Tag Archives: relevance

Issue: Museums and Social Change

Strandbeest at night

Strandbeest at night

The last three months have been a real emotional roller coaster ride for me in regards to how museums as civic institutions can play a useful role in the larger discussions playing out in the world. This was brought on by two colliding events: Art Basel Miami Beach and  #museumsrespondtoferguson.

[Ferguson protest in downtown St. Louis CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user velo_city]

Ferguson protest in downtown St. Louis
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user velo_city

Art Basel Miami Beach

I was at Miami as part of the team from the Peabody Essex Museum that was staffing the U.S. debut exhibition of Dutch kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, put on in conjunction with Audemars Piguet, the luxury watch manufacturer. I’ve been a fan of Theo’s work for years, and the opportunity to work with him, and to see Strandbeests in their native environment was astonishing. Check them out here or here. They’re even better in person, trust me. I’ve watched pretty much all the videos by now.

I was part of the team interpreting the beests, so I spent four lonnnnng days outside, pushing beests around, and answering questions from a neverending stream of visitors to the exhibition. I don’t get to spend a lot time in the galleries these days and the charge I got out of working with visitors was tonic for the soul. Being “on” all day and into the night was both invigorating and exhausting. I’d get back to the hotel after twelve or fourteen hours, fall into bed, and pass out. And do it all over again the next day. I felt deeply connected to that core museum practice of sharing knowledge and experience with people and helping people make new meaning out of life.

It was also a privilege to be around so many people who loved what they did. I love museum work, unironically and unapologetically. Theo Jansen’s love of his work is immediately obvious and infectious. If you watch any of his interviews, you’ll get a pretty good idea of the man and his unique outlook. And he is totally invested in his art project. Bill Morrison, the filmmaker behind Decasia and The Great Flood, was there shooting Theo for the New York Times, and we got the chance to hang out, which was bonus fun! Check out his video of the event. Our partners from AP were the same. These are serious watch folks, and their love of their subject was palpable. The unexpected highlight of the Fair for me was watching an AP watchmaker disassemble one of their movements and show us just how much attention to detail went into every microscopic piece of their work, even the pieces that the wearer will never see. Being surrounded by other people doing what they love is intoxicating.

A master watchmaker at work is a thing to behold!

A master watchmaker at work is a thing to behold!

 The conspicuous consumption!

So, on the one hand, I felt very engaged in the museum pursuit on a primal level. Work, love, person to person interaction, meaning-making; I was in the zone. And then I’d look around at the Veyron parked in front of the hotel, flanked by a Ferarri and Lambo, while a Bentley went past. I had to look up Veyron too, btw. Jillian Steinhauer from Hyperallergic summed up the dissonace perfectly in this post.  Go read it.

One surreal moment happened while I was pulling a Strandbeest across the street (with a police escort) and stopped to let a Rolls Royce convertible turn in front of me. The celebrity sightings and attendant panting of us mortals, “Serena’s coming!” “Diddy was there last night” was a constant thread. It turns out I am not immune to it at all. I overheard some pragmatic art fair advice, “Only suckers buy at the Fair! Sure, you might make the deal here, but you don’t write the check for at least a couple of weeks. Unless you’re a poser.” I didn’t hear much about contemporary art at all.

 In addition to the market thriving, it turns out that the patriarchy is alive and well. The heels! The amount of cleavage (enhanced and otherwise) and bum I saw was incredible. Granted, there was also the buff young guy on the beach in a tiny Speedo (waving a big latex dildo, btw) but the vast majority of skin on display was female, and it seemed to be on display for the well-heeled men present. At first, I was gobsmacked, then I thought “You’re just being overly provincial. Relax!”, and finally I just felt kinda dirty. I am privileged enough that I don’t have to encounter it so vividly in my daily life, but it’s still there.

And every night in my email and in the news was the drumbeat of Ferguson and Staten Island and the turmoil they engendered. As someone who’s worked their whole life in the cultural sector, and frankly was often quite smug about the social value of museum work, it was a repeated slap in the face. The armored vehicles versus unarmed protesters, the police who were to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from an army, and the systemic violence exposed for all to see.

