Category Archives: Museum from scratch

Real transformation ain’t easy

So, here I am in Seattle at the American Alliance of Museums conference, and I’m not finishing my presentation. Instead, I’m getting very excited for the first couple of CODE|WORDS essays, which should launch this week! The introduction is already on Medium if you haven’t seen it. It’s been a long haul, but we’re starting, and I’m very excited to read what our friends have to say. Just talking to the authors has been enriching and good exercise for looking at things from fresh vantage points.

Getting out of the “business as usual” mindset is never easy, but vital for thinking about how museums should organize themselves to best fulfill their missions in the current century. It’s an evergreen topic that I wrote about extensively a couple of years ago in the Museum from Scratch series.  There I wondered what would a born-dgital museum look like. Who would work there and what would they do? The whole idea was to step outside the usual strategic planning model that takes the current organization as the starting point and suggests chenges to that structure. Great for incremental change, not so good for dramatic, systemic change. Two recently published reports lend their support to this idea, and are essential reading for anybody interested in museums and the future.

‘Bolt-on’ digital strategies vs digital ‘transformation’

The first is a Forrester Research report titled “the State of Digital Business 2014″. In it, the author says that a majority of CEOs favor ‘bolt-on’ digital strategies over digital ‘transformation’ and that overcoming this mindset is going to be a key factor in businesses success in the coming years. I reckon the same will hold true for museums.

The study itself is obviously a paid product, but Jessica Davies at The Drum summarizes some of the key findings of Nigel Fenwick, who polled 1,591 senior business leaders in the UK and US. Fenwick finds that the disconnects between the marketing and technology sides of businesses are wide neough that they signal a “digital strategy execution crisis” in many companies. Sound familiar, museum folks?

Some key takeaways:

A Bolt-On Digital strategy will Not Be enough In 2015 and beyond:

While marketing has been the principal driver of digital initiatives up to 2014, going forward firms must take a more comprehensive approach to digital transformation and avoid simply bolting digital onto the existing business.

CMOs Must Partner with CIOs To Transform Toward a Digital Business:

Digital business requires both digital customer experience and digital operational excellence. Without the CIO as a digital partner, chief marketing officers (CMOs) will tend to approach digital as a bolt-on approach to customer engagement.

CIOs must embrace digital as a core technology imperative:

CIOs must shift their focus toward systems that support the firm’s ability to win, serve, and retain customers. Digital technologies are central to this shift. The ability of the technology management team to embrace digital will shape the future of the CIO.

Innovation and the New York Times
The really, really big news though comes from the newspaper industry and the leak of an internal 96 page strategy report commissioned by the New York Times that frames the challenges of disruption on legacy institutions better than anything I’ve ever read. It’s a long read, but well worth it. Obviously an internal document, it lays out the kinds of turf battles, internal confusions, and working at cross-purposes that happens in any big enterprise. Really, read it!

Joshua Benton at the Nieman Lab wrote a great synopsis of the report that’s a good starting place, especially for unpacking some of the insider language that the report uses. Benton calls it “one of the key documents of this media age. It’s an astonishing look inside the cultural change still needed in the shift to digital” It’s that important.

I’m still going through with a fine tooth comb, but here are some of things that have leapt out at me.

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That means taking more time to assess the landscape and chart the road ahead, rethink print-centric traditions, use experiments and data to inform decisions, hire and empower the right digital talent and work hand in hand with reader-focused departments on the business side.

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It should be stated explicitly that there is no single transformational idea in this report. Transformation can be a dangerous word in our current environment because it suggests a shift from one solid state to another; it implies there is an end point. Instead, we have watched the dizzying growth of smart phones and tablets, even as we are still figuring out the web. We have watched the massive migration of readers to social media even as we were redesigning our home page.

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Audience Development is the work of expanding our loyal and engaged audience. It is ahout getting more people to read more of our journalism. The work can be broken down into steps like discovery (how we package and distribute our journalism), Promotion (how we call attention to our journalism) and connection (how we create a two-way relationship with readers that deepens their loyalty)

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A list of best practices for experimentation
• Launch efforts quickly, then iterate. We often hold back stories for publication, as we should, because they’re “not quite there yet.” Outside our journalism, though, we can adopt the “minimal viable product” model, which calls for launching something in a more basic form so that we can start getting feedback from users and improve it over time.

• Set goals and track progress. Every new project should be launched with a specific goal and metric for success. In many cases, our main goal is high-quality journalism. But readership and engagement are usually important, too; All managers should be clear on what a new initiative is aiming to accomplish. Editors in charge of experiments should track their progress in real time.

• Reward experimentation. Currently, the risk of failing greatly outweighs the reward of succeeding at The Times. We must reward people who show initiative, even when their experiments fail. Share lessons from both successes and failures.

• We need to do a better job of communicating our digital goals, and sharing what we know about best practices to achieve them. No project should be declared a success, or shuttered, without a debrief on what we’ve learned, so that we can apply those insights more broadly.

• Kill off mediocre efforts. To free up resources for new initiatives, we need to be quicker and smarter about pulling resources from efforts that aren’t working. And we must do it in a way that is transparent so that people understand the reasons behind the decision, so that they will be willing to experiment again.

• Plan for “version 2.0″ and beyond. Often, the resource plan for new projects stops at launch. As we learn from readers about what is working and not working, we have to continue our efforts to refine and develop our new initiatives.

• Make it easier to launch an experiment than to block one. At many companies, people are able to test ideas on a small percentage of users with mid-level approval. Elsewhere, you must write a memo about why an experiment should not happen in order to block it. Our journalistic standards always need to be protected, but tradition alone shouldn’t be a justification for blocking experiments.

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We need to explicitly urge reporters and editors to promote their work and we need to thank those who make the extra effort. Interest in and aptitude for social media should not be required – just as we don’t expect every reporter to be a great writer – but it should be a factor. And we need to help journalists raise their profiles on social by sharing best practices. Our journalists want maximum readership and impact but many don’t know how to use social media effectively. Content promotion needs to become more integrated into each desk’s daily workflow.

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To become more of a digital-first newsroom, we have to look hard at our traditions and push ourselves in ways that make us uncomfortable. Too often we’ve made changes and then breathed sighs of relief, as if the challenge had been solved. But the pace of change is so fast that the solutions can quickly seem out of date, and the next challenge is just around the corner.

Reading this and looking back at the Museum from Scratch posts lead me to scribble a bunch of questions as I was reading the Times report. These are in no particular order, but I need to get them written down so they won’t get lost.

