Tag Archives: writing

CODE│WORDS: An experiment in online discourse and publishing

by Ed Rodley

CC BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user djandyw.com

CC BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user djandyw.com

So, another long silence. February was the month of the endless head cold, and tons of stuff going on at Peabody Essex Museum.  The March shows will be opening soon! But, I haven’t been completely idle.  There have been secret plans afoot, which are finally cooked enough to announce. The big one is an experiment in online discourse and publishing that Rob Stein, Suse Cairns, and I have been discussing for a couple of months.  Let me tell you a bit about it, and see if it sounds interesting to you.

Background
As you already know, 2013 was a pretty fruitful year for museum blog conversations. I was very grateful for both the quantity and quality of the discourse that happened, and how much of it seems to have influenced discourse in the broader museum community. Conference sessions and other publications continue to flow out of conversations that started as blog posts. By default, these tended to be reactionary, driven by current affairs and mass media. To step it up a notch for 2014, here’s an idea for an experiment that might do just that, and possibly pay further dividends down the road.

Suse Cairns (she of museum geek and Museopunks) and I have been talking about collaborating on a book for some time, once her PhD work wound down.  Both of us are interested in the intersection of the digital and museums and figured we’d find fertile ground there, but we hadn’t really gotten much further than that.  Late last year, Rob Stein wrote a comment to a Dallas newspaper article about visitors and smartphones that Suse and I both thought deserved a wider audience, so I asked him to consider reworking it as a guest post on my blog. However, Rob being Rob, he had a larger vision than just a one-off blog post.

“How about this instead?” he asked us,  “What if a group of museum blogs tackled a set of interrelated issues at the same time, with an eye toward some kind of publication being the final product? The process itself would be an interesting experiment, and the outcome – some hopefully substantial discourse and new knowledge – could be a real benefit to the field.” The basic idea was to strategically identify some interesting issues, divide up the issues among a group of collaborators, and  then tackle them sequentially, developing them simultaneously and collaboratively, so that we could heavily cross-link between them to create a more coherent narrative than the usual call and response of blogging. To this, we added the idea of using the blog posts *and* their associated commentary as the basis for revised essays that could be collected and published as an edited volume later. The conversations around the initial posts would thus become part of the final essays.

So we had a bunch of Google hangouts to hash out what this strange hybrid might look like and how it should function. Here’s what we came up with.

I stink at getting Hangout screenshots.

I stink at getting Hangout screenshots.

The project in a nutshell

CODE | WORDS as we originally conceived it comprises three primary phases:

  • Phase I is an open, online discussion via a shared Google document, where we set up the initial parameters for discussion, topics, and framework for the project.

  • Phase II will be a focussed blogging project in April-May 2014, which will initially be located on Medium and later archived. During a six-week period, 12 authors will post 2,000 word essays on related topics we chose in Phase I. You, the interested public, will discuss these essays and help the authors reflect on the issues they raise. In addition, a number of selected respondents will write 1,000 word responses to the initial essay. We think this approach will allow the project both depth and considered commentary, as well as responsiveness and the capacity to adapt the discussion to new questions that arise.

  • Finally, Phase III will (hopefully) include a published book that draws together the ideas from the blog posts and commentary, and develops them into formal, considered essays.

This will doubtless change somewhat, once we get down to sorting out the details with the authors, but at this point, this is what we think is going to happen.

How it came about:

We needed first and foremost to identify commentators/ thinkers willing and able to participate in a kinda strange-sounding nameless project. It was clear it needed a codename, because they make everything cooler! Thus was born CODE│WORDS : Technology and theory in the museum (working title). We wanted people who might challenge us and each other, and bring different ways of looking at things, whether from different countries, or different types of museums. We looked through our Twitter feeds and LinkedIn connections and quickly assembled a list of people we thought would bring a variety of interesting perspectives to the project, and we asked them. Stunningly enough, virtually everyone we asked said yes and the CODE | WORDS crew grew to include:

