Tag Archives: Nina Simon

Childhood as a state of mind, not an age

What a Summer it has been! And how little blogging has happened. Nina Simon has said to me several times that, for her, regular blogging has been a great boon and a huge albatross around her neck. Keeping to a regular schedule is both a terrible mistress and a vital time for reflection. Without that prompt, it’s all too easy to spend no time reflecting at all. And when you fall off the blog wagon, it’s hard to get back on. So, up we go…

Gavin, talking about our Maker Lounge.

Gavin, talking about our Maker Lounge.

Earlier this Summer, my colleague Gavin Andrews and I attended a workshop on the Documentation Studio at Wheelock College—a project/venue that spun out of Harvard’s Making Learning Visible work around using Reggio Emilia-inspired documentation (a variety of media) to support learning and collaboration among educators in schools and informal settings. The goal was to look at Reggio-inspired educational practices, particularly documentation, and see how they might be applied beyond the traditional Reggio target audience of preliterate (0-5) learners.

I’ve long been interested in the Reggio Emilia model. There’s something that rings very true to me about the value of learners documenting their own learning as a way of demonstrating and crystalling that learning. My lovely and talented wife worked for many years with the folks at Project Zero at Harvard to test Reggio-inspired methods at the high school level, and in the projects she and her students undertook I could see parallels to what we were trying to do with museum audiences.

Another interesting reflection of Reggio ideas in museum thinking can be seen in Lori Phillips’ construction of open authority, particularly in the spectrum of open authority, where museums and their audiences co-create participatory interpretations. Rather than having us doing all the creating and them doing the learning, we do it together and both do both. I like the sound of that!
In addition to being the most superbly-facilitated professional development event I’ve ever experienced, it was *full* of brain food. Some of the notes from my notebook give a flavor of the event:

“Documentation is not a practice so much as a mindset – Documentation ≠ what happened. It’s your point of view of what happened.”

“Documentation is more about communication than expression.”

“How could visitors leave their own document/descripiton of their process, plus a protocol for documentation? Can it extend beyond their visit? How can they take it home/school?”

“What is the role of  the curator in this kind of interaction space?”

“How do you make documentation help w collaborative practice beyond the visit?”

Heady, tough stuff… At the end of a very fruitful half day of dicsussion and sharing with school teachers and museum educators who work with children, I asked the question I’d been aching to ask all day, “How does all this apply when your audience is not just children, but everyone?” Of course, there was no easy answer, but as I thought more about it, it occured to me that I defined childhod in my mind as a temporary state, and one that, once passed, was inaccessible thereafter. You either were a child or were not, and therefore things geared for children were somehow distinct from things designed for the rest of us. Something about this bugged me, since I knew that everyone in the room had once been a child. And it spawned a question in my mind.

What if you looked at childhood as a state of mind? 

One thing that separates adults from children is that children have a hard time imagining what it must be like to be an adult, whereas adults can remember what it was like when they were children. Childhood is, to some extent, available to us all. I’m sure all us former children can recall bits of what it was like when the world was newer and more mysterious, and we constantly encountered new things. So, my question to you, dear friends and colleagues is this: Could we as designers of learning experiences figure out ways to bring that state of being to the forefront and turn all our audience into children-learners? What might that look like? Any examples of people doing it already?

Telling Stories about Storytelling @ AAM 2014

One of the highlights of my AAM 2014 experience (and the source of the most dread), was the storytelling panel that Seattle-based exhibit planner Judy Rand and I organized. AAM included a “storytelling” format this year in the call for proposals, and we thought it’d be interesting to put together a session that wasn’t the usual “people sitting behind a table talking while the slides went by” kind of presentation. Judy suggested we explore the power of storytelling based on the model of The Moth Radio Hour. I suggested the theme of “The thing I wished they’d told me when I started in museums” and we were off!
A big room can still feel like a stage with a little light control, oval seating... and a rug and plant.

A big room can still feel like a stage with a little light control, oval seating… and a rug and plant.

