Tag Archives: design

CODE│WORDS: An experiment in online discourse and publishing

by Ed Rodley

CC BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user djandyw.com

CC BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user djandyw.com

So, another long silence. February was the month of the endless head cold, and tons of stuff going on at Peabody Essex Museum.  The March shows will be opening soon! But, I haven’t been completely idle.  There have been secret plans afoot, which are finally cooked enough to announce. The big one is an experiment in online discourse and publishing that Rob Stein, Suse Cairns, and I have been discussing for a couple of months.  Let me tell you a bit about it, and see if it sounds interesting to you.

Background
As you already know, 2013 was a pretty fruitful year for museum blog conversations. I was very grateful for both the quantity and quality of the discourse that happened, and how much of it seems to have influenced discourse in the broader museum community. Conference sessions and other publications continue to flow out of conversations that started as blog posts. By default, these tended to be reactionary, driven by current affairs and mass media. To step it up a notch for 2014, here’s an idea for an experiment that might do just that, and possibly pay further dividends down the road.

Suse Cairns (she of museum geek and Museopunks) and I have been talking about collaborating on a book for some time, once her PhD work wound down.  Both of us are interested in the intersection of the digital and museums and figured we’d find fertile ground there, but we hadn’t really gotten much further than that.  Late last year, Rob Stein wrote a comment to a Dallas newspaper article about visitors and smartphones that Suse and I both thought deserved a wider audience, so I asked him to consider reworking it as a guest post on my blog. However, Rob being Rob, he had a larger vision than just a one-off blog post.

“How about this instead?” he asked us,  “What if a group of museum blogs tackled a set of interrelated issues at the same time, with an eye toward some kind of publication being the final product? The process itself would be an interesting experiment, and the outcome – some hopefully substantial discourse and new knowledge – could be a real benefit to the field.” The basic idea was to strategically identify some interesting issues, divide up the issues among a group of collaborators, and  then tackle them sequentially, developing them simultaneously and collaboratively, so that we could heavily cross-link between them to create a more coherent narrative than the usual call and response of blogging. To this, we added the idea of using the blog posts *and* their associated commentary as the basis for revised essays that could be collected and published as an edited volume later. The conversations around the initial posts would thus become part of the final essays.

So we had a bunch of Google hangouts to hash out what this strange hybrid might look like and how it should function. Here’s what we came up with.

I stink at getting Hangout screenshots.

I stink at getting Hangout screenshots.

The project in a nutshell

CODE | WORDS as we originally conceived it comprises three primary phases:

  • Phase I is an open, online discussion via a shared Google document, where we set up the initial parameters for discussion, topics, and framework for the project.

  • Phase II will be a focussed blogging project in April-May 2014, which will initially be located on Medium and later archived. During a six-week period, 12 authors will post 2,000 word essays on related topics we chose in Phase I. You, the interested public, will discuss these essays and help the authors reflect on the issues they raise. In addition, a number of selected respondents will write 1,000 word responses to the initial essay. We think this approach will allow the project both depth and considered commentary, as well as responsiveness and the capacity to adapt the discussion to new questions that arise.

  • Finally, Phase III will (hopefully) include a published book that draws together the ideas from the blog posts and commentary, and develops them into formal, considered essays.

This will doubtless change somewhat, once we get down to sorting out the details with the authors, but at this point, this is what we think is going to happen.

How it came about:

We needed first and foremost to identify commentators/ thinkers willing and able to participate in a kinda strange-sounding nameless project. It was clear it needed a codename, because they make everything cooler! Thus was born CODE│WORDS : Technology and theory in the museum (working title). We wanted people who might challenge us and each other, and bring different ways of looking at things, whether from different countries, or different types of museums. We looked through our Twitter feeds and LinkedIn connections and quickly assembled a list of people we thought would bring a variety of interesting perspectives to the project, and we asked them. Stunningly enough, virtually everyone we asked said yes and the CODE | WORDS crew grew to include:

  • Seb Chan, Smithsonian Institution, USA  @sebchan
  • Susan Chun, Cultural Heritage Consulting, USA  @schun
  • Mike Edson, Smithsonian Institution, USA @mpedson
  • Beth Harris, Khan Academy, USA  @bethrharris
  • Courtney Johnston, Dowse Art Museum, NZ  @auchmill
  • Sarah Kenderdine, National Institute for Experimental Arts, COFA, UNSW, HK/AUS
  • Luis Marcelo Mendes, Museum Consultant, BR  @lumamendes
  • Mike Murawski, Portland Art Museum, USA  @murawski27
  • Nick Poole, Collections Trust, UK  @nickpoole1
  • John Russick, Chicago History Museum, USA
  • Merete Sanderhoff, Statens Museum for Kunst, DK @msanderhoff
  • Koven Smith, Kinetic Museums, USA @5easypieces
  • Thomas Soderqvist, Medical Musieon, DK @museionist
  • Beck Tench, Museum of Life and Science, USA @10ch
  • Marthe de Vette, Van Gogh Museum, NL
  • Bruce Wyman, Museum Consultant, USA  @bwyman
  • Steven Zucker, Khan Academy, USA  @drszucker

We wanted to collaboratively identify a series of topics around the impacts of digital technologies on museums that are most interesting to us, most useful for the development of the field, and/or most in need of poking at. That’s where we are right now, sorting out which topics to tackle.

