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More photography links

Class selfie at NC Art Museum by Twitter user @grade3atJG

Class selfie at NC Art Museum by Twitter user @grade3atJG

I need to move on from the photography in museums topic, but I keep turning up more and more. I’ve started reading “The Reflexive Photographer” from MusseumsEtc, so we’ll see what light that sheds. In the meantime, here are a bunch of other links I’ve been sitting on that’ll let you plumb the depths of selfiedom some more. And don’t forget that January 22nd is #museumselfie day!

More Reading:

Lindsay Holmes
The Huffington Post
Why You Just Can’t Help But Selfie
A remarkably balanced look at the positives and negatives.

Dougal Shaw
BBC
#BBCtrending: Psychologists put the ‘selfie’ on the couch
A “He said. She said.” with two psychologists explaining the phenomenon. Short.

Richard Morgan
The Wall Street Journal
Art Exhibits for the Selfie Set
Even WSJ can’t resist. Name checks Rain Room, Aten Reign, Infinity Mirror Room, and other shows that beg to be photographed.

Jason Feifer
Fast Company
Google makes you smarter, Facebook makes you happier, selfies make you a better person
Basically spends a long time tearing into Sherry Turkle’s latest worry, the selfie. He’s pretty thorough, verging on “doth protest a bit too much.” Worth it.

Panel Discussion
National Portrait Gallery
The Curated Ego: What Makes a Good Selfie?
I’d love to hear how this talk went.

And, to ram home how powerful the lure of the selfie is…

Astronaut on ISS stoppnig to take a selfie. Courtesy of NASA

Astronaut on ISS stopping to take a selfie. Courtesy of NASA

 

 

Tilting at Windmills, Part Two

Experience and Participation 

CC BY-NC-SA image by Flickr user barnoid

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

When interpretation feels like interference

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

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

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

What does authority look like nowadays? 

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

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

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

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

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

visitor participation = the complete overthrow of traditional authority. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

On “Drinking About Museums”

I’ve gotten a few request lately from folks wanting to know, “What is this “Drinking About Museums” and how do join/start one in my town/find out more. I’ve sent out descriptions via email in the past, but I guess I’ve never posted anything, so here is both a brief history, and a bit of the philosophy behind how we do Drinking About Museums in Boston. Your mileage may vary.

CC-BY image by Flickr user Mr Kael

CC-BY image by Flickr user Mr Kael

History

Drinking (by which I mean informal, after-hours socializing. Alcohol is obviously optional) and museum work have a long history. If you’ve been in the field for any length of time, or been to even one museum conference, you will have noticed how much we like to talk about our work and hear what our colleagues are up to. Cities with large concentrations of cultural heritage organizations like NYC, Washington, London, etc…  have long had informal groups who’d get together and drink and commiserate. For me, I find out as much at the evening events at a conference as I do at the sessions, sometimes more. A constant refrain at the end of a good conference would be the heartfelt goodbyes as people said goodbye until next year.

 Two years ago at Museums and the Web, a bunch of us were sitting around the hotel bar, doing the end-of-conference “I’ll miss you guys!” when Jesse Kochis said, “You all work around Boston, you could just get together!” and said he’d find a place if I’d collect email addresses. So in May, 2011, a group of people descended on the Eastern Standard and we had our first meetup. The name went through many unfortunate iterations, like “Boston Museum Geeks” and “Boston Museum Tech Meetup Group” and at least one other I’ve blocked out. A few months later, I heard from Koven Smith in Denver that they had a Meetup group they called “Drinking About Museums” and I said, “Oh, that’s perfect! Can I steal that name for our group, too?” Being straight-up, generous folk, Koven and Kate Tinworth, who run the Denver group gave their blessing, and the name expanded to Boston. 

Jim and Kristin getting animated, while Ed ignores them.

Jim and Kristin getting animated, while Ed ignores them.

#drinkingaboutmuseums FTW!

The power of a good idea is impressive to see in action. #drinkingaboutmuseums starting appearing on Twitter. Within months, there were Drinking About Museums announcements popping up in D.C., Sydney, Melbourne, S.F. and more places. There is now a Google+ group where you can find where Drinking About Museums is happening around the world. It’s been gratifying to watch, and kinda strange to become associated with a brand.  