Over the next few months, we expanded our roster of speakers to include Catherine Hughes, Director of Interpretation at the Connor Prairie Museum and Nina Simon, the Executive Director from the Museum of Art and Science in Santa Cruz. Catherine’s an actress, Nina’s a former slam poet, and we knew they’d rise to the challenge of telling compelling stories within pretty rigid time limits. Judy and I, both more writers than speakers, had more to worry about. Coming up with a way to tell a compelling story is very different than writing a compelling story. Writing for the ear is, for me, much harder than writing for the eye. I don’t think I ever spent as much time practicing a conference presentation, cutting and tightening, as I did for the eight minutes I was alone in front of a room full of my peers telling my story.
The Storytellers: Nina, Judy, Ed, and Catherine

The Storytellers: Nina, Judy, Ed, and Catherine

In the end, depsite the angst it caused me, it was a great session. The stories we heard were amazing. Judy told us of her intense shyness in public and of the revelation of taking a personality test and finding out that it classified her a “people person.” Catherine described her love of museum work as an addiction and drew out a number of very funny, if slightly disturbing, analogies between her career path and an addict’s. Trust me, it was good. Nina told the story of her struggles as a new museum director and what it means to really be an activist instead of just talking about it.
Judy sharing her story with the audience.

Judy sharing her story with the audience.

When we asked the 200-odd people in the room to pair up and tell each other a 2-minute story, the noise level was deafening. Instead of having the usual question and answer session at the end, we invited audience members to come and share their stories with the audience. It was great.  Here are the handouts we made:

Our Storytelling Resources handout

Our 2-minute storytelling activity handout

I wrote about my own story over at PEM’s blog, and that prompted me to get this recollection down, and to include Judy’s and Catherine’s stories as well, in future posts.

Now back to editing CODE|WORDS essays and trying to write my own!

Tilting at Windmills, Part Three

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

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

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

image by Flickr user Sergey Meniailenko
CC-BY-2.0

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

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

Damn those people with their phones!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photography = ruin.

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

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

Hooray for pictures!

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

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

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

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

Photography = hooray!

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

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

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

Visitor photography = living up the mission to share culture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It disrupts the experience of others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It promotes your institution
Yup.

Access is part of your mission
Yup.

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three: Why do people take pictures in museums

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

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

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

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

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

Photos as affiliation and as digital souvenirs

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

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

Tilting at Windmills, Part Two

Experience and Participation 

CC BY-NC-SA image by Flickr user barnoid

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

When interpretation feels like interference

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

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

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

What does authority look like nowadays? 

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

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

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

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

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

visitor participation = the complete overthrow of traditional authority. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital skills and staff development

Making a museum from scratch: Part Seven
After my long Australian interlude, I bet you thought I’d given up on my little thought experiment. But, no! For better or worse, it still resonates with me, and I keep encountering people and examples and issues that bear on it. So, without further ado…

Making a “born digital” organization now
The posts on making our imaginary museum thus far have focused on the organization, but as Mary Case pointed out in Part Six, a “born digital” museum (one that is organized from the ground up to take advantage of digital technologies and the Internet to carry out its mission) will need a staff that is able to come to work every day and live out the mission of a radically transparent organization, with all the uncertainty that any new workflow embodies. These people will also have to incorporate engagement and outreach activities that are now usually relegated to specialists. The who and the how of hiring and growing a staff who are able to work with these technologies, engage with the audience, and keep their skill sets fresh in the face of the day-to-day realities of getting work done is an issue that the field as a whole hasn’t made much headway in tackling. Oonagh Murphy tweeted as much not too long ago that the biggest issue in our field is a digital skills shortage in the cultural sector. This theme is amplified by survey data, too. In the New Media Consortium’s report, “The Technology Outlook for STEM+ Education 2012-2017”, which will be released next week, two of their top three challenges for STEM+ education (and museums by extension) are:

  • Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.
  • The demand for personalized learning is not adequately supported by current technology or practices.

Both of these I see being among the biggest challenges in the museum sector as a whole right now.  Not only is digital literacy becoming ever more important, but the capacity for museum professionals to adequately increase their literacy is woefully inadequate.

Gretchen Jennings has started a series of posts on the challenges facing museum educators in the 21st century, particularly in regards to our relationship with formal education. You’ll recognize many of the challenges she lays out,

“In order to integrate into exhibitions and other museum offerings the kind of intrinsic, joyful, and self-motivated engagement that Garcia extols, educators are going to have to create interpretive plans, become experts in current learning theory as it relates to participatory experiences, understand and use social media effectively, and gain expertise in communicating effectively the links between design and interpretation.  Educators need to devote at least as much time to honing these skills as they do on activities that support the schools.  And, as Garcia states, all of us need to become much more articulate in communicating what makes our museums unique and important in their own right in the spectrum of experiences we call education.”

