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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!

Australia: MONA’s “The O” post-visit website

The “O” Part Two
This is the last post on my recent visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. The first post dealt with my overall impressions of this groundbreaking private museum. The second post covered the “O”, the customized iPod Touch-based guide given to each visitor to MONA. This post will specifically address the post-visit experience – what happens when you get home to find an email from MONA.

Logging in

What you see when you go to the MONA site.

MONA’s website is a bit of a tease. You can’t really get much about the MONA experience from looking at the site. They taken Koven Smith’s advice to heart and haven’t made another Conestoga Wagon for the 21st century. Their site has a very unusual purpose and audience. It exists to allow you to recall your visit to MONA in great detail. If you haven’t been, the site will be of little use to you. And the looping soundtrack might make you cranky. The merits and problems associated with this exclusivity are certainly worthy of discussion, but I found it a bit refreshing that they had chosen their audience, and it wasn’t the usual “everyone who might be interested in our collecting area, plus more people every year”  audience. Their website is not an analogue to the physical structure – it is something completely different. It’s a record of your relationship with MONA.

Visualizing a visit

Your visit presented to you in map form.

When you input the email address you entered when you got the device, you are confronted with this screen (as long as you’re not looking at it on an iDevice, hence the delay in me getting round to it) which presents you with a wireframe map of MONA, a list of the visits you’ve made, and the ability to toggle between looking at the works you saw on that visit, and those you didn’t.

The map
After reading Seb’s review, I was really keen to see the map. From a content creator’s standpoint, the ability to know what objects people were looking at, and to aggregate those data to make real heatmaps of where people were going in the museum sounded like Nirvana. From a visitor standpoint, I wanted to see how well it recalled my visit to me, after a period of weeks.  When we were at MONA, I was a bit taken aback to find they weren’t using the data they were collecting much. It’s still early days for them I suppose, but if I were there, I’d be crawling all over those data, just to see what I could learn from them.

From a visitor standpoint, I found it worked really well. The map is rotatable (though not zoomable) and the dots each represent an artwork you called up on the O. They are timestamped, so you can playback your visit and watch how you moved through the space. Given how lost I felt in MONA, it was a surprise to see how regular the floorplan is. Clicking on any dot, brings up the icon of the artwork and title, plus all it’s O content. I like the way you can build a mental model of your visit with pretty high fidelity. The use of images was helpful, since I seem to have trouble recalling titles from this visit. It might have something to do with there being no label in my visual memory of the artworks. I dunno… Always good to have pictures. I wish they led to bigger ones. One of my biggest disappointments in using the site was not being able to see big, clear images of the art. But more on that later.

 

Selecting an artwork you studied.

The promise of more
I loved the “Filters” and “Your tours” features of the site, because they both encourage you to think about having a relationship with MONA that lasts longer than one visit. The Filters buttons, presents you with either the list of everything you accessed during your visit (the default) or the list of everything you didn’t access. After reliving my tour in some depth, I found myself going back to see the things I didn’t look at, and thinking “Next time I’m at MONA, I want to…” The same with “Your tours”. It’s not “Your tour”. That use of the plural is the best invitation I’ve seen in a museum webiste. It invites without asking. I could easily imagine a long list of dates I’d been to MONA and imagine comparing my visits over time, what objects I kept going back to, and so on.

Brilliant thus far. But what about the content? What goodies are waiting for me?

Drilling down

I had no idea what kind of content awaited me when I clicked on an object. When I selected one, I got familiar text, and the same choices I’d had on my O. In the case of Candle Describing a Sphere, a piece that had Jen and me riveted, there was an Art Wank, and Audio. No larger image, no different content. Just what was on the O, without even the voting results to tell me how many other visitors loved or hated this piece. I tried a few other pieces and sure enough, all you can get is what you get in the museum.

The content from the O on that object.

The lack of unique content on the website is the O’s greatest lack as far as I’m concerned. Decent images is a close second. At first I was taken aback, but I understand the realities of trying to get something done in time for opening and the need to scope a project appropriately, even if it means launching without all the bells and whistles it might have. And when I look at what MONA have done with the app and the website, they’ve done a lot. I hope they do more in the next version, but what’s there is pretty impressive when you step back and compare it with what a visitor to any other museum on Earth will get at the end of their visit.

