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Wikipedia Edit-a-thon May 3rd

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Tilting at Windmills, Part Three

This is the third and final part of a series of posts on issues in museums that I thought warranted a bit of unpacking. In the first post, I looked at “immersion” and at “experience” and “participation” in the second. I wanted to understand more about visitor picture taking in museums and this is the result. There’s a lot of rhetoric expended on condemning or extolling the practice, but not as much trying to get at why people take out the camera and click in a museum.

In this super-long post, which I beg your forgiveness for not making shorter or breaking into pieces, I want to explore the positions of the pro and anti visitor photography lobbies, make some observations and then look at the underlying motivations. In the end, I’ll propose that digital souvenirs are just the latest way people in museums memorialize the event, and that the social act of sharing images is an act of affiliation and affection that should be encouraged.

Part One: Visitors taking pictures in museums: curse or the reverse?

image by Flickr user Sergey Meniailenko
CC-BY-2.0

Let’s get this out of the way first. Yes, I’ve been to the Louvre and seen the mobs with their phones out, clicking away while this modest little panel painting sits behind it’s acrylic shield, railing, and stanchions, looking a bit lost. Yes, it makes me nuts, as it does almost all of the people who’ve written about how bad photography is. It’s Exhibit A in every formulation of the anti-photography case. However using the most well-known painting in the world as a case study for why photography should be banned is a bit problematic. The rules are just different when you’re Mona Lisa.

So in this age of ubiquitous digital cameras, what should museums say to visitors when it comes to talking pictures? Ban it? Encourage it? Finesse it? A steady chorus of voices suggest that banning photography is the answer.

Damn those people with their phones!


Self-portrait with portrait of Gauguin by Emile Bernard, c. 1888 by Flickt user Kelly Reeves
CC-BY-ND 2.0

“These tourist snappers are killing the Mona Lisa “ written by Jonathan Jones for The Guardian is typical of educated people’s problems with photographers in museums. Flashes ruin the experience, crowds make it impossible to actually experience the painting. And the people who feel obliged to behave this way? For Jones, they’re “a crowd of idiots behaving grotesquely.” It’s tacky, and you shouldn’t want to part of that group whom sensible people despise.

Travel blogger The Everywhereist wrote a post called, “Ten reasons why you shouldn’t take photos in museums” that are an interesting mix of snobbery, concern, and lack of understanding of how museums work. The largest group of reasons have to do with cultural norms and not obeying them. Being the dope with their camera out is tacky.

Cameras turn museums into tourist traps, instead of places of reflection.  Picture taking causes congestion. All of these, if viewed through the lens of creating a flow experience, can be seen to be factors that would interfere with feeling of immersion someone who seeks a passive viewing experience craves. Several have to do with the supposed reasons people take snapshots in museums and why that’s isn’t appropriate.  People who take pictures won’t actually see the art. She asserts that the photos will be pointless, assuming that the point is to get an accurate high-quality representation of the work. The last few are actually amusing, considering she illustrates her post with photographs she admits taking in museums.  Photographers steal desperately needed money from the museum because if photography weren’t allowed, all these people would go to the gift shop and buy a postcard of the images they were interested in. The Met’s postcard section must be the size of an Amazon warehouse to hold all those postcards of everything on display, huh?

Further, photographers hurt artists, who might otherwise get a cut of the proceeds. And of course, flash photography hurts the paintings. More on this later. What I like about this post is the way it dispenses with the kind of highbrow rhetoric that often gets deployed in these situations.

In short, photography is not the problem. Other people taking pictures is the problem.

Mark Dubovoy, writing for the photography blog  The Luminous Landscape, wonders “Are Museums Destroying Art?” when allowing visitors to bombard the Mona Lisa with flashes. He goes into greater depth about the evils of flash photgraphy, but the meat of his piece comes later. He feels that museums that allow photography are destroying art by eliminating the appreciation of the original objects.  According to Dubovoy, “the vast majority of people inside these museums are after the trophy shot with their face in front of a museum piece.  They do not look at the originals, they do not care.  They do not contemplate them.  They are not interested in understanding them or experiencing the message.  They do not cherish them.” That’s pretty clear.

People who take pictures are bad, and don’t deserve to spoil the experience of the those who really care about art.

The most extreme formulation of this position is in a nice piece Eric Gibson recently published in The New Criterion called  “The overexposed museum”. He sums up most of the arguments against letting visitors use cameras, and indulges in some awesome hyperbole, to boot. After setting up the Mona Lisa scenario again, he claims that the “museum that allows the indiscriminate use of smartphones and tablets in its galleries is one that has lost control of its collections. The first casualty is the art experience itself.” Wow. It gets better, though. According to Gibson, letting people photograph can’t even coexist with other ways of looking. “The new culture of museum photography banishes the art experience. It transforms the work of art from something to pause before, explore, admire, and reflect upon, into a “sight,” like the Eiffel Tower or the White House. A fascinating, complex, multi-faceted product of the creative imagination becomes just a piece of scenery”. I won’t get into why architecture doesn’t count as art.

Gibson goes on to speculate that by reducing artworks to “sights”, museums that allow this to happen are cheapening themselves and betraying their reason for existence in the name of “engagement”, which in some quarters seems to be a dirty word. After waxing rhapsodic about the Orangerie, which not only doesn’t allow photography, but has signs telling you to be quiet, Gibson proposes that a museum’s (by which he means art museum. You other museums can go take a hike.) primary mission is“[c]reating an environment where the visitor is invited to stop, look, and take something away from the experience”.  Like many commentators opposed to photography, Gibson equates cameras with not looking at the art. And like writers of opinion pieces the world over, he has a knack for speculating about other people’s motivations and assuming he’s correct. “If these institutions are going to fail on such a fundamental level—as they are now doing in permitting, and even encouraging, the indiscriminate use of smartphones and tablets in their galleries—one is left to ask: What are museums for?” 

Photography = ruin.

Most of the arguments against taking pictures of museums objects boil down to:

  • It disrupts the experience of others
  • It cheapens the entire art experience
  • It takes away from interacting with the art in the appropriate way
  • It damages the paintings (though I think this gets trotted out mainly as evidence of how uncaring “those people” are)

Hooray for pictures!

