Tag Archives: Museum

Responses to Kennicott’s “How to view art”

Responses to Kennicott’s “How to view art: “Be dead serious about it, but don’t expect too much”

As you could tell from my last post, I had a strong negative reaction to Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post article. The incredible pretentiousness of the piece had the predictable effect of spawning responses that are much more amusing takes on the topic, both with their own nuggets of truth in them. And taken in the aggregate, I think there are some important areas of agreement, if you can get through the bile and the snark. So, onwards!

Five Rules for (Kinda) Viewing Art
by Jillian Steinhauer, Hyperallergic

Steinhauer was the first to respond to Kennicott, and her take on his five points often veers into parody, extolling the virtues of plotting your Instagram strategy and quota for a museum visit, and remembering to tweet your lunch. Rather than rebut, or mock, she adopts a millenials version of Kennicott’s agenda for doing a museum visit the right way.Her five to-dos are an interesting comparison to Kennicott’s. They are:

1. Take Time

2. Bring a Friend

3. Go with an Open Mind

4. Don’t Worry Much about Remembering Things

5. Seek Out Art that Fits Your World View

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How to View Art: However You Want to
By Jen Oleniczak, Huffington Post

Oleniczak, a museum educator, instructor and member of Museum Hack, takes a more welcoming tone, suitable for somebody who tries to engage museum visitors wherever they are in their knowledge of museums and art. Her five how-tos include:

1. Take the time you have

2. Seek your space

3. Just do you

4. Remember in your own way

5. Ignore everything I said

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The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum
Stephanie Rosenbloom, The New York Times

“There is no right way to experience a museum, of course.”

Rosenbloom never references Kennicott’s piece, and given it’s heft, was probably under construction for some time. However it came about, though, the timing of it is too perfect. Instead of proclaiming, Rosenbloom uses cases studies of the effects of looking slowly at art and its effect on viewers’ sense of well-being. It’s chockablock with good quotes on the impact of a museum visit on people’s health, too. Slow Art Day gets a mention, too. Trying to distill it down to the “top five” format of the others, here’s what I came up with.

1. Don’t try to do everything.

2. Seek out works that dovetail with your interests.

3. Research the museum’s collection online in advance of your visit.

4. Make your own soundtrack at home and take headphones to the museum.

5. Ask yourself “What are the things that, if I do not see them, will leave me feeling as if I didn’t have a New York (or any other city) experience?”

“Sometimes you get more for the price of admission by opting to see less.”

My Top Five

So, what else can I offer that hasn’t already been said? To test that out, I came up with my own Top Five list.

1. Don’t try to do it all.
Bite off less than you think you can manage in the allotted time and see even less if you can.

2. Document what you like
Write it down, imitate it, photograph it, buy the book of it

3. Respond to the art.
Love it, hate it, whatever. Art exists to provoke a response in us. The worst thing you can do an artwork is to feel nothing.

4. Make a connection between the art and your life if you can.
One way you help replenish the aura around art is to find a connection between it and yourself.

5. Come out more informed than you entered.
Nobody ever got a PhD from going to a museum, but you can know more than when you went in.

Slow down!

What can we take from these lists? Well, the big one, of course, is the exhortation to slow down, see fewer objects, and see those objects more closely.

Looking at the Southern Cross

 Fitz Henry Lane (1804–1865), Gloucester, Mass.,  Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor, 1851.  Oil on canvas, 25¼ x 38 inches.  Gift of Stephen Wheatland (1987, M18639). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


Fitz Henry Lane (1804–1865), Gloucester, Mass., 
Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor, 1851. 
Oil on canvas, 25¼ x 38 inches. 
Gift of Stephen Wheatland (1987, M18639).
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

One of the great delights of working at the Peabody Essex Museum is getting to walk through the galleries and establish a long-term relationship with the objets on display. One of my personal favorites is a painting by the American marine painter Fitz Henry Lane. “Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor” depicts a ship slowly making her way out of Boston Harbor on a calm day. I’ve long been a fan of Lane’s and I would always give this painting my time when I first started at the museum. And It seemed to give up new details to me every time I studied it. I used to look just at the ship itself, admiring the care with which the rigging was delineated. Lane was a man who knew his ships.