  • Why don’t we treat Internet access as a utility? Whatever the FCC says, it’s like water and electricity and needs to be as ubiquitous and as essential to the building functioning.
  • Should there be an IT dept that functions like current ones? Nobody tells you how to file your papers, why should they tell you how to file your docs? Ppl will take care of ther own devices.
  • Why don’t we treat the digital artifacts of the work (email, files, etc…) as being worthy of being collected and preserved?
  • How do we recoginze the people who we serve? In modern born-digital musuems, the engagement economy exist for both onsite and online visitors. Programs will have to encourage deeper levels of engagement and connection w the museum. Visitors will be encouraged to become closer to the museum and rewarded as they do.
  • How do we make the value statement pervade everything we do, and make sure everyone knows it?
  • How do we make audience engagement part of everybody’s job? There’s a great urban legend about an AMerican president visiting Johnson Space Center during the Moon Race and asking a janitor what he was doing. The jnaitor allegly replied “I’m helping send a man to the Moon.” That’s the kind of place we strive for.
  • How does continuous professional development occur and become a performance metric for staff?  “How have you improved?” and “What have you learned?” shouldbe questions we should be asked.
  • How do we make the ladder for staff development is clear for as many as possible?
  • How do we bake time for reflective practice into the institution?
  • How do we keep what’s important safe, and let the rest of it be somebody else’s worry? The cloud is nice, in the short-term. In the long-term, the cloud doesn’t give a shit about you or your mission. Gmail, Evernote, etc… are great…until they change, and they will, and you won’t be ready. Google is famous for relentlessly pushing new services and then killing them.

More to come! Now back to my presentation…

False dichotomies, straw men, and real change

So, there I was, sitting at home thinking about PEM’s announcement of the new architect for our expansion. I was hired to be part of the team tasked with filling that space with meaningful art experiences and I think about it incessantly. I had gathered a pile of recent interesting articles that might help me in that work and was looking forward to digesting them. Then along came the Sunday New York Times, and Judith H. Dobrzynski’s  article “High Culture Goes Hands-On” and those plans went to Hell. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know I’m not a fan of the piece, but if you’re new to the game then I’ll confess I found it a smarmy, elitist, passive-aggressive bit of whinging, the kind of which I’m heartily sick and tired of reading. The aggrieved sense of privilege dripping from it made me want to wad up the paper and toss it in the trash. Oh, New York Times, you make me so mad sometimes!  Don’t even venture into the comments, you’ll regret it even more.

Rather than wasting my time and yours pointing out the myriad conflations, mischaracterizations, and opinions couched as fact in the piece, I thought I’d try to explore some more substantive therapy. And going back over my pile of juicy, neglected Sunday reading, they all bear on some of the themes in Ms Dobrzynski’s article.

The Museum  – Temple or Bazaar, or Both?

Egypt – Temple of Seti I, Abydus. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection (S03_06_01_018 image 2401)

The tone of the article seems to lament museums’ drive to find more ways to engage their audiences. Ms Dobrzynski seems to be in the same camp as Alain de Botton in thinking that art museums are supposed to be secular temples to culture; timeless and changeless. She writes, “In ages past, art museums didn’t need activating. They were treasure houses, filled with masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making, to speak to the universal. Visiting one might be social — you went with friends — but fairly passive. People went to see beauty, find inspiration, experience uplift, sometimes in a spiritual sort of way. Museums housed their heritage, their raison d’être.” Very much in keeping with the view of an ideal art museum experience articulated by Benjamin Ives Gilman of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1918. Gilman championed what has become the dominant paradigm for art museums since then; the white gallery housing only a few objects, provided with benches so the lone visitor could appreciate a single artwork at time in a properly contemplative state.

It was also a radical departure from the cluttered salon style hangings that had been the fashion beforehand. And both are of course, different from the ways religious art was displayed in religious contexts, and different from the ways the elites hung portraits of themselves at home, and different from the ways that objects that didn’t start off as objets d’art were displayed in their original use context. And we won’t even start on the changing role of mission of museums between the birth of the first modern museums and the present… She blithely presupposes an eternal state of being that never was, and laments it’s passing in favor of gaudy spectacle. In fact, her piece is a perfect counterpoint to a lot of the uncritical, unreflective fluff that gets written about participatory design in museums. Both set up a straw man of the Gilman type art museum, one to wax nostalgic over it’s alleged demise, the other to tilt at it like Don Quixote going after his giant. Neither position helps us figure out the task at hand; how to incarnate the mission of our museums using the resources (usually our collections) at our disposal. I mean incarnate in it’s original sense – to embody in flesh – because so much of what makes museums special has to do with their materiality.

Materiality, participation, and digital interactivity

Medical School, Sydney University – interior view of laboratory Digital ID: 4481_a026_000381

The Medical Museion in Copenhagen is near the top of the list of museums I mean to visit next time I’m in Europe.  The work and thinking coming out of there is always provoking in that way that solid thinking always is. If nothing else, go read this blog post on their manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions. Good stuff. Adam Bencard wrote a recap of a workshop they had recently called Objects first – thoughts on a deeper engagement with materiality that is a wonderful, short exploration of how object-based learning can and should be done. Putting a diverse group of people in contact (literally) with collections objects triggered a remarkable outburst of creativity as the participants jointly (not alone in silent respectful awe) explored these objects and dreamed up things to do with them in that museum.  Being in the presence of the authentic and being able to interact with it (a naughty word to Dobrzynski) gave them an experience (another naughty word to Ms Dobrzynski) they could not have had with a picture, a video, or an interactive, or with simply staring at the objects in cases. Adam’s rationale for the workshop says it all:

“What is the point of it? The point is that objects are powerful. Engaging with them has the potential of opening up our emotions, our imaginations and our ideas. They open up parts of us that are otherwise difficult to tap into. Their effects upon us are unruly and we respond to them in unexpected and opaque ways. They have presence.”

It reminded me of being at ASU a couple of years, going through their immense meteorite collection with one of the faculty. At one point he picked up a vial with some meteorite fragments in it and said, “Want to know another world smells like?” Um, yes? I can’t remember anything else about that visit, but just writing about that moment triggered a strong memory of it. I smelled another world once.

Museums are all about change

Audience wearing special glasses watch a 3D “stereoscopic film” at the Telekinema on the South Bank in London during the Festival of Britain National Archives UK Catalogue Reference: WORK 25/208

The fact that Dobrzynski prefers a more passive Gilmanesque museum experience is a personal preference and, as such, unassailable. But she makes it sound as though the Gilman model has existed since museums came into being, and that just ain’t so. Her treasured status quo was once a response to the status quo, a radical rethinking of what a museum should be, and be like, in response to its times. While I haven’t done a quantitative study of it, most museums I know of seem fairly resolved to remain relevant as relevant in this century as they were in the last, and this requires adaptation and change. Gilman’s world, where black and white photography, silent pictures, and telephones were the high technologies of the time, is very different than ours. And if museums intend to be forces for good, and change the world (or at least our visitors’ lives) in meaningful way, it requires us to be responsive to the world around us. Hand wringing and lamenting what might be lost might make for comforting reading to an older, affluent audience, worried about the future, but it doesn’t help us as museum professionals figure out ways to meet our audiences, including the ones we do a terrible job of currently reaching.

