Tag Archives: experience design

“Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse, Part Two

Curation, stuff, people, meanings. Fear of change vs fear of irrelevance. Framing debates and the need for new frames. That was Part One of this series in a nutshell. Getting through it without answering snark with more snark was more of a challenge than I expected, so what had been one really long post with a happy ending got split into two posts. For background framing of the curation/participation issue, go back and read it. It features a picture from I Can Haz Cheezeburger, so it’s worth it.

In this post, I’d like to look more at examples of work people are doing that take on issues around curation, and maybe serve as exemplars. I’ll start with some provocative thoughts that are a wonderful antidote to the pearl-clutching tone of some of the other recent articles, then we’ll finally explore two of the smallest museums that I referenced at the beginning of Part One.

Let your voice be heard!

Lolly Hopkins cheers on the Braves with megaphone. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image from Boston Public Library

Lolly Hopkins cheers on the Braves with megaphone.
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image from Boston Public Library

In response to my first post, Seb Chan from Cooper Hewitt offered another possible way forward: clearer voice, than the standard 20th century disembodied “institutional voice” that is still prevalent in the field. I’m just going to repost big chunks of it because it’s that good:

“My view is increasingly that museums need opinions, and that means that more than ever their exhibitions benefit from being opinionated. Sometimes the opinion that needs to be stated is that of those voices least frequently heard in museums (some – but not all – participatory exhibit projects might fall into this category) and well served by ‘community sourcing’, but other times it’s a need to have an upfront, loud, curatorial voice.”

I think this perceived lack of voice often afflicts participatory projects, which is why they get characterized as messy and chaotic. The Memory Jars project at the Museum of Art and History at Santa Cruz or Object Stories at Portland Art Museum I think ar egood examples of projects where visitors’ voices come through loud and clear, which may be why I like them. The perceived lack of loud curatorial voices reminded me of Max Anderson’s 2011 “The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions” which included this gem, “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.” Amen, brother!

And lest you start feeling smug, I think that admonition applies to us all, not just art historians. If your audience doesn’t get what you’re doing, is it the audience’s fault, or your museum’s?

Interpreting the language of objects
This communication problem ties into the curation/participation dynamic. Often, the adherents of traditional practice take a dim view of interpretation of any stripe. They want straight curatorial wisdom and nothing else. “Let the objects speak for themselves” is a refrain I’ve heard more than once. And I think it’s all well and good, if your audience is an already-informed one, like say art critics, and fellow museum professionals. If the audience includes people who don’t already speak that language (be it art, or science, or history, or whatever), then not so well. Seb, in his comment,  continued,

“The big caveat being that that voice needs to be able to heard and understood by a significant proportion of the visitors to be valuable (cue “more interpretation”, “better exhibition design”, “exhibition design as coherent argument”, “audience research” etc). Curation has to be more than just ‘choosing’. When its done well, it is, and obviously so. Too often what is celebrated by those against more participatory activities in museums are opaque exhibitions with curatorial arguments obfuscated with a thick dose of International Art English.”

I agree completely. Curation as a form of sense-making requires strong interpretation. Regan Forrest published a great, short post on the language of objects [http://reganforrest.com/2014/10/the-language-of-objects/] that picked apart this question of interpretation that’s worth reading. She notes that ,

“the ‘objects are mute’ vs ‘objects speak for themselves’ debate may be missing an important nuance: perhaps objects do speak, at least some of the time, although we as visitors may not necessarily be conversant in the language any given object speaks. And if not, the object is as good as mute to us.”

I like the model of the “language of objects” being spoken with a strong voice, and interpreted for an audience who may not be fluent in that language. Unfortunately, interpretation often gets a bad reputation as “pandering”. I wrote about this almost exactly a year ago and the world hasn’t progressed far since then.  Regan Forrest and I bounced the idea back and forth across a couple of blog posts, in which she asked the question,  When does interpretation cross the line from mediation – providing a hook or a link between audiences and content – into interference: “over-interpretation”, where it’s simply getting in the way of a meaningful experience? Does this line shift depending on the audience? On the subject matter? Whether its science or its art?” Striking that balance is hard. Which made me wonder about other interesting models people are pursuing that come at curation in interesting ways.

Here are two examples that were at my famers market last weekend. One thing that unites the two is that both try to take the museum experience outside of the museum and meet visitors where they already are, and invert the model of the visit. Another is their clear, definitely opinionated curatorial stance.

