Tag Archives: design

Representing abundance in collections

Janet Carding and I have been talking about her upcoming CODE|WORDS essay on change management in the digital era, and one painful truth she points out is that she still goes to events where museum leaders talk about putting their collections online and making them available to search, a full generation after this problem was first solved. And that solution – search – is itself hugely problematic, for me, and others, I think, largely because of how stingy we are in how we provide access to those collections.

CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Paul Lowry

CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Paul Lowry

Once upon a time, when you wanted to find out something, you’d go to the library and look in a card catalogue for a topic or a title. Once you got a number, you’d go wander the aisles or stacks, looking at book spines for the right number. Maybe you’d find what you were looking for. Maybe you wouldn’t. But in either case, you’d encounter a ton of information on the way that would give you both a sense of what you were looking for and what information surrounded it.

Fast forward to 2015 and how have we advanced in our ability to present vast sums of knowledge?

 

 

 

 

Bit of a let down, isn’t it?

Hold the idea of being in the library stacks and then look at the blank search box, revealing nothing, mocking your ignorance, coyly withholding its treasures and forcing you to figure out what magic formula will get it to show you the goods. As Mitchell Whitelaw points out in his excellent article “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections”

“Decades of digitisation have made a wealth of digital cultural material available online. Yet search — the dominant interface to these collections — is incapable of representing this abundance. Search is ungenerous: it withholds information, and demands a query.”

I expressed a strong opinion on this in my CODE|WORDS essay “The Virtues of Promiscuity”

“Let’s be clear that what I’m talking about is not “Let’s put the collection online” by making a database with a web interface. Access is important, but a web portal is an oracular cave, dark and mysterious. You go into the dark place, ask your question, and the Sibyl answers. Hopefully, it makes sense. Sometimes, it’s a very detailed answer, sometimes not. But the seeker never has the ability to appreciate the collection as a whole, or to interrogate it in any ways other than those chosen by the architects of the CMS and the portal. And they’re black holes to indexers. Google, Yahoo! and Baidu have no way of knowing what lies beyond your search box, and in a world where findability equals existence, this is death. Actually it’s worse, it’s annihilation — being made into nothing. Not a great strategy for proving relevance.”

The really frustrating thing is that the problem with search has been recognized as a problem pretty much since the beginning. At the very first Museums and the Web conference in 1997(!), in “The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web & the Evolution of Museum Automation”, Kevin Donovan wrote,

“The search interface approach employs the frightful blank search field method of providing access to data. This method reproduces the most inscrutable characteristics of database technology, a technology so daunting that even within museums only those deliberate souls whose jobs depend on it, collections managers and registrars, will use it.”

We’re talking 1997 Web 1.0 days, when there was no Facebook, no Twitter, and Netscape Navigator had a 62% market share compared to Internet Explorer’s 35% (over half of whom were using IE3 on Windows 95 machines). Even then, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, search was unsatisfying and problematic.

So, what are alternatives?

I’m sure (I hope?) that there are museum collections that can be explored in more generous ways than search. If you know of any, send me a link, eh? Here are two examples I know of, though both are long in the tooth now.

The Visual Thesaurus is an interactive dictionary and thesaurus, based on the Thinkmap architecture. It was all the rage around the turn of the millennium. I recall owning a copy of it on floppy disk. Luckily, the web version continues to this day. It’s a great tool for exploring the relationships between words and their meanings. It allows you to drift from word to word and concept to concept, all while showing you the landscape around the object of your study. It’s a great tool, and had obvious museum applications from the get-go. Thinkmap and the Experience Music Project presented “Artifact as Inspiration: Using existing collections and management systems to inform and create new narrative structures” at MW2001. It’s still relevant, 14 years later. I tried a couple of times to get projects off the ground using Thinkmap, but with no luck.

Planetary is an example of both visualization and of evolving museum practice. It was a great iPad app for visualizing your iTunes music library that employed a novel conceit: it used a planetary system metaphor for displaying metadata. Artists were stars, albums were planets, tracks were moons. It was a very different take on looking at your music, and the visuals were amazing. Here’s a look.

An interesting postscript to Planetary’s short life was that it was the first digital object the Cooper Hewitt collected, in 2013. “Planetary: Collecting and Preserving code as a living object” raises a number of issues about ways of visualizing abundance.  I added some commentary at the time, too.