On the London School of Economics blog, Andy Martin wrote Lessons from civil society: how a ‘Theory of Change’ can help tell a bigger impact story which offers up insights into theories of change and how they might apply to the cultural sector.  He proposes three questions he thinks any non-profit trying to change the world needs to ask itself. 1.) How does change happen? 2.) Where does change happen? and 3.) What is my role in making change happen? They may seem trite, but answering them fully and honestly is a daunting challenge because the answers might take your institution out of the safe “culture” bubble museums exist in, and call into question the status quo of how we do our business. As anyone who has worked in a museum knows, a lot of our business practices are and structures are holdovers of bygones eras.

The how question is about aligning programs to strategic goals, and making those goals realistic and achievable. The where question is really all about audiences and the environment you’re working in. Is it a tough economic climate? Is there a lot of competition in your sector for attention and resources? My favorite quote from this part is “Haphazard work can have an impact in favourable conditions and impeccable work can fail due to tough circumstances. Separating how much of your impact is environmental is highly subjective, but essential to learning.” Word. With the What question he basically asks us to think about what we can do to cause the change we want to see in the world, and then do that and not anything else.

Change that occurs just as a response to prevailing fashion is worth calling into question, regardless of what direction the change moves towards. But mindful, strategic reshaping of goals is necessary for survival. Just doing the same old thing is clearly not going to be a viable proposition for most museums. And articles like Dobrzynski’s don’t really help clarify the way forward.

Participation vs appreciation: how many times do we need to say it’s not an “either/or” proposition?

Life class, Nat’l Academy of Design LOC Call Number: LC-B2- 3475-9

One part of Dobrzynski’s article that steamed me most was her willingness to go along with the proposition that museums can only be passive, or interactive. Chuck E. Cheese’s, Build-A-Bear Workshops, Niketown all get trotted out as examples designed to provoke the disdain of the Times readers.  I especially like her throaway line about Las Vegas’ art museum closing, as though Chuck E. Cheese and Co. personally put the museum out of business.

Do we need to be all one or the other? I don’t think so, and I don’t think the profession is abandoning one mode in favor of another as much as its including other ways alongside the more traditional. The most cutting-edge installation I can think of is David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art, which has no wall texts, and is hung according to its owners wishes – not a twentieth or nineteenth century aesthetic, but more like an eighteenth century one. With mobile devices. Which I loved. Contemplation and participation can co-exist, if thoughtfully done. Read Koven Smith’s paper from Museums and the Web 2009, The Future of Mobile Interpretation. It’s specifically about mobile, but like most of Koven’s writing, is much more broadly applicable, and a great example of a structure for gracefully incorporating new modes of interpretation in a traditional art museum framework.  Read any of the Tate’s recent digital strategy papers. There are ways to appropriately mix approaches that cater to audiences from the passive to the active and many in between.

So, rant rant ranty rant rant! Critics! Shallow thinking! Outrage! Resolve!

There, I’m done.

Links:

Judith H. Dobrzynski, Sunday New York Times “High Culture Goes Hands-On” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/11/opinion/sunday/high-culture-goes-hands-on.html?_r=0

The Medical Museion, Copenhagen  Manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions. http://www.museion.ku.dk/2011/02/a-manifesto-for-creating-science-technology-and-medicine-exhibitions/

- Objects first – thoughts on a deeper engagement with materiality  http://www.museion.ku.dk/2013/07/objects-first-thoughts-on-a-deeper-engagement-with-materiality/

Andy Martin, London School of Economics blog, Lessons from civil society: how a ‘Theory of Change’ can help tell a bigger impact story  http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/08/06/theory-of-change-helps-tell-bigger-impact-story-andy-martin/

Koven Smith, Museums and the Web 2009, The Future of Mobile Interpretation.  http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2009/papers/smith/smith.html

The Tate Tate Online Strategy 2010–12  http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/tate-online-strategy-2010-12

- Tate Digital Strategy 2013–15: Digital as a Dimension of Everything http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/tate-digital-strategy-2013-15-digital-dimension-everything

P.S. all images surfaced courtesy of Serendip-o-matic. Give it a whirl!

On getting lost

Art Gallery of New South Wales by Flickr user State Records NSW

Art Gallery of New South Wales by Flickr user State Records NSW

I’ve been silent of late.  A bad flu and general busy-ness have conspired to keep me away from the blog. Which is a shame, because I seemed to have touched a nerve when I wrote about my experience at Sleep No More in December. On immersion, theatre, and museums engendered a fair bit of comment and as I dug around, I found a lot of people starting to ask similar questions. I had hoped to host a Google Hangout of a bunch of museum folks who’d seen Sleep No More and then write about the conversation as the setup for this piece. The damned flu got in the way, though, so this’ll have to precede any more digging around inside the Sleep No More experience.

I haven’t reached any clarity yet, but it seemed worth surfacing the kinds of questions that others have been raising.  I’m not sure yet how to reconcile my desire to leave visitors room for exploration, wonder, and surprise with the competing drive to tell a compelling story. One leads towards free exploration, the other towards a defined sequence of events in a plot. Here are some of the competing inspirations banging around in my head at the moment.

Getting lost versus getting herded

As a developer, I spend a lot of time trying ensure that the content we are trying to present to visitors actually gets to them. In the non-linear, chaotic flow of interactive science museum exhibitions, this can be no mean feat.  You spend a lot of time on message hierarchies and trying to make sure the Big Idea gets reiterated as many times and in as many ways as possible. And I’ve been wondering whether by pursuing complete non-linearity have we given up other ways of telling our stories that might actually be more engaging, less repetitive, and more emotional?

So, along comes Nina Simon’s post on “Should Museum Exhibitions Be More Linear? Exploring the Power of the Forced March in Digital and Physical Environments” which details her own journey from rigid, “forced march” style exhibitions, to self-directed non-linear ones, and now to wondering if linearity might not be as much of a restriction as she (and I) think it. The line that stopped me was, “Maybe we fight our own purposes when we deliberately eschew the powerful dramatic tools available in the linear storytelling format.”

It’s a nice short post. You should read it. She spends some time looking at examples in both physical and digital experiences where linear storytelling is used to great advantage. Everybody’s been raving about the New York Times’ piece, Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek and it lives up to all the praise. It’s a beautifully rendered story that unfolds as you scroll.  In the end, in good mentor fashion, she asks the community whether linear is better than non-linear, and whether they have any data to support their claim.

Space syntax and museums

Luckily for us, Regan Forrest has shared some of her PhD research. Her response to Nina, Free Choice and the “Forced March”, provides some data on visitor perceptions of navigating around gallery spaces and suggests that space syntax studies might have some light to shed on the issue.  Her alternatives to the forced march include “layouts that incorporate a common ‘home base’ – for instance a central spine off which galleries radiate (like a lot of ‘traditional’ museums) or a hub-and-spoke or cloverleaf arrangement where all galleries open off a central hub or atrium.” Nice stuff, particularly her reference to Hillier and Tzortzi’s work in space syntax studies. Their article she references is well worth the read. Go ask your librarian to get you a copy.