I can tell you a lot about what I looked at while in MONA, and I already feel like I need to go back. Those reasons are enough to win them some praise from the rest of us. I can’t wait to see what improvements they make on the system.

Australia: MONA’s “The O” mobile guide

The “O”
This is the second post on my recent visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. The first post dealt with my overall impressions of this groundbreaking private museum. This post will specifically address the customized iPod Touch-based guide given to each visitor to MONA.

Perhaps separating the O from it’s setting is a mistake, but I kept switching back and forth while trying to describe my visitor experience, so I opted to give the O it’s own post. You’ll have to judge for yourself whether it was a wise idea.

Giving it away
The O comes with your admission to MONA, along with pretty sweet headphones which feature retractable cables! Why haven’t I seen these before? There goes one of my pet peeves; cable tangle. I was very impressed with the ease with which the front of house staff dispensed units, got you oriented, and sent you off. Perhaps its a sign of the changing times that handheld devices aren’t as big a deal as they once were. I think it’s also a sign of how well thought-out MONA’s visitor services are. Seb already mentioned the signage in his review of the O. I had a similar experience. Even my lovely and talented wife Jennifer, who tends to approach touch screens as though she’s poking a venomous animal got hers going on the first attempt. The whole encounter didn’t feel like it took any extra time on top of getting our tickets and orientation.

Obviously, MONA wouldn’t work without the O, so bundling the cost in the admission and making it universally distributed makes sense. I wish more institutions would take the same plunge. In my museum career, I’ve worked on my share of audio and multimedia tours for exhibitions. And I can confidently state that as a content creator, nothing is as soul-crushing as developing content that you know 80-90 percent of your potential audience will never encounter, because it’s stuck on a device you have to pay extra for on top of museum admission, and probably special exhibition admission, too. I understand the reasons behind it, but that doesn’t make it suck any less when you’re on deadline trying to make an engaging, unique experience for the visitors. Knowing that all visitors to the museum at least have access to all the content on the O resonated deeply with me. This same dynamic applies to a lot of mobile content. Give it away if you can. Charge for it only if you can clearly make your value proposition to your audience.

This will not be a technical review, since I haven’t talked to any of the technical staff about the guts of the device. Come to MCN2012 in Seattle if you want to get the skinny from the creators. I was interested in how the device shaped my visit, and focused on that. For other reviews, check out Nancy Proctor’s and Seb Chan’s.

Having to work to get information changed the way I interacted
I have a confession to make. Most art museum object labels make me nuts. I think it’s telling that they are referred to in in the field as “tombstone” labels, because I think for many visitors, tombstone labels are where their interest in an object goes to die. Is the general public interested in the accession number? Does everyone really have to know whose bequest funded the purchase of every single piece in the entire museum? And nothing else? Aiya! Don’t get me wrong, I use accession numbers all the time in my work, and I take a certain geeky pleasure in parsing a well-formed one. I also owe my livelihood to funders and am endlessly grateful to them for their philanthropy. I just think that even a one sentence description of an object would be more useful to more visitors than all the accession # and donor/funder credits on Earth. So I was predisposed to think the O might be another way worth considering.

Once in the museum and confronted with a gallery full of objects, I found myself doing the “Where should I go?” visual scan, and without the comfort of directional signage and labels it was hard to get started. As a learner, I guess am one of those “advanced organizer” types. I want to have a map in front of me, and be able to see where I am and where I can go. Not having those cues (I did have a map in my pocket) was a bit unsettling. I wanted to be told “Start here!” In the end, I chose an Egyptian relief and went up to it and started looking at it. In hindsight, it was a “safe” choice for me, since I’ve been to Egypt, done Egyptian exhibitions before and felt able to look at the object cold without feeling the way I often feel when looking at contemporary art – confused and unsure.