Conclusion

Both of these models offer glimpses of how exploring museum datasets could be more interesting, more generous, and more useful to our audiences. It’s a great opportunity to innovate, because the stakes are so high. Putting our abundant resources out on the open web won’t gain us much if we don’t find ways to make them more inviting, to lure potential explorers into their depths, and to encourage the kinds of serendipitous explorations that a trip through the stacks could produce. I’ll leave you with another Whitelaw quote that says it better than I would.

The stakes here are high, because the interface plays an inescapable role in mediating digital heritage. Whether a command-line console or an immersive visualisation, these collections come to us in some specific, concrete form; and crucially, that form is constructed and contingent. It can always be otherwise. As our cultural heritage is increasingly networked and digital, the life and use of that heritage will increasingly be conditioned by the forms in which it reaches us, how it is made concrete and available both for scholars and the wider public. As argued above, search-centred conventions offer meagre representational tools; while there are promising signs of a new generosity emerging, much more is possible.

References:

Mitchell Whitelaw
“Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly, Volume 9 Number 1, 2015

Ed Rodley
“The Virtues of Promiscuity: or, Why giving it away is the future”, CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum. 2014

Kevin Donovan
“The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web & the Evolution of Museum Automation” Museums and the Web 1997

Seb Chan
“Planetary: Collecting and Preserving code as a living object” Cooper Hewitt blog, 2013.

What is the Museum full stack?

“Stacked Pebbles, Spanish Bay” CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Christopher Chan

Following my post about Agile methodologies in museums, I wandered (as one does on the Internet) to adjacent topics. According to my Scrum Master brother, one of the anti-patterns in museums that makes Agile implementation difficult to fathom is the specialization of roles. Whereas software developers are expected to be familiar with all the layers of code that make up modern software “the full stack”, museum expertise is pretty highly differentiated. Curatorial is separate from interpretation which is separate from collections. It allows for great specialization, but makes it harder to see how all the pieces of museum work can and should fit together to make for great visitor engagement. It makes it hard to even see the digital manifestations of our work as belonging to a single stack, which makes it very hard to develop digital experiences that can take advantage of all the affordances the modern internet provides. It’s a classic wicked problem, where even trying to outline the contours of the issue is hard and changeable. But, those are the problems most worth poking at, right? So I started collecting stacks and looking for similarities, and potential applications.

So I tweeted my question into the ether,

and lo! Answers returned.

Other people are wrestling with the same or similar issues. We decided to have a higher-bandwidth conversation than Twitter allows and scheduled a time to hang out and talk. I had a great lunchtime chat the other day with colleagues in Pittsburgh (Jeff Inscho @staticmade), St. Paul (Bryan Kennedy @xbryanx), and San Diego (Chad Weinard @caw_) about the idea of the museum full stack and how and why to build it.

Part of the problem I think, is that the full stack is hard to comprehend and traditionally hasn’t even been thought of (outside of IT circles) as a data ecosystem, but rather as a series of disconnected systems, owned and operated by separate departments, with parochial concerns. Certainly my own experience with developing digital experiences reflects that. This is also partly an historical artifact. A lot of these systems probably can trace their lineages back to when they were separate, discrete systems that possessed little or no ability to interoperate. The Internet has wrecked that isolation, as it has so many other things. Time to build a new perception of the museum data ecosystem and say goodbye to the days when IT owned this piece, and that piece was Collections’ worry. The reality is much more interconnected.

Cooper Hewitt’s stack

A lot of the impetus for me starting this conversation was a post by Seb Chan about the Cooper Hewitt’ API, their stack and it’s centrality to their vision. It starts with the museum’s two “sources of truth”, the repositories of the two kinds of data that the Cooper Hewitt relies on; data about objects, and data about visitors. Go read the whole thing. It’s worth it. I immediately resonated with the graphic on several levels. We use some of the same systems, and have been wrestling with the same kinds of ideas around providing visitors with personalized experiences. I’m particularly interested in representing the abundance of information in collections, and it’s hard to do that in the dominant paradigm of “search”.

“Decades of digitisation have made a wealth of digital cultural material available online. Yet search — the dominant interface to these collections — is incapable of representing this abundance. Search is ungenerous: it withholds information, and demands a query.”