One idea that I found very useful was there are two key themes embedded in the spatial layout of the modern museum: organized walking and the congregation of visitors. By organizing the space into a sequence of visitable galleries, visitors can build a knowledge map as they navigate the space.  The creation of gathering spaces, what the author calls the integration core – the lobbies, atria, and other big central spaces where visitors can gather – serve to anchor visitors’ mental map of the museum.  Hillier and Tzortzi also provide a number of museum-wide studies of visitors making their way through space and propose two main models for ordering space; “the deterministic model, according to which movement is forced as circulation choices are restricted; and the probabilistic model, according to which movement is allowed to be more random…” Sound familiar?

Interestingly, many of the examples are not at the exhibition scale, but rather the whole building scale, so it’s a little hard to see how much it’ll prove relevant to the questions that interest Nina and me. But it’s grist for the mill, so to speak. Luckily, there are studies that focus on visitor navigation through exhibitions at a smaller scale.

Linearity and visibility

Louvre gallery by Flickr user 01steven

Louvre gallery by Flickr user 01steven

Dirk vom Lehn is sociologist at King’s College London at the Work, Interaction and Technology Research Centre (Hi, Dirk!) who has done really interesting research concerned with social interaction in museums, from how people in a group influence each other’s decisions about where to go in a gallery, to studying the dance that visitors in front of a painting do as they try to both share that space and leave space for each other. Good stuff! You should follow him. Dirk weighs in to the linearity debate and provides a bunch of references that address Nina’s question about what the evidence says. His post, Stepwise Exploration of Museums: arguments for a linear organisation of exhibits comes out pretty strongly in favor of linearity over random-access, with some important distinctions.

He makes the point that visibility is as important as linearity.  He says, “It is worthwhile stressing here that visitors are able to organise their visit in this way not only because the exhibits are organised in a linear way but because of the visibility of what (kind of) exhibit the next one is. Furthermore, visitors can see whether that possible next exhibit is occupied by other visitors.” He lists three points at the end that are worth repeating.

  • * The linearity of the organisation of exhibits in the gallery coupled with a visibility of information about next exhibits can support visitors in aligning their organisation of the navigation of a gallery with that of other people.

  • * It is not only the visibility of next exhibits that people use to navigate museums but also they use the visibility of exhibits coupled with the visibility of other people’s actions at these exhibits to fashion their own action at the current exhibit.

  • * A practical viewpoint of research in museums highlights how the organisation of exhibits can help people with little or no preconception of the detailed layout of the exhibition to (practically) organise their museum visit.

Oh boy… So what does this mean? I’ve always resented being stuck in linear exhibitions. How to integrate this with my desire to be more immersive , more magical and to do more showing and less telling? One thing that seems clear (at least right now) is that this idea of being able to orient in a space and know where to go next is important. When I think back to my least favorite linear exhibitions, the thing I really resented was not the linearity as much as the inability to know how far into my “forced march” I was. Were there two rooms left or seven? Was I almost done or did I need to husband my strength for more marching. Maybe my idea of “linear” needs some adjusting…

The other interesting thing to me is that all the preceding studies look at the physical process of getting through museum spaces and basically ignore what visitors are thinking and learning.  The content equivalent of this spatial navigating is narrative. What is the role of the story, and how can it lead visitors through space and interactions?

Connecting with the story

Steve Almond wrote an intriguing opinion piece in the New York Times, Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time’ where he posits that in our shift from an oral to a visual culture, we have lost an essential wayfinding aid – a narrator who guides us through their storyworld. “In evolving from readers to viewers, we’ve lost our grip on the essential virtues embodied by a narrator: the capacity to make sense of the world, both around and inside us.” The piece is a bit overly-dramatic in its dire warnings of the existential threats we face as a result of this shift, and the increasing ease with which we can distract ourselves. However, his lament that “we’ve traded perspective for immediacy, depth for speed, emotion for sensation, the panoramic vision of a narrator for a series of bright beckoning keyholes.” rings true on some level for me, particularly in regards to my experience of Sleep No More. I felt both intense sensation *and* complete emotional detachment. I had little moments of discovery while feeling completely adrift when it came to the larger story unfolding around me.

Jonathan Gottschall, author of the Storytelling Animal, has an interesting essay in Fast Company called, Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon. He specifically addresses how businesses can use story to sell products, but the museum implications are also pretty clear.  Humans use narrative to make sense of the world and one of our challenges, particularly in communicating science is that people aren’t moved by data. As Eric Siegel said at MCN 2012, we live our lives anecdotally, not statistically, so translating data into narratives is an essential requirement for reaching visitors. The evidence for our impact on the natural world is vast, but it seems to take a focused narrative like the National Film Board of Canada’s Bear 71, which retraces the life of a single bear in the Canadian wilderness using data from its tracking collar and remote wildlife cameras to provide us with a story with which we can emotionally link.

Gottschall runs down some of the recent scientific literature and concludes that,  “fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.” The money quote for me is this,

“[T]here is an important lesson about the molding power of story. When we read dry, factual arguments, we read with our dukes up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally and this seems to leave us defenseless.”

So, this is a challenge, because I want visitors to be critical and skeptical *and* emotionally invested.

The exhibition as a campfire?

Campfire by Flickr user Jelles

Campfire by Flickr user Jelles

Paul Rissen, a BBC User Experience Architect has the first part of a series of articles which ask the question whether we should be aiming to recreate the classic campfire experience. “Around the campfire: closing the gap between storyteller and audience”  is a great example of how experimental even big, old institutions can be.  Rissen highlights one aspect of campfire storytelling that is ripe for more exploitation, personalization. He is particularly interested in the way digital technologies could help us return to the days when “the storyteller could adapt their work to suit the audience ‘on-the-fly’, as it were. We all know this is nothing new – live performance[s]… thrive on the interplay between audience and performer – but they all rely on spatial proximity and community. How might technology step in, when physical geography is still a barrier? Indeed, with the full gamut of software engineering skills at our disposal, what opportunities does technology afford us?”

Rissen is talking about the BBC’s particular challenge, but I think you could substitute the physical distance of his radio audience with the temporal distance of the developer or curator who has constructed a narrative before the audience has arrived in the museum or at their website or app, and ask the same questions.

So, do you see any deep order here? Let me know. I’ll try to get that Sleep No More hangout to happen again, so I can add some different viewpoints on the event to the conversation. 

Related Posts:

Nina Simon – Museum 2.0 –  “Should Museum Exhibitions Be More Linear? Exploring the Power of the Forced March in Digital and Physical Environments

The New York Times – Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek

Regan Forrest  – Interactivate – Free Choice and the “Forced March”

Dirk vom Lehn – Stepwise Exploration of Museums: arguments for a linear organisation of exhibits

Seb Chan – Fresh and New(er) – On Sleep No More, magic and immersive storytelling | Fresh & New(er)

Steve Almond – Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time’

Jonathan Gottschall – Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon

Paul Rissen – Around the campfire: closing the gap between storyteller and audience

Natural’s Not In It

Tis the season for existential doubts, it seems, because I think I don’t believe in exhibitions anymore. A number of factors have come together recently to make me question whether the way we develop exhibitions is the way we should be developing them.

