Category Archives: Design process

Inside Out

I spent the weekend in New York City in February, battling a cold and attending the Versions 2017 conference at the New Museum. Hats off to Julia Kaganskiy and the crew that assembled such an impressive array of speakers working in VR. I’ll recap that event another time, because I’ve been thinking about something else that happened on that trip.

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Pierre Chareau at the Jewish Museum. I loved the aesthetic of having everything positioned on faux backdrops

While we were there, we went to the Pierre Chareau exhibition at the Jewish Museum. It’s a small show, comprised mainly of furniture pieces designed by the French architect/interior designer. While I went there specifically to see how they used VR headsets in the exhibition, I was more intrigued by some of the presentation choices made by the exhibition designers and how they do (or don’t) increase visitors’ appreciation of the topic.

Hide and seek

Chareau was a hard show to navigate. I never once felt that I’d built a mental map of the layout, even after I’d finished. It was an intentional choice, too. The exhibition is a typical black box space, and the designers used hanging white curved partitions that look like photographers’ cycs to frame many of the furniture objects, and block your view of them as you walk through the gallery. On the backs of these are projections of silhouettes of people engaging in everyday domestic activities; a woman brushing her hair at a mirror, a man writing at a desk. When you get to the other side of the partition, you can see the actual furniture and (hopefully) realize that it is the same as the objects in the “shadows”.  The shadow effect bugged me a bit at first, since they aren’t really shadows; the walls are solid and opaque. Since it’s hard to see the projection and the actual furniture at the same time, it took me a couple of times to confirm that it was actually corresponding to the specific objects on the other side, and not just being evocative. The “shadow” effect grew on me, though, since it injected a human presence into what could have been a very clinical, impersonal space. The maze-like quality never grew on me.

Embracing the theatrical

I did appreciate the outright theatricality of the design. It reminded me of wandering around through Sleep No More in some ways. The museum did a good job of concealing and revealing just enough to lead me through the space and get me to recognize that there was something on the other side of every wall, know a tiny bit about it, and still have a little “aha” moment when I got to each display. I wrote about embracing theatricality in exhibitions earlier as part of a series of posts on making a museum from scratch, and this was an effective demonstration.

Guarding the magic

I was in town for a virtual reality conference, and VR was why I was at the Jewish Museum. I’ve been interested in finding examples of VR implementations that line up with reality and don’t just discard it in favor of virtuality, and here I thought the Chareau exhibition really delivered. While I’m on the fence about the exhibition as whole, the VR exhibit really embodied the spirit of one of my favorite manifestos on making exhibitions, the Medical Museion in Copenhagen’s “A manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions“. I’ve recommended it before and I’ll do so again, and despite the title, I believe the philosophy espoused within it is broadly applicable to museums of all stripes. Thesis 6 of the manifesto is titled, “Jealously guard a place for mystery and wonder” and suggests that we deliberately “…include some exhibits about which less, rather than more, is known – curious exhibits that just cannot completely be accounted for.”

In the center of the gallery there were four vignettes of furniture from Chareau houses, in a typically Modernist setting; monotone and empty. In front of each vignette was a stool with an attached shelf, holding a Samsung headset and a long cord. When you held up the headset and looked through it, you got magic. The same furniture in front of you was there, in the same orientation, but around it was an “evocation” (museum jargon for “We couldn’t be completely certain that this is 100% exactly the way it looked”) of the interior of the house the furniture was made to go in. This is an issue we often deal with; how close to complete fidelity do you have to get in order for something to be “museum quality”? I was glad the Jewish Museum opted to go for it and build a believable, complete VR environment. Carpets on floors, bookcases full of books, afternoon sun pouring in through banks of windows. Quite a change from a dark room on the Upper East Side!

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Me looking the ceiling or something.

