I am so proud and excited that my home institution, the Portland Art Museum, will be hosting this fall’s MuseumNext conference. I have been fortunate enough to attend MuseumNext both times that it has held conferences here in the United States thus far: first in Indianapolis, and mostly recently in New York. This conference, perhaps more than any other, brings together a diversity of thinkers and leaders in the field of museums, attracting speakers and attendees from all around the globe. And with this fall’s theme of REVOLUTION, there is no doubt in my mind that it will be a powerful, transformative event that brings together risk-takers and changemakers from museums as well as the arts & culture sector. I am thoroughly excited to showcase the great work happening right here at the Portland Art Museum, and welcome attendees to gain a richer understanding of the innovative, diverse, and creative things happening here in the incredible city of Portland (far beyond the stereotypes of Portlandia). Hope to see many of you here this fall!
MuseumNext is a global conference on the future of museums. Since 2009 it has acted as a platform for showcasing best practice today to shine a light on the museum of tomorrow. On October 2-4, 2017, we will be holding our third annual conference in the United States – with three days of presentations, discussion,s and debates at Portland Art Museum.
Every MuseumNext conference has a theme, around which the community comes together to discuss the future of museums. This year the theme for MuseumNext USA will be Revolution. Museums aren’t strangers to revolution, we are constantly responding to and transformed by our changing society, whether that’s due to politics, environment or technology. Our institutions don’t stand still. At the same time, having the mandate to conserve, revolutions are a risk and challenge to many museums.
We are now inviting proposals from our community on the theme of revolution, looking at what that means to individuals and institutions around the world.
Taking a stand – How are museums acting as agents of change within their communities and fighting for social good?
Managing change – How are museums responding to a rapidly changing society or change within their organizations?
Mini Revolutions – What trends are revolutionising the field of museums, from the maker movement to being safe places for refugees?
Collecting Revolutions – Museums collect and tell stories through their collections, but many of today’s most important stories center around civil movements, hashtags and other, uncollectable ideas. How do we document the revolutionary now?
Or – We welcome your own ideas about how revolution relates to museums.
MuseumNext follows a fast-paced format of twenty-minute presentations with the focus very much on practice rather than theory (please note that this is the only format we’ll use at this event and we aren’t seeking longer presentations or workshops at this time).
Proposals for presentations should contain a title, names of presenters, a summary of the themes to be addressed, relevant links as well as a description of the expected learning outcomes.
We offer those speaking at the conference one free ticket per session, and speakers are responsible for their own travel and accommodation.
Over the past few decades, museums have positioned themselves in this post-modern society as institutions representative of multiple perspectives. One way this is happening is by inviting visitors to be active participants in the museum experience. More and more we are listening to our visitors by asking them to respond to prompts and questions. If your institution has started down this path then you may be facing a conundrum much like mine: What do we do with the thousands of visitor responses we’ve collected?
Statistics and Evaluation
As a baseline, collecting can be a way to understand trends in visitor experiences. Comparing the number of responses to total attendance can reveal the percentage of participating visitors. Depending on the data prompted by the response card, you may be able to learn more about participates. For example, the Art Spot creation labels used in the Center for Creative Connections (C3), prompt visitors to note their age. With over a year’s worth of data collected we know that 6-12 year olds make of the majority of Art Spot participants. We also know that 30% of participants are adults. It is interesting to note the months when adult participation spikes to nearly 40%, and consider what might be effecting those fluctuations. Furthermore, the actual responses can be a source for qualitative data collection, illustrating the depth of visitor experience.
Also, by collecting and reviewing responses, we can evaluate our own prompts. When C3 first installed Starry Crown by John Biggers, we offered two prompt cards related to the work of art.
A high percentage of the responses we received to the prompt pictured at the top did not address the prompt. This revealed that the question was difficult for visitors compared to the other prompt (on the lower right) which consistently received more thoughtful responses. Because of this, we eventually phased out the first prompt.
In a similar way, visitor responses as feedback can offer insight into visitor’s motivations, expectations, and experiences of a program or space. In preparing for a redesign of the Young Learners Gallery within C3, we solicited visitor feedback to find out why caregivers bring their children to the DMA. Visitors left their responses on Post-it notes and using the Post-it Plus app, we easily digitized, sorted, and analyzed the responses. We used the three categories with the largest number of responses as a guiding force in the redesign of the space.
After analyzing and sometimes digitizing, are these visitor responses then doomed to storage? Working in an educational space that serves, on average, 18,000 visitors a month, I question our habit of simply counting, sorting, and boxing up visitor responses to store away in file cabinets or closets. When we use Post-its, we digitize the responses because the Post-it Plus app makes it an easy process and contains helpful sorting and exporting systems, but in regards to broad digitization, I have to stop and ask, “Why?” What would we do with responses in a digital form? Would it be any better to store these responses in digital file cabinets? Would we one day go into the vault to re-read the responses? Have we done that in the past with the responses currently being stored?
When I’m reflecting on past visitor response prompts, I go back to the spreadsheets and summaries that help extract meaning from the raw data. But what to do with the more esoteric prompts and responses? For instance, in spring 2014, C3 hosted a community exchange project inspired by A panel depicting the Tuba Tree, with the 99 names of God on its leaves. Museum visitors helped us explore the potential meanings behind “Nur” the Arabic word that translates to “Light” in English. The work of art was on view with an accompanying interactive that prompted visitors to share one word they associate with the word “light” on a golden leaf and hang it on the fabricated tree in the space. When it came time to extract meaning from the responses we enlisted the help of a writer. In 2015 C3 Visiting Artist, A. Kendra Greene, started by alphabetizing the responses. The process of doing this created some interesting word combinations, one of my favorites being “Jesus, Joy, Justin Bieber.” From these alphabetized lists sprang arranged poems. The creation of the poems led to a spoken word performance where Greene took the words of our visitors, re-interpreted them, and produced an engaging performance. Creating a visitor response cycle—the museum prompted visitors, visitors left responses, their responses were made into a performance, the performance was shared with visitors—and in effect an artistic evaluation and summary of the responses.
This new take on how to re-cycle visitor responses planted a seed in my thinking about how to use other responses. In early 2015 we worked with Kendra Greene to package visitor responses to Starry Crown. This painting references the importance of women as keepers of knowledge and the significance of familial traditions, stories, and wisdom passed down through generations. Visitors responded to the prompt, “What wisdom has an important woman in your life shared with you?” The responses we received were funny, heartfelt, nostalgic, sad, universal, and at times deeply personal. In early 2015, Greene organized the responses into bite sized booklets that could be given back to museum visitors. First, she created categories and sub-categories like:
From these categories emerged tailored booklets called, Common Thread: Selections of women’s wisdom, guidance, counsel, advice, experience, notions, revelations, hard truths, and plain facts. Throughout the year we have found various opportunities to share these booklets with our visitors. First at Mother’s Day, then Thanksgiving, and now as we prepare to say farewell to Starry Crown, we are assembling more booklets to give out through the month of April.
Share your thoughts
What creative solutions have you found for documenting, storing, or sharing visitor responses?
Written by Mike Murawski, Kristin Bayans, and Phillippa Pitts
This essay is part of the new MuseumsEtc book Interpreting the Art Museum, an expansive volume of 19 essays & case studies from experienced museum professionals sharing some of today’s most successful initiatives in art interpretation.