It wasn’t long til I realized that between the foremast and mainmast I could see the silhouette of the Massachusetts State House in the background, perfectly framed by the rigging. That led to several sessions of looking at the shore, trying to locate the location of the ship, something that would likely have been obvious to mariners of Lane’s day, who were used to looking at Boston from a distance. Later on I noticed the two men rowing in the foreground, hunched in their boat, and that led to mediations on costume. My current fixation is the depiction of the wind, as evidenced by the sails and flags flying on the ships. It’s a light breeze. And so on. My appreciation for the work doesn’t diminish from repeated viewings. Instead, the painting keeps giving me new things to see. Sound familiar? Yup, Kennicott and I (and Steinhauer, Oleniczak, and Rosenbloom, as well as all those educators Kennicott loathes who ask visitors to look at art and say what they see) are in agreement on the importance of looking and slowing down.

Mr. Scudder, the Fish, and Dr. Agassiz

Fish, Wet Specimens lll by Flickr user Curious Expeditions CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Fish, Wet Specimens lll
by Flickr user Curious Expeditions
CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

This emphasis on looking closely reminded me of one of my favorite iOS apps, Fish: A Tap Essay by Robin Sloan. The app is really a meditation on mindfulness, or “the difference between liking something on the Internet and loving something on the Internet.” You should just go download it and try it now. Come back when you’re done, OK? It’s worth it.

Sloan’s text is based on a famous story of the great 19th century naturalist Louis Agassiz, and a student of his. The student has come to Agassiz’s lab to learn what the great man has to teach. Agassiz comes and greets the newbie, takes a fish out of a jar of alcohol, places it in a tin tray and tells the student to look at the fish and tell him what he sees. Agasissz leaves, and the student looks. Time passes, the student looks more and more until he’s certain he’s seen everything. Agassiz comes back much later and asks him what he’s seen. The student dutifully rattles off what he’s observed, which fails to impress the scientist. “Look at your fish!” he says and leaves.

The more the student looks, the more he finds; new details, new characteristics that change his understanding of the fish. In the version of the story I know, ( Scudder, Samuel H. [April 4, 1874]. “Look at Your Fish”. Every Saturday 16: 369–370) the student is Samuel H. Scudder, later a famous entomologist and paleontologist in his own right, and Scudder’s encounter with the fish lasts three whole days before Agassiz is satisfied that he’s “seen” the fish. There’s a beautifully sombre painting of Scudder in the Museum of Science’s collection, almost entirely black, with Scudder, dressed in black. Up in the corner, the artist has painted a butterfly, Scudder’s first love as a naturalist, and the only blotch of color in an otherwise monochrome work. And what is Scudder doing? Looking down at whatever he’s studying. According to Scudder, learning to look was the biggest gift Agassiz gave him.

And to bring this back to looking at art, the story comes around full-circle as the anecdote with which Ezra Pound opens the ABC of Reading, his 1934 work of literary criticism. Pound’s trying to get readers to slow down and really look at the words on the page.

If there’s one thing all the parties seem to agree on, it’s this.

Pay attention!

Look again!

What do you see?

Look some more!

Tilting at Windmills, Part Three

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

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

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

image by Flickr user Sergey Meniailenko
CC-BY-2.0

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

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

Damn those people with their phones!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photography = ruin.

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

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

Hooray for pictures!

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

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

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

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

Photography = hooray!

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

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

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

Visitor photography = living up the mission to share culture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It disrupts the experience of others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It promotes your institution
Yup.

Access is part of your mission
Yup.

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three: Why do people take pictures in museums

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

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

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

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

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

Photos as affiliation and as digital souvenirs

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

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

Gap week!

For the first time in longer than I can recall, I have nothing I have to do for work. I’m between jobs, having what a friend decided to dub my “gap week”. Instead of unpacking my boxes from my old office, or spending all day reading up on the strategic plans of my new employer, I’m reading stuff I’d squirreled away, sometimes years ago that I thought I’d “get around to” in quieter moments. Susan Stewart’s “On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection” is one of the most remarkable books I’ve read lately. It’s written in a dense, but lyrical style, in the way that only a literary critic/poet could write.  More on her later.

I also finally reread Adorno’s “Valèry Proust Museum” essay and the opening of that leapt out and smacked me,

 “The German word museal [museum-like] has unpleasant overtones. It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying.”

And that’s just the beginning! He goes on to compare art museums to sepulchres and much, much more! There’s a lot more to unpack in there, but for some reason this statement about vitality made me think about why I get so excited about digital technologies in museums. A lot of that excitement has to do with their potential to create new kinds of connections between people and places and objects. Here’s one quick example of how.