The Mµseum

The Mµseum opened in 2010 in Union Square, not far from my house. Billed as the world’s smallest museum, it occupies a niche in a wall between a sub shop and a restaurant in a busy pedestrian square. Judith Krausner and Steve Pomeroy wanted a way to showcase the works of regional artists in an intimate setting that was also free of the constraints of getting into a gallery or museum space. Why not make a space where people already were, and bring the museum experience to them? Thus was born the Mµseum.

Go to their website and you’ll see their program, though truly tiny in scale, has all the hallmarks of a traditional museum endeavor, and boasts a very clear voice. Their statement about “accessibility” reads, We want art to be something that is approachable to everyone. By bringing art right up to the viewer, in an unstaffed, pressure-free environment (a place you’d be anyway, just walking down the street!), we hope to make art both physically and psychologically approachable.” They want people walking down the street to stop and see some art made by artists working in the area. Somerville, MA apparently has the largest number of working artists per capita of any municipality in the United States, so there’s no shortage of materials.

The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts

The MMoAA parked the the Union Square Farmers' Market in Somerville, MA

The MMoAA parked the the Union Square Farmers’ Market in Somerville, MA

The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts is the brainchild of Laurelin Kruse, a California-based artist and arts educator. After a brief stint at the Calder Foundation, she became fascinated by the way a single person’s life could become the focus of so many people’s work; collecting, cataloguing, conserving every little scrap, no matter how quotidian. What about the artiacts of ordinany Americans, the countless stories and lives that surround us? Who was going to find, collect *their* objects and stories? Thus was MMoAA born, and it’s curator.

After finding a suitable gallery space (a converted 1968 Cardinal camper), and kickstarting its retrofitting, Kruse set out from California, stopping along the way for brief periods of time, setting up shop, and soliciting objects and stories. By the time we met in Somerville, she’d already been across the country once, and was preparing to lay up for the winter before setting out west again.   The Museum, big enough to hold three or four adults comfortably, can be visited in a few minutes, more if you use the video booth. Though she’s collected quite a bit, the exhibition is well laid out; not too many objects, labels that tell a complete story quickly. They hint at the lives that intersected with them, and some are quite powerful; a bundle of love letters from the 1910s, found in the attic of a house, bits of soap made by a woman with her long-dead grandmother during yearly summer visits, now long past. A knife given by a junkie to the bus driver who drove him to rehab. These little narratives

The MMoAA, like the Mµseum, the Museum of Broken Relationships, and others, I think reflects the current increase in interest in curation as a democratizing force and a counter-narrative to the perceived aloofness of museums as institutions. They all say “This happened! It was important to the people involved!”, the same impulse as Kennicott’s “struggle against oblivion”.

What are other examples you’ve come across that are innovative models of modern curation?

 

Selfie conscious

Vatican Museums, Rome
Vatican Museums, Rome
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user Fabian Mohr

Introduction
Visitors and their cameras. I thought I’d finished with this topic awhile ago. Visitor photography had been the third part of my Tilting at Windmills series, along with those other betes noir “immersion” and “participation”. I also wrote a follow up post of links on visitor photography for those really interested. The debate continues unabated, and as full of opinion masquerading as fact as it ever was. It’s grown to such epic proportions that MuseumsEtc is publishing a volume on museums and visitor photography. So, once more into the breach…

The National Gallery case

National Gallery, London.
National Gallery, London
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user staticantics

The ostensible cause of the latest outburst was the National Gallery in London’s decision to allow visitor photography in August.  One of the last “no photos!” bastions in Europe, the Gallery announced with no fanfare free Wi-Fi throughout the building, and tucked in with that announcement was a statement on their new photography policy.

Here’s what they said, as reported in the Telegraph:

“The introduction of free Wi-Fi throughout the public areas of the National Gallery is one of a number of steps we are taking to improve the welcome we provide.

“Wi-Fi enables our visitors to access additional information about the Collection and our exhibitions whilst actually here in the Gallery, and also to interact with us more via social media.

“As the use of Wi-Fi will significantly increase the use of tablets and mobile devices within the Gallery, it will become increasingly difficult for our Gallery Assistants to be able to distinguish between devices being used for engagement with the Collection, or those being used for photography.

“It is for that reason we have decided to change our policy on photography within the main collection galleries and allow it by members of the public for personal, non-commercial purposes -provided that they respect the wishes of visitors and do not hinder the pleasure of others by obstructing their views of the paintings. This is very much in line with policies in other UK museums and galleries.

“The use of flash and tripods will be prohibited, as will photography and filming in temporary exhibitions.

“Commercial photography remains subject to existing arrangements.”

Commence fireworks!