From November 2014 through April 2015, the Portland Art Museum hosted the installation of a complex, unsettling, and physically-immersive multimedia installation piece entitled The Enclave(2013) by Irish contemporary artist and photographer Richard Mosse. Consisting of six monumental double-sided screens installed in a darkened gallery, paired with a powerfully haunting soundscape, The Enclave presented a unique challenge for the Portland Art Museum’s education team as they tackled issues of interpretation, visitor reflection, and public learning.
In The Enclave, Mosse employs discontinued military film stock to document the largely overlooked humanitarian disaster in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – in which 5.4 million people have died since 1998. In a kind of advocacy of seeing, The Enclave attempts to cast this forgotten tragedy in a new spectrum of light, to make this forgotten humanitarian disaster visible. Furthermore, Mosse aims to keep the experience as open as possible, allowing viewers to bring personal experiences, memories, stereotypes, and media images to the process of making meaning with this complex work. According to Mosse:
“The work does not prescribe a set of responses, and remains ambiguous in an unsettling and seemingly irresponsible way.”
Given these expectations for ambiguity and complexity, the museum’s education team decided to construct an extended series of meaningful opportunities for visitors and staff alike to respond to and react with the installation. These opportunities encouraged personal reflection and physical engagement within the space of The Enclave and provided open pathways for further learning. Opportunities offered incorporated a range in levels of engagement from which to choose.
This case study explores the strategies used by the museum to connect a variety of visitors with this unsettling work of contemporary art. These strategies include:
an in-gallery interpretation space designed for visitor reflection and response;
printed postcards inviting visitor written responses;
While these interpretive strategies serve as the focus for this case study, the museum also partnered with the locally-based international development non-profit organization, Mercy Corps and the Mercy Corps Action Center, whose staff facilitated workshops for museum staff and docents as well as teachers and students participating in a joint school program between the museum and Mercy Corps.
In addition, the museum hosted an extensive series of public workshops and conversations which specifically encouraged open dialogue and personal reflections paired with viewing The Enclave. Throughout these interpretive strategies, our goals were to allow for open, personal, even emotional responses to the piece; to encourage visitors to physically engage with the space of the piece; and to provide pathways for further learning, especially related to the situation in the DRC.
In-gallery interpretation space
Early in the education team’s thinking about how to facilitate visitor experience with The Enclave, it became clear that visitors walking out of the installation would need a way to work through their reactions and responses. In the absence of a tour or multimedia guide, it would fall on the content of the interpretive space to empower individuals to tackle The Enclave independently. Simply entitled Reflecting on The Enclave, the in-gallery interpretation space helped visitors transition from a state of being acted upon by the exhibition’s visual and auditory forces to having the freedom and quiet to react to what had just transpired. The space did not provide visitors with the museum’s point of view or any curatorial voice. The museum remained silent and instead provided a comfortable space for visitors to have and share their own perspectives.
This small “living room” space included a love seat, cushioned armchairs, and a small end table with a bin of pencils. Housed across from the seating area were five clear acrylic holders, each of which held one deck of interpretive postcards. The front side of each card displayed a still photograph from the exhibition and the backside displayed the interpretive prompts: I saw… I heard… I felt… Five cards were placed in the rack with the photograph facing forward and one card was placed in the rack with the interpretive prompts facing forward. This arrangement indicated to visitors the card’s multi-interpretive purpose. Sitting on a pedestal directly below the cards was a clear acrylic box with a slit in the lid. Cards filled out by visitors could be seen inside the box. The nature and placement of these items invited visitors to look at, pick up, write on, and add a card to those already in the box.
Attached to the side of the box was a sign inviting visitors to See what others have shared via the project’s associated Tumblr site. This information indicated to visitors that they could read others’ responses and that their responses were aggregated into an ongoing community commentary about The Enclave extending beyond the museum.
Knowing from previous experience that cards are popular takeaways for visitors, these postcards aimed to provide visitors with an opportunity to say I saw this or I witnessed that. Therein lay one of the project’s most significant challenges. With six simultaneous screens and a 47-minute runtime, visitors emerged from The Enclave having witnessed entirely different scenarios. Some saw rolling images of stunningly beautiful landscapes. Others witnessed a funeral scene juxtaposed with a dangerous birth. A body abandoned in the grass. A sprawling internal displacement camp. Our challenge was to find the emotional or thematic touch points that could translate this immersive experience into static interpretive cards.
Our interpretive media team segmented the piece into major themes or experiences: war and conflict, the role of the photographer, nature and the sublime, Africa and the other. Cross-referencing this list with the potential photographs approved by the artist’s gallery, we chose six images that we believed could serve as touchpoints for a range of potential experiences: a sublime landscape, a military roadblock, a group of civilians, an individual soldier, a young woman, and a damaged village.
We deliberately selected images that were highly polysemic. For example, the landscape Platon echoed picturesque tropes of art history. It also could speak to environmentalism, highlight the surreal nature of the pink film stock, represent the work’s otherworldliness, or, as we saw in the response cards, embody an idea of hope. By contrast, we did not select a photograph called Madonna and Child, which featured a uniformed soldier holding a baby in the pose of the Virgin and Child. This image, while incisively poignant in highlighting the complexities of villain and victim, left little space in which the visitor could create meaning. By offering the visitor a broad range of photographs, we invited them to self-select the image that matched their experience.
Initially, we had planned to further draw out these themes through a variety of questions printed on the verso of the cards: Who is the victim and who is the villain? What is the man on the right thinking? What about the man on the left? Due to a compressed project timeline, our initial prompts were developed without the benefit of visitor testing. Therefore we used a docent training session as an ad hoc focus group.
After standing in The Enclave ourselves and observing docent educators processing their experience, we redeveloped the prompts entirely into the three, simple, sensory-based statements: I saw… I heard… I felt… These words, which were repeated over and over in the training session, were familiar to us from educational research, particularly Harvard’s Project Zero Thinking Routines, which employed them. They provided enough guidance to bolster processing and reflection, but to still afford room for a variety of responses and types of meaning making. Moreover, by splitting the prompts into bite-sized statements, we also hinted to visitors that it was OK to have a range of responses from simple to complex, and to navigate the space on the reverse of the card in whatever way they chose.
In total we printed 7,000 cards, of which around 4,000 were taken by visitors and around 500 slipped into the box in the gallery. Although each response was unique, the methods by which visitors used the cards could be categorized in three ways:
Lists: Some visitors took the prompt literally, charting what they saw, heard, and felt. They wrote in vertical columns over the words, sometimes even using lines to divide their cards into three spaces. They outlined and circled the light grey text to emphasize it. They drew lines between the printed words and their handwritten texts.
Notes to the museum: Often marked with explicit salutations to the museum or the artist, visitors used these cards to give us feedback in the form of concerns, thank you notes, and a frequent request to turn down the volume (the artist preferred the audio component of the piece to be quite loud, providing a physical experience of sound as well as of the projections).
Journaling: By making the background text light grey, we had successfully signaled to visitors that almost the entire card could be used to write or draw. Many visitors did exactly that, often writing stream of consciousness, free association, or personal reflections. Many show cross-outs and hesitations, reflecting the questioning and thinking that happened in the space. For example, one visitor wrote, “There was something about this. Something I’m not entirely sure what it was. Something about this just made my something click. All I can say is brilliant: I’m leaving with a lot to think about and a really heavy heart. But that’s what art does, right? Makes you think. Amazing.”
In terms of what the visitors wrote, we saw five overall themes emerge from the visitor responses:
Peace on Earth: Visitors who shared prayers, wishes, and hopes for those involved in the conflict. This was, interestingly, often correlated to the image Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams. In this case, visitors took the opportunity to speak directly to the woman depicted: “Sorry adout the war” [sic] or “Plz be safe.”