Of course, you weren’t seeing the actual furniture, you were seeing extremely high-fidelity 3D models of that furniture in a computer model of a space, but the designers went to the trouble of making sure both sets of furniture were in the same orientation, and that if you were facing the furniture, the virtual furniture was in the center of the field of view in your headset. I saw a couple of different visitors look at the furniture, look into the headset, then look back at the furniture and back at the headset before doing the usual dance of people in a VR environment, lazily spinning and looking all around.  The VR augmented the physical furniture without supplanting it, and the experience provided visitors with a tasty snack, a peek into another context that wasn’t weighted down with explanations or demonstrations.

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The stool with built-in shelf to hold the headset was a nice design element.

We had talked about doing the same kind of experience for our upcoming Ocean Liners exhibition, but abandoned the idea because of the low throughput of these kinds of headset experiences. In a small, quiet gallery it’s one thing. In a 10,000 square foot exhibition with hundreds of objects, and (hopefully) many thousands of visitors, it would be a bottleneck.

When showing isn’t telling

After the pleasure of using good VR, I was excited to learn more about Maison de Verre (The Glass House), Chareau’s most famous work. The sign on the door to an adjacent space told me that this house was unique in ways that traditional architectural models couldn’t convey. I entered, not knowing what that meant, other than I probably wasn’t going to see a physical model of the house, but something much, much cooler.

What I saw was a projection screen displaying an elevation of a house hanging in the center of the space over a floorplan and a video of a woman opening a closet playing on one wall of the space. As I tried to figure out what I should be looking at I noticed several things. The projection screen was moving towards me with an ominous jerky, creaking, sound. As it moved, a laser line on the floorpan moved as well. It dawned on me that I was seeing a cross section of the house at the position of the laser line on the floorpan. Indeed a room on the screen highlighted and a new video popped up on the opposite wall of a man looking for a book.  This continued for several minutes, with the screen lurching slowly backwards and forwards, pausing and playing a video of languorous French people moving around in side a space that “evoked” the Maison de Verre.

What didn’t work for me

I spend a fair bit of time looking at floorpans and elevations for work, so I have learned how to read them, but even with that experience it took me an unacceptably long time to realize that what I was seeing on the projection screen was essentially a CT scan through the middle of Maison de Verre. And having looked at my share of CT scans, I can confidently say that they are a tough form of visualization to get accustomed to. And I was better off than most of the people in the room with me at the time. Most people ignored the screen and the floorpan and waited patiently for the next video to appear. Which is a shame, since so much effort obviously went into building a high-fidelity 3D model of the house. It was visually pleasing to watch the building on the projection screen disappear as the vantage point shifted, but I didn’t get any sense of how the building was architecturally different, and certainly no sense of how the whole series of spaces connected and flowed into each other. I felt like I’d been promised a revelation and given a cipher instead.

As we were leaving the gallery I found the sign that told me that Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro designed the exhibition, which answered a lot of my nagging questions. I could easily see how an architecture firm could think that the public would “get” a confusing architectural way of looking at a domestic space. DSR also designed the Charles James exhibition at the Met, which had the dubious honor of being the last exhibition to actually make me mad at the designers. If you didn’t see it, it’s hard to explain, but it involved ball dresses and cameras on robot arms that supposedly gave you close up views of the dresses, but really just played canned video loops as the arms waved around the space like Ballet Robotique.

It was a fascinating show, and I was glad to have seen it. It’s one of the best uses of virtual reality in an exhibition I’ve seen, and the design choices made on the whole made what could have been a fairly dry examination of the subject an evocative, and, yes, immersive one at that.

I wrote a thing on Medium


“Being Teachable” on Medium

On distributed museums


Nachschaffungszellen. CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Maja Dumat

Museum hive event #1 is coming up!

“What’s Museumhive?” you ask? Excellent question. It’s an informal gathering of people connected with museums to explore new community-centered visions for museums. We intend to create a new hybrid structure, Museumhive, that generates socially relevant content through a series of informal, engaging meetups and Google Hangouts. Like a hive, the structure involves a community, members who come and go and take part in building the hive. Participation is wide, the barrier to entry is as low as we can make it, and there is a tangible outcome to the effort – digital publications all on the theme of “The Distributed Museum” — a museum that is distributed throughout the community.