Originally, we thought we’d use people’s existing blogs to make use of their built-in audiences, but for the sake of continuity and critical mass, we decided to try out Medium as our platform. Their commenting feature is kinda interesting in that it lets you pick a paragraph to attach your comment to, rather than just tacking it onto the end of a 2,000 word post. I’ve been meaning to give Medium a whirl for awhile, and am looking forward to seeing how it works out.

The next step in the coming weeks is to collaboratively work on topics in such a way that they naturally build on each other and can be heavily cross-linked. We do this already, but in a more reactionary manner. This experiment would be an opportunity to be more strategic about it, and hopefully more successful in building a larger hypernarrative.

We want to create an online community of interest on Medium around these essays and try to practice being as inclusive as possible. One of the benefits of Medium is that other authors can write their own posts and tag them so that they can hopefully join the scrum. Our current plan is to launch in April, and to release 12 essays over a six week period, to keep interest as high as possible and hopefully build a community of commentators who would respond to more than just one essay – or even contribute their own. That’s where you come in, gentle readers, so strap in and get ready for a few tons of museumy goodness to drop on you soon. Seriously, though. The success of this experiment depends on us engaging as broad as community as possible to join us in the work. Otherwise it’s just another edited volumeWe want you to share your expertise, your ideas, your experiences with us, and a global audience of interested peers. If you have never written a blog post before, or just want to dip your toe into a digital discussion, this could be a great way to start and test the waters.

Obviously, we want to document the process and results, if this model winds up having any utility. A logical place to disseminate finding will be at conferences. A bunch of us will be at Museums and the Web and AAM, and I’ll be trying to convene groups to hang out during the conferences. Stay tuned and let me know if you’ll be in Baltimore or Seattle. On our current timeline, we’ll be done with the initial essays by June, so MCN in November should be a good distance from which to look back on the process and reflect on lessons learned for the initial phases.

Once we have finished the initial round of essays, their authors will take them and the commentary they engendered, and use both to write new essays. Rob, Suse, and I will try to convince a publisher to release the resulting collection as a digital/physical publication. If you represent a publisher and want to talk more about CODE | WORDS, email me! 

If all goes well, then we’ll celebrate doing something cool and useful.

Once we’re ready to go, we’ll announce the URL and let the games begin! So stay tuned!

playing around in 3D, & being an active learner

by Ed Rodley
I was in New York a couple of weeks ago to go see a couple of plays, Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in Pinter and Becket. Heaven! I was also in town on a day that there was a Hack Day at the Metropolitan Museum, so after a serendipitous tweet from Neal Stimler, I made my way up to the Upper East Side and spent a few enjoyable hours in the Met, playing around w 3D, scanning things, meeting new people and having a blast.
Neal Stimler and DH Unicorn in their native habitat at the Met offices.

Neal Stimler and DH Unicorn in their native habitat at the Met offices.

 I got a chance to see how the Met is embodying the kinds of change that so many museums (mine included) are contemplating and came away invigorated by their enterpreneurial, almost start-up like culture. Such a change from just a few years ago.
The Sense handheld 3D scanner

The Sense handheld 3D scanner

One of the best parts of the event was that Don Undeen (he of the MCN Ignite talk) was demoing a 3D Systems Sense 3D scanner. This inexpensive IR-based scanner (think Kinect you can brandish) is relatively new and Don was testing one with the Hack Day crew. 

Yours truly. Not bad quality...

Yours truly. Not bad quality…

I got scanned at a crazy drunken angle. How, I don’t know. I was sitting up straight, still as a statue, as Don worked his way around me. I think when he was cropping the scan afterwards, he solidified the scan by filling in the bottom at that rakish angle.
Scanning party. Don's holding the laptop as I walk around the statue, trying to get a clean capture.

Scanning party. Don’s holding the laptop as I walk around the statue, trying to get a clean capture.