Cynicism and despair: Although there were uplifting moments in The Enclave, the artist did not shy away from depicting violence, destruction, and conflict. This response was almost a direct inverse of those in the first category.
Intellectual connections: These visitors related The Enclave to their prior knowledge of politics, literature, and film, bringing in comparisons to Kubrick, Heart of Darkness, Invisible Children, and others. As we know, adults learn by relating new ideas to their existing matrices of knowledge and experience. In this way, we saw them working through The Enclave, demonstrating learning and engagement as well as an interest in thematically related topics.
Self-absorbed artists: Many visitors attacked the piece, challenging the validity and morality of a white artist receiving accolades and making money by speaking for black communities and “capturing” images of black bodies.
Descriptive processing: Many visitors did not attempt to reach conclusions. They listed what they saw, heard, and felt, sometimes filling the entire card just with descriptive words.
The Tumblr blog site was where all these varied responses came together. It provided a trans-temporal community in which viewers could find echoes of their own experience in the words of others. With over 100 posts shared on the site, it also provided a broader view of the museum audience (and the city of Portland) as a whole responding and reacting to The Enclave. Like the in-gallery interpretive space, the Tumblr site was designed to be as simple as possible both aesthetically and functionally. Visitors scrolled through back-to-back cards: image, comment, image, comment. As an institution, we provided no annotation or categorization. The cards were posted in a random order, free to complement or contradict their neighbors. Even the introductory text was completely neutral:
While The Enclave is on view at the Portland Art Museum, visitors are invited to reflect upon this immersive experience and share their thoughts with the museum. These are some of their thoughts.
Framed in this way, the site offered visitors validation. The museum posted, without comment or hierarchy, every type of response: those who called out Richard Mosse as a “selfabsorbed artist”; those who wrote only one or two words; and those who made spelling or grammatical errors. Viewed together, the stream emphasizes that there is no single interpretation or meaning for this work and that, in the museum’s eyes, no one viewer’s voice is more important or correct than the others’.
This approach carried inherent risks. As a department, we were committed to posting all responses, and yet aware that, given the racially charged nature of the work, we might encounter hate speech or other offensive content. There were cards that we did post that were difficult to endorse, such as one which read:
The people in this area of the continent are guided by superstition fed by rage and terror. No education or very little. No chance, no changes, no hope – only renewed conflict + murder.
Overall, however, we had only one card that we chose not to share because of its references to suicide.
In five months, our Tumblr site received a little over 1,000 page views: 10% of visitors viewed between ten and twenty response cards in a visit; 5% viewed between 30 and 40; 30% returned to the site at least once and 180 began following the museum on Tumblr. Even months after the exhibition has closed, we still gain new followers and see new reposts. Perhaps most interestingly, however, is the fact that no one card has emerged as the most shared or iconic image from the project. Although a few Tumblr users reblogged a batch of cards at once, most chose one or two, frequently non-sequential cards, to share with their followers. As virtual visitors, they selected from the diversity of responses offered, to find the few that resonated with them as individuals.
* * * * *
“My intention with this work was to create a dilemma in the viewer’s heart. If some viewers were struck by the beauty of war – and sometimes war is beautiful – then, I hoped, those viewers would then be appalled by their response: by taking aesthetic pleasure from someone’s misery, pain, or death. And in that moment, perhaps they might stand back from themselves in the act of perceiving – take a moment to think.” – Richard Mosse
As contemporary art continues to challenge museum visitors in a variety of ways, it is important for museums to carefully reflect on the ways in which visitors will experience and respond to unsettling, immersive, complex, and socially-relevant works of art. In our experiences with The Enclave, having a set of interpretive strategies that allowed for individualized reflection as well as collective sharing allowed for a more meaningful experience for many visitors. The opportunities for personal reflection and extended learning offered by the museum for The Enclave have helped to anchor the museum as a museum ofits place, not just a museum in its place – and these experiences might provide guidance to other museums as they plan interpretation around similarly complex contemporary art.
KRISTIN BAYANS: Interpretive Media Specialist at the Portland Art Museum, where she works cross-departmentally to create mobile, web, and in-gallery learning experiences for special exhibitions, the museum’s permanent collection, and the Object Stories project. Previously, Kristin served as Senior Educator in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s Vernier Technology Lab and as an Assistant Educator for the Smithsonian’s Mobile Learning Institute. She holds an MA in Museum Studies from George Washington University and an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art.
MIKE MURAWSKI: Director of Education & Public Programs, Portland Art Museum. Murawski earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as head of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University.
PHILLIPPA PITTS: Associate Educator for Gallery Learning at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, where she oversees interpretive media, adult learning, and participatory gallery spaces. Prior to this position in Maine, Phillippa served as the Kress Interpretive Fellow at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, Lecturer and Gallery Instructor at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and built apps and games in museums around the country. Phillippa holds an MA in Art History and Museum Studies from Tufts University.
Written by Emily Lytle-Painter, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The MuseWomen Initiative started in 2013 as an impassioned breakout conference session to talk about women and leadership in the museum technology sector. More meet-ups have followed, and the community has responded positively- this is something people want to talk about! Discussion topics include money, skill acquisition, career advancement, as well as how the museum field could be an example for other technology sectors struggling with implementing diversity across their organizations.
The more we spoke about how to better support women in the field, the more we realized that we needed to move from talking to action, and thanks to the ongoing leadership of Brinker Ferguson (@brinkerf) throughout 2015, we have made some important strides in establishing two new projects.
Our pilot mentorship program, chaired by Liz Filardi (@lizfilardi) of the Met, is designed to supplement the MCN2015 conference experience (with no formal affiliation to MCN). Mentoring is one of the most important ways to establish a foothold in a community, and we created this program to bring intention and a lightweight structure to something you may already be doing unofficially.
Here’s how it will work: Prior to the conference, we will carefully assign mentor/mentee pairs based on the responses. On the first day, we will host a casual meet-up, and on the last day, we close with happy hour. That’s basically it. We’ll provide some tips to make the most of the experience, but you decide the rest: when to meet during the conference and if you want to keep in touch afterword.
Anyone attending MCN can participate as a mentor or a mentee. If you aren’t going to the conference, please share your email with us anyway, for (what we hope will be) future online iterations.
Additionally, we are collecting information to better understand some of the opportunities and roadblocks for women in the field. Designed by recent graduate Cait Reizman (@MuseumAdvoCait), this survey will help us to better understand the employment landscape for aspiring, current, and past museum workers, interns, and volunteers.
We seek responses from people of all gender identities who live in the United States. Data collected will be anonymized and used to report on women working in museums. We hope to present on the information gathered at future conferences as well as publish a report online in 2016.
Reposted from project CODE WORDS, an experiment in online publishing and discourse around issues of technology and theory in museums. Read more great essays by leading thinkers in the field by visiting the project on Medium. [republished with permission of the authors]
In the early nineteenth century, a small population of free people of color speckled the United States. Some of them did not disrupt the status quo, but revolutionaries like Denmark Vesey of Charleston, South Carolina called for the nation to burn.
A founding member of Emmanuel AME Church, Vesey primarily recruited church members for the insurrection. His plan leaked to slave owners before he could make Charleston a site of liberation. The Mayor organized a militia to catch all co-conspirators. Vigilante justice reigned over the city too, but it did not stop for good. On June 17, 2015 self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylan Roof reignited that spirit of vigilante justice and murdered nine Emmanuel AME Church parishioners with the intent to start a race war nearly a century after Vesey planned his uprising.