Mitchell Whitelaw

Cooper Hewitt’s stack, image by Katie Shelly

Cooper Hewitt’s approach of using the full stack approach makes it possible for them to provide visitors with multiple entry points into the collection through interactive experiences, what Mitchell Whitelaw would call more “generous interfaces”.  I find it hard to perceive any other way to do that without stepping back and looking at the full stack, seeing the forest through the trees as it were.

Here are a few of the other things that came up in our chat.

Objects, Experiences, People

Cooper Hewitt’s stack is a great model because it’s suitably specific. Their model would not likely be your model or anybody else’s, for that matter. The systems they rely on, and the staff expertise they bring to bear are unique. So their “two sources of truth” might not be yours. As Bryan pointed at, at his museum, Science Museum of Minnesota, they are as focused on the experiences they build as they are on the objects they use to populate some of those experiences. They are fundamental to the museum’s operation and incorporate content and ideas that don’t neatly fit in either source of truth. They’re not about objects, per se. For them, the experience is a truth that needs its own source. Cooper Hewitt doesn’t, but the Rijksmuseum might classify visitors’ digital creations as a separate source of truth, related to, yet distinct from the CMS or CRM systems. You get the idea?… At its most basic, atomic level, we want to be able to store, retrieve, and connect people, objects, and experiences.

What I find powerful about looking at the full stack of software platforms and services, is that it frees you from the mental constraint of the gallery, or the webpage. When you frame is an exhibition, everything looks like a kiosk. Same for good ole’ Web 1.0. The answer is usually a microsite or a web portal.

Monolithic systems break badly

Another issue that came up was the desire in some parts (often, but not always, administration) to create monolithic systems that will take care of everything. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve probably run into vendors whose products will take care of all your digital needs. Their systems promise to be flexible, scalable, and easy to use (usually through the use of predefined templates). All your content will be seamlessly pushed to the destination of your choice, be it the exhibit hall or the Web. And though they may perform a lot of these functions, the reality is that they more often than not A) don’t deliver, and B) wind up becoming a straightjacket as the system ages, new systems join the ecosystem, and contracts/service agreements expire. As monolithic systems age, they don’t age gracefully, and when (not if) they break, they break badly.

Loose connections

That’s another place where designing systems and services that use the full stack is useful. The real power in  looking at the entire data ecosystem is that a hierarchy of linked systems can be loosely connected through APIs, assuming your stack layers are built on and use APIs. A break in any one of these loose connections is unlikely to bring your whole ecosystem crashing down, and the fix to one piece need not require an overhaul of the whole system. A stack that relies on APIs can be much more friendly to new platforms being integrated into the stack. The downside is that creating and managing this kind of ecosystem requires staff resources that are different than the resources needed to maintain one monolithic system, or a series of unconnected ones. And museums tend to privilege depth of knowledge over breadth, even in digital roles.

To that end I tried to put together a possible statement of what PEM’s stack looks like/could look like. I invite you  take a look. Add your own stack, too if you feel so inclined. Just make a new tab in the spreadsheet.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1A4al28YCZnpSn4Dl8ew2v2cmffc1ViIcbCWxwE6AVq8/edit#gid=1399901573

The power of attention

Frites, mayo & beer. It's that good!

Frites, mayo & beer. It’s that good!

I’ve recently returned from a week in the Netherlands, filming for Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen. We (the curator, our manager of AV production, and me) went over with a long list of video footage we needed to capture, and capture it we did. It was amazing. Interviewing Theo and shadowing him around was a real thrill. Holland in the Spring? ‘nuf said. Subsisting largely on cheese, butter, and beer and frites for a week? Yum… But what is rising up in me as one of the real benefits of travelling thousands of miles was the freedom it gave me to focus on one thing, to pay deep attention.

With layovers and hanging around in airport times, I had almost half a work week to do with as I pleased. Certainly some of that time was spent logisitically, worrying about schedules, playing around with interview questions, weighing options in case Plan A didn’t pan out. But that still left hours and hours to just think about the project, and doodle, storyboard, and imagine in a way that I often find it hard to do at work. And with the time difference, real-time communication with home wasn’t really practical. I had the gift of being undistracted by all the other priorities that fill workdays.