Spend as much time in professional development and outreach as in supporting  formal Ed.? That’s a tall order, but it’s one I completely agree with.

One common solution I hear to the skills gap is that this is a generational problem and once the “digital natives” come into their own throughout the workplace, most of our problems will cease to exist because they “get” digital media, having grown up with it. The trouble with that narrative, of course, is it’s overly simplistic, and it serves to turn what I see as an attitudinal issue into a generational one. Even the bright young things who get all of 2012’s technology don’t necessarily have the skills for 2015’s technologies or 2020’s. Without reshaping the workplace to account for that ongoing professional development need, hiring the rising generation is just kicking the can down the road a few years.

And it fails to account for innovations currently underway. MONA is groundbreaking on several levels. The Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz? They’re trying very different models and they’re doing it now, not someday in the future. I am reminded of Serge Bramly’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, where he imagines the artist telling us, “Open your eyes. You have only to see things clearly to understand.” One thing this experiment has shown me is that the digital literacy issue not an insurmountable problem. It’s just a hard one.

So what are some ways our museum might differ from current ones?

Engagement is important enough to be everybody’s job
The first thing that popped into my head as I was considering how our museum might differ from traditional museums were the outreach activities that such a museum would conduct in a more evenly distributed way than we currently do. Jasper Visser wrote a brilliant post a few months back that unpacks ideas of engagement and outreach that rally speak to me. I’ll paraphrase him and recommend you read the whole post yourselves.

“There’s a subtle but important different between providing good engaging online content and actually reaching people with it.

Engagement is about designing projects that turn occasional passers-by into enthusiasts willing to go that extra mile for you. Engagement is done, usually, within the safety of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Outreach is about designing strategies that reach people wholly unknown to you and connect them with your institution. Outreach increases the number of people you can later engage. Outreach is done, usually, outside of the comfort zone of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Every successful digital strategy combines engagement and outreach activities. Outreach connects with people and invites them to come by, and engagement turns them into enthusiasts. Both require different methodologies, different tools and especially a different mindset, though.”

“If you build, they will come.” is not a successful engagement strategy, though it does seem to motivate a lot of museum online efforts. That audience focus is the crucial ingredient that takes our scholarship and authority and unites them with people. Nina Simon‘s comment on the post is illustrative, and provides field data as well.

“When my museum started creating unusual events–new forms of engagement–we knew that we were woefully lacking in the ability to do effective outreach around these projects… So for the first year, we had a rule: every new program had to have a partner organization that was strictly about outreach. We would partner with media outlets, social groups, and advocacy groups to ensure that while we were busy developing terrific programming, they were busy reaching out to their people to get them to come… It’s a good model for us as a small institution with no marketing budget to speak of.”

There’s a pretty easy way to overcome the first hurdle in doing anything new; we can build it, but will anybody come? For an institution committed to radical transparency, finding the right outreach partners should be a byproduct of just doing the day’s work, right? If you’re out there in the digital weeds, you’re much more likely to bump into opportunities.

Well before any programming can happen in the space, our engagement and outreach efforts should be an integral part of the daily workflow.  Last year, I asked a question about dealing with cognitive loads, and got four posts worth of fascinating responses from the field. In the fourth part, people I think very highly of shared their strategies for keeping abreast of developments in the field. All of them involved making learning part of the day, not a “when you have free time” activity, but a required part of the workday. And these people aren’t exactly slackers.

Keeping up to date
It seems vital that everybody be hired with the clear expectation that they are going to have to put themselves “out there” as part of working at this museum. It’s not an “additional duty”, engagement and outreach are core competencies. I see a triangle of dimensions of people’s work at our museum, there is their functional dimension (collections, web development, educator, office mgr…), their communication dimension (how are they communicating their work to the audiences) and their professional dimension (how is what they’re doing being communicated to the profession and how are they demonstrating their understanding of the current state of the art in their work). It’s a very different kind of job; one third doing, one third interacting with our communities, and one third learning/teaching. I think it could work, though. It’s not hard, it just takes commitment.

Staff would have to get used to thinking about openness, transparency and engaging with our audience right from Day One. Since this is such a radically different model than most institutions have, it would take repetition to inculcate people with these new ways of working. New staff could be introduced as they’re hired, and even provide their own short bios, as a way of personalizing the institution and preparing them for the joys of audience engagement, both physical and digital. This is not to say that every person on staff has to be an überblogger, but in the interest of radical transparency, we would subvert the current paradigm and make the default expectation be that you engage with the public unless there’s some reason for you not to. It would be nice to follow the lead of the Medical Museion in Denmark, where all staff are encouraged to contribute to the blog, and the main website is actually set up as a conversation. Their basic idea is that all staff have something of interest to someone.