Black people have long struggled for their freedom and civil rights in America. Denmark Vesey is an example of this. Therefore, uprisings across the nation after repeated incidents of white police officers shooting unarmed black citizens is not just an inciting 2015 headline. It falls along the continuum of black people protesting against state sanctioned violence and over policing in their communities. So why do museums continually hesitate in responding to Ferguson and Baltimore and Staten Island and Cleveland and Charleston and…?
Are Museums Really Ready to Respond to Ferguson?
In Bridget McKenzie’s Code:Words piece, “Toward the Sociocratic Museum”, McKenzie proposes a new model of museum to counter the existing plutocratic and bureaucratic archetypes that have arisen from plunder and oppression or are discomfitingly in bed with problematic corporate entities, respectively. In theory, the sociocratic museum would forego being participatory and engaging on its surface for “governance that is non-hierarchical, consent-based and rooted in its communities.” Recently, museums have championed inclusion and engagement. But the digital landscape and communities of color have pushed back, creating spaces that discuss their lived experience and critiquing how other people view it.
McKenzie’s piece cited #museumsrespondtoFerguson, a Twitter chat we co-host the third Wednesday of each month 1PMCST/2PMEST, as an example of how people-driven movements in the digital realm can inspire change in museums. In 2014, tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets protesting the killings of unarmed black citizens by police in Staten Island, Beavercreek, Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore (and unfortunately many more in subsequent months). These actions were inspired, organized, shared (and ultimately spied on) via a host of digital platforms, most notably Twitter, which has the highest percentage of black adult users according to recent research. It’s the digital equivalent of an old-school office water cooler. It’s where news breaks, information is shared, and racist tomfoolery is dragged to the carpet.
Claiming Their Space Digitally
#BlackLivesMatter, and other movements, rallied marginalized people and amplified their unified voices. They claimed virtual space instead of waiting for it to be doled out to them. Traditional gatekeepers were rendered moot. Schools, arts organizations, libraries, and other entities responded with public statements denouncing police brutality, presented related programs, or offered their venues as community gathering spaces.
“No matter what a museum’s legal structure, whether publicly funded, or authorised by society to function as a charity, it is expected to contribute to the common good. If its basic values do not include solidarity with the excluded, then the museum is reinforcing that exclusion”
Museums pride themselves on embodying the common good, on honoring its social compacts, and being physically and virtually relevant. Precious resources are devoted to “engagement”, a term so buzzy and overused that it often elicits groans and eye-rolls from museum employees tasked with bringing the nebulous concept to life.
These colleagues regularly communicate via tags such as #musesocial, #musetech, and #museEd to crowdsource solutions and exchange practices, so convening in digital spaces isn’t new. However, using those spaces to openly examine anti-blackness in museums certainly is.
Twitter: The Tool for Activists Online
Social activism is inherently risky but protest in the physical world can take place with a certain degree of professional protection. You can demonstrate outside of work hours or anonymously donate to causes of your choice. But participating in a Twitter chat explicitly dedicated to confronting your current or potential employers’ systemic oppression under your personal account, which might even include your image (and almost overwhelmingly some variation of a “these ideas are mine alone” disclaimer), is practically an act of rebellion in an industry with a long history of conformity, exclusion, and aversion to transparency.
The aforementioned Joint Statement was born digitally and continues to live online, making it more accessible than a paper document. Conversations responding to overarching themes like race, police brutality and community relations dominate the online landscape now. The monthly Twitter chat is a limb of the statement, keeping the conversation alive. Twitter has been the most appropriate online social media platform seeing that it is the most immediate and democratic.
Facebook, the most popular social media platform, originally started exclusively for Harvard students. Eventually, it expanded to a service for all Ivy League schools along with Stanford University. It was not until 2006 that anyone of appropriate age could join the site. Contrarily, Twitter has always allowed anyone with a valid email address to join the site. Anyone can build a sizeable audience without educational, economic or social weight.
While one of the high points of Twitter is that it very democratic, that aspect also hurts our ability to account for everyone engaged in the conversation. Twitter allows participants to see the full conversation. It also gives them the choice to be an onlooker without forcing them to participate. Because of this, we know there is a group of people who read the Tweets but do not contribute to the conversation. This is frustrating because it does not allow us to capture a complete sample of the comments surrounding certain themes.
To capture the Tweets that are present in the chat, we use Storify. While Storify provides a great summary of the chat, it does not retain tweets if a user deletes them. We are still researching the best tools for tracking tweets on a limited (i.e. no) budget. So far, NodeXL (visual) and TAGS (archiving) are possible contenders due to free, open source templates, although the TAGS archive reflects some bias in its often incomplete results.
Twitter is also useful in the sense that it’s immediate. It’s a space for discourse and thinking aloud in public. And it has a record for social change. Among many other times, Egyptians most notably used Twitter in 2011 to organize actions in hopes of overthrowing President Hosni Mubarak. Its record for serving as a platform for social change made it the top choice for housing #museumsrespondtoFerguson.
This particular Storify, which focused on museums and oppression illustrates how Twitter introduced new perspectives and sources outside the mainstream to some of our chat participants. Margaret Middleton noted, #BlackLivesMatter has completely transformed the way I see the world.” Through these chats, Twitter continues to demonstrate to us that we can spread information that disrupts traditional narratives quickly and effectively.
The Stutter-Step Between Hashtag to Action
For all the good Twitter is, it still presents some challenges. How do we move out of an online safe space, to a space of action? We did not even provide a Storify for our fifth chat which asked participants to share anti-blackness work they have engaged since being a part of #museumsrespondtoFerguson. There were barely any tweets to archive. Instead of seeing action, that particular chat pulled back a veneer and exposed fear and tepid hopes. After several chats, it seemed like participants were still unsure about how to respond to Ferguson. We have pushed for museums and museum professionals to first examine the ways they perpetuate or dismantle oppression. Before museums can truly engage communities, they have to do the internal work. To be sure, this work is not easy, and it is far more complex than providing a tidy and succinct list of ten steps to engage with the black community.
Some comments, like one that relegated #museumsrespondtoFerguson to being “about museum staff talking amongst themselves — not a bad thing, but seems tangential in some way to community engagement,” are discouraging. Museums can’t engage communities of color before acknowledging and working through their role in marginalizing black and brown people. Furthermore, museum professionals cannot continue to cite early museologists like John Cotton Dana without providing the context that Newark struggled with desegregating its public spaces.
While John Cotton Dana wrote about engaging all people and making collections accessible and relevant, black people were not necessarily included in this plan. Dana demonstrated progressive ideas about gender, but never explicitly advocated for race equity. This is the type of deconstruction that needs to take place before museums attempt to engage a community that they have historically turned away. Learning about the likes of Mabel Wilson, in addition to Dana, makes for a more thoughtful and relevant approach to engaging black communities. #museumsrespondtoFerguson seeks to expose participants to different voices and thought processes that museums continue to ignore.
The chat generates thoughtful commentary, and has also inspired #MuseumWorkersSpeak, a conversation about labor and equity in the field. However, participants express some hesitancy, and even fearfulness, in putting these conversations to action. This was especially evident in our fifth chat where participants could barely answer the questions because they had not actually put in work to evaluate or comment on. We have not found the best solution for moving the conversation to action. Jumping back to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, participants in their online advocacy never hesitated to take action. Action was intuitive. They believed in change and were willing to work for it.
Maybe, in this country racial change is not intuitive. And while Twitter can foster productive conversations, it has not fostered enough tangible actions in the museum community. The Charleston Massacre unfortunately connects us to the nineteenth century motto of vigilante justice against black people. Museums can no longer view contemporary iterations of racialized violence as traumatic headlines too difficult to work through in their spaces. As organizations with renewed commitment to community engagement, #museumsrespondtoFerguson needs to manifest in gallery spaces, programming and outreach.