I used my O to find out what the object was, tried out the summary and the “curator’s wank”, which is what the longer descriptive text are called. I had some trouble with the title, especially after it seemed clear that many of them were written by women, but the actually wanks themselves were pretty straight-up, curatorial texts by and large. About the only major difference I found was that they tended to have more personality to them and were full of personal references that gave me sense of the MONA curators that I don’t usually get at other art museums. Otherwise, they weren’t crazy and way out. That was a bit of a shocker.

Every object has a Love and a Hate button and I was eager to see what this led to, so I loved my stele, whereupon I was told that X other visitors had loved it, too. And that was it. No infographics, or breakdowns on who else in the room loved that object. Just an acknowledgment and a fact. I was a bit surprised, even having read the reviews. I guess I was expecting the Love/Hate act to be more … declarative? … public? I dunno. As I progressed through the museum, though, I found myself asking the question of an object “Do I love this? Do I hate this? How does this object make me feel?” That is not the way I usually behave in an art museum, and it felt like a useful scaffold to me as an art learner to have to go through that exercise. By the end of the visit, though, I know I was loving and hating things because I wanted to remember them, and having only those two choices was limiting to me. I really, really, really wanted a “This object doesn’t speak to me” or “Meh.” button. Maybe in v2?

As I tried other objects and found other content on the O, I listened to audio interviews with artists. Some were interesting and very raw, some of them waffled around and could’ve done with some tighter editing and interviewing. About the only content that surprised me on the O were the songs that were selected to accompany some pieces, including some that were commissioned to be “about” pieces in the collection. I loved the inclusion of poetry that somebody (the curators? Walsh?) thought appropriate. The long and the short of it, though, was that the O didn’t really usurp my experience of looking at the art, which is always the danger with interpretive media. If the interpretation is more engaging than the object, then you wind up with a room full of people looking down at their screens instead of looking around.

Perhaps the most defining moment of our visit came when we got to the entrance of the current special exhibition, “Theatre of the World”. Having dutifully used her O throughout the visit, Jennifer proudly and loudly announced she was turning hers off and not going to use it. She had gotten what the O could provide her, tried it enough, and was ready to fly solo. Being a Star Wars guy, I of course had a momentary image of “Luke, you’ve switched off your targeting computer! What’s wrong?” “Nothing. I’m alright.” She was going in to see what was there, and nothing else. That would be impossible in any other art museum on Earth because the labels would be there, calling out to be read. Being able to choose the level of interpretation she wanted led her to choose none. And that was her favorite part of her visit.

I also found myself using the device less and less frequently as I went along, and “loving” and “hating” things less often as I grew accustomed to what awaited me. I could have the internal conversation without the external act of choosing. I even found myself asking objects, “Do I like you enough to want to bother to find out more?” and deciding the answer was no fairly often. And that freedom to choose what I wanted to engage with and how deeply I wanted to engage with it had everything to do with the information residing in the O and not on the wall. That’s what a successful scaffold is supposed to do, isn’t it? Be useful until you don’t need it and then get out of the way.

It’s not a wayfinding aid
The O didn’t really help me find my way around MONA. This is not a surprise since MONA’s not really built to be navigable in the traditional “Where’s the Impressionists gallery” sense. Even though the device has a pretty good sense of where you are in the building, thanks to a proprietary wayfinding system, the O instead presents you with a thumbnail list of the works that are within a certain radius of your current location. It doesn’t seem to update it’s location on the fly. There’s a big “What’s Nearby?” button on screen. Pressing that pulls up images of nearby works. The system worked remarkably well. Given the nature of the building with its solid stone walls, I can only imagine what kind of brute force method was used to provide (nearly) blanket coverage of the museum. I managed to get my O lost a couple of times, but each time I moved into an adjacent space, the device managed to reorient itself. Really impressive. I was expecting most of my irritation with the device to revolve around location issues, and that wasn’t the case.