1) I’ve read a number of articles (that I maddeningly can’t lay my hands on) problematizing exhibitions as money pits and resource drains on museums, at the expense of other things. Exhibitions are slow, they are expensive, and they tend to be rigid frameworks within which it’s hard to innovate. I am working on exhibition projects at the moment that are three or fours years away from opening. One project will have taken almost a decade by the time it opens. A decade. That’s a long time. And a lot of it will be spent in testing and evaluating and making sure it addresses the formal education frameworks and standards that govern so much of what we do nowadays. And in all that measuring, I often remember the sociologist W.B. Cameron’s quote that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

2) While cleaning my office, I found a cryptic piece of note paper covered with random words like “magic”, “storyworlds”, “metanarratives” and more. After a few minutes of deciphering, I realized it was my scrawled notes from a talk Seb Chan and I had at the bar the New Media Consortium retreat last year. We’re both been interested in why there isn’t more “magic” in science exhibitions, and by that I mean that sense of wonder and mystery, not card tricks and disappearing rabbits. I’ve been having versions of this conversation for over a year and I just can’t shake it. The brilliant folks at the Medical Museion in Denmark have in their manifesto, “Jealously guard a place for wonder and mystery” and I think it’s advice not enough of us take.

3) In part, the series of posts I’m writing on Making a Museum from Scratch flows from this same impulse, particularly the concept of a continuum of transparency, with collections being most transparent and exhibitions being least. I am certain there’s something there, and we’re missing an opportunity to engage visitors differently.

4) I recently worked on an interactive for interpreting a period room. When I wrote the first spec for the application I realized that from the visitors’ vantage point, the room looked a lot like a scene from Myst. And that brought back a flood of memories of playing the game with my lovely and talented wife when it first came out. We’d come home from our jobs, make supper and look at each other across the table afterwards, “You wanna maybe play some…?” “I get to drive this time!” and ZOOM! we’d be at the computer, ready to spend a few hours getting lost in the game world. How would one make an exhibition that prompted that same kind of response?

5) All the museums on my list of must see places are ones that don’t do traditional exhibitions. I think they are all, at their core, emotional experiences; Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris…

This dissatisfaction with exhibitions has left me wondering what would an exhibition that’s not an exhibition look like? What’s the opposite of an exhibition?

Exhibition/Inhibition

Thanks to my Greek teacher in high school, I have an abiding love of knowing roots and meanings. The opposite of ex-hibition should be in-hibition. So I went to see what the etymology of the word might tell me. And this what the Online Etymology dictionary said:

exhibition (n.) 
early 14c., from O.Fr. exhibicion, exibicion “show, exhibition, display,” from L.L. exhibitionem (nom. exhibitio), noun of action from pp. stem of exhibere “to show, display,” lit. “to hold out,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + habere “to hold” (see habit).

inhibition (n.) 
late 14c., “formal prohibition; interdiction of legal proceedings by authority;” also, the document setting forth such a prohibition, from O.Fr. inibicion and directly from L. inhibitionem (nom. inhibitio) “a restraining,” from pp. stem of inhibere “to hold in, hold back, keep back,” from in- “in, on” (see in- (2)) + habere “to hold” (see habit).

To hold out or to hold back? The minute I read this, I thought,”Oh, that’s interesting!” Revealing versus concealing is deeply involved in this, but “inhibition” is such a weird word with so many other meanings that it didn’t seem quite right as the opposite for (and antidote to) “exhibition”. When I threw all this in a document and showed it to Suse Cairns, she shared an article from Psychological Review, entitled “Power, Approach, and Inhibition” and I realized the piece that had been eluding me: power.

Power, Approach, and Inhibition
The authors start their article with a quote from Bertrand Russell, “The fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense that Energy is the fundamental concept in physics . . . The laws of social dynamics are laws which can only be stated in terms of power.”

Here’s the abstract:

This article examines how power influences behavior. Elevated power is associated with increasedrewards and freedom and thereby activates approach-related tendencies. Reduced power is associated with increased threat, punishment, and social constraint and thereby activates inhibition-related tendencies. The authors derive predictions from recent theorizing about approach and inhibition and review relevant evidence. Specifically, power is associated with (a) positive affect, (b) attention to rewards, (c) automatic information processing, and (d) disinhibited behavior. In contrast, reduced power is associated with (a) negative affect; (b) attention to threat, punishment, others’ interests, and those features of the self that are relevant to others’ goals; (c) controlled information processing; and (d) inhibited social behavior. The potential moderators and consequences of these power-related behavioral patterns are discussed.

The authors’ basic argument is that people’s feeling of power in a given situation determines whether they feel like engaging (approach) or holding back (inhibition). This power influences the balance of approach and inhibition tendencies. So, elevated power activates approach-related processes, and reduced power activates inhibition-related processes.

Or as Gang of Four put it,

“Natural is not in it,
Your relations are all power,
We all have good intentions,
but all with strings attached.”

Natural’s Not in It, Gang of Four

Sounds kinda like an exhibition team, doesn’t it? We wish visitors only good things like learning, and enjoyment. But only to the extent that they are willing to do it on our terms. The power balance is entirely on the exhibition’s side.

If you can find the article, it’s an interesting read. Of the authors’ 12 propositions, several of them express things I’ve witnessed in exhibitions I’ve worked on or visited.

  • Elevated Power Increases the Experience and Expression of Positive Affect
  • Reduced Power Increases the Experience and Expression of Negative Affect
  • Elevated Power Increases the Sensitivity to Rewards
  • Reduced Power Increases the Sensitivity to Threat and Punishment
  • Elevated Power Increases the Likelihood of Approach-Related Behavior
  • Reduced Power Increases Behavioral Inhibition

So I wonder if it’s a question of empowering visitors, or is it rather a question of inhibiting ourselves more in how we exhibit, in being less strident and overt?

Shifting the balance in the power equation
Power, Approach and Inhibition made me think that maybe what I want to do is be more explicit in inhibiting the dominating power of the exhibition so that visitors have more personal agency and power within the space. I think it’s a zero-sum game so raising everybody’s power level doesn’t sound plausible to me. So how do we push the power balance further in the visitors’ favor without totally abrogating our responsibility to be accurate, honest, and authoritative? How could we inhibit the exhibition?

The first thing that popped into my mind was another tidbit from Copenhagen, “Use exhibitions to find out, not to disseminate what you already know”, which has a certain power to it. If the process of making an exhibition were itself more of a discovery process, and less of a dissemination process, that might inhibit us more, since we’d be coming from a place of uncertainty, and learning as we went along, just like we want our visitors to learn.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I kept coming back to the idea of storyworlds.