The formula for Museumhive is pretty simple:

IRL meetup + virtual followup = 
fun & effective thought leadership.

You can learn more about the experiment at the Museumhive website and register to attend. You should also take a peek at guest speaker Nina Simon’s recent post on what constitutes good distributed museum experiences. Brad Larson, Museumhive PI, and I have been talking about this idea for a couple of years now, and I’m totally stoked to see how the kickoff event goes. It’s also encouraging to see Federal funding agencies like IMLS taking a chance on a project that at first blush might seem like a bit of an outlier. I’m a sucker for high-risk/high-reward scenarios. And figuring out a model for “the distributed museum” is a great one to tackle.

The ___________ museum

The distributed museum – one where the generative acts of the museum are decoupled from the edifice of the museum building – isn’t a new idea. Susana Bautista and Anne Balsamo described their vision of the distributed museum thus, “No longer located in a particular physical space, the museum extends its presence through virtual spaces on the web as well as in the transient spaces created through the diverse practices and technologies of mobility. The distributed museum exists ‘over’ the conceptual divides between physical and virtual, fixed and mobile.” Nancy Proctor has written about museums as distributed networks for years, highlighting their potential to be: “conversational rather than uni-directional; engaging and relevant, rather than simply didactic: and generative of content and open-ended rather than finite and closed” [Emphasis mine].  This idea of increasing agency by generating content is something Philip Schorch touches on in The ‘reflexive museum’ – opening the door to behind the scenes,“By revealing the processes leading to the definition of categories and the interpretation of identities, and by giving ‘faces’ to decisions made, the ‘reflexive museum’ can become an embodiment of democracy, which does not silence controversies but gives diversity public voices.”

I’ll confess that when Brad first pitched the idea to me, I couldn’t really grok what he was on about. I understood the concept of a distributed museum experience intellectually, but it conjured up no visuals. I’ve read Bautista and Balsamo’s works, and resonated with their injunction that “the distributed museum”, though often described as being distributed throughout digital means “is not limited to digital technology, even in the digital age.” I’ve tended to be skeptical to any of the formulations of “the __________ museum is…” that promise to fix whatever is ailing the creaky old edifice that is “the traditional museum”. There are a lot of them! The _______ museum could be connected, transformative, responsive, empathetic, participatory, reflexive, kinetic, or distributed. And I’m sure Twitter will continue to feed me more. And often, it feels like a case of curing the symptom rather than the disease. Our MCN 2016 book club book is all about that problem. Desi Gonzalez recently wrote in The Public as Producer “…when social issues are reduced to a design problem, we ignore the very real political and economic landscapes surrounding them.” A lot of what I read and hear in the field goes to great lengths to avoid situating the work we do in its deeply, intrinsically political and economic context.

Maybe I’m getting over it, though. Or the optimist in me is beating the skeptic. I’m actually becoming the skeptimist I aspire to be. I find something heartening and true in Museumhive’s focus on convening groups of interested to talk about what’s important to them, and then figure out a way to make things better. We’ll see what Wednesday night brings. I hope to see you there!

For further reading:
What Does a Great Distributed Digital Museum Experience Look Like?
Museum 2.0
by Nina Simon

The Public as Producer
by Desi Gonzalez

Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture
Susana Bautista and Anne Balsamo

The Museum as Distributed Network
by Nancy Proctor

“The ‘reflexive museum’ – opening the door to behind the scenes”, Te Ara – Journal of Museums Aotearoa, vol 33 (1 & 2)
by Philip Schorch

Museum Design 2034: The Distributed Museum
Future of Museums blog

The Participatory Museum and Distributed Curatorial Expertise
by Thomas Söderqvist

Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture
by Susana Smith Bautista and Anne Balsamo

The Digitized Museum
by Brian Droitcour, William S. Smith

On saying “Yes”


“Yes” CC-BY-NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Jeremy Brooks

The Inbox that stubbornly refuses to empty. The “To Respond” list that keeps getting longer. The sudden, important meeting that sinks your day’s plan, and most of your day. The point where you mentally switch from “How much will I accomplish this week?” to “How much will I let slip this week?”. Sound at all familiar?