My wife and I quickly wound up going on separate paths, partly because I was stopping to photograph everything in sight, but at least partly because the lack of labels stopped us from doing the art museum waltz -step over to the object, step up to read the label, step back again, and step to the left to the next object. At least once, I stumbled upon an artwork I wanted Jennifer to see and had to go find her and walk her over to the work in question, because it would’ve been impossible to describe how to get there. I can imagine that would really freak out some people, but it didn’t really bother us. MONA is a place in which to get lost. You get unlost when you come out and that’s the important thing.

Revolutionary, and not
A lot of ink and electrons have already been spilled on how “edgy” MONA is, both in terms of its collections and its approach to interpretation. And it is, but not in the way you might think. A lot of the art is challenging, but so is a lot of contemporary art. No surprise there. The lack of wall labels is certainly a seismic shift in accepted practice, but one people have talked about forever. The O is revolutionary, but not for the reasons I thought it would be. My biggest surprise was how unsurprised I was by the content on the O. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t find it. I found an intriguing collection of mostly texts, many of which wouldn’t seem at all out of place in an art museum or gallery setting. I found an explicit scheme for getting visitors to think about art in emotional terms, and to feel that their personal experience of the art was the most important thing. But what was most revolutionary is not what’s on the device, or how people use the device, but what the absence makes possible. I can think of all sorts of ways I’d want to improve the O if given the chance, but they are all either performance improvements, or additions to the online experience. The O is at heart a way to augment the experience of what you’re looking at in MONA. And on that score, it works. I wanted more, like I always do after any mobile interpretation, and I wanted more different kinds of content. But I think the basic premise is sound, and I look forward to seeing how MONA grows the product and the platform.

Next up: Sydney and more Drinking About Museums!

Australia: Game Masters review and DAM: Melbourne

Eleanor Whitworth and I had been corresponding about Drinking About Museums, and coincidentally DAM: Melbourne, was having its first get-together at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and viewing their new “Game Masters” exhibition. It started off at ACMI where the organiziers of their new video game exhibition, Game Masters, gave us an introduction to the project and their goals in creating the show. We missed the beginning of the talk, but what we caught was exactly the kind of insider perspective that makes DAM such a valuable experience. Listening to the creators talk about their process, hurdles and decisions, and then being able to hang out with them is priceless.

ACMI

Game Masters presentations
Several years ago, the Barbican toured a video game exhibition called “Game On”, which at first blush would seem to have covered the topic pretty exhaustively. But “Game Masters” has adopted a different focus, giving game designers the kind of treatment usually reserved for auteurs in other media, and presenting video games like other forms of media art. Game designer as artist was a new way for me to look at familiar titles and it works and an interesting way to approach the topic that, I think, will broaden its appeal to an adult audience. There’s a great recap of ACMI’s presentation, which was a full-on, hourlong series of talks by ACMI folks on the technical, curatorial, and online aspects of the project.  Check it out here.  I’ll just add the two things that leapt out at me from the talks.

 Getting visitor participation right
I was impressed with ACMI’s willingness to reach out to a passionate audience to name their favorite video game designers. Given the conceit of the show, which is to focus on a small number of influential designers, a sort of Hall of Fame, it would’ve been very easy for the curators to talk amongst their peers and decide who was important and who wasn’t. Opening it up to the audience pointed them at different people, particularly in the indie game category, and it established their commitment to “getting it right.” It will be interesting to see how (or if) that participation influences their attendance or membership numbers. It seemed like a perfect example of the kind of participatory exercise that could build the sort of “brand” loyalty that many museums struggle to figure out how to accomplish.

Being intentional about working outside the field
The exhibition design was done by a firm with no game design or exhibit design experience, and that was intentional! Knowing how easy it would be for the show’s design to devolve into looking like a game, and knowing that they wanted something different ACMI purposely went with a firm that had no prior knowledge, and the design they settled on manages to be both fun and non-specific enough to work with games of many eras, without feeling too hokey.

Review: Game Masters @ ACMI

NOTE: This review will be a bit truncated since we had just spent an hour learning about the project’s challenges and successes, only had an hour, and were seeing the exhibition after closing time with the curators, so it was definitely NOT the usual visitor experience. And due to IP issues, no photographs, again!

