Tag Archives: Seb Chan

Natural’s Not In It

Tis the season for existential doubts, it seems, because I think I don’t believe in exhibitions anymore. A number of factors have come together recently to make me question whether the way we develop exhibitions is the way we should be developing them.

1) I’ve read a number of articles (that I maddeningly can’t lay my hands on) problematizing exhibitions as money pits and resource drains on museums, at the expense of other things. Exhibitions are slow, they are expensive, and they tend to be rigid frameworks within which it’s hard to innovate. I am working on exhibition projects at the moment that are three or fours years away from opening. One project will have taken almost a decade by the time it opens. A decade. That’s a long time. And a lot of it will be spent in testing and evaluating and making sure it addresses the formal education frameworks and standards that govern so much of what we do nowadays. And in all that measuring, I often remember the sociologist W.B. Cameron’s quote that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

2) While cleaning my office, I found a cryptic piece of note paper covered with random words like “magic”, “storyworlds”, “metanarratives” and more. After a few minutes of deciphering, I realized it was my scrawled notes from a talk Seb Chan and I had at the bar the New Media Consortium retreat last year. We’re both been interested in why there isn’t more “magic” in science exhibitions, and by that I mean that sense of wonder and mystery, not card tricks and disappearing rabbits. I’ve been having versions of this conversation for over a year and I just can’t shake it. The brilliant folks at the Medical Museion in Denmark have in their manifesto, “Jealously guard a place for wonder and mystery” and I think it’s advice not enough of us take.

3) In part, the series of posts I’m writing on Making a Museum from Scratch flows from this same impulse, particularly the concept of a continuum of transparency, with collections being most transparent and exhibitions being least. I am certain there’s something there, and we’re missing an opportunity to engage visitors differently.

4) I recently worked on an interactive for interpreting a period room. When I wrote the first spec for the application I realized that from the visitors’ vantage point, the room looked a lot like a scene from Myst. And that brought back a flood of memories of playing the game with my lovely and talented wife when it first came out. We’d come home from our jobs, make supper and look at each other across the table afterwards, “You wanna maybe play some…?” “I get to drive this time!” and ZOOM! we’d be at the computer, ready to spend a few hours getting lost in the game world. How would one make an exhibition that prompted that same kind of response?

5) All the museums on my list of must see places are ones that don’t do traditional exhibitions. I think they are all, at their core, emotional experiences; Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris…

This dissatisfaction with exhibitions has left me wondering what would an exhibition that’s not an exhibition look like? What’s the opposite of an exhibition?

Exhibition/Inhibition

Thanks to my Greek teacher in high school, I have an abiding love of knowing roots and meanings. The opposite of ex-hibition should be in-hibition. So I went to see what the etymology of the word might tell me. And this what the Online Etymology dictionary said:

exhibition (n.) 
early 14c., from O.Fr. exhibicion, exibicion “show, exhibition, display,” from L.L. exhibitionem (nom. exhibitio), noun of action from pp. stem of exhibere “to show, display,” lit. “to hold out,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + habere “to hold” (see habit).

inhibition (n.) 
late 14c., “formal prohibition; interdiction of legal proceedings by authority;” also, the document setting forth such a prohibition, from O.Fr. inibicion and directly from L. inhibitionem (nom. inhibitio) “a restraining,” from pp. stem of inhibere “to hold in, hold back, keep back,” from in- “in, on” (see in- (2)) + habere “to hold” (see habit).

To hold out or to hold back? The minute I read this, I thought,”Oh, that’s interesting!” Revealing versus concealing is deeply involved in this, but “inhibition” is such a weird word with so many other meanings that it didn’t seem quite right as the opposite for (and antidote to) “exhibition”. When I threw all this in a document and showed it to Suse Cairns, she shared an article from Psychological Review, entitled “Power, Approach, and Inhibition” and I realized the piece that had been eluding me: power.

Power, Approach, and Inhibition
The authors start their article with a quote from Bertrand Russell, “The fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense that Energy is the fundamental concept in physics . . . The laws of social dynamics are laws which can only be stated in terms of power.”

Here’s the abstract:

This article examines how power influences behavior. Elevated power is associated with increasedrewards and freedom and thereby activates approach-related tendencies. Reduced power is associated with increased threat, punishment, and social constraint and thereby activates inhibition-related tendencies. The authors derive predictions from recent theorizing about approach and inhibition and review relevant evidence. Specifically, power is associated with (a) positive affect, (b) attention to rewards, (c) automatic information processing, and (d) disinhibited behavior. In contrast, reduced power is associated with (a) negative affect; (b) attention to threat, punishment, others’ interests, and those features of the self that are relevant to others’ goals; (c) controlled information processing; and (d) inhibited social behavior. The potential moderators and consequences of these power-related behavioral patterns are discussed.