The exhibition as a storyworld?
I think one of the most obvious ways could be to treat them more like immersive narratives than as collections of discrete experiences that are thematically linked, which is what I’d argue most non-art exhibitions are nowadays. If you’ve read this blog for any time, you know I’m no booster for gamification (ack!). That said, there are valuable lessons to be learned from game theorists. Chris Crawford (I think) first proposed the notion that a game is a world in which a story occurs and that players are free to move through this bounded space and time and encounter pieces of a story, or follow a story arc. This has clear parallels to what museums do, and addresses a lot of the concerns I’ve voiced about what exhibitions lack..

This kind of storyworld is by nature immersive. There is enough to it that the player (or visitor) feels part of it, and is able to move through it in a self-directed way. It is also decidedly non-linear, which museum exhibitions have to be.

A storyworld is a narrative. There is a premise, and (at least) one plot unfolds over the course of the narrative. They may intertwine, double back, and perform other gymnastics, but they are there contiunously throughout the experience.

A storyworld is a constructivist endeavor, and therefore deeply personal. You put together the elements as you navigate the space, and your edifice of knowledge will look different than anyone else’s. This was at least half the fun of Myst. I’d decide that everything we’d learned meant one thing, and my wife would often have constructed a completely different narrative. Part of our playing the game was the dialogic interaction we’d have about what was going on.

Storyworlds allow visitors to have more of a personalized experience, without the technological backflips we try to do to encourage them to “personalize” the experience. Sleep No More is a great example of this. The audience decides where they want to go, and can follow the action, follow a particular character, or just wander randomly through the story of Macbeth.

There are probably other parallels as well, but I haven’t had the time to let this idea season. I’ve been sick for days and hope you will be able to make something of this, or point out the obvious flaws in my thinking. Or give me examples or counterexamples.

 

For More:

Keltner, Dacher, Deborah H. Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson, “Power, Approach, and Inhibition” in Psychological Review, 2003, Vol. 110, No. 2, 265–284

The other side of “the tech skills divide”

Making a museum from scratch: Part Eight

So my last post on digital skills struck a nerve with a few people. The biggest takeaway for me was one of Matt Popke’s insightful comments. He pointed out that there are in fact two simultaneous skills divides and that while we in the profession tend to talk a lot about getting the museum field in general more digitally literate, we never talk about how to let people in digital media postions (most of whom come into museums via their trade, be it software development, web design, hardware, project management, or what have you) get up to speed on museum skills.  It was one of the those moments when you suddenly see the elephant in the room and realize its been there awhile.

What makes the divide so much more unfortunate, as Matt points out, is that techies are, by and large, inclined to be self-starters and active learners. The Web is full of tutorials, podcasts, and courseware that they use to keep their skills up to date, and learn new ones. Why is it that there is so little out there about museum work that isn’t part of a Masters’ program course of study that people who are already working full-time just won’t be likely to do? (And, yes, I do know that there are certificate programs out there. I think my point still stands, though.)

Moving from closed to open practice

At least part of the reason is that museums tend to be very closed about their practice. And moving from that “Should I share this” mindset, to a more open, “Is there a reason not to share this?” mindset is another one of those “tech” issues that really isn’t a technology issue when you scratch the surface. And it’s not an issue of “us” being more accommodating to “them”. Being more transparent should be a personal imperative, because it’s a great way to improve one’s own work. We all need to adopt a more open mindset towards our own learning. We don’t know everything, and we should all be open to learning new skills and modes of doing our jobs. So adding digital skills to our existing museum work seems like an incremental improvement. However looking at it from the other direction is very different. “Museum work” is a disparate stew of professions and jobs. The list of things we do that someone coming in from the outside might want to know about – curation, education, conservation, exhibition, administration, marketing, development – is long indeed. Where would one even begin? Is it too much of a hydra to even try to tackle?

I don’t think so. The more I thought about it, the more I thought about the importance of being open about one’s own practice. Being able to share not only what you do, but your process, is an invaluable tool for a reflective practitioner. For me, that’s one of the main personal benefits of blogging. The mere act of writing down what I do concretizes it in a way that no amount of thinking does. Documenting your work, sharing it and reflecting on it, are essential ingredients to improving. It is something we should all be doing more of, and the more we do it, the more we increase the resources available to the Matts of the museum world. And if it sounds like too much work, consider this. The Harvard Graduate School of Education has run a program for many years called Making Learning Visible http://www.pz.harvard.edu/mlv/.html which seeks to understand how to create and sustain cultures of learning in public schools through documentation and group learning. And if you think you’re too busy, go shadow a classroom teacher around for a day. If they can do it, we certainly can.

So, here’s my question for you:
If you’re a digital media person, and you’ve been in museums awhile, what are the things you’ve learned the hard way that you wish somebody had told you?

If you’re a digital media person, and you’re new to museums, what are the things that you wish you had a better grip on? Imagine you’re looking at MCN’s shiny new professional development program, MCNPro, and you saw a webinar listed that covered _______. What is that blank that would make you say, “I want to take that!”?

And, last but not least, if you’re a non-digital media person, what are the things you wish the digital media folks at your museum “got” that they never seem to?

I look forward to your replies!

Additional Resources:

The chorus of voices suggesting museums think about education as something more than what the Education department does is growing daily.  Here’s just a few from the recent past:

Nina Simon has a great post on Khan Academy and free choice learning that has some really insightful commentary from Beth Harris and Steve Zucker of Khan Academy (and formerly of MoMA)
http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2012/10/khan-academy-and-online-free-choice.html 

Gretchen Jennings posted a wonderfully incendiary question on Museum Commons about whether museums identify too much with formal education at the expense of exploring other skills and disciplines to do their work. Though aimed directly at museum educators, I’d say it is food for thought for all of us. Check out the comments in particular.
http://museumcommons.blogspot.com/2012/09/museum-educators-what-next.html

Erin Branham at Edgital, a new blog positioning itself “at the edge of museum education and digital media”, has some easy ways for educators to get into the action.
 http://www.edgital.org/2012/10/06/first-steps-to-embracing-digital-literacy-for-museum-educators/ 

Kajsa Hartig in Sweden is actually working with two universities to examine digital literacy in the heritage sector and what kinds of skills the rising generation of heritage professionals should have as they enter the workforce.
http://kajsahartig.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/digital-skills-in-the-heritage-sector/

In the same vein, there’s a wonderfully heartening post by on Art Museum Teaching about “Challenging Ourselves: Strategies to Reflect on Our Practice” It’s aimed at museum education managers, but I think anybody interested in reflective practice should give it a read.
http://artmuseumteaching.com/2012/10/06/challenging-ourselves-strategies-to-reflect-on-our-practice/

Last, but not least, Beth Harris and Steve Zucker posted “Museums and open education” at e-Literate, which is a nice blueprint for thinking about museum education in a different light, and  in general being a more open, experimental, and reflective practitioner.
http://mfeldstein.com/museums-and-open-education/

UPDATE: I forgot Oonagh Murphy’s PDF “Museums and Digital Engagement: A New York Perspective” which is a veritable Who’s Who of New Yorkers Doing Cool Things in Museums. Worth the download!
http://www.wcmt.org.uk/reports/1065_1.pdf

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.

