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

The Collection Wall at Gallery One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ideas behind Gallery One

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

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

Create a nexus of interpretation, learning, and audience development

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

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

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

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

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

The pieces that comprise Gallery One

The Beacon

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

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

Studio Play

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

Drawing stations with different activities. Appealing, no?

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

Pretend play tents and stage

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

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

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

The Lenses

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

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

Go, Marco!

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

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

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

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

A sample screen from one of the Lenses.

Still Life, by Picasso

Still Life, Remixed by Ed Rodley

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Review: The National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) in New York City

The National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) in New York City

The Entrance to MoMath.

The Entrance to MoMath.

These impressions are based on a quick visit on a crowded Friday afternoon during a school holiday two weeks after the grand opening of the institution.  So bear that in mind as you read on and give MoMath some mad props for trying to tackle mathematics in an interactive science center format. They do a great job of portraying mathematics as colorful, surprising, and capable of both producing beautiful results and having a deeply beautiful order.  I’ll definitely be going back after they’ve had a chance to hit their stride…

 No front-of-house, just house

When you enter MoMath, you’re confronted with a row of machines vending the badges that visitors have to wear in the museum. No staff, no elaborate instructions, just machines that dispense these.

MoMath doesn't give you tickets. You get a badge.  Makes it seem like everybody works there...

MoMath doesn’t give you tickets. You get a badge. Makes it seem like everybody works there…

Surprisingly, they worked really well. We got our badges in short order and, I have to say, I was pretty impressed with how smoothly it all worked. The lines moved quickly, and people got about their visiting with minimal fuss.  It is a nice solution to the dilemma of collecting admissions without having to resort to hiring typically low-paid staff to be both ambassadors and money collectors.  It’s a job I held myself once, and it’s often not fun.  I’m glad to see institutions trying to find ways to provide service without doing it the way it’s always been done.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had recently with a director who was getting rid of the task setting up projectors for meetings as a someone’s job. I professed amazement, and I think I even said “Then who’ll set up the projectors?” The reply, of course was that staff would have to learn how to set up their own projectors. Having a specialist technician who did this job was an obsolete task in the same way that organizations used to have highly-trained specialist typists, who learned how to use expensive electric typewriters and were able to type letters quickly.  Now, everybody is expected to type their own dang letters, and in some organizations they have to figure out which end of the plug goes into the projector. Progress occurs in strange ways.

A square-wheeled bicycle that rolls smoothly. A crowd pleaser to be sure!

A square-wheeled bicycle that rolls smoothly. A crowd pleaser to be sure!

MoMath and digital media

Barry Joseph at AMNH was at MoMath a week before us and wrote a nice review focusing on their use of digital media. It’s worth reading.   I was less taken with their overall strategy for using digital media to carry all the interpretive content, though I am very excited to see how well some of their strategies work out.

Playing with inclined planes. Galileo would be proud.

Playing with inclined planes. Galileo would be proud.

Where’s the math?

MoMath has obviously made the decision not to provide interpretive content at the exhibits, just minimal instructions. If you want to get the meat of the educational content, you have to go to a separate kiosk, several of which are scattered around the exhibit halls.  Sometimes, just figuring out which exhibit went with the content on the screen was difficult. “Is this the Coaster Roller? No it’s that car thingie over there.” Doubling and tripling up of exhibits covered in each kiosk certainly cuts down on screen clutter, but I felt that as a strategy, combined with too-clever titles, it introduced too much of an obstacle to getting at the content I sought. I thought, too, that the separating of the experiential (doing the interactive) from the educational (using the kiosk) seemed like a way to both please visitors who were already mathematically-inclined, while allowing those weren’t to skip having to ingest any icky math.

A typical information screen.

A typical information screen.

Choose your level

My favorite part of our visit was seeing the concept of customizable digital content implemented at a decent scale. And done with no fanfare, too. I’ve listened to people talk about digital labels for years, decades, even. MoMath has developed a scheme that provides visitors with three levels of content and lets them switch on the fly seamlessly.

Close up of the level selector.

Close up of the level selector.

That’s it. At the top right of each screen there’s icons of three fractal triangles corresponding to the levels of content available. They seem to always default to basic, but you’re never more than a press away from changing it.  I loved it, but found that the actual implementation was spotty. Some labels had identical text at progressively smaller type sizes. Hopefully they’ll flesh it out as time goes on.

Where’s the math?

A projection that uses an image of your body to make a fractal display.

A projection that uses an image of your body to make a fractal display.

A multi person math maze.

A multi person math maze.

Despite liking the idea of presenting customized digital labels, one concern I had as we muscled our way through the happy vacation crowds was the dearth of real math available as part of doing the activities. I knew enough to be able to see the connections between what people were doing and mathematics, but I wonder how much new math most of the visitors were acquiring.  This disconnect between experience design and informal education is one I’m seeing a lot of these days and it’s a little disheartening. It’s engaging, sure, but is it reaching the ostenisble audience? We’re actually looking at a possible research project to study what kinds of engagement lead to long-term knowledge gains.

An out of order sign, I think. It's hard to tell sometimes. The clever writing's a bit over the top.

An out of order sign, I think. It’s hard to tell sometimes. The clever writing’s a bit over the top.

I’m past clever signs, in case you hadn’t noticed. This out of order sign is a classic example of being clever at the expense of saying what you mean. I watched two different groups of visitors try to use the exhibit these signs were attached to because the signs don’t actually tell you anything useful, like “Don’t push the button because nothing’s gonna happen”.  I’ve written about my views on writing before. Museum writing shouldn’t be about demonstrating one’s cleverness. It should be clear as glass.

The exhibit titles, too I found really unhelpful. “Mathenaeum”? What happens in there? No idea… The point of an exhibit title is to allow someone to decide that they want to approach an exhibit closely enough to maybe use it.  Opaques titles may draw in some curious passersby, but they’ll turn away just as many. MoMath was full of those. If you knew a fair bit about math, then the plays on words could be amusing. If you didn’t, then they didn’t make it any easier to figure out what those exhibits were about.

So there you have it. It was a quick visit at a busy time in a brand new place that is taking on a steep challenge. And judging from the audience, they’re on a path with promise. Go see for yourself next time you’re in NYC.

Next up: Sleep No More!