Months ago, Britanny Beck from MyOrpheo shared a sweet little story with me that encapsulates a lot of what excites me about digital technologies and heritage.  It’s a simple story, involving a guy, a gal, a historic building, and an audiotour.

The Clock, courtesy of MyOrpheo

The Clock, courtesy of MyOrpheo

Adam and Erica live in New York City. Erica’s favorite place in town is Grand Central Station.  On one of their dates, they took the new audio tour of the station, which Erica loved. Adam decided using the audio tour would be a perfect way to ask her to marry him.  He contacted Orpheo and pitched the idea of replacing one track on the tour with his proposal and then giving her a special unit with the new tour on it.

Let's take the tour!, courtesy of MyOrpheo

Let’s take the tour!, courtesy of MyOrpheo

Being very good sports, MyOrpheo agreed to cut a special track and Adam was left with the job of arranging a plausible reason to take the same tour again.  That’s what friends and family are for, right? So, Erica’s brother and sister-in-law conceived of a sudden burning desire to take the audio tour of Grand Central, and Erica fell for the idea of it being a double date. When she and Eric got to Vanderbilt Hall, instead of getting information on the room and its architecture, she got a marriage proposal. Eric got down on one knee, and the rest was history. Well played, Eric. Well played.

The special audio track, courtesy of MyOrpheo

The special audio track, courtesy of MyOrpheo

The relative ease with which one can customize digital media and the ability to create personal experiences are truly revolutionary. As is the shift in mindset of organizations to be able to even consider letting people appropriate their tools for their own ends.  That’s worth getting excited about!

What can museums learn about immersive theater?

Solitude of a Darkened Life by Flickr user @Photo

One of the most unexpected outcomes of taking a new position was my new boss asking me if I was interested in attending Museums and the Web 2013.  I’ve been going to MW as often as possible since the late ‘90s, and never fail to come away rejuvenated and full of new ideas.  Most of the people I consider my closest professional peers are folks I first met at MW.  So I said, “Yes, please!” and am counting down the days til I arrive in Portland.

I’m excited to attend for many reasons. This will be my first conference as an art museum professional so it’ll be interesting to see what sessions and speakers now seem valuable/relevant/important to me in my new role. I have a lot to learn, and I hope to take away a lot.

Museums and the Web is the bookend conference for the Museum Computer Network conference, and a great deal of planning and plotting will take place at MW2013 that will influence the shape of MCN2013. It’ll be great to be there for those conversations.

Since I wasn’t expecting to go this year, I paid no attention to the program until recently and therefore am not chairing a session, presenting a paper, running a workshop, etc. I can go and hang out and soak up the event, and that feels like a real gift. Thank you PEM, and Jim!

I didn’t get off completely scot-free, and that’s what this post is going to be about. I wrote some time ago about going to see Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in NYC, as have others. It turns out the Diane Borger from Punchdrunk is going to give the closing plenary on immersive theatre and museums, and I was invited to join the panel with Diane, Seb Chan, and Suse Cairns! I am tremendously excited to be part of what could be an important community discussion and have been reading up on immersive theatre and thought it’d be worthwhile sharing some links for those who don’t yet know what immersive theatre and why it’s something museums might learn from.

Recent immersive theatre & museums articles

What can museums learn from immersive theater? | Museums and the Web 2013

Diane Borger is the producer who brought Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More to the US in 2009 (http://www.americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/sleep-no-more). After an extended, sold-out run, the immersive theater production moved to New York, where it continues to play today (http://sleepnomorenyc.com). Please join Diane and Punchdrunk’s many museum fans and critics for an inspiring discussion of what museums can learn from immersive theater led by Seb Chan, Ed Rodley and Suse Cairns. We are all sure to be transformed by the experience!

Mark Dion’s “Curator’s Office”

Mark Dion, ArtForum

In “Curator’s Office”, books, furniture, and personal effects do not reveal their collector’s taste or knowledge, but rather spin a fictive tale about a curator gone missing in the 1950s in a period of American anticommunist paranoia.

ht to Robin White Owen (@rocombo)

 The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games

by Jamie Madigan

Though it is focused on videogames, I think most (if not all) of it is relevant to both immersive theatre and to museum experiences.  The unpacking of immersion, or “presence” as its called in the psych literature I found very helpful.

ht to Suse Cairns (@shineslike)

A Waking Dream Made Just for You

By Chris Colin, New York Times

Perhaps the most extreme example of immersive theatre I’ve heard of yet; a production hand-crafted and personalized for an audience of one.