Making a museum from scratch: Part Six

Summer is a traditionally busy season here. We’ve opened a new prototype gallery to test out components for a computer animation exhibition we’re working on, as well as a half-dozen other projects all chugging along. And my lovely and talented wife and I are going to Australia for vacation in a few short weeks! Which is a long way of saying that I’ve had little time to do more writing.

This post has been cooking for a long time and on the heels of what we talked about in Part Five provides a way to think about how to get from Square One to opening a new museum. I may go a bit wild with an extended music analogy, but bear with me, OK?

Making a museum should be like making an album
In one of the many side conversations I’ve been having about this topic, Suse Cairns made a great analogy that ties up a lot of the pieces we’ve brought up into a neat ball.  It turns out she was a music promoter in a past life, and in the midst of a chat about things one might do before opening, she said,

“[T]he physical museum should almost be like a band who finally releases an album after a lead up filled with playing live, releasing singles and extensive radio play. The album becomes the culmination of something that started much earlier, not just for the staff, but also for the community around it.”

When I read this, I have to admit it knocked me back in my seat.  I grew up with a theatre-based approach in temporary exhibitions. Keeping it all in a locked room until opening was practically de rigeur. As were long meetings about ticket prices and ticket sales, neither of which are good for the soul if they become the only things you talk about.

Treating a museum like an album feels right on many levels because it acknowledges all the distribution channels necessary to create a passionate audience, a fanbase, even!  The musicians I know live to make live to make music, whether it’s around the kitchen table, on stage somewhere, or in the studio. I know they love to have people buy their albums, but the music’s the thing, and an album is just one distribution channel. What if we got off the exhibition-centric thinking we tend to engage in, and looked at a more holistic and transparent model of building an audience of passionate visitors?

The album approach is by it’s very nature pretty transparent. You need to be out in front of an audience to build the momentum and support to fund going into the studio. Taking the show on the road also gives you many chances to show your audience what you’re working on, what’s new. You try out out half-finished songs and do covers. Your audience also tells you what they like and what they want to hear, which are important things to listen for when you’re thinking about what goes on the album. By the time you’re ready to lay down tracks, you’ve (hopefully) crafted a story your audience knows before they ever see or hear the album, and that’s useful and important.

Playing live – Getting out in front of the public
Back in Part One of this series, Jasper Visser proposed loading bits of the collection on a truck and driving it downtown to let the public rummage around in it to see what pieces appealed to them. Aside from the obvious preservation issues, there is something to be said for taking our as-yet-unbuilt museum out onto the streets.

Pop up exhibits and programs
Having a museum with no building may sound pretty daunting, but others have faced the same situation and come to the same conclusion – go where the audience is. While the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam was closed for renovations, their team developed augmented reality apps that let you “place” their artworks in the real world using augmented reality technologies. They went to music festivals, and other places where the audience already was and brought the Stedelijk experience to the people.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) recently announced they will be closing their building for two and a half years while they renovate. Instead of treating this like a vacation they are using the closure as a reason to “to experiment with new ideas, engage in dialogue with a range of cultural partners, and create innovative ways for audiences to experience the museum’s collection.

A new unbuilt museum is a perfect opportunity for collaborating with any number of constituencies, from the neighbors to local colleges and universities, peer institutions, designers and architects and more. When everything is still just an idea is the perfect time to cast one’s net widely. Disruptive ideas are less disruptive early, and our staff should be able to fold audience input into their evolving plans more easily than would once architects and shop drawings are involved. And, as Paula Bray suggested in a post I referenced in Part Five, these sorts of activities not only bring the audience into the planning process in appropriate ways, but also give them insight into our process and a bit of ownership – both useful traits in people you aim to serve and ask for support.

So what might we perform?

Releasing singles – Providing a steady supply of your product
Having committed to making a new kind of museum, one problem we’ll have to address head on is audience expectations. It’s all well and good to have noble intentions, but if the audience doesn’t understand what’s expected of them, we’re in deep, deep trouble. Getting them to the point where they are able to engage with us and our content is going to require some careful scaffolding, providing enough structure so that visitors can focus on doing what they want to. Trevor Owens just posted one of the most lucid descriptions of scaffolding that I’ve come across, “Software as Scaffolding and Motivation and Meaning: The How and Why of Crowdsourcing” It’s well worth reading in it’s entirety, even if you’re not a digital humanities sort.

What kinds of singles could we release?
Thinking about how we might ensure a steady supply of products to our audience led me into looking at exhibition philosophies. It turns out this has been a good month for manifestos.

Medical Museion, Denmark
Last year, Ken Arnold and Thomas Söderqvist published an interesting manifesto that I only discovered while pondering the Musetrain (see below) manifesto. It’s only got seventeen points, but they’re provocative and worth considering. I pulled out a few that seemed very relevant for what we’re up to. As you read them, think of each as a potential experiment, “If we were going to try making something that expressed this idea, what might it look like?”

1. Exhibitions should be research-led, not a form of dissemination
Curators should use exhibitions to find things out (for themselves and for their visitors) and not just regurgitate what is already known.

The idea of question-driven exhibitions (or products of any kind) is very alluring, and deeply transparent. My experience in years of evaluating exhibitions is that museum visitors find it very exciting to be part of something where the outcome is unknown.

6. Jealously guard a place for mystery and wonder
Deliberately include some exhibits about which less, rather than more, is known – curious exhibits that just cannot completely be accounted for. Visitors should leave exhibitions wanting to find out more.

This totally resonates with Seb’s Sleep No More post (which I will stop referencing if I ever find a better example) in which he quotes one of the creators of the piece saying “explanation is the killer of wonderment”. He sums up, “What if we designed exhibitions to have the same ‘dense, cinematic detail’ that Punch Drunk’s productions have? (And trusted visitors to respect and engage with them appropriately through scaffolding the entry experience?)

What if we designed our exhibitions to hold things back from some visitors? And to purposefully make some elements of an exhibition ‘in-accessible’ to all?

10. Celebrate the ephemeral quality of exhibitions
Like good pieces of theatre, they gain much of their energy by being around for a limited time and then disappearing. The fact that they are time-limited gives their makers a degree of freedom to experiment and be daring. Grasp it!

There’s that theatre metaphor again. It’s hard to escape.

15. Remember that visitors ultimately make their own exhibitions

Some visitors might not be interested in reading what the curators write, while others might not look at many objects. Some will be interested in aspects of a topic that the curators might not have come across.

Constructivists unite!