Showa Kinen Park Fireworks Festival ( Explore in Sep 6, 2014 )
Showa Kinen Park Fireworks Festival
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user yasa_

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of handwringing by journalists and bloggers who declared things like, “Camera phones at the National Gallery stoke fears that technology is leaving us incapable of deep engagement with anything”, and “Selfie-portrait of the artist: National Gallery surrenders to the internet”, and “Fears National Gallery will be ‘selfie central’ as photo ban is relaxed” And that’s just the mainstream media. You can imagine how the arts bloggers reacted. Eesh!

Within weeks, the chairman of the Arts Council, Sir Peter Bazalgette went on record supporting the idea of “selfie bans” for an hour a day, so people could get some relief from the hordes of picture snappers. And his was a fairly moderate opinion. The more absolutists were quite certain that doom was at hand.

Crowd Control 3
Crowd Control 3
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Son of Groucho

Sarah Crompton, writing in the Telegraph, describes the typical scene that those opposed to photography paint; the swarm of unheeding photographers, ignoring the real to capture the facsimile. Walter Benjamin’s warning made manifest. “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it… In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” Crompton’s experience is similar,

“The last time I was in MOMA in New York, I fought my way up to the floor where all the masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse and the Abstract Expressionists hang – and then fought my way back out again. The space was full not just of viewers but of photographers; it was impossible to stop, think and look at a painting amid the jostling crowds.”

In the face of that kind of scrum, can any meaningful interaction occur? Apparently not. She concludes,

“By allowing photography, galleries are betraying all those who want to contemplate rather than glance. Surrounded by the snappers, they may come to think that this is the acceptable way to consume art, a kind of constant grazing without any real meal.

That’s not a means of making art more popular or accessible. It is the surest path to depriving it of all purpose and meaning.”

Judith Dobrzynski, in an uncharacteristically moderate tone, agrees that a ban is needed. One hour’s a bit too short for her liking, though…

Virtually no major outlet reported the National Gallery’s decision as a win for visitors, or a positive outcome in any sense. Even in the field, there was little mention made of it. And it’s easy to see why. Other people taking pictures, especially selfies, is easy to mock. Rather than explain this at all, you should just go look at Josh Gondelman’s piece in the New Yorker, “Works from the Los Angeles Museum of Photographic Self-Portraiture”. Pretty genius, huh? You’re welcome.

Two thoughts about the National Gallery

So, why so much vitriol, and what could the Gallery have done differently? For the first question, Nina Simon’s already addressed it, so I’ll focus on the second. But, first, Nina.

Deal with the real problem
Nina tackles the National Gallery issue in a post, entitled, “Blame the Crowd, Not the Camera: Challenges to a New Open Photo Policy at the National Gallery” which unpacks the whole thing so neatly and completely that I won’t waste many more electrons on it. In the same way that “immersion” and “participation” get used as straw men for deeper issues, “selfies” have become the stand in for the real issue at the major art museums where this problem is most often highlighted – overcrowding.

Crowded Mona Lisa
Crowded Mona Lisa
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Iris

Read any of the writers advocating photography bans, and you’ll find them all mentioning crowding as part of the experience that ruins it. I agree that photography exacerbates it and makes more apparent how unappealing crowding is, but I think that visitor photography gets the blame for a problem that’s much bigger and harder to tackle.  The experienced arts consumers may have given up on crowding as an unfixable problem, but I think it’s worth problematizing, rather than just taking it for granted. I dislike going to MoMA, or the Louvre, not because of the amateur photographers, but because they are like Tokyo subway cars, with art. How one deals with overcrowding is a totally different question than how one deals with cameras, and a solution to that bigger problem, I think, would probably resolve the smaller one. The responses to her post are as well worth reading as the post itself, so devote some time to it.

Don’t make a lemon out of lemonade
Looking over the whole affair, I think the National Gallery made a classic public relations blunder, and turned what was an unalloyed accomplishment to be proud of (introducing free Wi-Fi throughout the building) into a major media fiasco for one reason. They didn’t ever come out and say they wanted visitors to use their cameras. They essentially said “It’s too hard to monitor, so we’re not going to.” And that doesn’t reflect well on them, despite the obvious truth of it. And they reaped the whirlwind for it…

It *is* hard to tell what people are doing with their devices. Is that person taking a picture, or are they far-sighted and holding the phone at arm’s length so they can read their wretchedly small screen? Are they telling all their friends what a blast they’re having at the museum, or just searching for a new song to listen to because they’re bored? They all look pretty much the same, and anyone who thinks museums’ front line staff (who tend to be the least well-paid hourly workers) should make these kinds of fine judgements dozens or hundreds of times per shift all the while keeping an eye on the objects, fundamentally doesn’t get it.