Getting to try the Sense out on the halls was a highlight of the trip. It kinda reminded me of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence.  Thinking of the scanner as a spraycan and “painting” up and down across the surface to be scanned seemed to give the best results.  Strangely, it also worked better the less you tried to be thorough. Loose, big gestures seemed to generate better scans than small, careful ones.  The technology is interesting, but I don’t know how much better the results were from simpler, photographic methods like 123DCatch. I couldn’t tell from looking at the screen. The mesh size seemed comparable and the software was challenging. Every scan we attempted ended with the scanner losing tracking on the object it was pointed at. My sense is that the developers were trying so hard to make a consumer product that they went overboard on what the software was doing in the background to let you focus on scanning.

Even though my scanning experience wasn’t 100% successful, I felt like the learning experience was. We were a group of self-selected learners, teaching each other and learning together as fast as we could, and we scaffolded each other into greater knowledge in a way that probably would’ve taken a lot longer if we’d each done it individually.

Learning as a team sport

Last week, some colleagues and I spent a lunch hour watching SkillShare videos on 3D printing together as we brainstorm new kinds of digital programming we might offer visitors in the future. The course content wasn’t new to me. I’ve poked around into most of it before over the past few years. What was new, and I think too-often-overlooked, was the benefit of doing it in a group. We could all have sat at our desks and agreed to watch the videos before our next meeting, but being in the same room at the same time doing the same thing made the experience much more fruitful and educational for all of us.

The four of us all had different levels of familiarity with software, hardware, jargon, and trends. Just knowing that information will be useful moving forward. We clarified points for each other, repeated bits that somebody needed repeated, offered our our insights into our experiences with these technologies and riffed off each other as we went from video to video. The progress we made individually and as a team was much more than I think we would’ve made alone. And the ideas we came up with were exciting, too! The next meeting will hopefully be even more productive now that we’ve tasted success. Figuring out how to hold onto that momentum will be the hard part, once schedules start filling up again.

Making space to be active learners

I blogged about this topic a couple of years ago, and the same holds true now. Making time to take time to learn is an ever more important factor to sustaining a highly-productive, creative enterprise.

How do you carve out the time to keep your skill set fresh?

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…

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!

On “Drinking About Museums”

I’ve gotten a few request lately from folks wanting to know, “What is this “Drinking About Museums” and how do join/start one in my town/find out more. I’ve sent out descriptions via email in the past, but I guess I’ve never posted anything, so here is both a brief history, and a bit of the philosophy behind how we do Drinking About Museums in Boston. Your mileage may vary.

CC-BY image by Flickr user Mr Kael

CC-BY image by Flickr user Mr Kael

History

Drinking (by which I mean informal, after-hours socializing. Alcohol is obviously optional) and museum work have a long history. If you’ve been in the field for any length of time, or been to even one museum conference, you will have noticed how much we like to talk about our work and hear what our colleagues are up to. Cities with large concentrations of cultural heritage organizations like NYC, Washington, London, etc…  have long had informal groups who’d get together and drink and commiserate. For me, I find out as much at the evening events at a conference as I do at the sessions, sometimes more. A constant refrain at the end of a good conference would be the heartfelt goodbyes as people said goodbye until next year.

 Two years ago at Museums and the Web, a bunch of us were sitting around the hotel bar, doing the end-of-conference “I’ll miss you guys!” when Jesse Kochis said, “You all work around Boston, you could just get together!” and said he’d find a place if I’d collect email addresses. So in May, 2011, a group of people descended on the Eastern Standard and we had our first meetup. The name went through many unfortunate iterations, like “Boston Museum Geeks” and “Boston Museum Tech Meetup Group” and at least one other I’ve blocked out. A few months later, I heard from Koven Smith in Denver that they had a Meetup group they called “Drinking About Museums” and I said, “Oh, that’s perfect! Can I steal that name for our group, too?” Being straight-up, generous folk, Koven and Kate Tinworth, who run the Denver group gave their blessing, and the name expanded to Boston. 

Jim and Kristin getting animated, while Ed ignores them.

Jim and Kristin getting animated, while Ed ignores them.

#drinkingaboutmuseums FTW!

The power of a good idea is impressive to see in action. #drinkingaboutmuseums starting appearing on Twitter. Within months, there were Drinking About Museums announcements popping up in D.C., Sydney, Melbourne, S.F. and more places. There is now a Google+ group where you can find where Drinking About Museums is happening around the world. It’s been gratifying to watch, and kinda strange to become associated with a brand.  

I used to email everybody, trying to find a time that worked. It was a huge time suck and I was bad at it, too.  Eventually, I stopped trying to find a time for everybody and just picked mid-week nights that worked for me. Even the email list management proved to be a real job. I tried to do all my notifying by Twitter and on the blog, but that didn’t work out well.  Luckily, Jennifer Schmitt from deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum volunteered to handle the list, and has done so admirably.  Koven also set up a Google Plus group, which has been a great aggregation site for DAM activity.