Lithuania’s Soviet nostalgia: back in the USSR

by Dan Hancox, The Guardian

Feeling nostalgic for the good old Soviet Union? Then head to Lithuania, where several theme parks let visitors feel exactly what it was like – right down to scary, abusive guards.

By Tara Burton, New Statesman

Immersive theatre is about turning the traditional power dynamics of actors and audience on their head. One potential outcome of that is anxiety in the audience. This certainly resonated with my own experience of Sleep No More. 

Is theatre becoming too immersive?

by Alice Jones, The Independent

Alice has been put on the spot by actors time and again – and she’s sick of it

Interactive theatre: five rules of play from an audience perspective

by Miriam Gillinson, The Guardian

A useful little breakdown of how immersive theatre can let down their audiences.

How I learned to love immersive theatre

by Mark Lawson, The Guardian

This example of site-specific and non-text-based theatre, Robert Wilson’s “Walking”, sounds amazing, and since it relies on the landscape, seems like it could have utility in a museum setting, where the setting itself is often an object to be interepreted.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Though a lot of immersive theatre seems to lean heavily on adult themes, this Young Tate performance, staged around  Tate Liverpool’s “Alice in Wonderland” exhibition,  goes more for a “darkly playful and absurd experience”, as it  invites the audience to journey beyond the exhibition and through the looking glass.

Any other great examples I’ve missed? Let me know!

On getting lost

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

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

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

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

Getting lost versus getting herded

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

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

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

Space syntax and museums

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

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

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

Linearity and visibility

Louvre gallery by Flickr user 01steven

Louvre gallery by Flickr user 01steven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting with the story

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

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

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

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

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

The exhibition as a campfire?

Campfire by Flickr user Jelles

Campfire by Flickr user Jelles

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

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

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

Related Posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Gottschall - Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon

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

Making a museum from scratch: Part Five

For those of you just tuning in, I’ve been on a long extended thought experiment on what a traditional museum (one built around a collection of stuff) might look like, if you were to start one from scratch, here in the VUCA 21st century.  In Part One, I launched into this with both feet. Part Two was spent addressing concerns and questions raised by thoughtful commentators. Part Three introduced a model of radical transparency, and suggested inverting the traditional continuum of transparency that privileges exhibitions over collections. In Part Four, I played this out a little further and proposed what might be in the mission statement of such a museum.

So far, so good, but it’s still been pretty abstract. From here on out, I’d like to try shifting gears a bit. Taking as givens the mission elements in Part Four, and this idea of a radically transparent museum, Time to get tactical now. In this post I’d like to consider the the plan of work for the 24 months leading up to opening. In the next post we’ll look at the positions that we will need to describe and fill to carry out the plan of work.

T-minus 2 years and counting

We’ve been so good at laying out a compelling case for our new museum that we’ve secured adequate funding to start planning for our museum. According to the architects and fundraisers, it’ll take two years to make the necessary modifications to the structure to render it habitable and adequate for our needs. Two years til opening. What do we need to do between now and then to make sure the museum opens with as much of a chance to succeed as possible?

Being anti-dichotomistic

One thing I am painfully conscious of is my desire to frame everything in terms of the physical/digital dichotomy that I have grown up with. At the same time, I am fairly certain this kind of thinking is unhelpful in the long run and needs to be replaced with a holistic approach that doesn’t come easily to me. My “kneejerk reaction” plan would be to mark when the building opens on the big calendar, and work back from there, finding all the milestones that need to be hit before that can happen and fill in around them with other stuff, like digital milestones, like “the website” and “online collections”. Ack! We can do better than that.

I find it very exciting to think that by the time the physical museum is open to the public, it could already have a loyal audience who know the organization, it assets and its goals and values. While there is a pretty straightforward pipeline of events that need to happen to open a museum, rather than doing it in secret and springing it on an unsuspecting world once we’ve polished it, we have the opportunity to use our belief in being radically transparent to build our audience as we build the museum. The point is not to get to opening day, but to build relationships using the content we produce, so that by opening day.