Selfie in front of Selfie Statue
by Flickr user Matt Carman
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Others feel differently about photography. Art critic Deborah Solomon, when she’s not getting in trouble with Norman Rockwell’s family, thinks that photography ain’t such a bad thing.  Her New York Times opinion piece, “Hey ‘Starry Night,’ Say ‘Cheese!’” is an excellent counterpoint to Gibson, and offers a more nuanced appraisal of visitor photographers. Rather than pretend that everyone who takes a picture is the same, Solomon distinguishes between the annoying “click and move on” visitor, the gallery cloggers, and the rest of us. After name-checking Benjamin, she reckons that the inevitability of visitor picture taking renders museum bans on picture-taking virtually unenforceable. More than that, she thinks picture taking enhances the experience of looking at art.
For Solomon, even the most casual photographer is engaging, the basic mission of visual art: to celebrate the act of looking. Looking through a lens forces you to take note of composition, light and shadow and all the other artistic considerations needed to make a picture come out. The camera is a means to learn how to look. For support, she quotes photographer Dorothea Lange, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” So taking pictures is actually giving visitors practice thinking like an artist. And for the non-obnoxious photographers, photographs function as art postcards used to in the last century, when museum stores actually carried large quantities of them. So, these digital souvenirs are actually helping visitors appreciate art.

To further bolster her case about the inevitability of picture taking and the futility of trying to control it, she cites museums’ effort to ease restrictive photo policies. Quoting Max Anderson, she notes the rising trend among museums to add language to their exhibition contracts allowing photography, and adding permission to their outgoing loans and contracts. Her final paragraph pretty much says it all,

I say hooray. When we photograph, e-mail, tweet and Instagram paintings, we capitalize on technological innovation to expand familiarity with an ancient form. So, too, we increase the visual literacy of this country. Much can be gained. Nothing can be lost. A photograph of a painting can no more destroy a masterpiece than it can create one.

Photography = hooray!

Carolina Miranda asked recently in ARTNews “Why Can’t We Take Pictures in Art Museums?”, and compiled an really interesting assemblage of responses from museums that are attempting to be more responsive in their policies. She comes up with a slightly different set of reasons than most other open-photography advocates. In these days of social media, museums are sharing more and more content, a lot of which is imagery. The message sent out by a museum that wants you to like their Facebook page full of images, but doesn’t want you taking the same kinds of pictures, is confusing, to say the least to visitors. Enforcing no photography policies is taking up more and more time of gallery staff and guards who actually have a more important mission, safeguarding the objects on display. And asking these typically not well-paid hourly workers to make fine distinctions like “Is that person taking a picture, or looking something up on line, or texting?” is unreasonable.

The other issue Miranda unmasks is probably the biggest; the knotty, hard to explain issue of copyright. It’s something art museums generally avoid talking about, much to our detriment. A museum visitor might reasonably expect that a museum displaying an object had the right to let them photograph it or not. The reality, is far more complicated than that, but museum generally avoid getting into the details with our audiences. Living artists have legitimate claims to their intellectual property that art museums must safeguard. However, common sense would seem to indicate that the overwhelming majority of photographs taken by museum visitors are completely noncommercial. Copyright laws, which largely date from the pre-digital era when access to scarce resources was the norm, have a hard time accommodating the reality of digital abundance, and even the copyright lawyer quoted in her article say visitor photographs could be considered infringing and potentially violate copyright. When the experts don’t know, how is the public supposed to?

Miranda notes in passing the huge shift that the Internet has wrought in culture, namely that we increasingly communicate in images. Where in years past a visitor might have sketched an object, or written about it in a diary, today “[t]he first step toward recreating a work of art, for most people, is to photograph it, which, ultimately, isn’t all that different from the time-honored tradition of sketching.”

Visitor photography = living up the mission to share culture.

Last, but not least, the prescient Nina Simon tackled some of the same points years ago in a Museum 2.0 blog post “Museum Photo Policies Should Be as Open as Possible”. It’s worth reading in it’s entirety for a much more succinct recap of the issue. I especially recommend the Henry Jenkins article on spreadable media and Paula Bray’s paper on open image licensing at the Powerhouse Museum. For Nina, reasons for museums to permit photography are five:

  1. As long as it does not promote unsafe conditions for artifacts or people or illegal behavior, museums should prioritize providing opportunities for visitors to engage in ways that are familiar and comfortable to them.
  2. Restrictive policies erode staff/visitor relations and overall museum mission statements around inclusion.
  3. Photo-taking allows visitors to memorialize and make meaning from museum experiences.
  4. Visitors use personal photos differently from store-bought ones.  not negative ones
  5. When people share their photos of your museum, they promote and spread your content to new audiences in authentic ways.

Encouraging visitor photography is one way to walk the walk of your museum’s mission.

Most of the arguments for taking pictures of museums objects boil down to:

  • You can’t stop it anyway, so if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
  • It encourages looking at the art
  • It promotes your institution
  • Access is part of your mission

Part Two: So what to make of these competing contentions?

It disrupts the experience of others.

Of all the reasons given, this one has the most merit and is an ongoing problem, in certain instances, like big traveling shows, at the largest art museums, and with a select subset of high-profile objects. The unspoken contract between art museum and art museum visitor was that the museum would provide an environment to display art in a particular way to encourage focused concentration on a single object at a time, and that the visitor would quietly and reverentially gaze at objects. Adding photography to that mix breaks that contract. It’s not quiet, it often provokes social behaviors, and flashes exacerbate the condition. Part One of the this series has really made me check my own sense of privilege as a professional and examine why it’s OK for some people to dictate how everyone has to “do” a museum. The fact that I’m philosophically aligned with one faction doesn’t make it right. The people who come to museums for a quiet, passive, contemplative (dare I say spiritual?) encounter with the products of human creativity have just as much right to their kind of experience as the people who come in noisy groups looking to kill an afternoon in the presence of the unique and rare.

The solution seems to me to be to establish a new contract, and actually state it, instead of hoping that visitors will infer intent. I’d love to see museums generate explicit policies that state what the museum encourage, allows, forbids, and why.

MFA policies in neon “Please” by Jeppe Hein
by Flickr user wms1916
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

I love the way this piece near the entrance in the MFA set up visitor expectations in a way that is at once playful and establishes the kinds of behaviors the museum encourages.

It cheapens the entire art experience
I used to have no patience with this contention since it so often came wrapped in such barely disguised condescension that I’d have to fight down my gag reflex just to finish reading. I think this is an offshoot of the point above, and the misguided assumption of some commentators that there is one right way to “do” a museum, and that’s their way – quietly and without anybody else getting in their way, please.
I have no solution for this, other than limiting access to spaces. Or maybe a test of worthiness to enter a given museum.