“With a culture of questioning, there is always more possibility.” – Debra France & W. L. Gore
“Without a good question, the answer has no place to go.” – Clayton Christensen
“We live in the world our questions create.” – David Cooperrider
Much ink (and many pixels) has been spilled over thinking about the use of questions in museums. I, myself, have given considerable thought to not only how we as educators employ questions in our own inquiry-based teaching, but also how we might get museum visitors and learners to ask more questions – to wonder more about the objects, collections, stories, and experiences brought forward by museums. I owe a great deal to the thinking of other educators and cultural leaders like Rika Burnham, Elliott Kai-Kee, Nina Simon, Philip Yenawine, and many of the folks at Harvard’s Project Zero, to name a few. In countless docent trainings, teacher workshops, school tours, lifelong learning classes, etc., I’ve worked to help cultivate a culture of questioning in the space of the museum – exploring creative questions, structured questions, participatory questions, visitor-centered questions, and questions that take a critical look at the very institutions of museums themselves. So when I visited the Brooklyn Museum last month, I was intrigued and excited to be able to test out their new ASK app as well as chat with some of the Audience Engagement staff about the intiative.
What is the ASK app?
ASK is the newest iOS app developed by the Brooklyn Museum to allow visitors to ask questions during their museum visit, and have Audience Engagement staff on the other end answering their questions live via the text-messaging feature of the app. As visitors ask questions, a member of the Audience Engagement staff not only responds to the question, but they know where the visitor is located based on iBeacons that the museum has installed throughout the galleries. In addition to texting in a question, visitors can also send a photo along with their question.
As the Audience Engagement staff receive visitor questions, they have access to a growing wiki that contains information about artworks, related artworks, historical information, and other questions that have been asked by visitors. These staff are constantly building this database of content and context, allowing them to more easily answer subsequent visitor questions. The app works in real-time, but only functions while on site at the Brooklyn Museum (if you want to take any of the experience with you, you need to take screen shots or notes, like I did).
In a recent interview with Nina Simon, the Brooklyn Museum’s Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, Shelley Bernstein, spoke more about the new ASK app and experience:
“ASK is part of an overall effort to rethink the museum visitor experience. We began with a series of internal meetings to evaluate our current visitor experience and set a goal for the project. We spent a year pilot-testing directly with visitors to develop the ASK project concept. The pilots showed us visitors were looking for a personal connection with our staff, wanted to talk about the art on view, and wanted that dialogue to be dynamic and speak to their needs directly. We started to look to technology to solve the equation. In pilot testing, we found that enabling visitors to ASK via mobile provided the personal connection they were looking for while responding to their individual interests.”
The Brooklyn Museum has been testing the ASK app during the past couple of months (summer 2015), and making changes and prototyping new approaches throughout (which is awesome to see!).
My ASK Experience
As I walked along Prospect Park on my way to the Brooklyn Museum, I began downloading my ASK app (yes, I am a super museum nerd – I’m sure very few visitors have their app ready-to-go when they enter the Brooklyn Museum). Entering the museum, I was prepped to ask questions.
Rather than try to ‘stump’ the app experience and try to ask a series of outrageous or challenging questions, I wanted to really see when I would have the natural inclination to ask a question. I even wondered how often I have my own questions while I stroll the galleries of a museum (we think so much about questions as part of the museum experience of others, but perhaps rarely think about our own process of questioning as learners/visitors in the galleries). Not having visited the Brooklyn Museum for quite some time, I immediately found myself wandering around trying to find my way without a map. So question #1 for me was about way-finding: “Where can I find a map?” An immediate response via the app had me even more excited about my visit (now with map in hand).
I only ended up asking about 4 additional questions during a 2-3 hour visit, but the exchange with the Audience Engagement team member on the other end was enjoyable and surprisingly engaging. To give you a sense of how natural and conversational it felt, I am pasting a collage of screenshots from a part of our exchange at the right (click on the small image here to access a larger view of the exchange). The ‘responder’ texted me about twice as many times as I messaged them, which shows a really nice level of engagement. The conversation basically occurred in real time, without any awkward silences or wait times.
While I was testing the app, the person on the other end was nameless (but I think they’re now testing it with the person’s name included to add more personal connection, which is a fantastic idea). Towards the end of my visit, the staff member invited me to stop by the kiosk on my way out and say “hi.” So I did, and ended up meeting Megan Mastobattista, who has been a part of the Audience Engagement Team since March. We chatted about the project, and I was able to connect a real person to my digital experience (hooray!).
Overall, I felt that the ASK app experience really succeeded in one area that I know the Brooklyn Museum’s is aiming for with this project: personal connection. I was highly skeptical of this app when I arrived (to be honest), since I tend to have reservations about anything that creates a culture in museums of asking questions and getting answers – assuming that there is some correct answer to every question, and preventing visitors from simply wondering about art without someone texting them the answers. From the outside, the ASK app seemed to be trying to digitally replicate the older and outdated model of docents, who try to “know everything” and answer any questions visitors have about works of art, history, artist bios, etc. But in experiencing the app myself, I felt connected to the answerer, and I also felt that the goal of the Audience Engagement team was not to specifically answer my questions, but truly to engage in dialogue and prompt more thinking or looking on my part. I could also bring my own knowledge to the exchange, and it was valued and became a building block for further dialogue.
After my visit, I connected with my colleague Monica Marino, Audience Engagement Lead there at the Brooklyn Museum, to get some of her thoughts on some of my questions and experiences:
“Users are consistently surprised when they realize it’s a real person speaking with them. It’s interesting, even when they go into the app experience knowing that it is a person responding (and even when they meet us beforehand) they have an “ah-ha” moment after about the 3rd exchange. That’s a prime moment for us to provoke a more in-depth dialogue about what the visitor is looking at.”
One part of the experience I was pleasantly surprised with was the app’s ability to connect me with the same Audience Engagement staff person each time. While I understand that this must be more challenging when the museum is more crowded, I asked Monica about their thinking about this aspect:
“From our end (the Team responding) it is nice when we can sustain the conversation with one person, however, it has its logistical challenges – for example if we have multiple people sending us messages, we want to be able to respond to everyone quickly which makes it challenging sometimes to stay with the same person. In addition, it happens that one of our team members has more of a background on a particular object/collection so it’s best when they’re able to respond to the visitor. Having said all of that we try as much as possible to stay with a visitor as they use it.”
As the Audience Engagement Team at the Brooklyn Museum continues to test and adapt the ASK experience, you can keep in touch via their BKM Tech blog, which is also a great place to learn more about the evolution of this initiative. Also check out Nina Simon’s interview with the project’s lead thinker, Shelley Bernstein.
As the team at the Brooklyn Museum collects data on visitor questions and behavior, I’m also very interested to see how it shapes the internal decisions being made about collection installations, exhibitions, interpretive strategies, and gallery design. To play off of the quote as the start of this post by David Cooperrider, are we heading toward a moment in which visitor questions will be shaping the museums of tomorrow. Will we ever be living in the museums our questions create?
What’s Your ASK Experience?
I’d love to hear from others who have experienced the ASK app. What can you share with us about your process of questioning and exchange with the Audience Engagement team? What do you think about this type of museum experience – should we instead be focusing more on human, face-to-face engagement rather than the digital? Please share and keep the dialogue going.
Written by Emily Kotecki, Distance Learning Educator, North Carolina Museum of Art.