  • Seb Chan, Smithsonian Institution, USA  @sebchan
  • Susan Chun, Cultural Heritage Consulting, USA  @schun
  • Mike Edson, Smithsonian Institution, USA @mpedson
  • Beth Harris, Khan Academy, USA  @bethrharris
  • Courtney Johnston, Dowse Art Museum, NZ  @auchmill
  • Sarah Kenderdine, National Institute for Experimental Arts, COFA, UNSW, HK/AUS
  • Luis Marcelo Mendes, Museum Consultant, BR  @lumamendes
  • Mike Murawski, Portland Art Museum, USA  @murawski27
  • Nick Poole, Collections Trust, UK  @nickpoole1
  • John Russick, Chicago History Museum, USA
  • Merete Sanderhoff, Statens Museum for Kunst, DK @msanderhoff
  • Koven Smith, Kinetic Museums, USA @5easypieces
  • Thomas Soderqvist, Medical Musieon, DK @museionist
  • Beck Tench, Museum of Life and Science, USA @10ch
  • Marthe de Vette, Van Gogh Museum, NL
  • Bruce Wyman, Museum Consultant, USA  @bwyman
  • Steven Zucker, Khan Academy, USA  @drszucker

We wanted to collaboratively identify a series of topics around the impacts of digital technologies on museums that are most interesting to us, most useful for the development of the field, and/or most in need of poking at. That’s where we are right now, sorting out which topics to tackle.

Originally, we thought we’d use people’s existing blogs to make use of their built-in audiences, but for the sake of continuity and critical mass, we decided to try out Medium as our platform. Their commenting feature is kinda interesting in that it lets you pick a paragraph to attach your comment to, rather than just tacking it onto the end of a 2,000 word post. I’ve been meaning to give Medium a whirl for awhile, and am looking forward to seeing how it works out.

The next step in the coming weeks is to collaboratively work on topics in such a way that they naturally build on each other and can be heavily cross-linked. We do this already, but in a more reactionary manner. This experiment would be an opportunity to be more strategic about it, and hopefully more successful in building a larger hypernarrative.

We want to create an online community of interest on Medium around these essays and try to practice being as inclusive as possible. One of the benefits of Medium is that other authors can write their own posts and tag them so that they can hopefully join the scrum. Our current plan is to launch in April, and to release 12 essays over a six week period, to keep interest as high as possible and hopefully build a community of commentators who would respond to more than just one essay – or even contribute their own. That’s where you come in, gentle readers, so strap in and get ready for a few tons of museumy goodness to drop on you soon. Seriously, though. The success of this experiment depends on us engaging as broad as community as possible to join us in the work. Otherwise it’s just another edited volumeWe want you to share your expertise, your ideas, your experiences with us, and a global audience of interested peers. If you have never written a blog post before, or just want to dip your toe into a digital discussion, this could be a great way to start and test the waters.

Obviously, we want to document the process and results, if this model winds up having any utility. A logical place to disseminate finding will be at conferences. A bunch of us will be at Museums and the Web and AAM, and I’ll be trying to convene groups to hang out during the conferences. Stay tuned and let me know if you’ll be in Baltimore or Seattle. On our current timeline, we’ll be done with the initial essays by June, so MCN in November should be a good distance from which to look back on the process and reflect on lessons learned for the initial phases.

Once we have finished the initial round of essays, their authors will take them and the commentary they engendered, and use both to write new essays. Rob, Suse, and I will try to convince a publisher to release the resulting collection as a digital/physical publication. If you represent a publisher and want to talk more about CODE | WORDS, email me! 

If all goes well, then we’ll celebrate doing something cool and useful.

Once we’re ready to go, we’ll announce the URL and let the games begin! So stay tuned!

On interviews and editors

Sorry for a two-headed post, but two ideas were fighting with each other and got all tangled up in each other’s business. They are related, at least in my mind, so bear with me…

Interviews

Today was a very exciting day! We are working on a project with the Dutch kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen, of Strandbeest fame. Strandbeest! And since Theo was in Salem for the first time, we set aside part of the day to interview him about his initial impressions.

Setting up in East India Marine Hall with Chip and Corbett.

Setting up in East India Marine Hall with Chip and Corbett.