Games Masters is in many ways the follow-up to Game On, and an interesting melding of a curatorial, art historical approach to a popular culture topic. This isn’t surprising when you realize that Conrad Bodman, ACMI’s Head of Exhibitions, was the curator at the Barbican who initiated Game On. Whereas the original exhibition focused on the genealogy of the games themselves, Game Masters aims to chart the development of video and computer games by highlighting the careers of 30-odd game designers, and presenting 125 (!) playable video and computer games from old arcade classics like Asteroid, all the way up to Minecraft, Rock Band, World of Warcraft and more!

The real thing
One of the first things one notices upon entering the exhibition is the abundance of games to play, and play in their original form on original hardware, no less! Old arcade machines, PC, consoles old and new – it’s all there, interspersed with video interviews of game designers, and fairly straightforward narratives about the era and the companies. I imagined I’d be seeing a lot of canned gameplay and emulated games. It’s obviously not the same experience at all, and being in a forest of arcade machines, consoles, and PCs was a visual and auditory treat and trigger of numerous reminiscences amongst the other visitors. It might also overstimulate some people. Jennifer, who is definitely not a computer gamer, took a while to adjust to the environment, and was “done” pretty quickly, though not until she and Eleanor had gotten their dance on at Dance Central. The full-body Fruit Ninja was also a big hit. I imagine it might be even more cacophonous on a busy day when all the machines are busy.

The design on the whole was minimalist and relied mainly on colors and abstract forms to organize the space. I appreciated that they eschewed a more obvious “gamelike” look and feel in the gallery. Bright colors predominate, and lots of spaces are defined by banners and other soft materials which did a good job of carving up the space into less intimidating chunks. It will obviously be easier to travel than loads of walls, too.

The things I felt to be the most problematic were the lack of good advanced organizers. I wanted to know what was ahead and had to settle for wandering around the space a few times to orient myself and grok the organizing scheme. Over here are the newest games, these are all what they’re calling “indie” games, etc… And for the more modern, story-centric games, it was hard to be dropped into the middle of one and get the real experience of the gameplay.

Chris Harris and I wound up talking for awhile at the end of the tour about the challenges of taking a show like this on the road. ACMI plans to travel the exhibition and I wish them well. I started my career setting up and taking down a very complicated robotics travelling exhibition, and I got a headache just thinking of the poor technician who will have to keep this menagerie of hardware and software operating. Chris seemed quite sanguine that they’d solved the important maintenance problems, and they probably have as much experience with exhibiting videogames as any museum of Earth, so good on ya, ACMI! If you’re in Melbourne, give it a whirl!

Drinking About Museums: Melbourne
After getting our games on, we retired to a nearby pub and about twenty of us hung out, swapped stories, talked shop and learned a bunch from each other. One thing I took away was how different and interesting it was to have the broader cultural heritage sector represented. DAM: Melbourne invites went out to the whole Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) sector. I wound up talking to someone from the Public Records Office about genealogy and digitization, a maritime archaeologist (Hi, Peta!) about theses and pirates, and a museum educator about school visits. Drinking About Museums: Melbourne had a grand inauguration and I wish them well!

Next post will be a longish review of our time at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, my new “You have to go see this!” museum.

Review: “Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia” at Melbourne Museum

Nothing like a stimulating conversation to work up an appetite! After our interesting conversation at the Melbourne Museum, Simon Sherrin and Ely Wallis took us out to lunch at one of Fitzroy’s more singular establishments.

Helpful warning in the women’s room at Naked For Satan

After a glorious meal at Naked For Satan Jennifer and I headed back to the Melbourne Museum to catch the “Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia” exhibition from the British Museum. There’s nothing like a good archaeology show to finish off a meal!

The visit didn’t start well.  The friendly young man hawking the audio guides caught my eye and I figured I’d get one, just for the sake of research. Then I read the sign – 20 stops, $7 dollars. 20 stops? Total? Despite my long involvement with museum audiotours and multimedia tours I passed on the Mesopotamia audio guide. I just couldn’t bring myself to pay the money. Then as we entered the gallery, there was the old “camera with the line through it” sign. No photography? Still? Even without a flash? Sigh… Things improved markedly from that point.

