example of the kind of participatory exercise that could build the sort of “brand” loyalty that many museums struggle to figure out how to accomplish.

Being intentional about working outside the field
The exhibition design was done by a firm with no game design or exhibit design experience, and that was intentional! Knowing how easy it would be for the show’s design to devolve into looking like a game, and knowing that they wanted something different ACMI purposely went with a firm that had no prior knowledge, and the design they settled on manages to be both fun and non-specific enough to work with games of many eras, without feeling too hokey.

Review: Game Masters @ ACMI

NOTE: This review will be a bit truncated since we had just spent an hour learning about the project’s challenges and successes, only had an hour, and were seeing the exhibition after closing time with the curators, so it was definitely NOT the usual visitor experience. And due to IP issues, no photographs, again!

Games Masters is in many ways the follow-up to Game On, and an interesting melding of a curatorial, art historical approach to a popular culture topic. This isn’t surprising when you realize that Conrad Bodman, ACMI’s Head of Exhibitions, was the curator at the Barbican who initiated Game On. Whereas the original exhibition focused on the genealogy of the games themselves, Game Masters aims to chart the development of video and computer games by highlighting the careers of 30-odd game designers, and presenting 125 (!) playable video and computer games from old arcade classics like Asteroid, all the way up to Minecraft, Rock Band, World of Warcraft and more!

The real thing
One of the first things one notices upon entering the exhibition is the abundance of games to play, and play in their original form on original hardware, no less! Old arcade machines, PC, consoles old and new – it’s all there, interspersed with video interviews of game designers, and fairly straightforward narratives about the era and the companies. I imagined I’d be seeing a lot of canned gameplay and emulated games. It’s obviously not the same experience at all, and being in a forest of arcade machines, consoles, and PCs was a visual and auditory treat and trigger of numerous reminiscences amongst the other visitors. It might also overstimulate some people. Jennifer, who is definitely not a computer gamer, took a while to adjust to the environment, and was “done” pretty quickly, though not until she and Eleanor had gotten their dance on at Dance Central. The full-body Fruit Ninja was also a big hit. I imagine it might be even more cacophonous on a busy day when all the machines are busy.

The design on the whole was minimalist and relied mainly on colors and abstract forms to organize the space. I appreciated that they eschewed a more obvious “gamelike” look and feel in the gallery. Bright colors predominate, and lots of spaces are defined by banners and other soft materials which did a good job of carving up the space into less intimidating chunks. It will obviously be easier to travel than loads of walls, too.

The things I felt to be the most problematic were the lack of good advanced organizers. I wanted to know what was ahead and had to settle for wandering around the space a few times to orient myself and grok the organizing scheme. Over here are the newest games, these are all what they’re calling “indie” games, etc… And for the more modern, story-centric games, it was hard to be dropped into the middle of one and get the real experience of the gameplay.

Chris Harris and I wound up talking for awhile at the end of the tour about the challenges of taking a show like this on the road. ACMI plans to travel the exhibition and I wish them well. I started my career setting up and taking down a very complicated robotics travelling exhibition, and I got a headache just thinking of the poor technician who will have to keep this menagerie of hardware and software operating. Chris seemed quite sanguine that they’d solved the important maintenance problems, and they probably have as much experience with exhibiting videogames as any museum of Earth, so good on ya, ACMI! If you’re in Melbourne, give it a whirl!

Drinking About Museums: Melbourne
After getting our games on, we retired to a nearby pub and about twenty of us hung out, swapped stories, talked shop and learned a bunch from each other. One thing I took away was how different and interesting it was to have the broader cultural heritage sector represented. DAM: Melbourne invites went out to the whole Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) sector. I wound up talking to someone from the Public Records Office about genealogy and digitization, a maritime archaeologist (Hi, Peta!) about theses and pirates, and a museum educator about school visits. Drinking About Museums: Melbourne had a grand inauguration and I wish them well!

Next post will be a longish review of our time at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, my new “You have to go see this!” museum.

Review: “Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia” at Melbourne Museum

Nothing like a stimulating conversation to work up an appetite! After our interesting conversation at the Melbourne Museum, Simon Sherrin and Ely Wallis took us out to lunch at one of Fitzroy’s more singular establishments.

Helpful warning in the women’s room at Naked For Satan

After a glorious meal at Naked For Satan Jennifer and I headed back to the Melbourne Museum to catch the “Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia” exhibition from the British Museum. There’s nothing like a good archaeology show to finish off a meal!

The visit didn’t start well.  The friendly young man hawking the audio guides caught my eye and I figured I’d get one, just for the sake of research. Then I read the sign – 20 stops, $7 dollars. 20 stops? Total? Despite my long involvement with museum audiotours and multimedia tours I passed on the Mesopotamia audio guide. I just couldn’t bring myself to pay the money. Then as we entered the gallery, there was the old “camera with the line through it” sign. No photography? Still? Even without a flash? Sigh… Things improved markedly from that point.