The curator, AV producer, and I sat down to come up with a list of interview questions that I would ask, since I’d done it before. Interviewing is one of those skills I picked up along the way by working with some really great interviewers over the years. It’s not easy to both maintain a conversational poise with someone, while remaining completely silent. So much of the infromation we use to gauge how a conversation is going comes from those small grunts and nods, and “Mm hmm”s that signal “I’m paying attention!” and “Yes, I hear you.” to the person talking. You have to learn to use your smile and eyes and body language (without getting in the way of the camera) to add those cues.

It’s also hard to focus on all that and keep your mind focused on the big picture. When you’re coaxing answers out of an interviewee, you get into a flow, questions lead to new questions, and it’s easy wander into very interesting, irrelevant territory.  So our division of labor for the shoot consisted of me doing the talking, Chip doing the shooting, and Trevor, the curator, keeping watch that the big picture goals for his project were met. If he had questions, he could feed them to me, and I could ask Theo. I missed something important, he could add that to the list. I’ve worn both hats, sometimes at the same time, and I definitely prefer not doing both. There’s an interesting parallel between this and writing and editing.

… and Editors

"Every Word Counts", Susan TImberlake's shiny new blog

“Every Word Counts”, Susan TImberlake’s shiny new blog

My former colleague  and good friend Susan Timberlake has just started a blog on museum writing and interpretation called “Every Word Counts” which you should subscribe to if you do any kind of writing. Susan’s one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with in 20+ years, and even after five years I still miss not having her in arm’s reach when I have a problem trying to say what I actually mean. If you’ve never worked with a good editor I pity you.

When I’m in the process of writing something, I find it hard to pull myself back up out of the words and paragraphs and remember what was the point of it all. Editing my own work becomes really difficult, and doing something like writing exhibit labels, where every single word counts, it can be excruciating. Ah, but when there’s an editor! Such a difference! All the fudge words I used, the sentences that don’t quite lead from one to the next, and the awkward phrasings get caught and marked up. Her probing questions and relentless focus on clarity would invariably lift the quality of my writing out of the slough it would normally wallow in. I quoted Orwell in a post some time ago about writing, who claimed that all writers were by nature lazy. I am guilty of that, as Susan could doubtless tell you. But it’s hard, too, to be defendant, judge and jury of your own work. I know lots of people hate having their work in progress read by others, but it is so much more efficient when it comes to crafting tight, hard prose.

So, if you’re interested in writing in a museum context, I imagine you’ll find Susan’s blog a useful one. The posts currently up are a mixture of case studies, examples of rewrites, and insights on writing and interpretation. I look forward to seeing what else she comes up with!

 

Ice Cube & AFP: What makes for successful narrators?

We’re getting ready to host LACMA’s California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way”
exhibition in the Spring, so we’ve just begun talking about our interpretive strategies and exhibition design. As I started screening the videos that were produced for the exhibition I was reminded of one of my favorite museum advertising campaigns; Pacific Standard Time’s use of the rapper Ice Cube.

Ice Cube and the Eames

image linked from kootation.com

It’s more than just a nice ad. To appreciate it, you have to watch his celebration of Charles and Ray Eames. It’s only 2:16. Watch it now, OK?

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xmujq2_pacific-standard-time-presents-ice-cube-celebrates-the-eames-extended-video-edit_creation#.UeH7V8u9KSM

In two minutes, he gives you a sense of his connection to California, art, architecture, and design. He drops the little bomb that he studied architectural drafting, so he knows something about the subject, and he’s able to draw parallels between what he does and what the Eames were doing, bringing in mashups and sampling. It’s authentic, it provides an interesting insight into both the Eames and Ice Cube, and it’s enjoyable as hell to watch. “That’s going green 1949 style, bitch! Believe it!” Priceless… Watch it again if you want.