 
“Social value, huh? How does your museum adresss this?!”
SWAT team, fully assembled CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Jamelle Bouie

SWAT team, fully assembled
CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Jamelle Bouie

Many of my colleagues in the field were grappling with the question of “How can/should/must museums respond to events like Ferguson if they really want to be engaged in the important cultural conversations of the day?” and it’s not an easy question to answer. The traditional avenues that museums utilize, like our national adovcacy group, weren’t much use at all. So the group decided to bypass the established routes and speak directly, as individuals affected by Ferguson and lucky enough to have the means to spread the word. Was it enough? Probably not. Was it more than might otherwise have been said? Definitely. And it wouldn’t have happened without a group of committed people taking time to organize and have hard conversations. So, I want to give much respect to Gretchen, Max, Aletheia and Rose, Mike, Aleia, Porchia, Adrianne, and all the others I’m forgetting who gave their time to create the statement. And, to be clear, I wasn’t much help at the time, aside from amplifying the message they crafted. I take no credit, but I am very grateful to have been able to be part of it.

What did the statement accomplish? AAM hasn’t come out with a forceful statement or suggestions for museums to tackle racial inequality. Thousands of museums haven’t added new exhibitions and programs to their calendars that address Ferguson. So, did the statement fail? I don’t think so. Sometimes just wrestling with the big, ugly, seemingly-intractable problems is restorative and necessary. We are so outcomes-based as a society that I think the really big problems are especially hard for us to grapple with, because it’s hard to see the direct path from here to a better world. And maybe that fixation with outcome gets in the way. I’ve come to believe that it is more important to stand up and speak up against injustice now than to have “the answer”. The conversations that led up to the statement were challenging, provoking even. And I’m glad I was challenged and provoked.

And since then, things have happened…

Grassroots organizing seems to be alive and well

One of the encouraging results of #museumsrespondtoferguson was that Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell initiated a monthly Twitter chat on museums and race. I’m confident that there’ll be some sanctioned or unsanctioned conversations at AAM this year. Rebecca Herz wrote an excellent meditation on ethics in museum practice that touches on a lot of the same issues I’ve been grappling with. It’s well worth a look.  Separate conversations on income inequality and the high price of museum conferences have sprung up as a result of #museumsrespondtoferguson. There was a great debate recently on Twitter between current media darlings MuseumHack and a bunch of New York-based museum professionals over the high prices of their tours, and the larger issue of whether museums’ eagerness to court younger audiences really means only affluent young audiences. These are all good signs. Issues of import are being discussed in public forums instead of behind closed doors or at conference sessions attended by a few dozen of the usual suspects. The questions being raised will doubtless irritate some and offend others. And that’s not a bad thing. The museum endeavor, that direct experience with the sublime, the unbelievable, and the novel, has such tremendous potential to uplift people of all ages and inclinations that it’s worth some discomfort.

“Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse, Part Two

Curation, stuff, people, meanings. Fear of change vs fear of irrelevance. Framing debates and the need for new frames. That was Part One of this series in a nutshell. Getting through it without answering snark with more snark was more of a challenge than I expected, so what had been one really long post with a happy ending got split into two posts. For background framing of the curation/participation issue, go back and read it. It features a picture from I Can Haz Cheezeburger, so it’s worth it.

In this post, I’d like to look more at examples of work people are doing that take on issues around curation, and maybe serve as exemplars. I’ll start with some provocative thoughts that are a wonderful antidote to the pearl-clutching tone of some of the other recent articles, then we’ll finally explore two of the smallest museums that I referenced at the beginning of Part One.

Let your voice be heard!

Lolly Hopkins cheers on the Braves with megaphone. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image from Boston Public Library

Lolly Hopkins cheers on the Braves with megaphone.
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image from Boston Public Library

In response to my first post, Seb Chan from Cooper Hewitt offered another possible way forward: clearer voice, than the standard 20th century disembodied “institutional voice” that is still prevalent in the field. I’m just going to repost big chunks of it because it’s that good:

“My view is increasingly that museums need opinions, and that means that more than ever their exhibitions benefit from being opinionated. Sometimes the opinion that needs to be stated is that of those voices least frequently heard in museums (some – but not all – participatory exhibit projects might fall into this category) and well served by ‘community sourcing’, but other times it’s a need to have an upfront, loud, curatorial voice.”