What I liked

The themes
The exhibition’s themes of cities, time and writing was an interesting organizing scheme that tied together 3,000 years of history pretty well. Not your typical curatorial layout, and introduced by a large multimedia projection that did a good job of soundlessly laying out all the themes.  And it wasn’t an introductory video with a talking head. So far, so good.

The objects
The objects didn’t disappoint either. The British Museum’s Mesopotamian collections are unrivalled and the 170 objects they’d sent were an impressive mix from Sumer, Assyria and Babylon. And the show displays them in the best modern Western style; dark rooms, puddles of lights tightly focused on objects in jewel-like settings. In glass cases too, which are so much nicer to look through than plexi. Nothing says class like glass! It was also impressive that the organizers were willing to include reproductions of objects they didn’t have, like the stele of Hammurabi‘s Code (from Paris), and the Ishtar Gate from Babylon (from Berlin), as well as replicas of important objects that were not part of the British Museum’s share of the original partage agreement.

Large-format print of the Ishtar Gate. Made locally, I think…

Throughout the exhibition, the media pieces were brilliant. The show featured several large narrative friezes, which had rows of figures depicting battles, hunts and other features of royal life. Next to each of these, lifesize projections sequentially played out the action so you could understand how to read the story in order. Wordless, clever, and superbly effective at getting visitors to pay attention to the object afterwards.

The experts
The scholarship on display was also engaging. The curator interviews and videos were short and meaty, and focused on curators in their natural habitats; taking tablets out of cabinets, making clay impressions in a workroom, and telling you to get really close to objects to see the workmanship.

What I didn’t like

Sound
The show used a lot of ambient to provide atmosphere. For a travelling exhibiiton, this makes a certain amount of sense. Sets and other “thematic” elements are expensive to travel. A dark room with a good soundscape can equal instant atmosphere. Most of the time in this show, I didn’t like the ambient sound. In several places, one heards loads of voices talking in unintelligible languages (Sumerian? Akkadian? who knows…) and more than once the volume of the sound effects felt intrusive to me.

Translation and the lack thereof
Sometimes they translated writings, sometimes they didn’t. Objects covered in writing that aren’t translated make me nuts, especially when one of the themes of the show is writing.  I know the organizers of the exhibition know what is on all the tablets and seals they chose to include, and I can’t imagine the contents didn’t influence their decision. I’ll never know, though. Urg.

The way things used to be done
Most, if not all of the objects in the show were excavated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the era of the big digs, with hordes of local workers laying bare entire sites. I would’ve liked to see a bit more attention given to the way museum’s used to pursue archaeology in the developing world. Partage agreements, once the rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were entered into by excavators and host countries and basically divided the finds, sort of a formalized versions of “One for you, one for me…”  I already knew enough to find it interesting, but I wondered how many visitors coming to the experience with no background.

The section on the archaeologists was interesting, though I thought the profiles a bit perfunctory and lacking in critical depth. Layard did important work, to be sure. He also left gigantic holes in important sites that are still visible over a century later. Not exactly the model of scientific archaeology. Agatha Christie was married to Max Mallowan and worked with him in the field. Interesting? Yes. Worth more than a label? Hmm…

The situation today
The modern history of the area gets very short shrift – a couple of labels and a big photo –  which, given the endmeic looting that has engulfed the region in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, feels more than a little cowardly. 45 centuries worth of history are in jeopardy, our common cultural patrimony, and that should be worth a bit of space. The sites descried in the exhibition are the same ones in this article from AAM about the current situation in Iraq.  It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s part of the same story of these sites.

In summary
When I step back and look at the whole experience, it was a great show. Well-laid out, well-interpreted, and full of great objects and stories that the developers managed to bring to life in novel and captivating ways. And if that’s not enough for you, my lovely and talented wife loved it, too. As someone who gets museum fatigue very easily, her enthusiastic response to the show is high praise indeed.

Next up: Drinking About Museums: Melbourne and “Game Masters” at the Australian Center for the Moving Image

Australia: Melbourne Museum talk

My lovely and talented wife and I just returned from two weeks vacation in Australia, hence the quiet around here. This was our first vacation without kids in a very long time, and I was determined to actually be there while I was there, so no laptop, no work corresponding, no blogging. And yet somehow, I managed to visit more museums and have more museum conservations than I would in three business trips! Partly, this is a result of meeting so many interesting Australian museum folks online and at U.S.-based conferences. As soon as I said we were coming to Australia, a number of them said, “Are you coming to Sydney? You should come over!” and “We’re having our first Drinking about Museums: Melbourne on the 30th. You should join us!” And after deciding to fly halfway around the world, it seemed silly not to try to see as many people as possible.

