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

Making a museum from scratch: Part Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what might we perform?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15. Remember that visitors ultimately make their own exhibitions

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

Constructivists unite!

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

Word.

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

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

What kind of genius informs your museum’s work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Related Links

The Stedelijk Museum

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

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

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

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

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

A manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions

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

The Trickster Museum

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

MuseTrain: We have some suggestions…

http://www.musetrain.org/

Walker Art Center

http://www.walkerart.org/

Bumpy rides and dead-end streets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making a museum from scratch: Part Five

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

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

T-minus 2 years and counting

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

Being anti-dichotomistic

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

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

Involving the staff

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

And let’s not forget the audience

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

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

Creating engaged audiences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Links 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional readings

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

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

Making a museum from scratch: Part Four

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

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

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

Transparency is a way to accrue public value 

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

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

Transparency is a way to demonstrate authenticity

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

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

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

Transparency is a way to generate social capital

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

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

Your mission, should you choose to accept

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to your thoughts.

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Inspirational Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making a museum from scratch: Part three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would a radically transparent museum look like to you?