At the North Carolina Museum of Art, we are creating a new model to activate the learning experience before, during and after a visit to the NCMA. Expanding on the online courses we’ve developed and offered for the last five years, we spent the last year piloting a new approach to distance learning. We were inspired by the educational trends of blended learning, the flipped classroom and choice-based art education. These trends aim to personalize the learning experience by providing didactic instruction (like watching videos and reading articles) at home and then have opportunities to apply new knowledge in class so the experience is collaborative and engaging; we wanted to similarly deepen and activate the museum learning experience, so we “flipped” the museum.
This spring, our Flipped Museum pilot program was called “Artists in Process.” Sixteen classes from different cities across North Carolina were paired together online to research, explore, and reflect on the artistic process. We developed an online learning platform with a company in North Carolina to support social interaction and choice-based learning. Students chose one of three concepts and numerous artists they wanted to explore while developing their own work of art and sharing their progress online with each other.
We took away four lessons from this experience and we expect to continue to learn more as we revise the Flipped Museum model.
#1 Students want to make meaningful connections to each other, not just the museum
The 16 classes were organized into pairs based on the level of the art class, geographical location and the teacher’s familiarity with blended learning and choice-based art education. Students from each pair of classes could log in to their specific group in the platform to share progress on their projects, questions and ideas, as well as ‘like’ and ‘comment’ on each other’s work. The pairs of classes also met up at the NCMA for the museum visit.
While we wanted to prepare students to come to the museum and engage with art, students were equally, if not more excited about connecting with and talking to other teens from across the state.
Sometimes we assume that because teens like sharing and communicating online via social media, they’ll automatically be motivated to share with each other. But teens are both excited and intimidated by new experiences. In future programs we will focus on developing specific activities and assignments that build a community between teens online so they are not just ready for the museum, but ready to meet and interact with each other. We would also encourage classes to meet via video conferencing or Google Hangouts before meeting at the museum. Social interaction is the foundation for building a strong distance learning program and if teens feel uncomfortable with each other, it can hinder the entire experience.
#2 Too much flexibility can be overwhelming
We developed this curriculum to allow for what we hoped would be maximum flexibility for students and teachers. We provided the course content and platform as well as some classroom activity ideas at different points in the course; students had choice over the direction of their project, and we left most of the lesson planning and timeline to the teachers.
Each component of the Flipped Museum aimed to put the learning in the control of the learner – whether that was teacher planning with their partner or students choosing the direction of their project. Students chose one of three concepts and numerous artists they wanted to research; which media they wanted to use; which works of art to include in a virtual exhibition; and ultimately the development and completion of their final project.
What we heard is that teachers wanted more guidance/support in how to guide students. Even though the course provided some activity ideas, teachers wanted more specific ways to encourage online interactions, more specific assignments and discussion prompts, suggested timelines, etc.
In future revisions we’ll work to strike a balance between being too structured and too unstructured, while also being able to scale and sustain the program as it grows from 16 classes to 32 and beyond.
#3 The Museum Visit
In the middle of the course, the class pairs met up at the NCMA for a self-guided experience where they broke into small groups based on the concept they selected (with students from both classes) and curated a virtual exhibition using the social media platform of their choice. Members from the NCMA teen programs staff would meet the classes at the beginning and end of their experience to welcome them to the NCMA and then reflect on their visit.
Distance and digital learning has immense power to transcend the physical walls of our museum and reach new audiences. But over and over again, our evaluations show that visiting the NCMA and seeing the objects in person is the highlight of this experience. Students also looked forward to meeting each other and talking about art with each other. As alluded to earlier, we’d provide more structure to scaffold learning to encourage both collaboration between students and individual time for students to make their own connections. While not all distance learning programs have to have an onsite component, for the Flipped Museum model, an onsite visit completes the experience.
#4 Know where and how students access online content
North Carolina is 22% rural. Only 17% of “North Carolina households have fixed Internet connections at a speed the FCC deems the “minimum required to engage in modern life.”’ In a time when museums are developing advanced technologies like user-directed robots, we assume students have access to computers and reliable Internet at home, when in fact our students primarily accessed the online course at school or on mobile devices. We are working with our developers to enhance our platform so that it is mobile friendly and not a source of frustration. Furthermore, the mobile platform should equally support the sort of social and active learning experience in our programs.
Dialogue is the foundation for helping students meet our learning outcomes. We aim to create a safe and welcoming space for teens to share, interact and converse with each other online and onsite. In the coming months, we’ll be revising Artists in Process and reflecting on the Flipped Museum model to incorporate guided social learning and dialogue consistently and deliberately throughout the experience.
As someone whose interests, skills, and even job title (Manager of Digital Learning) sit squarely between two areas of museum work—education and technology—I think pretty much nonstop about the relationship between the two. This year, I had the great fortune to be able to attend the 2015 Museums and the Web conference (MW or #MW2015) in Chicago, IL, and think out loud with hundreds of leaders, practitioners, and students passionate about museum technology.
I am active in the Museum Education Division of the National Art Education Association (NAEA) and usually attend the NAEA convention, but this year I was excited to step away from my home base of museum education and into the world of digital. I was not disappointed: I found my tech nerd people (you should have heard the nostalgic sigh when someone showed a GIF of old-school Hyperlapse in action).
However, this is not a post about digital nerdery, so if you understood not a word of that previous sentence, don’t be scared. From here on out, this is my attempt to bridge the areas of digital and education in museums. Here are some of my key takeaways from the MW2015 Conference.
Twitter is a magical thing
One of the best things I ever did for my career was sign up for Twitter, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to become more involved in the field. It has helped me make deep and vast connections with colleagues I never would have encountered otherwise, from all over the museum field and into art history, academia, and K-12 learning. I now use Twitter as my primary source for museum, art, and tech news; as a place to share resources; to talk about issues in the field; and to store my thoughts during conferences. At MW2015, I was finally able to meet many of my “Twitter colleagues” in person. As someone who’s more introverted, it made approaching someone I’d never met before much easier when I could lead with “I’ve followed you on Twitter forever!” and pick up a conversation where we left off online. I could see the same being true for a student or emerging professional.
And, not gonna lie, it’s both fun and weird to be recognized from Twitter when you’re at a conference. It’s like your own little celebrity moment when you introduce yourself to someone and they exclaim, “Oh! I follow you on Twitter and was hoping I’d meet you!” (Insert blushing emoji here.)
Museum technologists publish—and therefore legitimize the “musetech” field
Museum technologists publish. This topic has been bubbling up both at this year’s NAEA (read Dana Carlisle Kletchka’s speech here) and among the museum educators present at MW2015.
At Museums and the Web, presenters can host professional forums and workshops, but they can also present papers. For paper presentations, you write and submit a formal paper that goes beyond “show and tell” of a project and focuses on theory and practice. At the conference, you’re bundled into a session with two other author-practitioners who wrote on similar topics, and the three of you share key points. These engaging talks give technologists the opportunity to formally publish in their field, a boon for their institution and impressive internally to senior staff. Wrapping publishing into a conference also opens doors for emerging professionals and students to participate in the organization more deeply.
But more than that, it legitimizes museum technology. Emily Lytle-Painter used that turn of phrase when I mentioned how impressed I was with the publishing arm of the conference, and it was an “a-ha!” moment for me. Publishing in this quantity and with such dedication—plus offering the papers online, for free, for anyone to read—helps the museum field at large see how important tech is, because it connects theory with practice.