The authors’ basic argument is that people’s feeling of power in a given situation determines whether they feel like engaging (approach) or holding back (inhibition). This power influences the balance of approach and inhibition tendencies. So, elevated power activates approach-related processes, and reduced power activates inhibition-related processes.

Or as Gang of Four put it,

“Natural is not in it,
Your relations are all power,
We all have good intentions,
but all with strings attached.”

Natural’s Not in It, Gang of Four

Sounds kinda like an exhibition team, doesn’t it? We wish visitors only good things like learning, and enjoyment. But only to the extent that they are willing to do it on our terms. The power balance is entirely on the exhibition’s side.

If you can find the article, it’s an interesting read. Of the authors’ 12 propositions, several of them express things I’ve witnessed in exhibitions I’ve worked on or visited.

  • Elevated Power Increases the Experience and Expression of Positive Affect
  • Reduced Power Increases the Experience and Expression of Negative Affect
  • Elevated Power Increases the Sensitivity to Rewards
  • Reduced Power Increases the Sensitivity to Threat and Punishment
  • Elevated Power Increases the Likelihood of Approach-Related Behavior
  • Reduced Power Increases Behavioral Inhibition

So I wonder if it’s a question of empowering visitors, or is it rather a question of inhibiting ourselves more in how we exhibit, in being less strident and overt?

Shifting the balance in the power equation
Power, Approach and Inhibition made me think that maybe what I want to do is be more explicit in inhibiting the dominating power of the exhibition so that visitors have more personal agency and power within the space. I think it’s a zero-sum game so raising everybody’s power level doesn’t sound plausible to me. So how do we push the power balance further in the visitors’ favor without totally abrogating our responsibility to be accurate, honest, and authoritative? How could we inhibit the exhibition?

The first thing that popped into my mind was another tidbit from Copenhagen, “Use exhibitions to find out, not to disseminate what you already know”, which has a certain power to it. If the process of making an exhibition were itself more of a discovery process, and less of a dissemination process, that might inhibit us more, since we’d be coming from a place of uncertainty, and learning as we went along, just like we want our visitors to learn.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I kept coming back to the idea of storyworlds.

The exhibition as a storyworld?
I think one of the most obvious ways could be to treat them more like immersive narratives than as collections of discrete experiences that are thematically linked, which is what I’d argue most non-art exhibitions are nowadays. If you’ve read this blog for any time, you know I’m no booster for gamification (ack!). That said, there are valuable lessons to be learned from game theorists. Chris Crawford (I think) first proposed the notion that a game is a world in which a story occurs and that players are free to move through this bounded space and time and encounter pieces of a story, or follow a story arc. This has clear parallels to what museums do, and addresses a lot of the concerns I’ve voiced about what exhibitions lack..

This kind of storyworld is by nature immersive. There is enough to it that the player (or visitor) feels part of it, and is able to move through it in a self-directed way. It is also decidedly non-linear, which museum exhibitions have to be.

A storyworld is a narrative. There is a premise, and (at least) one plot unfolds over the course of the narrative. They may intertwine, double back, and perform other gymnastics, but they are there contiunously throughout the experience.

A storyworld is a constructivist endeavor, and therefore deeply personal. You put together the elements as you navigate the space, and your edifice of knowledge will look different than anyone else’s. This was at least half the fun of Myst. I’d decide that everything we’d learned meant one thing, and my wife would often have constructed a completely different narrative. Part of our playing the game was the dialogic interaction we’d have about what was going on.

Storyworlds allow visitors to have more of a personalized experience, without the technological backflips we try to do to encourage them to “personalize” the experience. Sleep No More is a great example of this. The audience decides where they want to go, and can follow the action, follow a particular character, or just wander randomly through the story of Macbeth.

There are probably other parallels as well, but I haven’t had the time to let this idea season. I’ve been sick for days and hope you will be able to make something of this, or point out the obvious flaws in my thinking. Or give me examples or counterexamples.

 

For More:

Keltner, Dacher, Deborah H. Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson, “Power, Approach, and Inhibition” in Psychological Review, 2003, Vol. 110, No. 2, 265–284

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 – revolutionary, and not

One of my primary motivations for coming to Australia was to go visit the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. It’s been a long time since a single new museum captured so much media attention. For an overview of the founding of the museums and it’s its founder, David Walsh, try here and here. Not since the Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) has one institution provided so much food for thought on the museum experience, just by being different. But where MJT feels like an ironic paean to museums, MONA aims to strip away the layers of practice we have developed over the years, and focus on the central aspect of visiting an art museum – having a personal experience of art.