It takes away from interacting with the art in the appropriate way
Underlying this contention is the assumption that if only people weren’t looking at their cameras, they’d spend more time looking at the art, and I don’t buy it. Solomon was right when she segmented the photographing audience. Their are some people who might use the time they weren’t taking pictures looking at the objects. They are just as likely to fly through the museum at the same speed, and not look any more deeply.

The solution I think is to spend more effort exploring ways of approaching art, so that more people can have more intellectual access to our objects. That’s the educator in me sneaking out, and I realize that this “solution” immediately runs afoul of the anti-interpretation folks who grudgingly put up with minute, invisible labels, but long for museums completely devoid of labels.

It damages the objects
The reality is a little different than what you’ve been told. Steve Meltzer wrote an interesting piece at Gizmodo, Does Flash Photography Really Damage Art? The Persistence of a Myth, that examines the oft-repeated claims about flash photography. Give it a read.  If you want a more in-depth study, try Martin Evans’ “Amateur Photographers in Art Galleries: Assessing the harm done by flash photography.” 

The solution is simple. Ask people not to use flashes.

You can’t stop it anyway, so if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
I’ve always disliked this contention, because it’s such a defeatist way of approaching our work. There are museums like the Orangerie, which completely bans photography. It can be done. Photos will still be taken, they’ll just be surreptitious and you’ll spend a lot of effort on policing the peopel you depend on for your existence.

The solution seems to be to have a good reason for your photo policy and state it.

It encourages looking at the art
This is another one the I have trouble with. I think photographing objects has the potential to encourage looking at the art, but it’s dependent on the person and the context. It is no more a guarantee of greater engagement than it is a sign of lesser engagement.

The solution? Come up with programs on photographing in the museum and see how visitors react. Do they engage more deeply? Let me know what you find out, OK?

It promotes your institution
Yup.

Access is part of your mission
Yup.

Photographers in “Oh, Snap!” with their photos
Image by Flickr user mercurialn
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

What about making it part of the museum’s practice?

One interesting response to visitor photography has been museums’ attempts to harness this urge for mutual benefit. Museums have dipped their toes in the waters of encouraging visitors to photograph the museum and make homes for these images, lending a bit of the institutional imprimatur to amateur images. Examples are numerous, from the Brooklyn Museum’s Click!, to the Carnegie Museum’s Oh Snap!, CCCB’s Branguli exhibition, and many more (might be a good blog post for someone to round up all the visitor photography shows.) The Melbourne Museum’s Melbourne Story is a good example. In their Visitors’ Photo Album, you can see visitor photographs that have been uploaded to Flickr where you can join the Melbourne Stories group and add your own pictures to the collection.

Another interesting sidelight of this is using visitors in museums as inspiration. This interest in taking pictures of people in museums actually inspires the German photographer Thomas Struth. His exhibition “Museum Photographs” got a lovely write-up in artnet.com by Phyllis Tuchman. In her interview with Struth, he homes in on many of the issues at play here,

“When a work of art becomes fetishized,” the affable, articulate artist points out, “it dies.” Struth feels the paintings in his museum photographs regain aspects of their original vitality when seen anew in the context he renders so seamlessly.

Part Three: Why do people take pictures in museums

Since so many of the arguments against photography posit it as an inappropriate thing to do during a museum visit, I think it’s worth poking at what is appropraite and why. The obligatory quotes from German philosophers follow, so you know I’m serious.

The conception of the proper mode of visiting an art museum goes back to the early 20th century and the concern that “modern” audiences weren’t doing it right goes back probably as far.  Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical  Reproduction” claims that, “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into this work of art the way legend tells of the Chinese painter when he viewed his finished painting. In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” 

Long before smartphones and the Internet, this concern about how you were supposed to approach art in a museum was a live issue and intimately intertwined with the strangeness of the museum context itself. The physical buildings may be purpose-built, but the fact that museums are filled with objects that have been divorced from their original contexts and assembled according to new criteria provokes a host of conflicting responses. Heidegger points out this inherent dissociation in, “The Origin of the Work of Art”  where he says, “However high their quality and power of impression, however good their state of preservation, however certain their interpretation, placing [museum objects] in a collection has withdrawn them from their own world. But even when we make an effort to cancel or avoid such displacement of works— when, for instance, we visit the temple in Paestum at its own site or the Bamberg cathedral on its own square—the world of the work that stands there has perished.”

For Adorno, the whole museum endeavor is fraught. In the “Valéry Proust Museum” he claims that the word “museum-like”, “describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. … Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art.” This dissociation is as present today as it was then.

The struggle to establish relevance and connection is one museum educators wrestle with daily.  On the one hand, the manufactured context of the art museum provides a unique setting. There is nowhere else in our daily lives where we can go to have the same kind of experience. On the other hand, this artificial construct, what Adorno calls “the authoritarian gesture”, chafes. The shushing guard, the “No ______” signs, the admission fee, and the interpretation that may (or more often may not) be written for a lay audience, all conspire to create an environment where the power balannce is clearly all in the museum’s favor. And as I blogged about a few months ago, this power relationship is central to the real issue behind photographers. Who has the right to express their creativity in the galleries, and who should keep quiet and adopt an appropriately reverential (and deferential) pose?

Photos as affiliation and as digital souvenirs

Selfie at the Top of the Rock
by Flickr user mollybob
CC-BY 2.0

So why do people take pictures in museums? As I said earlier, I think the photo-skeptics make several false assumptions when they talk about the motivations of visitors who take pictures. I don’t think most people who take photographs of objects in museums do so in order to document that object in the way that a professional tries to document an object with as much fidelity as possible in order to make a permanent record of that object. Were that the case, then the obvious answer would be for visitors to go to the museum’s website and hope that the object of their curiosity was part of that tiny minority of objects that most museums have photographed in suitably high resolution.
In a world of social media, museum photograph, even selfies, now serve as a form of affiliation. By posting their pictures, visitors are associating themselves with the museums they were in, just by sharing their photos. And I think this is underutilized and under-appreciated by us. They proclaim “I was here!” and they’re not doing that at the cinema, or supermarket. 
Visitor photographs are also souvenirs, and souvenirs aren’t meant as high-fidelity recordings. As Susan Stewart writes in her fascinating book “On Longing”, “souvenirs function to generate narrative.” The point of the crummy, poorly-lit picture of your friends in front of the object in the museum to serve as a springboard for you to tell stories about that object, museum, day, people, etc… Stewart posits (and I agree with her) that “(t)he photograph as souvenir is a logical extension of the pressed flower, the preservation of an instant in time through a reduction of physical dimensions and a corresponding increase insignificance supplied by means of narrative.”
So… you made it to the end! I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I swear I’ll be more succinct next post. This has gestated for a couple of months and continued to accrete references like a snowball rolling down a hill.
 