Michelle Grohe (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) and I are thinking about how to adapt this to the field of museum education, and I am hoping to have some ideas to pilot this summer. So stay tuned, and please feel free to get in touch with me if you’re interested in this topic.
We need to be better at translating and advocating for our work
One of my coworkers told me about a moment in the Linked Open Data session where the speakers were asked to do an “elevator pitch,” as if to their director or board, about the benefits of linked open data. Afterward, the audience was asked to raise their hand if they were convinced. Just one person did–in a room of nearly a hundred.
When my coworker—one of our fantastic IT (information technology) staff—told me this anecdote, we had a great discussion about the topic of translating what we do for non-technical staff. One of my biggest pet peeves about the museum field as a whole is that we use specialized language that visitors don’t understand. On top of that, we often use our own content-area words that our colleagues might not understand—curators use art history terminology, educators use teacher-speak, and digital has a host of terms drawn from tech. It’s so easy to forget that others might not know our vocabulary, and few of us are brave enough to ask our peers what the heck a mandala, parking lot, or API is.
Educators are great at knowing our audience on tours; let’s apply that to our own institutions by explaining what we mean when talking to our colleagues, as well as not being afraid to ask coworkers to define their terms. Another tool is metaphor, which Tracey Berg-Fulton suggested at the conference—she “translates” by using art history examples to explain tech to curators, and puts curator needs into tech speak for IT. When we translate what we mean, we gain powerful allies and advocates.
We grapple with the same issues—so let’s collaborate more!
There were countless themes and issues that surfaced during Museums and the Web. Technologists such as Peter Samis (SFMOMA) are thinking about storytelling in the digital sphere. We’re grappling with focusing on process vs. the object, as evidenced by a talk on museum makerspaces by Desi Gonzalez, which in turn sparked a sideline Twitter debate about visitor motivation. Developing projects that aligned with institutional mission came up again and again—as a guidepost, as a tool for advocacy, as a way to develop buy-in from colleagues. And we’re struggling with how to define impact and evaluate digital projects—how do we avoid “anecdata” (anecdotal non-data) and really dig deep into showing change?
I’m sure that more than one of these topics resonated with you as a museum educator–so it’s no surprise that I think we should collaborate more internally, cross-departmentally. The museum technologists leading the deepest organizational change and the most impactful projects are those who have strong collaborations cross-departmentally. So if you’re not already, reach across the aisle of your museum and foster relationships with your tech folks–then we can innovate together rather than separately!
It doesn’t have to be a huge, scary endeavor: start small. Have coffee with one of your museum’s digital/IT staff to learn a bit more about his or her job, and let them know what you do. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—your genuine curiosity will go a long way. Find existing projects that you might be able to support, and share what you’re working on. See if there’s a cross-departmental meeting like a Technology Team you could join, or invite your new IT pal to join in an education meeting.
Digital leaders are often museum change leaders
Finally, one of the biggest threads of the conference was about how change is affecting our institutions (you can track lots of different conversations at #MWChange). You’ll notice that “digital” wasn’t in that sentence, but it seems to me that organizational change is, at many institutions, being spearheaded by digital staff. I think this is because digital projects are often catalysts that force museum staff to rethink business as usual. Keir Winesmith (SFMOMA), Michael Parry (Powerhouse Museum, Sydney), Dafydd James (National Museum Wales, UK), Seb Chan, and Aaron Cope (both from Cooper-Hewitt) all led sessions that focused on or touched on institutional change as a result of digital projects. I highly recommend checking out Keir, Michael, and Dafydd’s excellent slides.
Their stories all rang true with one of my favorite books on change and leadership, Leading Change by John Kotter. Kotter proposes eight stages of organizational change, and asserts that it’s a long-term process that requires deep buy-in from all areas and levels. His theory resonates deeply with the change strategies put forth at MW2015. Both Kotter’s book and the papers written by these presenters (here and here) are well worth a read for those of us thinking about deep change in our institution and in the field at large.
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I’m sure you’ll find that there’s lots of overlap between our work as museum educators and the work of our colleagues in technology. After a week with some wonderful museum technologists at Museums and the Web, I guarantee that there is a lot we can learn from each other to invigorate our practice and better serve our visitors.
PS: I also had the pleasure of presenting at the conference with educators Hillary Cook (Art Institute of Chicago) and Barry Joseph (American Museum of Natural History), organized by Sofie Anderson (Antenna Labs)! We talked about digital in teen programs, and you can read more about our session on Barry’s blog.
Featured header image: A shot of the closing reception at the beautiful (and massive) Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Photo by the author.
Note from Elizabeth Merritt: Last December I visited Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, to brainstorm with their staff about museums and distance education. As Michael Edson has pointed out time and again, if museums are to scale up their impact and play a significant role in education in the U.S., they need to exploit the reach of the web. During my time there, Crystal Bridges shared a new initiative they were about to launch: an online course for high school students to take for credit towards graduation. Kirsten Peterson, project director at the educational nonprofit EDC contracted to help develop the project, gave us a brief tour of the course in its pilot form. Anne Kraybill, Crystal Bridges’ distance learning project manager, put me in touch with one of the students who tested the course prototype in 2014. Today’s guest post is by Maddy Windel, a freshman enrolled in a rural public high school, who shares her experience with this foray into online art education.
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Written by Maddy Windel
In October of 2014, I was given the opportunity to participate in the pilot of Museum Mash-Up, an online course being developed by Crystal Bridges. My English teacher/mother, Kenya Windel, heard about this opportunity through the ARTeacher Fellowship, an initiative that both she and my father have been a part of over the last few years.
Ms. Windel volunteered me for the pilot because she knows I love learning about art in general: What drives the artist? Why did they create this piece specifically? Was it inspired by a big event in the artist’s life? I also love making art. Museum Mash-Up combined all of these interests. I had never taken an online course, but I really wanted to know what one was like (in Arkansas, an online course credit is necessary for all graduates, and I wanted to feel more prepared). I didn’t know that much about the course when I was volunteered. I knew it was about art that could be found at the Crystal Bridges museum—art that has piqued my interest every time I have visited the museum—but that was about it.
The pilot started with an immediate communication push. It was a major part of the course, which was a relief to me because I am from an incredibly small school with a group of close-knit students and faculty. I had never had to deal with not knowing or talking to my teachers before, and I didn’t know what it would be like. The amount of communication I received from the course made this transition much easier. In fact, the course had almost the same level of communication as art courses I’ve taken in the classroom. It also offered much more on the history of the art, and the art projects we completed were a bit more open than those in the classroom. The prompts provided the students with the basics–what the art should be about or reflect on–and let us go from there.
The course centered on examining, interpreting, and discussing art and the process of curating art (how it’s done, who does it, why they do it, doing it oneself). There were also sessions dedicated to making art, whether through sketching, photography, cartooning, or other means, depending on the session and each student’s personal preferences.
Learning deeply about the art and what led to its creation was particularly interesting for me. While I have always enjoyed looking at artwork, Crystal Bridges’ course showed me just how deeply I could go into studying and interpreting art. I developed my knowledge on the fact that the creation of a specific piece of artwork hinged on hundreds of factors that made it what it was. Take, for instance, my favorite pilot session, on the artwork of Andy Warhol and George Tooker. From an unenlightened outsider’s perspective, I could analyze their work in whatever way I chose, but when I dug deeper, I discovered that Warhol insisted he just did art for fun or money, and Tooker was influenced by his neighborhood. I discovered how the artists were raised, how they became interested in art, and how their friendships and their relationships influenced them. All of these factors make the art more intriguing, and I find there is more to look for, or not to look for, a story for each piece.