Beth Lisick and Alexander Calder


After annoying everybody in the office with insistent calls to come into my office and watch it, I started trying to unpack why I liked it so much, and recalled an earlier piece that I think I like even more. To go along with a Calder show they did back in 2006, SFMOMA commissioned Bay Area spoken word artist Beth Lisick to do a short piece on Calder for their podcast series. This one’s short, too, and both a brilliant work in its own right and great, intimate take on Calder that isn’t didactic in the slightest, yet manages to work a lot of content into only a couple of minutes. Start at around 13:02 and enjoy an imagined evening with Beth Lisick and Alexander Calder.

Podcast with teeny, iPod-sized images
Podcast with just audio

I liked this so much the first time I heard it that I bugged a rather bemused Peter Samis to pleeeeaaaaase give a copy of that clip. It stayed in heavy rotation in the spoken word list on my iPod for several years. The concept, the writing, her delivery, even the background music, all worked to tell a tight little story, full of emotion. I can’t imagine what the first meeting must’ve been like when they read the script. “You’re ordering Chinese food and asking Alexander Calder if he wants to put on sweatpants? Umm….OK.” But it works so well to bring Calder to life for a couple of minutes, to humanize the great artist and turn him back into a person who might’ve come home one night, tired and hungry, and had someone waiting at home for him to tell her about his day.

After this segue, I realized that instead of being two things I liked, they might share some attributes that would be worth analyzing to see what common threads link them. I thought back to all the other celebrity media appearances I’d seen or heard that I liked, from breathy Jessica Tandy voiceovers, to Jeremy Irons’ smooth pronunciation of “Wenudjebauendjed” in an Egyptian archaeology show. And I only came up with one more example that really stood out as particularly inspired.

Amanda F**king Palmer (AFP) and Edgar Degas

from boston.com

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston did an exhibition called “Degas and the Nude” a couple of years ago, and had local singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer narrate the audiotour. It’s an inspired choice. Unfortunately, the MFA’s tours are only available on-site (boo!) for a rental fee so I can’t share any of the performance with you. I reviewed the exhibition back when it opened, and Palmer wrote about her take on being an audiotour narrator in a long post that is NSFW towards the end.

The choice of Palmer might seem odd at first blush. What does a punk cabaret singer have to share about a French Impressionist painter? Quite a lot, it turns out, because Palmer was an artist’s model in her student days, so she knows a lot about being nude in front of an artist, and the relationship between artist and subject. Take my word for it, it was a great tour.

So what do these three very different interlocutors do that works so well?

They bridge the gulf between audience and expert
One thing I think all three do an excellent job of doing, is placing the narrator in the position of helping the audience approach the subject. Unlike a subject matter expert like a curator, or another expert in the same domain, they stand in between the completely uninitiated and the cognoscenti, and provide a scaffold for us to learn more and move closer to the subject. Ice Cube knows a bit, but not a lot. He contrasts the Eames’ House with McMansions. Palmer isn’t a painter, but she modeled for them. Lisick places herself in the position of someone living with Calder who’s heard all the stories, but doesn’t seem to be part of the Surrealist world.

They bring interesting expertise of their own
Both Ice Cube and Amanda Palmer have actual credentials that allow them to have a different relationship to the subject matter than the audience. Ice Cube may have only studied architectural drafting for a short time, but it’s enough. When he’s talking about prefab wall sections and off-the-shelf windows, you can feel his appreciation for the Eames. When Palmer talks about nude modeling, you can almost hear the hours of standing still, and carry that into the paintings and imagine the process of their creation.

They personalize the subject matter
Back in the day when I worked on audiotours, one of the things I hated about using celebrity narrators was that they were being used for their name recognition, their voice and nothing else. Nothing of the performer came out in the performance. These three pieces all provide the audience with not only insight into the subject matter, but insight into the performer as well. It’s like two for the price of one!

They’re not just reading lines
It’s obvious, but it has to be said. I’ve been through a spate of unfortunate museum videos recently, where some well-meaning curator or director delivers lines like, “We’re very excited to welcome you to…” in a solemn monotone to kick off a video. Painful stuff. Successful narrators can deliver crappy lines and make them engaging. Crappy narrators can kill the best written script. A great narrator with a great script, like the ones above? Magic!

Got any other examples like these? Send ‘em my way!