Tilting at Windmills, Part Two

Experience and Participation 

CC BY-NC-SA image by Flickr user barnoid

In Part One of this series, I tried to unpack my visceral reaction to people focusing on immersion as a good or bad thing. My reaction stems from immersion being used as a stalking horse for the real issue, which I think is that kind of optimal experience Csíkszentmihályi called “flow.” Getting hung up on the the delivery system rather than the actual meat of the matter made me think about August and all the steam vented by critics like Judith Dobrzynski about “participation” and “experience” and how they’re responsible for ruining everything.  I ranted about it at some length. I won’t get into how completely off-base she is when she blames museums for displaying the kinds of contemporary art she doesn’t like, and instead focus on trends in museum practice, like participatory design and an emphasis on “experience.” Like the talks I’ve had about immersion, this was clearly another case of people attacking manifestations of deeper issues that are harder to talk about. When Dobrzynski bemoans the plague of participatory design in museums, she gets at the heart of the matter – the place (or lack thereof) for authority to manifest itself.

When interpretation feels like interference

Nothing to see here! CC-BY NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Jeremy Brooks

My understanding of this was greatly aided by Regan Forrest’s latest post called “Mediation or interference.” Read her whole post. It’s short and good. Read the comments, too. Regan and I both come from science backgrounds and have the inherent bias to be explicit which can be challenging in an art museum where interpretation and education tread very carefully around the galleries. We both have had experiences of interpretations we thought effective being deemed intrusive or pandering by others because they were perceived as interfering with their experience of the art. And there was that word interfering again, one of the factors Bitgood listed as inhibiting a sense of flow. Could it be that this emphasis on active participation was standing in the way of some visitors having their optimal experiences? I think Regan’s use of the word “mediation” was very apt. It literally means “to be in the middle of.” Successful mediations can be like having a trusted guide at your side whereas a less successful one can feel like someone’s literally getting in your way.

For those who prefer a passive approach to their museum-going, museums’ attempts to provide more mediation for the active learners will probably always come across as intrusive. So, it becomes a question of balance, how much of each kind of experience is the right amount for your content and your audiences? Dobrzynski herself is clear that it’s not an either/or situation, as much as a question of degrees. She and I doubtless draw the line in different places, but that’s life.

What does authority look like nowadays? 

Who gets to step up to the podium? CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user karindalziel

Upon reflection, the most intriguing part of her opinion piece was how much she dwelt on issues of authority. Part of the problem for art museums (and I think this is one way in which they diverge from other kinds of museums) is the way that they have had aspects of religious institutions placed on them by Western secularizing culture. Pulling out the descriptors used in Dobrzynski’s article associated with good old-fashioned art museums and you get “treasure houses, masterpieces, the universal, cultural treasuries , beauty, inspiration, uplift, spiritual, thrill, contemplation, solace,  inspiration.” This is the language of the art museum as secular temple to Culture as popularized by writers like Alain de Botton, who famously said in yet another opinion piece beating up art museums, “You often hear it said that ‘musems of art are our new churches': in other words, in a secularising world, art has replaced religion as a touchstone of our reverence and devotion. It’s an intriguing idea, part of the broader ambition that culture should replace scripture…”

There is also a reverence for authority among the critics most aghast at anything experiential or participatory. After listing the usual punching bags of participatory or crowdsourced projects, Dobrzynski laments, “Shouldn’t those decisions be left to the experts? If not, what do they do? Why study art history?” In a further foray into the participatory wars, she reprints verbatim a nasty accusation-laden opinion piece from a Santa Cruz website, beating up museum director Nina Simon for allegedly driving off professionals with art and history expertise. Another opinion piece by Stephen Kessler in the Santa Cruz Sentinel laments that

“Hands-on self-expression, the “interaction” of scribbling something on a piece of paper and sticking it on a wall in response to an exhibit do not really advance a creative agenda. They indulge a collective narcissism that might be better embodied in a bring-your-own-mirror show where everyone would be given a space on the wall to hang their looking glass for a long feel-good gaze at themselves. It could be called “Reflections in Interactivity,” and I’m sure it would be very successful.”

Suffice it to say that this view of the equation is,

visitor participation = the complete overthrow of traditional authority. 

In another manifestation of this phenomenon, Suse Cairns provides a thoughtful recap of a recent Twitter dustup about 3D mashups of art objects that wound up involving art blogger and critic Lee Rosenbaum, Don Undeen from the Met, and Koven Smith from Denver Art Museum. In the midst of badmouthing Undeen’s work at the Met as “hokey” and “counterproductive” to deeper understanding of the art, she says “I’m fine with bringing digital experts into the museum, but close oversight must come from the knowledgeable art experts.” She assumes, and perhaps correctly, that there was no curatorial involvement in the Met project’s Undeen is working on. The apparent absence of authoritative voices is a constant refrain, and I think the important issue underneath all the handwringing about “participation”.

This notion that these kinds of participatory projects are the equivalent of letting the inmates run the asylum echoes a concern widely held in the art historical community, not just by critics and curmudgeons.  Dallas Museum of Art’s director Max Anderson’s “The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions” goes so far as to list crowdsourcing’s threat to authority as Problem #6.

“Museum curators, once guardians of the unassailable fortress of institutional authority, were never infallible, but they are now, often as not, simply one voice of many. Their saturation in the physical properties of an object may not entitle them to insulation from criticism or rejoinders, but they are being increasingly sidelined as debates of an interpretive sort enjoy as much currency as the lifetime study of objects in close proximity. One solution is for art historians and curators to devote more pages and column inches to explaining why art matters and why it should move us, and to be less patronizing about the relevance of our discipline just because the public does not see the point.”

Unlike some of the other writers I’ve mentioned, Anderson actually is interested in solutions that are more nuanced than just “Get rid of all this newfangled crap and put things back the way they were.” Anderson, in one sentence, provides a way forward. More engagement, less patronization of the people upon whom we depend for our livelihood and institutional raisons d’etre. Among his ten solutions, Anderson lists “Curators should be less fearful of academic reprisal if they talk to visitors like human beings rather than writing labels for their peers.” Too often, I’ve been in museums and had that feeling the audience for a particular label or exhibition wasn’t the public, but rather the peers of the creators. The result of that kind willful neglect of the audience is manifested in things that childish CNN “Why I Hate Museums” piece by James Durston. The tone of the piece really grates on me, but under the bile the author makes some valid points. Visitors, like everybody else, don’t like being ignored and/or patronized.