I think this perceived lack of voice often afflicts participatory projects, which is why they get characterized as messy and chaotic. The Memory Jars project at the Museum of Art and History at Santa Cruz or Object Stories at Portland Art Museum I think ar egood examples of projects where visitors’ voices come through loud and clear, which may be why I like them. The perceived lack of loud curatorial voices reminded me of Max Anderson’s 2011 “The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions” which included this gem, “One solution is for art historians and curators to devote more pages and column inches to explaining why art matters and why it should move us, and to be less patronizing about the relevance of our discipline just because the public does not see the point.” Amen, brother!

And lest you start feeling smug, I think that admonition applies to us all, not just art historians. If your audience doesn’t get what you’re doing, is it the audience’s fault, or your museum’s?

Interpreting the language of objects
This communication problem ties into the curation/participation dynamic. Often, the adherents of traditional practice take a dim view of interpretation of any stripe. They want straight curatorial wisdom and nothing else. “Let the objects speak for themselves” is a refrain I’ve heard more than once. And I think it’s all well and good, if your audience is an already-informed one, like say art critics, and fellow museum professionals. If the audience includes people who don’t already speak that language (be it art, or science, or history, or whatever), then not so well. Seb, in his comment,  continued,

“The big caveat being that that voice needs to be able to heard and understood by a significant proportion of the visitors to be valuable (cue “more interpretation”, “better exhibition design”, “exhibition design as coherent argument”, “audience research” etc). Curation has to be more than just ‘choosing’. When its done well, it is, and obviously so. Too often what is celebrated by those against more participatory activities in museums are opaque exhibitions with curatorial arguments obfuscated with a thick dose of International Art English.”

I agree completely. Curation as a form of sense-making requires strong interpretation. Regan Forrest published a great, short post on the language of objects [http://reganforrest.com/2014/10/the-language-of-objects/] that picked apart this question of interpretation that’s worth reading. She notes that ,

“the ‘objects are mute’ vs ‘objects speak for themselves’ debate may be missing an important nuance: perhaps objects do speak, at least some of the time, although we as visitors may not necessarily be conversant in the language any given object speaks. And if not, the object is as good as mute to us.”

I like the model of the “language of objects” being spoken with a strong voice, and interpreted for an audience who may not be fluent in that language. Unfortunately, interpretation often gets a bad reputation as “pandering”. I wrote about this almost exactly a year ago and the world hasn’t progressed far since then.  Regan Forrest and I bounced the idea back and forth across a couple of blog posts, in which she asked the question,  When does interpretation cross the line from mediation – providing a hook or a link between audiences and content – into interference: “over-interpretation”, where it’s simply getting in the way of a meaningful experience? Does this line shift depending on the audience? On the subject matter? Whether its science or its art?” Striking that balance is hard. Which made me wonder about other interesting models people are pursuing that come at curation in interesting ways.

Here are two examples that were at my famers market last weekend. One thing that unites the two is that both try to take the museum experience outside of the museum and meet visitors where they already are, and invert the model of the visit. Another is their clear, definitely opinionated curatorial stance.

The Mµseum

The Mµseum opened in 2010 in Union Square, not far from my house. Billed as the world’s smallest museum, it occupies a niche in a wall between a sub shop and a restaurant in a busy pedestrian square. Judith Krausner and Steve Pomeroy wanted a way to showcase the works of regional artists in an intimate setting that was also free of the constraints of getting into a gallery or museum space. Why not make a space where people already were, and bring the museum experience to them? Thus was born the Mµseum.