It was also a great bonding experience for those of us on the trip because we got to spend all day, every day, talking about the project, and riffing off each other’s ideas and observations. And the filming we did gave us hours and hours of time with the artist, listening to him describe his process, point of view, and outlook on life. By the end, we’d had hours of conversation about the pieces we’d come to shoot video for, and about the exhibition. I can see it now, in much more detail than I could before. I’ve written before about the way one refines one’s mental picture of a project as it progresses, and this trip was very crystallizing. And ultimately useful to the whole project team. We have both broadened and deepened our shared vision of what the show can be. And that took time.

Chip and I spent a lot of time on opposite sides of the camera.

Chip and I spent a lot of time on opposite sides of the camera.

Were we agile?

When something goes really well, I’m always interested in trying to analyze it and find things I can apply more broadly. I’ve also been reading about Agile software development, and I started to see commonalities between what worked in the Netherlands and Agile methods. I’ve long stood on the sidelines about translating methodoliges designed for software development and transplanting them in different arenas. The Agile methodology is the posterchild for this. I imagine you’ll hear it many time on the museum tech conference circuit if you haven’t already. I’m a hype skeptic, and I’m OK with that. Ask me about gamiification (ack!) if you need an example. But behind hype there is usually a kernel of truth, and Agile’s kernel (I think) is that it makes you devote attention to one task. If you’re a complete Agile newbie, go check out the Wikipedia entry for a good intro. In a nutshell, Agile is supposed to privilege:

  • Individuals and interactions over Processes and tools
  • Working software over Comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over Contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over Following a plan

In looking back over the week, I am starting to see how Agile methodologies could be applied to non-software development projects. Our morning breakfasts were essentially daily stand-up meetings where we discussed yesterday, laid out today, and looked forward to tomorrow as best as we could see. We shot whatever we thought we might need or want, even if it wasn’t on our list of things we needed. Our written descriptions for what we were doing and why did not preclude us from altering course during a shoot when new ideas presented themselves, and the videos will be better for it. As opportunities arose, we took them. Our customer was an active participant throughout the process, as was the artist, and their contributions and continuous feedback were crucial. It all sounds kinda Agile… Go figure.

Looking back, I can see that my approach to product development has always been more adaptive than predictive. So maybe it’s time to really dig in a bit more and see what esle Agile holds that might be useful.

Anybody else out there using any Agile methodolgies in museum work, especially outside of software development?

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!

playing around in 3D, & being an active learner

by Ed Rodley
I was in New York a couple of weeks ago to go see a couple of plays, Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in Pinter and Becket. Heaven! I was also in town on a day that there was a Hack Day at the Metropolitan Museum, so after a serendipitous tweet from Neal Stimler, I made my way up to the Upper East Side and spent a few enjoyable hours in the Met, playing around w 3D, scanning things, meeting new people and having a blast.
Neal Stimler and DH Unicorn in their native habitat at the Met offices.

Neal Stimler and DH Unicorn in their native habitat at the Met offices.

 I got a chance to see how the Met is embodying the kinds of change that so many museums (mine included) are contemplating and came away invigorated by their enterpreneurial, almost start-up like culture. Such a change from just a few years ago.
The Sense handheld 3D scanner

The Sense handheld 3D scanner

One of the best parts of the event was that Don Undeen (he of the MCN Ignite talk) was demoing a 3D Systems Sense 3D scanner. This inexpensive IR-based scanner (think Kinect you can brandish) is relatively new and Don was testing one with the Hack Day crew. 

Yours truly. Not bad quality...

Yours truly. Not bad quality…

I got scanned at a crazy drunken angle. How, I don’t know. I was sitting up straight, still as a statue, as Don worked his way around me. I think when he was cropping the scan afterwards, he solidified the scan by filling in the bottom at that rakish angle.
Scanning party. Don's holding the laptop as I walk around the statue, trying to get a clean capture.

Scanning party. Don’s holding the laptop as I walk around the statue, trying to get a clean capture.