Ignore it and maybe it’ll go away. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Lulu Vision

In many ways, this conversation has tremendous parallels to one from my grad school days in historical archaeology. I still recall having a heated debate with an emeritus history professor about the seeming disparity in how much archaeologists cite historians versus how much historians cite archaeologists when they’re writing about the same subject. Without batting an eyelash, he said “The day an archaeologist writes something that’s readable by anybody other than archaeologists, I’ll read it.” Well, that certainly shut me up, because it was (and remains) a valid criticism of that field, and, to a lesser degree, of museums.

The way forward is not to cede the field to the crowd, but rather to meet them, bringing along all the authority and expertise that draws visitors to museums in the first place. It is starting to happen. A prime example is Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One. I have some issues with it, but one place it succeeds beautifully is that uses the whole museum’s expertise to make a new kind of visitor experience. Not just educational, or technological, but those plus substantial curatorial support.

There are other examples out there. Who else is doing great work marrying authority and participation to make memorable museum experiences?

In the third and final installation of this series, I’d like to look at the “issue” of visitors taking photographs in museums.

[UPDATE 11/4/13: I replaced one quote in the MAH paragraph after finding a more grown-up example of the dissenting view on participatory design.] 

Further Reading:

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
New York: Harper Perennial, ISBN 0-06-092820-4

Judith Dobrzynski
“High Culture Goes Hands-On”
The Sunday New York Times, August 10, 2013
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/11/opinion/sunday/high-culture-goes-hands-on.html

Regan Forrest
“Mediation or interference.”
Interactivate
http://reganforrest.com/2013/10/mediation-or-interference/

Alain de Botton
“Why Our Museums Of Art Have Failed Us And What They Might Learn From Religions”
The Huffington Post, March 14, 2012
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alain-de-botton/why-our-museums-of-art-ha_b_1327694.html

Suse Cairns
“I like your old stuff better than your new stuff.” On 3D mashups, appropriation, and irreverence”
museum geek
http://museumgeek.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/i-like-your-old-stuff-better-than-your-new-stuff-on-3d-mashups-appropriation-and-irreverence/

Max Anderson,
“The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions”
Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 16 Dec 2011
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01973762.2011.622238

Review: Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One – Part Two

Introduction
So here is part two of my review of Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One. If you’re just joining us, check out Part One of my review here. It has important introductory material you should have in mind as you read.

The Collection Wall

Visitors using the Collections Wall

For me, the Collection Wall was the centerpiece of the Gallery One experience. A continuous 40-foot long multi-touch screen (that’s 150 Christie MicroTiles for you hardware dorks) visually displaying images of over 3,000 works of art at CMA, the Wall is an impressive piece of technology, but it’s more. The effect of standing before it as the collection slowly slides by and regroups itself around themes is a visual exclamation of bounty. “Look at all that’s here for you to explore!” it practically shouts. And I know the amount of work contained in just providing decent images and descriptive text for 3,000+ objects. I hope they can use this experience to really generate a kick-ass CMS full of data and metadata, because let’s face it, many of our institutions have a long way to go to provide the kind of experience one gets at the Collections Wall.

A familiar sight for a select few. A typical view of images in a CMS (In this case, TMS). Image from http://www.gallerysystems.com/sites/default/files/screenshots/2012/english/display.png

Closeup of the Collections Wall

The Collection Wall is meant to be an introductory experience to visiting the rest of the museum, and a lot of functionalities (or lack thereof) flow from this decision. At the Wall, you can look at art, grab pieces that pique your interest and drag them to you, see other objects with similar metadata (time period, medium, locale…) and many of the things you can do looking through any other image database. What makes the Collection Wall a bit different is that interfaces with CMA’s ArtLens app to allow you to save images you like, construct your own tour of the museum, or take someone’s else’s. You can borrow iPads from the museum, or bring your own and set them on a stand in front of the Wall, which, through the magic of RFID tags (make sure to ask for one if you bring your own iPad) will glow blue when it detects your device and will sync up any objects you flick downwards towards your iPad and show you what you’ve gathered. When you pick up your iPad, it’s got your objects already on it, and your device will tell you which galleries they’re in.

Their user scenario seems solid enough. Visitor comes to Gallery One first, checks out iPad, looks at Collection Wall to find interesting objects, gathers some, maybe assembles a tour or chooses an existing one, and then goes off into the museum with their personalized map. I, of course, wanted to try something different. I saw an image of a flintlock pistol go by, and thought, “Ooh, I wonder if they’ve got more flintlocks?” (good thesis topics never leave you). So I grabbed it and tried to wring more information out of it. The options for browsing similar items were for serendipitous browsing, not real searching. I didn’t want to see other things from Italy, or from 1620, so I tried Arms and armor. Still too broad. Grr. Was there a search feature? No. So I ended up stepping several paces back from the wall and visually scanning for other flintlocks. I did manage to find a couple and dragged them (one quite a distance!) over to my area and flicked them down to my iPad.

And here’s a classic design dilemma. If your goal is to make an experience that will propel people into the museum, then leaving out a search function makes sense. You don’t want them spending precious time in front of a wall of screens. The obvious solution is to limit the number of functions one can perform at the Wall. But, what if the experience is so compelling that visitors want to do more than the system is designed to do? I don’t know which way I’d go if it were up to me. As a visitor, I felt a little disappointed that I couldn’t use the Wall as a way to learn more.

ArtLens app

I will admit I started out predisposed against the ArtLens app before I even landed in Cleveland. When it first came out, I was one of those people who read the reports on Gallery One and knew I needed to take a look. So I went and downloaded the ArtLens app from the iTunes store. The ArtLens app was a normal sized download, so I waited for it, and then I launched it, only to find that it needed “resources” to run and it would be twenty minutes (!) before it downloaded all the images, etc… it needed. Grr.

Later that day, I finally explored the app and poked around at it, but it became very clear that the app was designed solely to aid you on a visit to the physical museum. Most of the main features like Near You Now, Scanning, and Today, meant nothing to me in Boston. The other two Tours, and Favorites at least rewarded my poking around with beautiful images, but they were still completely site-specific. It was one of those moments when it was clear that the app was not made for the likes of me.

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The combination of the Lenses, the Collection Wall and ArtLens are supposed to provide visitors with a set of experiences that help them learn how to “do” a visit to CMA. The integration between ArtLens and the Wall was therefore an important piece to get right since the ArtLens was the only piece of the Gallery One experience that could be carried out of the gallery and into the rest of the museum. I was particularly interested to see how well the two components worked with each other and how well the ArtLens worked out in the wild, since location-finding in museums is still one of those issues that still hasn’t been solved well. Or had it?