Go to their website and you’ll see their program, though truly tiny in scale, has all the hallmarks of a traditional museum endeavor, and boasts a very clear voice. Their statement about “accessibility” reads, We want art to be something that is approachable to everyone. By bringing art right up to the viewer, in an unstaffed, pressure-free environment (a place you’d be anyway, just walking down the street!), we hope to make art both physically and psychologically approachable.” They want people walking down the street to stop and see some art made by artists working in the area. Somerville, MA apparently has the largest number of working artists per capita of any municipality in the United States, so there’s no shortage of materials.

The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts

The MMoAA parked the the Union Square Farmers' Market in Somerville, MA

The MMoAA parked the the Union Square Farmers’ Market in Somerville, MA

The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts is the brainchild of Laurelin Kruse, a California-based artist and arts educator. After a brief stint at the Calder Foundation, she became fascinated by the way a single person’s life could become the focus of so many people’s work; collecting, cataloguing, conserving every little scrap, no matter how quotidian. What about the artiacts of ordinany Americans, the countless stories and lives that surround us? Who was going to find, collect *their* objects and stories? Thus was MMoAA born, and it’s curator.

After finding a suitable gallery space (a converted 1968 Cardinal camper), and kickstarting its retrofitting, Kruse set out from California, stopping along the way for brief periods of time, setting up shop, and soliciting objects and stories. By the time we met in Somerville, she’d already been across the country once, and was preparing to lay up for the winter before setting out west again.   The Museum, big enough to hold three or four adults comfortably, can be visited in a few minutes, more if you use the video booth. Though she’s collected quite a bit, the exhibition is well laid out; not too many objects, labels that tell a complete story quickly. They hint at the lives that intersected with them, and some are quite powerful; a bundle of love letters from the 1910s, found in the attic of a house, bits of soap made by a woman with her long-dead grandmother during yearly summer visits, now long past. A knife given by a junkie to the bus driver who drove him to rehab. These little narratives

The MMoAA, like the Mµseum, the Museum of Broken Relationships, and others, I think reflects the current increase in interest in curation as a democratizing force and a counter-narrative to the perceived aloofness of museums as institutions. They all say “This happened! It was important to the people involved!”, the same impulse as Kennicott’s “struggle against oblivion”.

What are other examples you’ve come across that are innovative models of modern curation?

 

Real transformation ain’t easy

So, here I am in Seattle at the American Alliance of Museums conference, and I’m not finishing my presentation. Instead, I’m getting very excited for the first couple of CODE|WORDS essays, which should launch this week! The introduction is already on Medium if you haven’t seen it. It’s been a long haul, but we’re starting, and I’m very excited to read what our friends have to say. Just talking to the authors has been enriching and good exercise for looking at things from fresh vantage points.

Getting out of the “business as usual” mindset is never easy, but vital for thinking about how museums should organize themselves to best fulfill their missions in the current century. It’s an evergreen topic that I wrote about extensively a couple of years ago in the Museum from Scratch series.  There I wondered what would a born-dgital museum look like. Who would work there and what would they do? The whole idea was to step outside the usual strategic planning model that takes the current organization as the starting point and suggests chenges to that structure. Great for incremental change, not so good for dramatic, systemic change. Two recently published reports lend their support to this idea, and are essential reading for anybody interested in museums and the future.

‘Bolt-on’ digital strategies vs digital ‘transformation’

The first is a Forrester Research report titled “the State of Digital Business 2014″. In it, the author says that a majority of CEOs favor ‘bolt-on’ digital strategies over digital ‘transformation’ and that overcoming this mindset is going to be a key factor in businesses success in the coming years. I reckon the same will hold true for museums.

The study itself is obviously a paid product, but Jessica Davies at The Drum summarizes some of the key findings of Nigel Fenwick, who polled 1,591 senior business leaders in the UK and US. Fenwick finds that the disconnects between the marketing and technology sides of businesses are wide neough that they signal a “digital strategy execution crisis” in many companies. Sound familiar, museum folks?

Some key takeaways:

A Bolt-On Digital strategy will Not Be enough In 2015 and beyond:

While marketing has been the principal driver of digital initiatives up to 2014, going forward firms must take a more comprehensive approach to digital transformation and avoid simply bolting digital onto the existing business.