Involving the staff

Coming up with a creative process without the creatives on board is a little weird. Our museum will not be very large, so the people who fill the positions will in large measure be directly responsible for living out the mission. They should have the ability to shape the process themselves, since we know that creative collaborations can be extremely fruitful, and from a management perspective, giving your staff the ability to be partners in shaping the institution is a benefit as tangible as flex time or even money.  So, acknowledging that we need to design process that leaves room for them to alter it, how much should we try to nail down beforehand? It seems to me that once some core positions are filled, that team could draft a plan that was fairly complete.

And let’s not forget the audience

Elizabeth Merrittt at AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums touches on many of the issues we’re grappling with for our new museum.  She problematizes the current continuum of transparency and urges us to “turn a threat into an opportunity, and use the internet to burst out of our opaque walls. Making digitized collections accessible in meaningful, compelling ways makes people aware that we have them, even if they aren’t paying to use them.” She further goes on to make the point about involving the audience in the work, saying museums should, “invite people to help with their work through crowdsourced participation and support their work through crowdfunding.”  The crowdfunding idea is one I want to come back to some other time, but the basic idea of increased audience involvement is very important. This idea was subject of an excellent post by Paula Bray from the Powerhouse called “Ask more questions: bring your audience into the decision-making”  which pushes the idea of radical transparency so far as to suggest that museums could benefit from asking more qustions of their visitors. Bray says,

“We put on exhibitions for our communities and yet there is rarely the opportunity to engage them in the initial decision-making using our collections with the traditional exhibition development model.  What do you want to see here?  Are we putting on exhibitions that you are really interested in?  These questions may be asked buried deep down in an evaluation questionnaire but are they upfront on our home pages?  Would doing this narrow the gap between curators museological interpretation and visitors experiences?”

Creating engaged audiences

Jasper Visser and Jim Richardson posted a lovely diagram that I’m stealing to help us think about engaging our audience. They call it a digital engagement framework, but I’m not convinced that it is unique to the digital realm. What do you think? It’s got a wonderfully cyclical structure which I think is helpful since it always drives you back to the audience.

Also wortyh considering is Bansi Nagji’s and Geoff Tuff’s post on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network called “A Simple Tool You Need to Manage Innovation”.  They posit what they call an “Innovation Ambition Matrix” to help organizations allocate funds among initiatives. What I like about it is that it proposes three different kinds of initiatives that companies undertake; core innovation initiatives (doing what you do better), adjacent innovations (doing slightly different things, or doing them in slightly different places), and transformational initiatives (doing completely new things in new places). They don’t prescribe a particular formula, but advocate for looking at the total innovation agenda, rather than the more usual ad hoc collection of initiatives most organizations undertake. Good stuff.

So what does this mean for us, 24 months from opening? Our museum has obvious assets; the archaeological collection and the archaeological and historical information associated with it. There will be more assets in the future; staff with skills and expertise, a physical presence, and a substantial body of digital assets related to the objects in the collection.  How do we turn these assets into content and activities?

At the two ends of the transparency spectrum I proposed in Part Three we have the collection and the exhibitions. Our collection needs to be catalogued, digitized and contextualized so we can know what we have and how it all relates.  How can we build those systems so that they serve to engage our audiences as well as serve our needs? What other platforms might we use to tell our stories? 

The exhibits devoted to the site need to be developed, designed and built.

How can demonstrate our transparency in making the experiences before the museum opens? 

The inverted pyramid of transparency makes a lot of sense to me because so much about the process of exhibition involves hiding and revealing already. A good exhibition directs the attention, focuses, and expands it, all using a relatively small number of objects and experiences compared to the holdings of an average museum.

Seb Chan and I have talked a number of times about the lack of magic in science museum exhibits. As makers of experiences for museums visitors, we alays want to provoke a sense of wonder, of drama, and magic. Often, though, we limit ourselves in what we consider acceptable. Employing overt theatricality, or too much perceived emphasis on ensuring visitors have an emotional experience runs the risk of being accused of “Disneyfication” which I have certainly run into in the past. Seb pushed back against that,

As fas as ‘Disneyfication’ goes, I think on closer examination there’s a hell of a lot museums would do well to heed from Disney. The criticisms usually have roots in class divides – who goes there and why – rather than any reality. A heavy focus on excellent customer service and the sense of a ‘lifetime customer’ is something every museum should immediately steal from Disneyland.

He’s right, too. It is mainly a classist and elitist reaction to something that is for the hoi polloi. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoi_polloi His post on seeing a production of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More is a must read.