I used to email everybody, trying to find a time that worked. It was a huge time suck and I was bad at it, too.  Eventually, I stopped trying to find a time for everybody and just picked mid-week nights that worked for me. Even the email list management proved to be a real job. I tried to do all my notifying by Twitter and on the blog, but that didn’t work out well.  Luckily, Jennifer Schmitt from deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum volunteered to handle the list, and has done so admirably.  Koven also set up a Google Plus group, which has been a great aggregation site for DAM activity.

Jenna and Lynn with the paper prototype of their multitouch exhibit

Jenna and Lynn with the paper prototype of their multitouch exhibit

Drinking About Museums: BOS

So here’s how our group currently functions.

It’s a coalition of the willing at the moment.

If you want to take on a larger role, come on in! For several months running, we went to different museums each month, and had behind-the-scenes tours of things that members were working on.  People did presentations.  One month, a member needed a test audience for a workshop on game design she was making. Other months, it’s just social. We get together and enjoy each others’ company. It gets as big and as small as it’s most active member wants it to. I’m currently obsessed with trying out a version of Museums Showoff in July if I can find a venue. Who knows we’ll do in the future?

It’s a completely open group at the moment

That was both a philosophical choice and a workflow choice. I didn’t want to be a gatekeeper and decide whether someone belonged. I ddin’t want to field requests to join. Koven and Kate have Denver set up as a closed Meetup group that you have to apply to join. If you’ve got the bandwidth to tailor the group to your needs and wants, that might the best option for you. Being completley open worked for us. It means sometimes people come who know noithng about museums but are interested in culture in general. I still field requests, so that didn’t change.

Drinking About Museums: Melbourne

Drinking About Museums: Melbourne

It’s museums focused at the moment.

My own biases came to the fore when I was in Australia last summer. I got to go to TWO Drinking About Museums in two weeks in Sydney and Melbourne, and the Melbourne group was more broadly GLAM-oriented, than just museum focused. It was really interesting to hear about the isssues librarians and archivists were having and how they were similar/dissimilar to mine.

The logistics

When we’re ready to have a new Drinking About Museums:Boston edition, here’s what happens.

Pick a date
Jenn and I will chat publicly about place and date on Twitter. If anybody joins the conversation, we’ll loop them in. If not, the two of us will pick a place and time. If somebody has agreed to host, then we all try to find a night that works.  I’ve never gotten a Friday night event to work. Don’t do it.

Tell the world!
The first rule of Drinking About Museums is…

Unlike Fight Club, the first rule of Drinking About Museums is to get the word out. Jenn sends out an email to the list, I blog about it, advertise it on Twitter and post it on the Google Plus group. If you want people to come, you have to talk about it.  I used to worry about talking too much about it, but I haven’t found it to be an issue.  And those months when three people came? Yeah, they kinda coincided with months I didn’t do much promotion. Go figure…

Send out reminders

Posting only one notice two weeks before the date is a guarantee that most people won’t show up. Using only one channel is also a way to not get a decent turnout. I tell everybody at work, I call people. I tell people to tell their friends.

Get to know the folks at the venue
If you’re going to a bar or restaurant, it’s worth letting them know in advance that you’re convening a group there. Some places will let you know in no uncertain terms that they’d prefer a group where everyone is buying dinner, not standing around nursing cheap drinks. Other places will be happy for the business, especially if you tell them you meet regularly and you meet on a night that isn’t a busy weekend night.

Get there early
Let the venue know you’re there and where you’ll be so they can send people over. I’m “that museum group guy” at several Boston-area establishments.

Meet everybody and take names
Seems like a no-brainer, but I had to train myself not to immediately grab a drink and dive into a conversation with my friends. Especially with an open group, there will people who show up and know nobody, brave souls. Making them feel welcome and giving them that first connection to the group is important. Also, we need to maintain our email list to make sure we capture new people contact info.

Solicit ideas from the group
The people coming to a Drinking About Museums are obviously motivated and wicked into museums. They have been the source of some of our best ideas, from hosting us at their institution, to using the group as an informal focus group, to showing off exciting new work.  Put the group to work!

Game creation workshop!

Game creation workshop!

Be experimental
Mixing things up has worked well for us.  After a string of just social events, we went on a several month long binge of visiting area museums and then adjourning for drinks. Lately, we’ve been having special guests. Maybe our test of Museums Showoff will be such a success that we make it a regular feature. Who knows? Come and find out if you’re in town!