CMOs Must Partner with CIOs To Transform Toward a Digital Business:

Digital business requires both digital customer experience and digital operational excellence. Without the CIO as a digital partner, chief marketing officers (CMOs) will tend to approach digital as a bolt-on approach to customer engagement.

CIOs must embrace digital as a core technology imperative:

CIOs must shift their focus toward systems that support the firm’s ability to win, serve, and retain customers. Digital technologies are central to this shift. The ability of the technology management team to embrace digital will shape the future of the CIO.

Innovation and the New York Times
The really, really big news though comes from the newspaper industry and the leak of an internal 96 page strategy report commissioned by the New York Times that frames the challenges of disruption on legacy institutions better than anything I’ve ever read. It’s a long read, but well worth it. Obviously an internal document, it lays out the kinds of turf battles, internal confusions, and working at cross-purposes that happens in any big enterprise. Really, read it!

Joshua Benton at the Nieman Lab wrote a great synopsis of the report that’s a good starting place, especially for unpacking some of the insider language that the report uses. Benton calls it “one of the key documents of this media age. It’s an astonishing look inside the cultural change still needed in the shift to digital” It’s that important.

I’m still going through with a fine tooth comb, but here are some of things that have leapt out at me.

Pg 4

That means taking more time to assess the landscape and chart the road ahead, rethink print-centric traditions, use experiments and data to inform decisions, hire and empower the right digital talent and work hand in hand with reader-focused departments on the business side.

Pg 5

It should be stated explicitly that there is no single transformational idea in this report. Transformation can be a dangerous word in our current environment because it suggests a shift from one solid state to another; it implies there is an end point. Instead, we have watched the dizzying growth of smart phones and tablets, even as we are still figuring out the web. We have watched the massive migration of readers to social media even as we were redesigning our home page.

Pg23

Audience Development is the work of expanding our loyal and engaged audience. It is ahout getting more people to read more of our journalism. The work can be broken down into steps like discovery (how we package and distribute our journalism), Promotion (how we call attention to our journalism) and connection (how we create a two-way relationship with readers that deepens their loyalty)

Pg 32

A list of best practices for experimentation
• Launch efforts quickly, then iterate. We often hold back stories for publication, as we should, because they’re “not quite there yet.” Outside our journalism, though, we can adopt the “minimal viable product” model, which calls for launching something in a more basic form so that we can start getting feedback from users and improve it over time.

• Set goals and track progress. Every new project should be launched with a specific goal and metric for success. In many cases, our main goal is high-quality journalism. But readership and engagement are usually important, too; All managers should be clear on what a new initiative is aiming to accomplish. Editors in charge of experiments should track their progress in real time.

• Reward experimentation. Currently, the risk of failing greatly outweighs the reward of succeeding at The Times. We must reward people who show initiative, even when their experiments fail. Share lessons from both successes and failures.

• We need to do a better job of communicating our digital goals, and sharing what we know about best practices to achieve them. No project should be declared a success, or shuttered, without a debrief on what we’ve learned, so that we can apply those insights more broadly.

• Kill off mediocre efforts. To free up resources for new initiatives, we need to be quicker and smarter about pulling resources from efforts that aren’t working. And we must do it in a way that is transparent so that people understand the reasons behind the decision, so that they will be willing to experiment again.

• Plan for “version 2.0″ and beyond. Often, the resource plan for new projects stops at launch. As we learn from readers about what is working and not working, we have to continue our efforts to refine and develop our new initiatives.

• Make it easier to launch an experiment than to block one. At many companies, people are able to test ideas on a small percentage of users with mid-level approval. Elsewhere, you must write a memo about why an experiment should not happen in order to block it. Our journalistic standards always need to be protected, but tradition alone shouldn’t be a justification for blocking experiments.

Pg 47

We need to explicitly urge reporters and editors to promote their work and we need to thank those who make the extra effort. Interest in and aptitude for social media should not be required – just as we don’t expect every reporter to be a great writer – but it should be a factor. And we need to help journalists raise their profiles on social by sharing best practices. Our journalists want maximum readership and impact but many don’t know how to use social media effectively. Content promotion needs to become more integrated into each desk’s daily workflow.