Some possible examples of what this engagement might look like, courtesy of Suse Cairns:

  • A weekly blog post/video, talking about has happened/been discussed through the week? Met with the architects? Great – here are some of the issues we’re trying to grapple with when dealing with our old building. We have a space that isn’t very wifi friendly, so here are some of the solutions we’re investigating.
  • Capture the transformation of the space, and the process. Let people see the museum being built from the inside out, even as it happens.
  • Introduce people to key objects in the collection well before they can see them in the flesh, and discuss their significance, by bringing them into the colelction and by bringing the collection out in to the world.
  • Document (and make available those docs where appropriate) issues around preserving the collection as it is moved from its former home. Have you ever seen those shows about moving old houses from one side of the country to another? They are pretty interesting. No reason why moving a museum collection filled with potentially damageable stuff shouldn’t also be compelling for people to learn about/watch if the way it’s packaged is managed well.

Being transparent also becomes then an ongoing “pitch” for the institution. Its core beliefs, and the place it will fill within its communities (academic, local, professional) become evident by the actions of the staff, not just by a mission statement.

What successful engagement strategies have you encountered in your travels, or longed to see someone try?

 

Related Links:

Thinking About Museums: Making a Museum from Scratch: Part Six

http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/making-a-museum-from-scratch-part-six/

The New Media Consortium’s report, “The Technology Outlook for STEM+ Education 2012-2017”

http://www.nmc.org/

Museum Commons: Museum Educators-What Next?

http://museumcommons.blogspot.com/2012/09/museum-educators-what-next.html

The Museum of Old & New Art

http://www.mona.net.au/

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
http://www.santacruzmah.org/

The Museum of the Future: Engagement and outreach
http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2012/04/09/engagement-and-outreach/

Thinking About Museums: Dealing with your cognitive load

http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/dealing-with-your-cognitive-load/

Medical Museion

http://www.museion.ku.dk/

Making a museum from scratch: Part Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what might we perform?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15. Remember that visitors ultimately make their own exhibitions

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

Constructivists unite!

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

Word.

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

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

What kind of genius informs your museum’s work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Related Links

The Stedelijk Museum

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

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

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

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

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

A manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions

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

The Trickster Museum

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

MuseTrain: We have some suggestions…

http://www.musetrain.org/

Walker Art Center

http://www.walkerart.org/

Bumpy rides and dead-end streets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making a museum from scratch: Part three

The previous post in this series generated some really stimulating comments that have helped crystalize a lot ideas that have been swirling around in my head for the past month or so.  A lot of your feedback and questioning has centered around being clear about goals, and questioning starting assumptions.  This is what I had hoped might happen, but I’m still profoundly grateful to all of you who have shared your wisdom thus far. I’d like to use this post to answer some comments from Part Two, synthesize them into some guiding principles, and to propose a model of radical transparency as an organizing scheme for our new museum, both intellectually and physically.

From the first post in the series, a number of commenters have probed at the idea that a collection of objects even needs to be a museum, with some fascinating alternatives proposed.  For the purpose of this experiment, I’m going to say that we’ve decided that our collection of objects is of sufficient interest to warrant a home of their own rather than being dispersed among existing collections. Let’s also say that after careful deliberation, it’s been decided that the site the collection represents is important enough to the local population to warrant starting an institution devoted to studying the collection, and telling the stories of the people represented by the objects in the collection. Let’s also assume for now that we don’t have any human remains to deal with, since that’s “a whole ‘nother kettle of fish” as they say round here. We have enough problems to solve already.

The comments have highlighted for me is what lies at the center of the soul of the museum endeavor; the two practices of collecting and displaying of objects, and the constructing of stories using objects and experiences.

The overlapping nature of museums and collections
Mia asked a question about the distinction between a museum and a collection. “Does a museum (as a venue, not as an organisation) always imply the display of a sub-set of a collection? And does it always have interpretation about those objects, either individually or as sets?” I think the answer to both of her questions is, “Yes.”

Another way to frame this is to juxtapose the processes that result in collections and museums. Curation is the act of acquiring, assembling, researching and cataloguing objects for a collection. Interpretation is the act of providing information about ideas using objects from the collection.  So let’s dig a little further into the collection part of our museum.