What I liked

The themes
The exhibition’s themes of cities, time and writing was an interesting organizing scheme that tied together 3,000 years of history pretty well. Not your typical curatorial layout, and introduced by a large multimedia projection that did a good job of soundlessly laying out all the themes.  And it wasn’t an introductory video with a talking head. So far, so good.

The objects
The objects didn’t disappoint either. The British Museum’s Mesopotamian collections are unrivalled and the 170 objects they’d sent were an impressive mix from Sumer, Assyria and Babylon. And the show displays them in the best modern Western style; dark rooms, puddles of lights tightly focused on objects in jewel-like settings. In glass cases too, which are so much nicer to look through than plexi. Nothing says class like glass! It was also impressive that the organizers were willing to include reproductions of objects they didn’t have, like the stele of Hammurabi‘s Code (from Paris), and the Ishtar Gate from Babylon (from Berlin), as well as replicas of important objects that were not part of the British Museum’s share of the original partage agreement.

Large-format print of the Ishtar Gate. Made locally, I think…

Throughout the exhibition, the media pieces were brilliant. The show featured several large narrative friezes, which had rows of figures depicting battles, hunts and other features of royal life. Next to each of these, lifesize projections sequentially played out the action so you could understand how to read the story in order. Wordless, clever, and superbly effective at getting visitors to pay attention to the object afterwards.

The experts
The scholarship on display was also engaging. The curator interviews and videos were short and meaty, and focused on curators in their natural habitats; taking tablets out of cabinets, making clay impressions in a workroom, and telling you to get really close to objects to see the workmanship.

What I didn’t like

Sound
The show used a lot of ambient to provide atmosphere. For a travelling exhibiiton, this makes a certain amount of sense. Sets and other “thematic” elements are expensive to travel. A dark room with a good soundscape can equal instant atmosphere. Most of the time in this show, I didn’t like the ambient sound. In several places, one heards loads of voices talking in unintelligible languages (Sumerian? Akkadian? who knows…) and more than once the volume of the sound effects felt intrusive to me.

Translation and the lack thereof
Sometimes they translated writings, sometimes they didn’t. Objects covered in writing that aren’t translated make me nuts, especially when one of the themes of the show is writing.  I know the organizers of the exhibition know what is on all the tablets and seals they chose to include, and I can’t imagine the contents didn’t influence their decision. I’ll never know, though. Urg.

The way things used to be done
Most, if not all of the objects in the show were excavated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the era of the big digs, with hordes of local workers laying bare entire sites. I would’ve liked to see a bit more attention given to the way museum’s used to pursue archaeology in the developing world. Partage agreements, once the rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were entered into by excavators and host countries and basically divided the finds, sort of a formalized versions of “One for you, one for me…”  I already knew enough to find it interesting, but I wondered how many visitors coming to the experience with no background.

The section on the archaeologists was interesting, though I thought the profiles a bit perfunctory and lacking in critical depth. Layard did important work, to be sure. He also left gigantic holes in important sites that are still visible over a century later. Not exactly the model of scientific archaeology. Agatha Christie was married to Max Mallowan and worked with him in the field. Interesting? Yes. Worth more than a label? Hmm…

The situation today
The modern history of the area gets very short shrift – a couple of labels and a big photo –  which, given the endmeic looting that has engulfed the region in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, feels more than a little cowardly. 45 centuries worth of history are in jeopardy, our common cultural patrimony, and that should be worth a bit of space. The sites descried in the exhibition are the same ones in this article from AAM about the current situation in Iraq.  It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s part of the same story of these sites.

In summary
When I step back and look at the whole experience, it was a great show. Well-laid out, well-interpreted, and full of great objects and stories that the developers managed to bring to life in novel and captivating ways. And if that’s not enough for you, my lovely and talented wife loved it, too. As someone who gets museum fatigue very easily, her enthusiastic response to the show is high praise indeed.

Next up: Drinking About Museums: Melbourne and “Game Masters” at the Australian Center for the Moving Image