I’ve been having a week. One of those weeks. And something I’ve noticed about my stress response is that I tend to go into “damage control” mode, putting off people and tasks in favor of the thing that needs to be tended most. The impulse often feels soothing, like I’m asserting control and being decisive. And there are seemingly easy things to ditch. My to do list is full of them. The professor trying to find a project for her class. A PhD student asking for an interview. A request to give a lecture at a local museum. That book I’ve been lugging around for a couple of months that I still haven’t finished, let alone made notes on. It’d be easy to say “No” to and cross off the list. But often that damage control actually creates more damage than I’m preventing. The opportunity costs of saying “No” too quickly can be high.

As I was staring at the list, I had one of those little epiphanies that can realign your brain. Having decided to say no to a bunch of things, I didn’t feel any less stressed, or more free to focus. So I asked myself what it would look like if I said yes to the things I was thinking of crossing off. And for a few of them, saying yes didn’t really kill my crowded calendar any more than it already was. And once I started thinking about them as possibilities rather than intrusions I was able to see strategic value. For them, saying “Yes” turned into “Yes, and” in a way that Jen Brown would be proud of. The interview would provide data for other things I was working on. The student project could be a useful testing ground for an idea. I said “Yes” and immediately felt better, even though I’d theoretically added more to the pile.

The opposite was also true. The lecture, while appealing to my vanity and wallet, would require a ton of preparation on a topic that wasn’t really a current interest of mine. Saying yes would mean digging out books I hadn’t read in years, finding old presentations I could retool, and spending time that I would otherwise spend on other items on the to do list. Saying “No” to them was actually the right thing and felt right. But turning the default question around allowed me to differentiate more strategically.

And, of course, the other benefit of this epiphany was that I like saying “yes” and “yes and”. It feels good to engage with the world and the work, and not get stuck in the swamp of Too Much to Do.

Now if I can just finish that book and take notes before MCN2016

MCN 2016 Book Club!

I’ve been reading a ton of interesting stuff this. 2016 may go down as the year of “Ed has too many books to read.” But I’m making my way through them, and the pile of articles, too! One that has really been speaking to my condition has been “Post Critical Museology: Theory and Practice in the Art Museum”. Check it out!


What I like about it
Unlike so many of the books on the market, this isn’t a collection of essays. It’s the result of a major collaborative research project carried out at Tate Britain in London that looks at the reconfiguration of the relationship between art, culture and society and how Tate Britain has tried to respond, with mixed results. It is able to be grounded in one institution, and the authors do a good job of navigating between that specificity and generalizations about the field. I’m a sucker for anything promoting progressive thinking in museological practice and whether or not I resonate with what they’re calling “post-critical museology” or not, it’s been an interesting trip thus far.

I mentioned this on Twitter a few weeks ago to Prof. Suse Cairns, and the response was positive.

So, if you’re going to be in New Orleans for MCN 2016 and are looking for a more structured kind of conversation, come hang out with me and Suse Cairns, and whoever wants to join in as we talk about Post Critical Museology. We’ll find a spot and a time and have a good long talk! I’m looking forward to it.


The afterlife of good ideas

I posted a piece on PEM’s blog about a project I worked on in 2013 that has been enjoying a remarkable resurgence. Check it out.

And if you need a reason to remember to blog about your work, consider that all this interest is a result of people being able to read my original blog post about the boat.


My new CODE|WORDS piece is up!

My long correspondence with Lesley Kadish about immersion has started appearing on the new CODE|WORDS publication: A Series of Epistolary Events. I invite you to check it out as it plays out over the next several weeks. Immersion, the Senses, and Embodied Experiences