The Collection Wall/ArtLens interface. When you place an active iPad on a station, it glows blue. Any objects you flick down, get saved to your device.

When it came to using the ArtLens in the museum, I had no luck. The signal dropped on me almost immediately and despite my unauthorized fiddling with the device, I couldn’t get it back. Having walked a good ways into the building, I gave up on it, and toted the iPad around while I enjoyed the art. Upon returning, a group of us sat down (collapsed?) at the cafe for a final chat and found that for one person the Wifi had worked fine. She was delighted with the experience and happily told us about her adventures “scanning” objects and ideas for how she’d improve on it. The second person at the table had had intermittent signal losses, but had managed to restart the device and find the network again. I, as you know,  had a total failure of the device, and couldn’t add much to the conversation, other than the observation that if three seasoned professionals who weren’t afraid to try anything and everything could have such wildly different experiences of the device, what must it be like for a visitor who happens to have a hard time?

In short, I’m still not sold on any Wifi-based location finding system.

The Workshops

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Looking back on the two days I spent at the MW Deep Dive, the most important lessons I took away from the workshop have less to do with the products of the Gallery One project and more to do with the process CMA had to develop in order to get the work done. It’s here that I think the format of the “Deep Dive” really shone. I’d seen CMA’s conference presentations, read the paper. And even if I’d gone to Gallery One on my own, I don’t think I’d have gotten as much out of it as I did during the workshop. Having all the key staff there, exploring their process and learning, and having the finished product right there to explore was an ideal way to really wrap my brain around what CMA had tried to do.

The day we arrived, we started out at the museum for an informal welcome and then a couple of hours to explore on our own. It was good to start off approaching it more like a visitor than a professional, and watching your colleagues and friends trying to make sense of an experience is always entertaining! We talked, wandered around, and poked at everything we could see. Dinner that night was full of debate as we compared notes and tried to put ourselves in the heads of CMA’s staff.

The next morning, there were a series of six workshops focusing on everything from immersive exeriences to staffing, to content management. And like good workshops, they were mostly discussion and not so much presentation. The attendees had tons of questions, and the CMA staff, who represented a variety of education, interpretation, curatorial, and technology perspectives, managed to answer most of those questions.

Everyone I met, from the Director on down, was able to talk knowledgeably about the project. It was clear how much of a museum-wide endeavor Gallery One was, and that may be it’s greatest accomplishment.

Creating a set of digital experiences with the depth and breadth of Gallery One required CMA’s educators and curators (and collections managers, and contractors, and visitor services folks, and…) to work together in ways that they hadn’t before. The team had to articulate a vision of how they wanted visitors to experience a visit to CMA, and then design exhibits to encourage that kind of participation. You can agree or disagree with whether those goals were the most important, but it was abundantly clear to me that they came up with goals that had broad consensus in the museum and then stuck to them. And having worked on projects that had clear goals and ones that didn’t, I can’t overstate how much better the former is. When you have goals that a) everybody can understand/articulate, and b) everybody can get behind (even unwillingly) then seemingly impossible hurdles can be overcome, like restarting the design process when the project seemed to be heading in the wrong direction, or getting multiple curators to assign highlight works from their collections to a crazy experimental gallery instead of putting them in the permanent galleries.

One of the curators in the immersive experiences workshop said something about how rewarding it was to be part of an inclusive process. Curators often tend to be cast “the other” when  we talk about new technologies and methodologies, but as I noted last year at Museums and the Web, we seem to have passed that inflection point, where incorporating digital is no longer a question of “Should we?” but “How should we?” Looking back on the Gallery One process, he said that not only  can you expect collaborative cooperation from most curators, but that you should expect it. There will be holdouts in every institution, of course.

Gallery One awaits!

Conclusion

So that’s my very unscientific, very personal experience of a great project and a great professional development event.  Getting a project as massive as Gallery One launched on time, on budget, and on target is a feat worthy of our admiration and respect. Some parts of it worked really well for me. Others seemed more problematic, and one just didn’t work. But that’s what happens when you’re ambitious. You try things, see what works, fix what doesn’t, and move on. CMA is already working on the next version of the ArtLens app, and I look forward to seeing what the next iteration of Gallery One looks like. CMA have firmly established themselves as a forward-looking institution, out ahead of the pack. And with Gallery One, they’ve set a pretty high bar for what will count as a “big, ambitious digital project” from now on.

You should go.

Other observations

Some other jottings from my notebook that didn’t find their way into these posts:

  • If you put touchscreens in a gallery with artworks, will people touch the art more? Yes. Better plan for it.
  • Listening to visitor research helped CMA avoid telling stories only the staff were interested in, like the history of CMA and its collections.
  • Developing  Gallery One really highlighted how much visitors want to know “the basics” about objects; the who, what, when, and where.
  • The chief curator said that a benefit he hadn’t anticipated about Gallery One was that it was now possible to know which objects visitors were most interested in by looking at which ones got “favorited” the most. It had become his habit to check in on the stats to see which objects were most popular with compared his own list of favorites.
  • Jane Alexander said that one of the most important decisions she made was hiring an AV integrator at the beginning of the project whose job was “to tell them how much ‘yes’ was going to cost.” Smart.

Further Resources

CMA YouTube video:
Transforming the Museum Experience: GALLERY ONE

Transforming the Art Museum Experience: Gallery One
Jane Alexander, USA , Jake Barton, USA, Caroline Goeser, USA
http://mw2013.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/transforming-the-art-museum-experience-gallery-one-2/
The paper of record on the project, delivered at the Museums and the Web 2013 conference.

Blending Art, Technology, & Interpretation: Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One & ArtLens
Caroline Goeser
http://artmuseumteaching.com/2013/04/15/blending-art-technology-interpretation-cleveland-museum-of-arts-gallery-one-artlens/
An excellent overview of the team’s approach to using digital technologies as integrative interpretive tools to drive active experiences with art in the Gallery.

Download the ArtLens app from the iTunes store. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/artlens/id580839935?mt=8

Storify of #mwatcma tweets
These provide a neat running commentary of how the event was progressing.