Pg 58

To become more of a digital-first newsroom, we have to look hard at our traditions and push ourselves in ways that make us uncomfortable. Too often we’ve made changes and then breathed sighs of relief, as if the challenge had been solved. But the pace of change is so fast that the solutions can quickly seem out of date, and the next challenge is just around the corner.

Reading this and looking back at the Museum from Scratch posts lead me to scribble a bunch of questions as I was reading the Times report. These are in no particular order, but I need to get them written down so they won’t get lost.

  • Why don’t we treat Internet access as a utility? Whatever the FCC says, it’s like water and electricity and needs to be as ubiquitous and as essential to the building functioning.
  • Should there be an IT dept that functions like current ones? Nobody tells you how to file your papers, why should they tell you how to file your docs? Ppl will take care of ther own devices.
  • Why don’t we treat the digital artifacts of the work (email, files, etc…) as being worthy of being collected and preserved?
  • How do we recoginze the people who we serve? In modern born-digital musuems, the engagement economy exist for both onsite and online visitors. Programs will have to encourage deeper levels of engagement and connection w the museum. Visitors will be encouraged to become closer to the museum and rewarded as they do.
  • How do we make the value statement pervade everything we do, and make sure everyone knows it?
  • How do we make audience engagement part of everybody’s job? There’s a great urban legend about an AMerican president visiting Johnson Space Center during the Moon Race and asking a janitor what he was doing. The jnaitor allegly replied “I’m helping send a man to the Moon.” That’s the kind of place we strive for.
  • How does continuous professional development occur and become a performance metric for staff?  “How have you improved?” and “What have you learned?” shouldbe questions we should be asked.
  • How do we make the ladder for staff development is clear for as many as possible?
  • How do we bake time for reflective practice into the institution?
  • How do we keep what’s important safe, and let the rest of it be somebody else’s worry? The cloud is nice, in the short-term. In the long-term, the cloud doesn’t give a shit about you or your mission. Gmail, Evernote, etc… are great…until they change, and they will, and you won’t be ready. Google is famous for relentlessly pushing new services and then killing them.

More to come! Now back to my presentation…

Tilting at Windmills, Part Two

Experience and Participation 

CC BY-NC-SA image by Flickr user barnoid

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

When interpretation feels like interference

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

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

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

What does authority look like nowadays? 

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

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

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

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

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

visitor participation = the complete overthrow of traditional authority. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can museums learn about immersive theater?

Solitude of a Darkened Life by Flickr user @Photo

One of the most unexpected outcomes of taking a new position was my new boss asking me if I was interested in attending Museums and the Web 2013.  I’ve been going to MW as often as possible since the late ‘90s, and never fail to come away rejuvenated and full of new ideas.  Most of the people I consider my closest professional peers are folks I first met at MW.  So I said, “Yes, please!” and am counting down the days til I arrive in Portland.

I’m excited to attend for many reasons. This will be my first conference as an art museum professional so it’ll be interesting to see what sessions and speakers now seem valuable/relevant/important to me in my new role. I have a lot to learn, and I hope to take away a lot.

Museums and the Web is the bookend conference for the Museum Computer Network conference, and a great deal of planning and plotting will take place at MW2013 that will influence the shape of MCN2013. It’ll be great to be there for those conversations.

Since I wasn’t expecting to go this year, I paid no attention to the program until recently and therefore am not chairing a session, presenting a paper, running a workshop, etc. I can go and hang out and soak up the event, and that feels like a real gift. Thank you PEM, and Jim!

I didn’t get off completely scot-free, and that’s what this post is going to be about. I wrote some time ago about going to see Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in NYC, as have others. It turns out the Diane Borger from Punchdrunk is going to give the closing plenary on immersive theatre and museums, and I was invited to join the panel with Diane, Seb Chan, and Suse Cairns! I am tremendously excited to be part of what could be an important community discussion and have been reading up on immersive theatre and thought it’d be worthwhile sharing some links for those who don’t yet know what immersive theatre and why it’s something museums might learn from.