Reflect the process behind the collection
Sheila brought up an important point that could have a transformative effect on how the institution might physically acknowledge its creation. If we were to shape the museum around the excavation process, from discovery, to interpretation, to synthesis, the collection could also tell the story of the people who found and care for the collection.

Make the collection accessible
Rob insisted that online collections needed to be thoguht of as museum experiences, with as much potnetial to engage and teach, if only they were better, which echoed some of Mia’s concerns about her experiences working with large archaeological collections and the paucity of (pertinent) information they contain.

Ashley wondered about creating transparency in the collection by doing a Google Museum street view type of experience and creating the possibility of “walking” through the vaults, being able to click into and explore the collection virtually. A digital walk-through experience would create much more transparency than the standard online cataloging system. Seb, ever the boundary-pusher, proposed using robots for storage tours!

Involve the community from the start
One of our underlying assumptions will be that the collection has relevance to the local community. Mimi urged us to not only make sure that the collection is digitized and made accessible online, but that there is also a physical space in the community, or on or near the excavation site, to house and interpret artifacts. The community connection needs to occur in both physical and digital realms. Sheila suggested getting the collections information online as soon as possible in the process in order to gain an audience in advance of the physical opening, and to start a relatinship with them that might inform the design and building process of the physical struture and interpretation. Corey, who is actually engaged in the process of making a museum from scratch, underscored how media and technology can be great facilitators. Linda wondered how we could build a museum that could “have objects with real meaning to our communities in places where they can see, understand, learn and connect with them?”

Move online values into the real world
A theme of the comments was making things visible; objects, processes, and people.  Suse proposed a continuum of transparency which would move conservation and research practices out of the basement and into open or public environments. She proposed turning the museum inside out, exposing that which is usually hidden. It’s an interesting transposition into the physical space of the ideas of openness we talk about online. Awhile back, Koven Smith asked, “What if a museum’s overall practice were built outwards from its technology efforts, rather than the other way around?” Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog and her subsequent work on participatory experiences draws heavily on Web2.0 ideas.

So what are the different values of the web (transparency? openness? customisable experiences?) that we could apply to a museum being made from scratch? Corey proposed several; digital technologies “facilitate personalization and dialogic interaction (read: engagement), and be cost effective on practical levels of experience design – immersive, emotive, reflective, interactive, diverse, and personal (onsite and for remote audiences concurrently).”  Add to this Seth Godin “The quickest way to get things done and make change. Don’t demand authority. Eagerly take responsibility. Relentlessly give credit.” Lastly, throw in some of the ideas Koven Smith proposed at MuseumNext for “the Kinetic Museum”; communication as the core responsibility, collections managed in ways to leverage digital technologies, not to compete with or ignore them. Go scope out the whole thread of #kinmuse tweets for more.

Radical Transparency
The idea of a continuum of transparency also appeals greatly to me as an organizing scheme, particularly if we invert the current pyramid of transparency. What would a museum look like where the collections and research processes were visible and exhibitions were tucked away and designed to promote the kinds of immersion and magic Seb Chan wished for in “On Sleep No More, magic and immersive storytelling.”

A few years ago, I attended an AAM/NAME workshop called the Creativity and Collaboration Retreat. The organizers did a great job of finding outside instigators to provoke attendees and stimulate new kinds of thinking.  One of them was Harley Dubois from Burning Man, who introduced me to radical inclusion. One of the underlying philosophies of Burning Man is that everyone is included in the work of Burning Man, from artmaking to keeping the community running unless they’ve demonstrated a reason they shouldn’t be. This is a complete inversion of how things work in what Burners call “the default world,” where you have demonstrate that you’re qualified to do something. What if our museum were founded with a version of a philosophy of radical transparency underpinning everything it did? If instead of asking, “Should we publish this information?” our default question was “Is there some reason not to publish this information?” How might this help us embody the qualities touched on above?

The idea of a radically transparent museum is a little mind-boggling to me. I work at a museum that doesn’t even make staff phone numbers accessible. While that might cut down on unwanted sales calls, it also cuts down on all calls. If you don’t know me already, you’ll have to get through a gatekeeper (switchboard operator) to get my phone number. What would a radically transparent museum look like? Labels that tell you who wrote them? Objects whose whole histories are freely available to visitors? Information that both draws from outside sources and leads visitors outside the walls of the museum? Workspaces that are visible unless they need not to be?

What would a radically transparent museum look like to you?