One of the central features of this philosophy is the complete absence of labels in the museum. No labels. None. All the interpretation, and there’s a lot of it, is carried in customized iPod Touches called “the O” which are handed out to every visitor. As a veteran of exhibition audiotours, which were considered wildly successful if the pickup rate exceeded 20%, the Holy Grail was always “universal distribution” – giving every visitor a unit. Initial reviews were surprisingly positive. Solutions had been developed for the usual technical roadblocks, like interior wayfinding, and associating visitors with the digital information of their visit. Read Nancy Proctor’s and Seb Chan’s assessment of the O for details. If you’re going to be at MCN 2012 in Seattle (you *are* going, right?), the developers of The O will be sharing what they’ve learned. So MONA was interesting both for its philosophy and its inventive, ambitious use of digital media. I had previously met Mary Lijnzaad, the MONA’s numismatics curator and head of library, in Boston and decided to take her up on her offer to come and visit.

A visit to MONA
One of the hallmarks of Walsh’s endeavor seems to be attention to detail. The visitor experience begins the moment you arrive and extends past the end of your physical visit. MONA boasts its own ferry, restaurant, brewery, winery, and luxury accommodations. MONA is a destination with a museum at the center. Following Mary’s advice, we didn’t drive, but took the MONA ferry from Hobart harbor. The ticket counter at the wharf sold tickets for both the museum and the ferry. The staff was minimal and everyone seemed to do at least two jobs. A bucket of umbrellas awaited needy visitors.

Leaving Hobart Harbor with its icebreaker and sailing ships. The bottom of Mt. Wellington can be seen on most days.

The thirty minute trip to the museum passed quickly and we soon found ourselves approaching the dock of a rust-colored slab of building at the end of a point, part fortress, part James Bond villain’s lair. We had arrived, the loudspeaker told us and at the top of the ninety-nine stairs from the dock, we would begin our visit.

Our first glimpse of MONA.

The ninenty-nine steps up

The oft-repeated marketing catchphrase is that MONA is “a subversive adult Disneyland” which like a lot of PR fluff, captures some of the emotional appeal, but not much else. MONA isn’t a theme park. It is also not a temple to secular culture the way writers like Alain de Botton have claimed museums have become. It certainly has some of those otherworldly associations; it is a destination if you approach via water ferry; the long climb up, and the descent into the hillside MONA is carved into. If MONA is any kind of temple, it’s more an oracular cave than an edifice of orthodoxy. MONA hints and whispers, it doesn’t proclaim. Nothing about a visit to MONA promotes the comforting reassurance of a traditional art museum visit. There is none of the chronological narrative of eras and cultures, movements and schools and one artist’s influence on another. All there is is you, the art, and “the O”.

Wim Delvoye’s Gothic cement mixer

Closeup

The entrance to MONA

What greeted us upon arrival was a small collection of buildings around a tennis court with strange stools scattered about on the lawn, and a life sized cement mixer truck made entirely of steel cut in elaborate Gothic patterns. In front of a low building with a funhouse mirror facade stood uniformed MONA staff directing visitors inside to get their tickets and “O” guides. MONA is free if you’re Tasmanian, so the early morning crowd was an interesting mix of a few intrepid winter tourists and locals. Upon entering, we were quickly outfitted with guides, a map, and the suggestion that we start at the bottom of the museum and work our way up – another inversion of the usual museum experience. A glass elevator and spiral staircase led down into hillside, but since we were meeting Mary in the Library, which is on the lowest level, we decided to buck the trend and start at the top. And this is what we found.

Kryptos combines cuneiform artifacts with a binary encoding of passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh

Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, a mechanical functional analogue of the human digestive tract. It gets fed twice daily and poos at 2. The smell is quite unlike any museum odor you’ve smelled in a gallery. I’ve loved the piece from afar for a long time. It was great to see it get fed.

;

“Stool for Guard” scared the life out of me. I had the aperture cranked to get enough light, so you have to imagine turning a corner in a much darker space and seeing someone huddled in a ball against the wall, motionless. Aghh! Oh, wait. It’s art.

Adrian Spinks, MONA’s Exhibit Designer, explaining some of the details of their outdoor case. It’s hermetically sealed with a dedicated HVAC system to provide a constant microclimate year-round. An opaque blind covers the front face until a visitor approaches close enough to trigger a motion sensor, which rolls it up. It lights up at night, too. Of course.