Getting to try the Sense out on the halls was a highlight of the trip. It kinda reminded me of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence.  Thinking of the scanner as a spraycan and “painting” up and down across the surface to be scanned seemed to give the best results.  Strangely, it also worked better the less you tried to be thorough. Loose, big gestures seemed to generate better scans than small, careful ones.  The technology is interesting, but I don’t know how much better the results were from simpler, photographic methods like 123DCatch. I couldn’t tell from looking at the screen. The mesh size seemed comparable and the software was challenging. Every scan we attempted ended with the scanner losing tracking on the object it was pointed at. My sense is that the developers were trying so hard to make a consumer product that they went overboard on what the software was doing in the background to let you focus on scanning.

Even though my scanning experience wasn’t 100% successful, I felt like the learning experience was. We were a group of self-selected learners, teaching each other and learning together as fast as we could, and we scaffolded each other into greater knowledge in a way that probably would’ve taken a lot longer if we’d each done it individually.

Learning as a team sport

Last week, some colleagues and I spent a lunch hour watching SkillShare videos on 3D printing together as we brainstorm new kinds of digital programming we might offer visitors in the future. The course content wasn’t new to me. I’ve poked around into most of it before over the past few years. What was new, and I think too-often-overlooked, was the benefit of doing it in a group. We could all have sat at our desks and agreed to watch the videos before our next meeting, but being in the same room at the same time doing the same thing made the experience much more fruitful and educational for all of us.

The four of us all had different levels of familiarity with software, hardware, jargon, and trends. Just knowing that information will be useful moving forward. We clarified points for each other, repeated bits that somebody needed repeated, offered our our insights into our experiences with these technologies and riffed off each other as we went from video to video. The progress we made individually and as a team was much more than I think we would’ve made alone. And the ideas we came up with were exciting, too! The next meeting will hopefully be even more productive now that we’ve tasted success. Figuring out how to hold onto that momentum will be the hard part, once schedules start filling up again.

Making space to be active learners

I blogged about this topic a couple of years ago, and the same holds true now. Making time to take time to learn is an ever more important factor to sustaining a highly-productive, creative enterprise.

How do you carve out the time to keep your skill set fresh?

Review: Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One – Part Two

Introduction
So here is part two of my review of Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One. If you’re just joining us, check out Part One of my review here. It has important introductory material you should have in mind as you read.

The Collection Wall

Visitors using the Collections Wall

For me, the Collection Wall was the centerpiece of the Gallery One experience. A continuous 40-foot long multi-touch screen (that’s 150 Christie MicroTiles for you hardware dorks) visually displaying images of over 3,000 works of art at CMA, the Wall is an impressive piece of technology, but it’s more. The effect of standing before it as the collection slowly slides by and regroups itself around themes is a visual exclamation of bounty. “Look at all that’s here for you to explore!” it practically shouts. And I know the amount of work contained in just providing decent images and descriptive text for 3,000+ objects. I hope they can use this experience to really generate a kick-ass CMS full of data and metadata, because let’s face it, many of our institutions have a long way to go to provide the kind of experience one gets at the Collections Wall.

A familiar sight for a select few. A typical view of images in a CMS (In this case, TMS). Image from http://www.gallerysystems.com/sites/default/files/screenshots/2012/english/display.png

Closeup of the Collections Wall

The Collection Wall is meant to be an introductory experience to visiting the rest of the museum, and a lot of functionalities (or lack thereof) flow from this decision. At the Wall, you can look at art, grab pieces that pique your interest and drag them to you, see other objects with similar metadata (time period, medium, locale…) and many of the things you can do looking through any other image database. What makes the Collection Wall a bit different is that interfaces with CMA’s ArtLens app to allow you to save images you like, construct your own tour of the museum, or take someone’s else’s. You can borrow iPads from the museum, or bring your own and set them on a stand in front of the Wall, which, through the magic of RFID tags (make sure to ask for one if you bring your own iPad) will glow blue when it detects your device and will sync up any objects you flick downwards towards your iPad and show you what you’ve gathered. When you pick up your iPad, it’s got your objects already on it, and your device will tell you which galleries they’re in.