The next few posts will cover events in Melbourne, Hobart, and Sydney, including three museums, two exhibition reviews, and two Drinking About Museums events!

Melbourne

Ely Wallis (@elyw) from Melbourne Museum had invited me to come over and talk about the Museum from Scratch series with staff from Museum Victoria, and about a dozen of us had a frank discussion about the issues around integrating digital technologies into current practice. The group was nicely diverse; educators, collections managers, social media managers, exhibitions types, content producers, and IT infrastructure folks; all with their own insights. For me, it was the first time I’d ever had this conversation in real time with a live audience, and it was a bit nerve-wracking.  I needn’t have worried, though. Everybody was gracious and good-humored (a theme of my stay in Australia) and the time flew by. I’m terrible at taking notes and talking at the same time, but here are some of the interesting bits I managed to capture.

A question of authority

One of best parts of getting out and talking to people is how quickly it reveals the blind spots in my thinking. Probably the best example of this happened right at the start of our talk when we got onto the subject of authority and strategies for dealing with institutional reluctance to loosen their grip on how content is created and shared. For me, working in a private non-profit science museum, “authority” has a range of connotations, most of which revolve around accuracy. In art museums, “authority” has a whole different set of connotations around connoisseurship. But I hadn’t really considered the particular difficulties of being an organ of the state, where “authority” has additional layers of meaning and the stakes of relinquishing some of that authority are correspondingly higher. The Museum Victoria folks are literally “the authorities”, and topics like biodiversity and immigration can quickly become enmeshed in national politics in a way they just wouldn’t if my museum tackled the same topics in the exact same way. This is a challenge that’s much more than a digital media issue, but it gets a lot of attention since these media are so disruptive to current practice, and particularly current control mechanisms.

One platform to rule them all?

Museum Victoria is an authority (ooh, that word again!) that manages several institutitons, including the Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, and others. In addition to the particular concerns of each museum, Museum Victoria would like to standardize their back-end systems and try to bring all the disparate services they provide together onto a common platform that can then be exported in whatever format a given project requires. The benefits of having, say, one collection management system (CMS) instead of (at least) three are obvious from an IT perspective; lower operating costs, fewer resources needed, the possibility of tighter integration across the organization. On reflection though, I’m not sure that I feel that strongly in favor of standardization.

My reasons for supporting standardization usually had to do with the inability of systems to talk to each other and export data in formats usable to other systems. The work that people have been doing around Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives and Museums (LODLAM)  addresses a lot of those concerns, and in an interesting twist to the “authority is a problem” meme is led by a lots of state organizations. They operate under an imperative to make their information freely available, since it is in the public domain. Private sector institutions like mine tend to worry about their IP and its value and approach open data, and linked open data from that perspective. Of course there are exceptions, like IMA, which put their collection info on Github for anyone to mess about with. Eleanor Whitworth posted an interesting summary of some of the latest work going on in Melbourne that’s good reading if you’re a data geek.

Whose voice? 

Another perennial topic was institutional voice, particularly with social media. I am inherently skeptical of online personalities that purport to be the voice of an institution. Social media are meant to be personal. I know that Museum X isn’t posting, but rather some person at Museum X is posting. Even accounts that represent an institution can still indicate who’s doing the typing. And real engagement happens between people.  This is a central element of radical transparency and I think this kind of transparency is how museums will demonstrate their authority and relevance.

The expectation of interrelation

Jan Molloy (@Janpcim) touched on an important visitor expectation that we currently have a hard time with; addressing the expectation of interrelation. Visitors to museums can now reasonably expect to be accessing the Internet all the time they’re in the museum. They’re looking at Wikipedia in your museum whether or not you want them to. When they have a bad experience in the museum, it’s on your Facebook page and/or Twitter in no time. The content visitors seek in one realm, they expect to be able to find in others, or take with them.  So how to manage a seamless experience that encompasses pre and post visit online experiences with the onsite physical one?

If it’s important, advocate

It’s hard to advocate for something new when nobody understands the value of what you’re talking about. But how do you deal with people who don’t “get it”? I’m a big fan of taking some responsibility for providing professional development to your museum about digital media. It’s not an IT problem, it’s an institutional imperative. Find ways to explain what you know. Demonstrate how you use these media to connect with audience and peers. Organize an informal meeting to talk about these issues. Pick a topic of interest and invite colleagues to go out and discuss. The bar is pretty low. And the potential benefits are huge.

And lastly… Collection fishing

Kate Chmiel from Museum Victoria (@cakehelmit) turned me onto Collection Fishing on Twitter, which I can’t believe I’ve missed all this time. Scope out #collectionfishing. Nuff said.

Next up, a review of Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia at the Melbourne Museum.