Impressions of the experience
MONA is on one level the perfect post-modern art museum. David Walsh has decided to deconstruct the narrative of the art museum visit to it’s barest essential – looking at the art, and reacting to it emotionally. There are no labels, nothing to indicate importance, and the whole design philosophy makes it impossible to even tell what’s old and what’s new. The objects exist only in the context of the gallery and the juxtapositions between objects. Walsh doesn’t want you to come and see the highlights; he wants you to look at art and see what moves you.

MONA also explicitly wants visitors to have an opinion about the art. Friends have complained about the coarseness of boiling down the complicated relationship between viewer and art to either “love” or “hate” but I thought it served as an interesting starting point for visitors who might not feel like they knew enough to have an opinion. By making the voting so central to the experience, MONA gives all its visitors explicit permission to have an opinion. You’re allowed to love or hate (or not feel anything about) a work of art without knowing anything about it other than your personal experience of it. And for that alone, I think MONA is important.

The conceit of having no labels also worked on the whole for me. I was half ready to write it off (pun intended) as a gimmick, but I found it strangely appealing. That’s a lot to admit for someone who writes exhibit labels for a living. More than once I looked at something because I didn’t know what it was, and upon looking it up on my O, found it was something I have told myself I don’t like. The lack of information staring me in the face, combined with the powerful combinations and juxtapositions, totally worked on me. I was also free to ignore objects that didn’t appeal to me, which I would’ve felt compelled to study because of their “importance” had they been labelled. That ugly thing over there looks like a bad Picasso? Turns out it is a Picasso, and I don’t fancy it much, which is a very different way to approach than your typical museum experience.

MONA is a total immersion experience, in a way that most museums aren’t. It delights (and sometimes assaults) all the senses. In some ways, it’s more like Sleep No More, devious, theatrical, and all-consuming. And I though I can tell you which pieces struck me the most, I am still struck more by the totality of the visit. Another way it subverts the dominant paradigm is through this revolt against highlight works. One of the pieces that generated much of the initial buzz when the museum opened was Cunts … and Other Conversations, a series of casts of the vaginas of 140 women sculptures of the vulvas of 151 women, which became so popular/controversial that Walsh removed it from display. The thought of the head of a museum removing the most popular object from display because it was distracting seems mind-boggling at first, but in Walsh’s view makes perfect sense. He didn’t want people coming just to see the object everybody said you had to see, like the mobs that fill the Louvre every day waiting their turn to look at Mona Lisa and take a photo of it. Plus he is certainly a showman and the gesture of removing it from display must have been a guaranteed free round of media stories. It also reinforces the story of MONA not being like other museums.

The customer service rocked
One way that the adult Disneyland tag does apply to MONA is in the attention to customer service that it shares with the Magic Kingdom. Our interactions with MONA’s staff were uniformly pleasant, from the ferry, to the front of house staff, to the gallery attendants. I was particularly struck with how engaged the gallery attendants were. For one installation, capacity was limited to one or two visitors at a time. The woman outside had to keep people at bay long enough to allow the visitor in the installation to have their experience. Not an easy job, but she handled it with style, flagging me down as I walked obliviously past, telling me what was inside, and giving me enough information to keep me interested until the previous visitor left. And after I was done, she wanted to know what I thought of it as I was leaving. The staff who handed out and collected our “O”s made sure we’d input our email addresses so we wouldn’t miss out on the web portion of the visit.

The building was beautiful
I’m not a fan of celebrity architect buildings in general, and museums in particular. I usually feel like the objects wind up competing with the building for your attention. MONA is a very different kind of experience. I can’t remember the last time I was in a building that appreciated it’s purpose so much. And it’s a strange building. Levels are stacked haphazardly upon each other, following the contour of the hill. Stairs lead hither and yon, and it’s easy to get turned around. But everywhere you turn, there’s something to see. And the spaces vary from dark to brightly-lit, industrial to naturalistic. MONA is always varied, but never dull. And throughout the museum, one runs into reminders of the hillside you’re inside. Big vertical slabs of exposed rock appear here and there, sensual to touch, and easy on the eye.

MONA is a very singular place, and finding generalizable lessons can be challenging. One thing is clear to me, though. After 4+ hours touring the museum, I wasn’t tired, and I wasn’t ready to leave even though our ferry was departing. Do I wish all art museums were like MONA? No. Am I glad MONA exists? Yes. Most importantly, would I go back? In a heartbeat… or after 20+ hours on a plane.

Next up: The O