Their user scenario seems solid enough. Visitor comes to Gallery One first, checks out iPad, looks at Collection Wall to find interesting objects, gathers some, maybe assembles a tour or chooses an existing one, and then goes off into the museum with their personalized map. I, of course, wanted to try something different. I saw an image of a flintlock pistol go by, and thought, “Ooh, I wonder if they’ve got more flintlocks?” (good thesis topics never leave you). So I grabbed it and tried to wring more information out of it. The options for browsing similar items were for serendipitous browsing, not real searching. I didn’t want to see other things from Italy, or from 1620, so I tried Arms and armor. Still too broad. Grr. Was there a search feature? No. So I ended up stepping several paces back from the wall and visually scanning for other flintlocks. I did manage to find a couple and dragged them (one quite a distance!) over to my area and flicked them down to my iPad.

And here’s a classic design dilemma. If your goal is to make an experience that will propel people into the museum, then leaving out a search function makes sense. You don’t want them spending precious time in front of a wall of screens. The obvious solution is to limit the number of functions one can perform at the Wall. But, what if the experience is so compelling that visitors want to do more than the system is designed to do? I don’t know which way I’d go if it were up to me. As a visitor, I felt a little disappointed that I couldn’t use the Wall as a way to learn more.

ArtLens app

I will admit I started out predisposed against the ArtLens app before I even landed in Cleveland. When it first came out, I was one of those people who read the reports on Gallery One and knew I needed to take a look. So I went and downloaded the ArtLens app from the iTunes store. The ArtLens app was a normal sized download, so I waited for it, and then I launched it, only to find that it needed “resources” to run and it would be twenty minutes (!) before it downloaded all the images, etc… it needed. Grr.

Later that day, I finally explored the app and poked around at it, but it became very clear that the app was designed solely to aid you on a visit to the physical museum. Most of the main features like Near You Now, Scanning, and Today, meant nothing to me in Boston. The other two Tours, and Favorites at least rewarded my poking around with beautiful images, but they were still completely site-specific. It was one of those moments when it was clear that the app was not made for the likes of me.

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The combination of the Lenses, the Collection Wall and ArtLens are supposed to provide visitors with a set of experiences that help them learn how to “do” a visit to CMA. The integration between ArtLens and the Wall was therefore an important piece to get right since the ArtLens was the only piece of the Gallery One experience that could be carried out of the gallery and into the rest of the museum. I was particularly interested to see how well the two components worked with each other and how well the ArtLens worked out in the wild, since location-finding in museums is still one of those issues that still hasn’t been solved well. Or had it?

The Collection Wall/ArtLens interface. When you place an active iPad on a station, it glows blue. Any objects you flick down, get saved to your device.

When it came to using the ArtLens in the museum, I had no luck. The signal dropped on me almost immediately and despite my unauthorized fiddling with the device, I couldn’t get it back. Having walked a good ways into the building, I gave up on it, and toted the iPad around while I enjoyed the art. Upon returning, a group of us sat down (collapsed?) at the cafe for a final chat and found that for one person the Wifi had worked fine. She was delighted with the experience and happily told us about her adventures “scanning” objects and ideas for how she’d improve on it. The second person at the table had had intermittent signal losses, but had managed to restart the device and find the network again. I, as you know,  had a total failure of the device, and couldn’t add much to the conversation, other than the observation that if three seasoned professionals who weren’t afraid to try anything and everything could have such wildly different experiences of the device, what must it be like for a visitor who happens to have a hard time?

In short, I’m still not sold on any Wifi-based location finding system.

The Workshops

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Looking back on the two days I spent at the MW Deep Dive, the most important lessons I took away from the workshop have less to do with the products of the Gallery One project and more to do with the process CMA had to develop in order to get the work done. It’s here that I think the format of the “Deep Dive” really shone. I’d seen CMA’s conference presentations, read the paper. And even if I’d gone to Gallery One on my own, I don’t think I’d have gotten as much out of it as I did during the workshop. Having all the key staff there, exploring their process and learning, and having the finished product right there to explore was an ideal way to really wrap my brain around what CMA had tried to do.

The day we arrived, we started out at the museum for an informal welcome and then a couple of hours to explore on our own. It was good to start off approaching it more like a visitor than a professional, and watching your colleagues and friends trying to make sense of an experience is always entertaining! We talked, wandered around, and poked at everything we could see. Dinner that night was full of debate as we compared notes and tried to put ourselves in the heads of CMA’s staff.