I feel like I can imagine what a more transparent way of dealing with our collection might look like, but the idea of more mysterious kind of exhibition is still elusive.  Sleep No More is a great example. I would add Dialogue in the Dark to that list. In this exhibition, sighted visitors walk through a pitch black exhibition with blind guides, who help them navigate simulated everyday environments and really get a visceral sense of what it is like to be blind. I want more of those outliers.

What examples do you have of immersive experiences that engage in great storytelling that we might consider for our new museum? Don’t limit yourselves to museum experiences.

Related Links 

Center for the Future of Museums, Our Broken Economic Model
http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2012/06/our-broken-economic-model.html

Paula Bray, Ask more questions: bring your audience into the decision-making
http://paulabray.com/2012/06/07/ask-more-questions-bring-your-audience-into-the-decision-making/

Museums and visitor created journeys
http://paulabray.com/2012/05/01/museums-and-visitor-created-journeys/

Jasper Visser and Jim Richardson, Duende: a story about digital strategy [http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2012/05/22/duende-a-story-about-digital-strategy/]

Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff, A Simple Tool You Need to Manage Innovation
http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/05/a_simple_tool_you_need_to_mana.html

Seb Chan, Freshandnew(er), Sleep No More
http://www.freshandnew.org/2012/05/sleep-more-magic-immersive-storytelling/

Additional readings

Harold Jarche has an interesting post on “pull” learning versus “push” learning [http://www.jarche.com/2012/06/pulling-informal-learning/] that might be useful to consdier while thinking about these questions.

Beth Harris and Steven Zucker have an article on the Museums Association (UK) site called “Reimagining museums: Why the Google Art Project is important” [http://www.museumsassociation.org/comment/30052012-why-the-google-art-project-is-important] that is a good summation of a lot of the issues we’ve discussed.

Making a museum from scratch: Part Four

What does the mission of a radically transparent museum look like?

In Part Three of this series, I proposed that our museum be radically transparent, that we organize it around the notion that everything should be transparent unless it needs to be otherwise.  I also proposed that it invert the current pyramid of transparency of museum practice (exhibits & curation=most transparent/collections & conservation =least transparent). Both ideas I find very interesting and a little daunting and many of you seemed to agree.

In this post, I’d like to get a little more deeply into the ideas and concerns people raised about transparency and mission, and propose some ideas that will make up the mission of our imaginary museum, so we can start to work out how it might be put together.

Transparency is a way to accrue public value 

Suse Cairns provided a great quote from Megan Cook’s Delivering Public Value Through Transparency, making clear that transparency is a means to an end.

“By taking a public value perspective, the notion of pursuing transparency is assessed by identifying its value (e.g. social, political, strategic, financial, ideological, etc). The end goal is to accrue public value and transparency is the means to achieve it. That is, transparency is not an end society pursues for its own sake.”

Transparency is a way to demonstrate authenticity

Rob Stein very ably got to the root of why transparency can be a good thing, namely the desire to make our ideals and mission as obvious as possible to our audiences. He said,

“In my mind, transparency is a communications tool that is based on an organization’s commitment and desire for authenticity. That desire for authenticity demands an open disclosure of good, bad, and otherwise unknown facts about how museums work. Transparency then, is a reflection of the integrity and proficiency possessed by the museum at any moment in time.”

Let’s take a moment and unpack what’s inside this desire to be authentic. Authenticity – the state of being exactly who you say you are – is also one level of abstraction from the core of the matter. The reason for a museum to value authenticity is because what a museum does is valuable and important.  The ideals of the institution should make clear its value proposition, and therefore we want to build it in such a way that it’s processes and products are visible and comprehensible to our audiences, so that they too can see how we are delivering on our ideals and being exactly who we say we are; in other wordsauthentic.

Transparency is a way to generate social capital

This puts a heavy burden on the institution. To be radically transparent (or radically authentic, as Rob calls it) is to be willing to have most every decision weighed by our audience against our mission. Who we hire, what we exhibit, what we publish and how – all become evidence anyone can use for or against us.

So why do it? The benefit to our museum is that it helps establish our presence in the reputation economy by generating social capital. As Rob pointed out, “social capital has a direct impact on the viability and financial health of our organizations. Rather than being driven only by supply and demand, social capital is accrued by building honest relationships with a community.”  Or communities, both physical and virtual. Social capital, according to The Saguaro Seminar, refers to the collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other ["norms of reciprocity"]. As institutions that depend on the philanthropy of others for their very survival, accruing social capital is a necessary first step towards viability.