Dana Allen-Greil’s took notes in a Google Doc of what impressed her during the workshops. Maybe you should add your notes to it. My notes are all here…

Review: Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One – Part One

The Collection Wall at Gallery One

If you are interested in the intersection of museums and digital technologies, then you’ve probably already heard about the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One, which opened last December to tremendous acclaim and fanfare. It’s not often that art museums get a slick infographic review in Fast Company like Gallery One. Years in the making, and at a cost of ten million dollars, Gallery One is a glimpse at what 21st museums might look like, provided one can get to Cleveland.

Here’s a nice promotional piece the museum did. It gives you a good sense of the place.

Sounds kinda awesome, right? But does it live up to the hype? One of the problems with complex digital projects with manifold outcomes is that it’s impossible to appreciate or assess them unless you’re there in the flesh. Getting to Cleveland isn’t easy, and making a special trip is hard in these days of tight travel budgets. What’s a person to do?

Luckily for us, the wonderful folks at Museums and the Web put together a special event of a kind that I hope the field will see more of. Nancy Proctor dubbed it a “Deep Dive”, a focused presentation/workshop/group happening on one groundbreaking project. For information on the program, look at the agenda. It was a thorough, comprehensive look at the project inside and out, from the perspective of the creators, leavened with my own experience of it, along with fifty colleagues from around the world. The Deep Dive was in a word, perfect. I can’t wait for the next one!

What follows is my experience of the event and of Gallery One. As you read it, I’d like you to do me a favor, OK? I thought some parts of Gallery One were amazing, and some parts less so. As you read on (assuming you *do* read on) keep the following in mind.

Cleveland Museum of Art has undertaken one of those rare projects that are truly transformative. The scale of their ambition was huge as was their appetite for taking chances, and for that they are to be congratulated. The work that they’ve done on Gallery One will influence the institution and the field for years.

Any critical comments I express should be viewed in that context of appreciation. As one of my fellow attendees said, “We could on for hours about how we might change this or that, but it’s all nibbling around the edges.” You may agree or disagree with their philosophy, but Cleveland Museum of Art has made a bold statement about the role of digital media in 21st century museum practice that is well worth a look.

The view from Gallery One into CMA’s new atrium.

The ideas behind Gallery One

As part of a major building and renovation project, in which CMA reinstalled and reinterpreted the entire permanent collection in new and renovated gallery spaces, they also decided to undertake a project to explore a couple of questions regarding digital technologies and museums: How can we use interpretive technology to engage visitors actively in new kinds of experiences with works of art? and, What are the best strategies for integrating technology into the project of visitor engagement? At it’s best, Gallery One provides solid answers to these questions. Whether these questions are the most appropriate to ask I’ll get to later.

As Jane Alexander laid out in her paper from Museums and the Web 2013, Gallery One’s project goals were as follows:

Create a nexus of interpretation, learning, and audience development

 Build audiences—including families, youth, school groups, and occasional visitors—by providing a fun and engaging environment for visitors with all levels of knowledge about art

Highlight featured artworks in a visitor-centered and -layered interpretive manner, thereby bringing those artworks to the Greater Cleveland community and the world.

Propel visitors into the primary galleries with greater enthusiasm, understanding, and excitement about the collection

Develop and galvanize visitor interest, bringing visitors back to the museum again and again

These goals are pretty interesting. Audience building, interest building, concentrating a lot of effort in one space. Lots of emphasis on affect. Gallery One has some pretty tall goals, and what isn’t called out in the goals is that Gallery One is the one designated spot where this experimentation is taking place. The rest of the museum, newly rehung, operates much as it did before. For the technology enthusiasts, and those who worry about this stuff ruining everything, Gallery One would seem to offer something of value – tremendous experimentation and a classic art museum experience, all in the same museum! So let’s take a walk through the gallery and look at what’s inside.

The pieces that comprise Gallery One

The Beacon

The Beacon is a large dynamic display that welcomes visitors to Gallery One. Paired with a great Chuck Close, it gives you a visual statement about Gallery One’s importance.

The pairing of one the museum’s star contemporary works with a big display that mixes preprogrammed content with visitor images from the interactives in the gallery tells you that the space is not to be missed. One of the things I loved most about Gallery One was the extent to which CMA put the best objects they had in the space. As I found out in one of the workshops, this was the result of intense collaboration between the Gallery One Team and the curators

Studio Play

Increasing their family audience was a goal of the project and Studio Play is placed right up at the front of Gallery One, a big welcoming separate space for young children and families to explore art. The activities run the gamut from low-tech (pads of paper and crayons) to multiuser, multitouch displays.

Drawing stations with different activities. Appealing, no?

Kids search the collection by drawing in Studio Play. Photo courtesy of Local Projects

Pretend play tents and stage

I especially liked the searching by drawing activity above. When you drew on the screen, the application did some mighty fast pattern matching to find an image in the collection that used that shape. Draw a curve, and you’d see that curve superimposed over the edge of a Persian bowl, or in the design of a tapestry. Trying to find a pattern that could stump the computer (not that I’d ever use an application in a manner it wasn’t designed for…) would result in your drawing getting simplified until it could be matched to an image. It was fast, it was rewarding.

There was also a head-to-head matching game where you and one other person looked at four images from the collection. The narration prompted you to find all the pictures that had a cat, or fruit, or a tree, and as you matched them, you’d get progressively harder challenges. The tone seemed appropriate, the scaffolding solid for young children, and most of all, it required you to study the images to progress. I really liked the choice of images in the game. Not all were obvious at first, and you had to really look sometimes to find the detail that was relevant.

On the whole, I thought Studio Play was an uncelebrated gem, from both the design and content viewpoints.

The Lenses

One of the Lens in the background. They’re big. Really big.

The Lenses are natural group activities, just because of their scale. And the people watching is first-rate!

Go, Marco!

I don’t know if Jim is trying hard enough.

At the various Lenses, the emphasis is on looking at the art and reacting to it, in a number of different ways. Mimicking it, using your facial expression to call up similar images, decomposing and remixing a Picasso. There is also straight-up interpretive content that guides you to look closer at images of the art.

CMA put a lot of effort into finding the right works to feature in these activities, and again, their commitment to the gallery is demonstrated in the quality of the artworks they put in the space. They seem to cover most (if not all) of the major areas CMA collects in, and the wrangling that must’ve been necessary to secure all those pieces for an experiment like Gallery One says more about the museum’s dedication to making the experience first and foremost a great art experience.

I shouldn’t quit my day job to become an artist’s model.

A sample screen from one of the Lenses.

Still Life, by Picasso

Still Life, Remixed by Ed Rodley

I thought the Lenses were impressive on many levels. The technology worked. The design was minimalist and cool. The execution of the interactives was pretty flawless. The only concern I had was this; I didn’t see many people use a Lens and then go look at the art that the Lens was interpreting. The real things were right there, but the screens were so large and set so far back (10-12′) that even six-foot tall me could only make out the tops of the statues or paintings I was exploring.