16. Make exhibitions the jumping off place for further engagement
Good exhibitions are the point of departure for a longer relationship. The value of exhibitions should only partly be judged by analysing how many people come, how long they spent in a show and what they think of it. On this basis alone, most exhibitions are foolishly expensive ventures, particularly in these cash-strapped times.

Word.

The other fascinating idea the Medical Museion have put forth is a short post on “The Trickster Museum” as the genius (in the Classical sense of a spirit) that informs their work. They say,

“Tricksters are characterized by cunning intelligence (metis in ancient Greek) that thrives in a changing world with no regularity. It is not the rational deliberation of Apollo, but the spur-of-the-moment artfulness of Odysseus. It is a form of intelligence that favours action over contemplation.”

What kind of genius informs your museum’s work?

Musetrain – We have some suggestions…
One of the most interesting and mysterious events of the past month has been the appearance of Musetrain. This anonymous manifesto and Twitter account purport to be from a group of museum professionals who have been around the block a few times. They contend that “while the soul of the museum is a constant, the ways in which museums and their staff need to engage has to emerge in new forms.“

To this end, they have produced a list of a 100-odd statements (in the style of the ClueTrain manifesto) that are well worth reading. The list is too long to post here, but some of their suggestions align with the issues that I’ve been trying to unpack in this series of posts and amplify that the others listed above have also been grappling with. Just to pick a few…

Aim to be a place of delight and wonderment.
Again with the wonder!

Stop settling for “best practices.” They are “acceptable practices” at best.
Ha!

The museum experience isn’t onsite, offsite, or online. It is all of these things together.
Amen. I think the promise of making a museum from scratch is as an exemplar of what this might look like.

Create frameworks that let visitors do more with your collections and ideas than you can imagine.

Every time you create a destination (a website, an app, a publication, an exhibition), build it on top of a service and use it as an example of what’s possible.

Services should be aimed at incredibly broad audiences, destinations can be aimed at narrow audiences.
These three suggestions are a good way to think about the collection and its uses, and how to keep the destinations and the collection continually in contact. The idea that every product of the museum is tied to a service that increases access to the collection is pretty powerful.

Understand the the difference between authoritarian and authoritive. The former is suicide, the latter is relevance.

Museums demonstrate authority through engagement.
I’ve lost track of how many people have taken up this cry since I first heard Rob Stein talk about it. I like this formulation of it because it focuses on how to demonstrate authority, rather than engaging in hand wringing over our perceived loss of authority. The focus on engagement, too!

Extensive radio play – Getting your message out
Getting the word out will be critical to the success of this project. We will initially have very little to show people; a vision and some stuff.  Making our message clear enough to be memorable, and restating it in every conceivable medium will help us ensure that when the building is finally ready, people will know what we’re about and why. Two museums have been very inspirational to me in this regard, even though one of them never happened.

The Walker Art Center and it’s website
I won’t join the chorus of people crowing about the Walker’s website. Go see it  and compare it to other museums’. Their mission is to be a safe place for unsafe ideas and their website gathers the best of what the web has to offer on contemporary art. Not just their content, but any content they find. In keeping with the style of this post, they’ve gotten radio play by becoming a radio station.

More constructively, I think the Walker has taken a huge step forward in modeling how museums can continue to be meaningful places to visit on the web. The willful blindness that the vast majority of museums use when it comes to “their” digital content maybe have been a viable strategy – in 2000. Designing online experiences that try corral visitors into staying within one site for all their information needs is worse than futile in 2012. Walker’s current site is a wake up call that acknowledging that the universe is bigger than your institution does not equal renouncing your claim to authority in your areas of expertise. As Nate Solas said at MuseumNext in Barcelona, “Curating the web gives us authority online.” Making your online visitors aware of what’s going on in the world and what you find valuable and relevant is another expression of transparency that I imagine will stand them in good stead in the coming years.

The Dutch Museum of National History and their experiments
It’s been just a little over a year since I read Jasper Visser’s announcement of the cancellation of the Dutch Museum of National History, a project that actually tried to create a new national museum from scratch, and got a long way down the road before it ground to a halt. Luckily for us, there is “Blueprint” – the post-mortem of the project written by Erik Schilp and Valentin Byvanck.  It’s an intriguing, engrossing look into what might have been that is at times really visionary.  Nina Simon lead an online book group around the book that unpacks a lot of the issues the book exposes. Check it out. 

There was also an earlier publication that is more germane to our discussion, “The National History Museum Stirs the Historical Imagination” This 60-page booklet was published early in the process and documented the vision for the museum and the story of what the museum was going to be about in some of the clearest prose I’ve seen for what was essentially a branding piece.  If I find a link to it, I’ll post it.

One of museum’s great successes in my opinion is the extent to which they set about living out their vision through a series of projects that all delivered examples of what a 21st century history museum could be like. There was a train car that toured the country, the National Vending Machine, which dispensed bits of the Dutch experience, and a national competition to suggest new images of the Netherlands to replace the old postcard images of windmills, dykes and tulips. The project did an excellent job of getting their message out and getting noticed and talked about.

As an example of living and working transparently, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example. You can get a very clear sense of what The National History Museum project did and thought and planned, warts and all, and I imagine the museum field will be learning from them for years to come, precisely because they were intrepid enough to be radically transparent.  They were, in essence, like one of those bands that never made it big, but played some awesome live shows that the people who saw them will talk about for a long time.

So all you museum/musicians (I know quite a few and I bet there are many more), what say you? Does this approach resonate? Is there merit to thinking of the work of making a museum more like performance, and less like product?

 

Related Links

The Stedelijk Museum

http://www.stedelijk.nl/en/

SFMOMA ANNOUNCES PLANS FOR EXTENSIVE OFF-SITE PROGRAMMING BEGINNING SUMMER 2013

http://www.sfmoma.org/about/about_news/932

Software as Scaffolding and Motivation and Meaning: The How and Why of Crowdsourcing

http://www.trevorowens.org/2012/07/software-as-scaffolding-and-motivation-and-meaning-the-how-and-why-of-crowdsourcing/

A manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions

http://www.museion.ku.dk/2011/02/a-manifesto-for-creating-science-technology-and-medicine-exhibitions/

The Trickster Museum

http://www.museion.ku.dk/2012/06/the-trickster-museum/

MuseTrain: We have some suggestions…

http://www.musetrain.org/

Walker Art Center

http://www.walkerart.org/

Bumpy rides and dead-end streets

http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2011/07/05/bumpy-rides-and-dead-end-streets/#more-597

Blueprint, a guidebook to build your own history museum in the 21st century

http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2012/03/27/blueprint-a-guidebook-to-build-your-own-history-museum-in-the-21st-century/

Schilp, E. and V. Byvanck (2008). The National History Museum Stirs the Historical Imagination. Arnhem: National History Museum.

Museum 2.0: Blueprint Book Club Part 1: How Do You Create a Future-Thinking History Museum?

http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2012/05/blueprint-book-club-part-1-how-do-you.html