Recent immersive theatre & museums articles

What can museums learn from immersive theater? | Museums and the Web 2013

Diane Borger is the producer who brought Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More to the US in 2009 (http://www.americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/sleep-no-more). After an extended, sold-out run, the immersive theater production moved to New York, where it continues to play today (http://sleepnomorenyc.com). Please join Diane and Punchdrunk’s many museum fans and critics for an inspiring discussion of what museums can learn from immersive theater led by Seb Chan, Ed Rodley and Suse Cairns. We are all sure to be transformed by the experience!

Mark Dion’s “Curator’s Office”

Mark Dion, ArtForum

In “Curator’s Office”, books, furniture, and personal effects do not reveal their collector’s taste or knowledge, but rather spin a fictive tale about a curator gone missing in the 1950s in a period of American anticommunist paranoia.

ht to Robin White Owen (@rocombo)

 The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games

by Jamie Madigan

Though it is focused on videogames, I think most (if not all) of it is relevant to both immersive theatre and to museum experiences.  The unpacking of immersion, or “presence” as its called in the psych literature I found very helpful.

ht to Suse Cairns (@shineslike)

A Waking Dream Made Just for You

By Chris Colin, New York Times

Perhaps the most extreme example of immersive theatre I’ve heard of yet; a production hand-crafted and personalized for an audience of one.

Lithuania’s Soviet nostalgia: back in the USSR

by Dan Hancox, The Guardian

Feeling nostalgic for the good old Soviet Union? Then head to Lithuania, where several theme parks let visitors feel exactly what it was like – right down to scary, abusive guards.

By Tara Burton, New Statesman

Immersive theatre is about turning the traditional power dynamics of actors and audience on their head. One potential outcome of that is anxiety in the audience. This certainly resonated with my own experience of Sleep No More. 

Is theatre becoming too immersive?

by Alice Jones, The Independent

Alice has been put on the spot by actors time and again – and she’s sick of it

Interactive theatre: five rules of play from an audience perspective

by Miriam Gillinson, The Guardian

A useful little breakdown of how immersive theatre can let down their audiences.

How I learned to love immersive theatre

by Mark Lawson, The Guardian

This example of site-specific and non-text-based theatre, Robert Wilson’s “Walking”, sounds amazing, and since it relies on the landscape, seems like it could have utility in a museum setting, where the setting itself is often an object to be interepreted.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Though a lot of immersive theatre seems to lean heavily on adult themes, this Young Tate performance, staged around  Tate Liverpool’s “Alice in Wonderland” exhibition,  goes more for a “darkly playful and absurd experience”, as it  invites the audience to journey beyond the exhibition and through the looking glass.

Any other great examples I’ve missed? Let me know!

Making a museum from scratch: Part three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would a radically transparent museum look like to you?

Making a museum from scratch: Part One – inspirational readings

While my small reptilian brain tries to ingest and synthesize the many brilliant comments and emails you sent in response to Part One, I thought I’d pass along some of the background reading I’d been doing while writing the first post.

Museums of the future: providing the personal, collaborating with the crowd | Culture professionals network | Guardian Professional
http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2012/may/17/museum-development-future-debate?newsfeed=true

Amazon.com: Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift: Gail Anderson
http://www.amazon.com/Reinventing-Museum-Evolving-Conversation-Paradigm/dp/0759119651/

Center for the Future of Museums: Some Notes on the Future of History Museums
http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2012/05/some-notes-on-future-of-history-museums.html?spref=tw

The Future of Museums | HASTAC
http://hastac.org/forums/future-museums

What Comes After Digital? – Collections Trust
http://t.co/mn70OcMZ

Seeing museums in 2060 « The Learning Planet
http://thelearningplanet.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/seeing-museums-in-2060/

Press Releases New Report Explores Roles of Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture
http://www.imls.gov/new_report_explores_roles_of_libraries_and_museums_in_an_era_of_participatory_culture.aspx