The experience of using my body to interact with the collection was novel and enjoyable. I think we could do a lot more to engage visitors kinesthetically, and this implementation was dynamite. I left wanting more after the end of the interaction. I know all those poses in Indian sculpture have meaning, and it would’ve been nice to know what they signified, and not just how close I came to matching that pose. This was a feeling I had several times in Gallery One – it was fun and memorable, but I wanted some content payoff that I often didn’t get.

This was a design trade-off the Gallery One team had to make; the more content, the longer people stay, and the less time they spend going through the rest of the museum which Gallery One is supposed to set up to enjoy more. At some point, as a developer, you have to say, “Enough.” and stick to it. I would’ve gone a little further.

It’ll be interesting to see what the evaluation of Gallery One says. I have been doing this long enough to know that I am not the audience and my wants and needs are different from those of the general public.

Next up in Part Two, The Collection Wall, the ArtLens app and more!

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!

Ice Cube & AFP: What makes for successful narrators?

We’re getting ready to host LACMA’s California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way”
exhibition in the Spring, so we’ve just begun talking about our interpretive strategies and exhibition design. As I started screening the videos that were produced for the exhibition I was reminded of one of my favorite museum advertising campaigns; Pacific Standard Time’s use of the rapper Ice Cube.

Ice Cube and the Eames

image linked from kootation.com

It’s more than just a nice ad. To appreciate it, you have to watch his celebration of Charles and Ray Eames. It’s only 2:16. Watch it now, OK?

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xmujq2_pacific-standard-time-presents-ice-cube-celebrates-the-eames-extended-video-edit_creation#.UeH7V8u9KSM

In two minutes, he gives you a sense of his connection to California, art, architecture, and design. He drops the little bomb that he studied architectural drafting, so he knows something about the subject, and he’s able to draw parallels between what he does and what the Eames were doing, bringing in mashups and sampling. It’s authentic, it provides an interesting insight into both the Eames and Ice Cube, and it’s enjoyable as hell to watch. “That’s going green 1949 style, bitch! Believe it!” Priceless… Watch it again if you want.

Beth Lisick and Alexander Calder


After annoying everybody in the office with insistent calls to come into my office and watch it, I started trying to unpack why I liked it so much, and recalled an earlier piece that I think I like even more. To go along with a Calder show they did back in 2006, SFMOMA commissioned Bay Area spoken word artist Beth Lisick to do a short piece on Calder for their podcast series. This one’s short, too, and both a brilliant work in its own right and great, intimate take on Calder that isn’t didactic in the slightest, yet manages to work a lot of content into only a couple of minutes. Start at around 13:02 and enjoy an imagined evening with Beth Lisick and Alexander Calder.

Podcast with teeny, iPod-sized images
Podcast with just audio

I liked this so much the first time I heard it that I bugged a rather bemused Peter Samis to pleeeeaaaaase give a copy of that clip. It stayed in heavy rotation in the spoken word list on my iPod for several years. The concept, the writing, her delivery, even the background music, all worked to tell a tight little story, full of emotion. I can’t imagine what the first meeting must’ve been like when they read the script. “You’re ordering Chinese food and asking Alexander Calder if he wants to put on sweatpants? Umm….OK.” But it works so well to bring Calder to life for a couple of minutes, to humanize the great artist and turn him back into a person who might’ve come home one night, tired and hungry, and had someone waiting at home for him to tell her about his day.

After this segue, I realized that instead of being two things I liked, they might share some attributes that would be worth analyzing to see what common threads link them. I thought back to all the other celebrity media appearances I’d seen or heard that I liked, from breathy Jessica Tandy voiceovers, to Jeremy Irons’ smooth pronunciation of “Wenudjebauendjed” in an Egyptian archaeology show. And I only came up with one more example that really stood out as particularly inspired.

Amanda F**king Palmer (AFP) and Edgar Degas

from boston.com

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston did an exhibition called “Degas and the Nude” a couple of years ago, and had local singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer narrate the audiotour. It’s an inspired choice. Unfortunately, the MFA’s tours are only available on-site (boo!) for a rental fee so I can’t share any of the performance with you. I reviewed the exhibition back when it opened, and Palmer wrote about her take on being an audiotour narrator in a long post that is NSFW towards the end.

The choice of Palmer might seem odd at first blush. What does a punk cabaret singer have to share about a French Impressionist painter? Quite a lot, it turns out, because Palmer was an artist’s model in her student days, so she knows a lot about being nude in front of an artist, and the relationship between artist and subject. Take my word for it, it was a great tour.

So what do these three very different interlocutors do that works so well?

They bridge the gulf between audience and expert
One thing I think all three do an excellent job of doing, is placing the narrator in the position of helping the audience approach the subject. Unlike a subject matter expert like a curator, or another expert in the same domain, they stand in between the completely uninitiated and the cognoscenti, and provide a scaffold for us to learn more and move closer to the subject. Ice Cube knows a bit, but not a lot. He contrasts the Eames’ House with McMansions. Palmer isn’t a painter, but she modeled for them. Lisick places herself in the position of someone living with Calder who’s heard all the stories, but doesn’t seem to be part of the Surrealist world.

They bring interesting expertise of their own
Both Ice Cube and Amanda Palmer have actual credentials that allow them to have a different relationship to the subject matter than the audience. Ice Cube may have only studied architectural drafting for a short time, but it’s enough. When he’s talking about prefab wall sections and off-the-shelf windows, you can feel his appreciation for the Eames. When Palmer talks about nude modeling, you can almost hear the hours of standing still, and carry that into the paintings and imagine the process of their creation.

They personalize the subject matter
Back in the day when I worked on audiotours, one of the things I hated about using celebrity narrators was that they were being used for their name recognition, their voice and nothing else. Nothing of the performer came out in the performance. These three pieces all provide the audience with not only insight into the subject matter, but insight into the performer as well. It’s like two for the price of one!

They’re not just reading lines
It’s obvious, but it has to be said. I’ve been through a spate of unfortunate museum videos recently, where some well-meaning curator or director delivers lines like, “We’re very excited to welcome you to…” in a solemn monotone to kick off a video. Painful stuff. Successful narrators can deliver crappy lines and make them engaging. Crappy narrators can kill the best written script. A great narrator with a great script, like the ones above? Magic!

Got any other examples like these? Send ‘em my way!