Realistically, I think institutions have to clearly allow, or disallow visitors to use their devices, and whichever way they decide, they need to own that decision, and have it reflect the core values of the institution.

I’m totally down with the National Gallery’s decision to allow visitors to use their devices, because I think  providing free Wi-Fi was a good thing. Making it as easy as possible for visitors to access information about the museum and its scholarship should be a major priority for all museums. One way you do that is by knocking down as many barriers to access as you can. One of those barriers, particularly in art museums, is the amount of interpretation provided. I think my next Tumblr may have to be “Art museum visitors looking at Wikipedia because the label didn’t tell them anything they wanted to know.” The Gallery produces lots of information about their collection, and should be commended for making it easy for visitors to access it in a way that is visitor-driven. But in doing that, they should’ve come up with a reason to either encourage or discourage photography. Allowing it was a half measure, and putting that half measure in writing was a bad idea.

The Frick Example

Frick Dining Room HDR
Frick Dining Room HDR
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Paul Gorbould

It needn’t be that way. The Frick Collection in New York, had long been a no go zone for photographers. Like the National Gallery, they quietly reversed their photo policy in April, and a month later, reinstated a photography ban, saying this to Hyperallergic,

“After a brief trial allowing photography throughout the permanent collection galleries, it has become apparent we need to limit use of cameras to the Garden Court. The Frick Collection is virtually unique and especially valued for its lack of protective barriers, vitrines, and stanchions around works of fine and decorative art, displayed in a domestic setting. This refinement of our photography policy has been determined necessary to maintain the safety of our exceptional collections.”

And the hue and cry about this flip flop? Non-existant. The Frick totally owns their photography ban. It’s essential to the experience of seeing the objects in such a unique, unmuseum-y setting. They get full marks for being experimental enough to try to revise their policy. It shows they’re paying attention to what the outside world is like. And their reversal shows that they’re paying attention to the visitor experience and are willing to change based on evidence.

Mind your manners, not the technology

This evolving relationship with visitor photography and whether it’s good or bad has a lot to do manners and perceived lack thereof. The museums mentioned above both put explicit suggestions in their photo policies. The Frick’s used to read in part, “When taking photographs, please be courteous to other museum visitors by not blocking their views of artworks or impeding their movement through the galleries.” The National Gallery’s asked visitors not hinder the pleasure of others with their photography. But as Jillian Steinhauer wrote in Hyperallergic, when the Frick’s photography ban was dropped, “Pleas like these haven’t yet proven very effective, but maybe as photography in museums becomes less and less of an anomaly, we can shift our energy to figuring out how to do it right.”

Part of this dilemma also has to do with how we’ve conditioned ourselves to treat photography, no doubt based on older, analogue models of the process, when walking in front of a photographer meant possibly ruining one of a finite number of exposures on a roll of film that cost real money to buy and develop. Regan Forrest pointed me at an interesting dissertation that examined the visitor dynamics of photography in museums.

“It is the reflex action of trying to remove one’s self from, or trying to avoid the space between photographer and object. People duck and scuttle away, walk in reverse, stop and lean backwards or make an obvious decision to adjust their previously chosen path to circumnavigate the photographer and his or her line of vision to the object being photographed. Noticeably, the same behaviour does not occur if the viewer is not holding a camera in the process of taking a photograph. The viewer standing back from an artwork merely looking at it, is not afforded the same extreme actions of diversion as when a camera is involved.  (Sager, J. F. (2008). The Contemporary Visual Art Audience: Space, Time and a Sideways Glance University of Western Sydney. pp174-175)

Our learned response to photographers is to give them wide berth, whether they ask for (or deserve) it. And we don’t seem to privilege looking at objects the same way. If you’ve had someone come stand directly in front of you to look at the object you’re looking at, you know the truth of this. And this where I think there’s really interesting room for engagement with our audiences.

Perhaps one of the best outcomes of all this angst will be some hard discussions around the visitor experience in museums and what factors contribute or detract from a good one. What should the current etiquette for museum-going be? What are the new rules of the road for having a rewarding experience engaging with our heritage? I’ll be looking at place like the Brooklyn Museum for inspiration.

Since this focused so much on the downsides of visitor photography, I’ll spend the next post looking at some positive examples of visitor photography in museums.

Aside

http://connected.pem.org/rigging-a-studio-boat/

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!