The next morning, there were a series of six workshops focusing on everything from immersive exeriences to staffing, to content management. And like good workshops, they were mostly discussion and not so much presentation. The attendees had tons of questions, and the CMA staff, who represented a variety of education, interpretation, curatorial, and technology perspectives, managed to answer most of those questions.

Everyone I met, from the Director on down, was able to talk knowledgeably about the project. It was clear how much of a museum-wide endeavor Gallery One was, and that may be it’s greatest accomplishment.

Creating a set of digital experiences with the depth and breadth of Gallery One required CMA’s educators and curators (and collections managers, and contractors, and visitor services folks, and…) to work together in ways that they hadn’t before. The team had to articulate a vision of how they wanted visitors to experience a visit to CMA, and then design exhibits to encourage that kind of participation. You can agree or disagree with whether those goals were the most important, but it was abundantly clear to me that they came up with goals that had broad consensus in the museum and then stuck to them. And having worked on projects that had clear goals and ones that didn’t, I can’t overstate how much better the former is. When you have goals that a) everybody can understand/articulate, and b) everybody can get behind (even unwillingly) then seemingly impossible hurdles can be overcome, like restarting the design process when the project seemed to be heading in the wrong direction, or getting multiple curators to assign highlight works from their collections to a crazy experimental gallery instead of putting them in the permanent galleries.

One of the curators in the immersive experiences workshop said something about how rewarding it was to be part of an inclusive process. Curators often tend to be cast “the other” when  we talk about new technologies and methodologies, but as I noted last year at Museums and the Web, we seem to have passed that inflection point, where incorporating digital is no longer a question of “Should we?” but “How should we?” Looking back on the Gallery One process, he said that not only  can you expect collaborative cooperation from most curators, but that you should expect it. There will be holdouts in every institution, of course.

Gallery One awaits!

Conclusion

So that’s my very unscientific, very personal experience of a great project and a great professional development event.  Getting a project as massive as Gallery One launched on time, on budget, and on target is a feat worthy of our admiration and respect. Some parts of it worked really well for me. Others seemed more problematic, and one just didn’t work. But that’s what happens when you’re ambitious. You try things, see what works, fix what doesn’t, and move on. CMA is already working on the next version of the ArtLens app, and I look forward to seeing what the next iteration of Gallery One looks like. CMA have firmly established themselves as a forward-looking institution, out ahead of the pack. And with Gallery One, they’ve set a pretty high bar for what will count as a “big, ambitious digital project” from now on.

You should go.

Other observations

Some other jottings from my notebook that didn’t find their way into these posts:

  • If you put touchscreens in a gallery with artworks, will people touch the art more? Yes. Better plan for it.
  • Listening to visitor research helped CMA avoid telling stories only the staff were interested in, like the history of CMA and its collections.
  • Developing  Gallery One really highlighted how much visitors want to know “the basics” about objects; the who, what, when, and where.
  • The chief curator said that a benefit he hadn’t anticipated about Gallery One was that it was now possible to know which objects visitors were most interested in by looking at which ones got “favorited” the most. It had become his habit to check in on the stats to see which objects were most popular with compared his own list of favorites.
  • Jane Alexander said that one of the most important decisions she made was hiring an AV integrator at the beginning of the project whose job was “to tell them how much ‘yes’ was going to cost.” Smart.

Further Resources

CMA YouTube video:
Transforming the Museum Experience: GALLERY ONE

Transforming the Art Museum Experience: Gallery One
Jane Alexander, USA , Jake Barton, USA, Caroline Goeser, USA
http://mw2013.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/transforming-the-art-museum-experience-gallery-one-2/
The paper of record on the project, delivered at the Museums and the Web 2013 conference.

Blending Art, Technology, & Interpretation: Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One & ArtLens
Caroline Goeser
http://artmuseumteaching.com/2013/04/15/blending-art-technology-interpretation-cleveland-museum-of-arts-gallery-one-artlens/
An excellent overview of the team’s approach to using digital technologies as integrative interpretive tools to drive active experiences with art in the Gallery.

Download the ArtLens app from the iTunes store. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/artlens/id580839935?mt=8

Storify of #mwatcma tweets
These provide a neat running commentary of how the event was progressing.

Dana Allen-Greil’s took notes in a Google Doc of what impressed her during the workshops. Maybe you should add your notes to it. My notes are all here…

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!