Your mission, should you choose to accept

All of this goes to my initial question, “So what does a mission statement for a 21st century museum look like that takes these ideas to heart and expresses them in a radically transparent way to the staff who carry it out, and to the audiences whom the museum serves?”

Assuming, we want to seek AAM accreditation, our museum’s mission needs to embody the following:

  • The museum asserts its public service role and places education at the center of that role.
    (We exist to provide some public benefit)
  • The museum is committed to public accountability and is transparent in its mission and its operations.
    (We operate in a way that makes it easy to see how we’re fulfilling our mission. There’s that “transparent” word again!) 
  • The museum has a clear understanding of its mission and communicates why it exists and who benefits as a result of its efforts.
    (We live our mission.)
  • All aspects of the museum’s operations are integrated and focused on meeting its mission.
    (We are mission-focused.)
  • The museum’s governing authority and staff think and act strategically to acquire, develop, and allocate resources to advance the mission of the museum.
    (We are in it for the long haul.)

So, with your indulgence, I want to try to say things that would be in our imaginary museum’s mission, without getting into the chore of writing it. I think writing a generic archaeology museum’s mission is not going to be a useful exercise, and there’s a lot of ground I still want to cover.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that our museum’s mission includes (in soaring prose, of course) the following:

  • To preserve, conserve, and display the information recovered from the site (the collection).
  • To interpret the importance of site and time period in the context of world history and the present.
  • To enable scholarship, learning, and new discovery about the topic and period by making use of the collection
  • To be an asset to the community through our programs and practice (measurable because of our openness + transparency)

Back in Part One, I proposed some audiences as a way to understand how we might organize our work.  Particularly around the mission, being clear about our audiences is critical. I propose that our museum has the following three audiences:

1) The global audience
The interested layperson looking for historical/archaeological information;
Online audience, interested in facts and images about topics, and ability to ask questions of staff

The student looking for  looking for historical/archaeological information;
Online audience, interested in facts and images about topics, and ability to ask questions of staff

2) The local audience
The tourist visiting the area;
Onsite and online audience, interested in topic, how it applies to local area. Online audience wants visit-planning info and ability to buy tickets.

The local;
Onsite and online audience, interested in topic, how it applies to them. Online audience wants visit-planning info, especially events at museum, and ability to buy tickets.

3) The professional audience
The archaeologist looking for archaeological information;
Primarily an online audience, looking for information (metadata) as much as object info. Also PDFs of original docs/images. More valuable for research than interpretive texts. Also wants ability to ask questions of staff

The museum professional looking for museum-related information;
Primarily an online audience, looking for object/subject information, as well as process information. Also wants ability to ask questions of staff

It is instructive to note that all of our audiences are online, and only some of them are onsite. How will our museum meet the needs of these audiences? In the next post, I’d like to switch gears a bit and move into planning. If we were getting a museum off the ground, what would we do in the 2-3 years between starting work and opening a physical building?

I look forward to your thoughts.

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Inspirational Readings

Maria Popova posted a lovely piece on the interplay of theory and practice.  “Practice is integrating theory into our systems and living from that place.”

Thought Den posted a good summary of the MuseumNext conference in Barcelona, and I am amazed at the relevance of what went on there with what we’ve been talking about here. Take a peek at “MuseumNext condensed : bright minds in Barca”

“Duende, a story about digital strategy” is a great short post from Jasper Visser on digital strategy.  I especially like the digital engagement framework he and Jim Richardson devised. Expect to see it again.

Beth Harris and Steven Zucker wrote an editorial for the (UK) Museums Association called  “Re-imagining museums: Why the Google Art Project is important for museums.” that hit precisely the same territory we’ve been covering.

In the Harvard Business Review, Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff proposed “A Simple Tool You Need to Manage Innovation” that looks at strategic innovation, which I think is a great way of thinking about the future in the initial planning of our museum, and ensuring that we don’t just write a slightly less-archaic prescription that our successors will chafe against.

David Roth wrote a piece for Forbes that requires little introduction, “Creating a Great Culture — Your Company’s Foundational DNA” 

Which led lastly to this piece from Harvard Business Review, “How to be happier at work.”