Jenna and Lynn with the paper prototype of their multitouch exhibit

Jenna and Lynn with the paper prototype of their multitouch exhibit

Drinking About Museums: BOS

So here’s how our group currently functions.

It’s a coalition of the willing at the moment.

If you want to take on a larger role, come on in! For several months running, we went to different museums each month, and had behind-the-scenes tours of things that members were working on.  People did presentations.  One month, a member needed a test audience for a workshop on game design she was making. Other months, it’s just social. We get together and enjoy each others’ company. It gets as big and as small as it’s most active member wants it to. I’m currently obsessed with trying out a version of Museums Showoff in July if I can find a venue. Who knows we’ll do in the future?

It’s a completely open group at the moment

That was both a philosophical choice and a workflow choice. I didn’t want to be a gatekeeper and decide whether someone belonged. I ddin’t want to field requests to join. Koven and Kate have Denver set up as a closed Meetup group that you have to apply to join. If you’ve got the bandwidth to tailor the group to your needs and wants, that might the best option for you. Being completley open worked for us. It means sometimes people come who know noithng about museums but are interested in culture in general. I still field requests, so that didn’t change.

Drinking About Museums: Melbourne

Drinking About Museums: Melbourne

It’s museums focused at the moment.

My own biases came to the fore when I was in Australia last summer. I got to go to TWO Drinking About Museums in two weeks in Sydney and Melbourne, and the Melbourne group was more broadly GLAM-oriented, than just museum focused. It was really interesting to hear about the isssues librarians and archivists were having and how they were similar/dissimilar to mine.

The logistics

When we’re ready to have a new Drinking About Museums:Boston edition, here’s what happens.

Pick a date
Jenn and I will chat publicly about place and date on Twitter. If anybody joins the conversation, we’ll loop them in. If not, the two of us will pick a place and time. If somebody has agreed to host, then we all try to find a night that works.  I’ve never gotten a Friday night event to work. Don’t do it.

Tell the world!
The first rule of Drinking About Museums is…

Unlike Fight Club, the first rule of Drinking About Museums is to get the word out. Jenn sends out an email to the list, I blog about it, advertise it on Twitter and post it on the Google Plus group. If you want people to come, you have to talk about it.  I used to worry about talking too much about it, but I haven’t found it to be an issue.  And those months when three people came? Yeah, they kinda coincided with months I didn’t do much promotion. Go figure…

Send out reminders

Posting only one notice two weeks before the date is a guarantee that most people won’t show up. Using only one channel is also a way to not get a decent turnout. I tell everybody at work, I call people. I tell people to tell their friends.

Get to know the folks at the venue
If you’re going to a bar or restaurant, it’s worth letting them know in advance that you’re convening a group there. Some places will let you know in no uncertain terms that they’d prefer a group where everyone is buying dinner, not standing around nursing cheap drinks. Other places will be happy for the business, especially if you tell them you meet regularly and you meet on a night that isn’t a busy weekend night.

Get there early
Let the venue know you’re there and where you’ll be so they can send people over. I’m “that museum group guy” at several Boston-area establishments.

Meet everybody and take names
Seems like a no-brainer, but I had to train myself not to immediately grab a drink and dive into a conversation with my friends. Especially with an open group, there will people who show up and know nobody, brave souls. Making them feel welcome and giving them that first connection to the group is important. Also, we need to maintain our email list to make sure we capture new people contact info.

Solicit ideas from the group
The people coming to a Drinking About Museums are obviously motivated and wicked into museums. They have been the source of some of our best ideas, from hosting us at their institution, to using the group as an informal focus group, to showing off exciting new work.  Put the group to work!

Game creation workshop!

Game creation workshop!

Be experimental
Mixing things up has worked well for us.  After a string of just social events, we went on a several month long binge of visiting area museums and then adjourning for drinks. Lately, we’ve been having special guests. Maybe our test of Museums Showoff will be such a success that we make it a regular feature. Who knows? Come and find out if you’re in town!

A quick question for you

Hot on the heels of our fascinating plenary at Museums and the Web about Sleep No More and immersive theatre and museums, I went to a very different kind of immersive experience – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – an immersive, puzzle-based, interactive experience developed by 5 Wits, who also did Operation Spy at the International Spy Museum. It’s sort of the polar opposite of SNM; family-friendly, group based, and very explicative. And it worked on a number of different levels than SNM. Particularly the game-based elements of it. So I’d like to conduct an experiment with your kind condescension.

Think about the experience of being in museums and why you like them.
Now think about games you love. Board games, videogames, whatever…
Holding both those in mind, can you put them together and tell me what you see?
Which games sprang to mind? Why?

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