Analyzing this art online also gave me a taste of what the originals may really be like, both physically and emotionally. No digital image of a piece of art compares to what it looks like face-to-face. While some museums may fear that online exposure may keep people away, I believe it does the opposite. Looking at a piece, absorbing it, may be done to a limited extent on a computer, but I cannot feel the presence of the work–the size, the stature, the beauty—online like I can in person. Online art does serve as a good alternative to those who do not have the opportunity to view the artwork in person due to distance, money, or other reasons, and online sharing gives museums an entirely new method of attracting audiences who might not visit the museum otherwise. Pictures and examples of artwork can help make a mark on a new generation of people who live in this visual age. Images can be of much more help to them than a written description.
I see the Crystal Bridges’ course as a wonderful opportunity to help students understand and engage with art and with other students who share an interest in it. The course allows students to communicate, work with technology that may be new to them, and enjoy, curate, and make art while being guided by their instructors, but not so rigidly that they don’t get to create their own steps along the way. A few parts of the course were difficult for me personally (I’m not the brightest crayon in the box when it comes to technology), but eventually all my difficulties were resolved. The pilot was a wonderful experience. It was one I would love to repeat, and I’ve begun to do just that by taking the course for credit this semester. It’s thrilling to be able to look back and acknowledge, even early on, a conscious change in understanding from taking a course like this, and I hope that feeling is one many students can experience in the future through online interactions and in-person visits to museums such as Crystal Bridges that offer these educational opportunities.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is currently offering the course through Virtual Arkansas for Arkansas public school students. Plans are underway to distribute the course to teachers in any state or country.
By Anne Kraybill, Distance Learning Project Manager, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Check out Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s Distance Learning website, which includes research and resources made available to support your distance learning initiatives.
The term “distance learning” can seem antithetical to art museums that espouse the power of an authentic experience with an object. As I worked to develop a distance learning initiative at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, I struggled to reconcile the rationale for such a program. After all, Crystal Bridges has a robust and well-funded school visits program that brings students from all over the region. Why would I want to create a program that did not take place within our walls?
First, let me provide a little context. Crystal Bridges decided to pursue a distance learning initiative shortly after the field trip study conducted by Jay Greene, Brian Kisida, and Dan Bowen at the University of Arkansas. The findings revealed that student gains from a one-time fieldtrip in a variety of outcomes were two to three times higher for students in rural locations. With these findings in mind, we decided to create a distance learning program that would reach more students overall, but particularly students in these rural schools.
Where to Start?
We began with some formative research to determine what path we might take. In July 2013, we hosted a Distance Learning Summit, which brought together more than 40 art museums and arts organizations to better understand the current landscape and approaches to distance learning, as well as envision the future of how art museums might further leverage distance learning. Case study presentations included traditional approaches such as synchronous video conferences—often branded as “virtual fieldtrips”—that connected classrooms remotely, to blended approaches that utilized Learning Management Systems (LMS) before and after an onsite program, to asynchronous approaches such as a Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that engage thousands of learners at one time.
While all of these approaches have advantages and disadvantages to consider, the model that resonated with our particular situation was presented by Michelle Harrell and Emily Kotecki from the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA). In an effort to increase their reach to teens, they partnered with North Carolina Virtual Public School to develop online courses in the visual arts for high school students throughout the state of North Carolina. This model resonated for a few reasons. First, in the state of Arkansas we have the Digital Learning Act that requires all high school students to take an asynchronous online course for graduation, so this approach was a natural fit. Second, the notion of having such a direct role in a student’s school career was appealing and provided a level of accountability not found in most art museum/school partnerships. Following the trail Michelle and Emily had blazed, Crystal Bridges set out to develop a for-credit online course with the aim of deeply connecting high school students to art history, American history, and museum studies.
After an RFP process, we selected Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC) as the development partner. Over the course of a year, a cross disciplinary team of museum educators, instructional designers, subject-matter experts, graphic designers, and programmers, developed Museum Mash Up: American Identity through the Arts. Rather than progress through the artworks chronologically, the course begins with contemporary art. The guiding questions ask students “How did we get here? And how have artists shaped and reflected upon American identity?” Crystal Bridges partnered with Virtual Arkansas to offer and deliver the course. Like North Carolina Virtual, Virtual Arkansas is a supplementary provider of online courses that any public school student in the state can take. EDC and Crystal Bridges trained a few online arts instructors from Virtual Arkansas with volunteer students to test the activities and get formative feedback from both instructors and students.
The course has now launched through Virtual Arkansas with a pilot group of about 40 students from all over the state, including the community of Deer, population 680; the community of Hugh, population 1,441; and the community of Star City, population 2,248. Students typically log onto the course during one of their class periods at school. Though the course is asynchronous, students are paced in weekly units and use tools to engage in online discussion. This was one of the most important elements for the design of this course. While there are many valuable websites and other online resources to learn about the arts, we wanted to be sure that the act of “collaborative meaning-making” was not lost. Similar to an onsite program, students begin their lesson by looking at the work of art and sharing their initial observations and interpretations using VoiceThread™. This tool allows for a conversation in the cloud using text, video, or audio and is an excellent platform for students to build on one another’s ideas. Following their initial observations in VoiceThread™, the students read about the art and engage with multi-media materials to ascertain some context about the art, artist, and historical time period. They then participate in another, more in-depth discussion about their new and evolving interpretations.
Simultaneously, students are also working on two major capstone projects. The first project is a curated exhibition about their own individual identity using the tool Kapsul™ somewhat similar to a Pinterest board. Through this project, along with videos by curators, designers, and educators, they learn about the curatorial, design, and interpretive process necessary to curate an exhibition. These skills are used in their final project: a virtual exhibition curated by each student using the artworks they learned about during the semester, and research new works in the Crystal Bridges collection. This amazing virtual rendering of the Twentieth-Century Art Gallery at Crystal Bridges was created by David Charles Frederick from Tesseract Studios at the University of Arkansas using Unity™, an immersive game engine that includes rich textures and allows the students to explore the space as if on foot. The rendering is completely accurate to the specifications from the museum blueprints and provides learners with an immersive experience in which they arrange paintings they have researched on the walls, write the labels and interpretation, develop the graphic identity of their exhibition, and most importantly, learn that they can make meaning and conversations between paintings and across history.
Along the way, there were many challenges to overcome and there will be many more as we continue to pilot the course. Content for all of the artwork had to be generated requiring a mass amount of writing. Image rights had to be procured, videos needed to be produced, and external content from primary and secondary sources had to be found. One of the most challenging hurdles we had to overcome was the course approval process with the Arkansas Department of Education. Because this was not a standard course, the state had to approve it under a standards framework. After much work and standards alignment, we were able to obtain course approval for students to receive .5 credit hours in fine arts. The course now satisfies two requirements all high school students must meet for graduation; a .5 credit hour in fine arts, and at least one course taken online.
Beyond the bureaucratic and logistical challenges we continue to encounter and amend, there are, not surprisingly, some challenges in working with high school students. There are a wide range of motivations, with some students passionately interested in learning art and history, and others who are more ambivalent about visual arts and museums. This results in a wide range of responses in the discussions. For instance, students were asked to look at and respond to George Tooker’s, The Ward in VoiceThread™. Their only prompt was “What do you notice and what do you wonder?”
Student One: it looks like there is a bunch sick people laying (sic) in hospital. like it looks like the ones already laying down are dead.
Student Two: George Tooker’s “The Ward” is a very interesting piece that’s (sic) shows to have many subliminal messages. In the background there are many American flags hanging on the wall in a much brighter contrast to the rest of the painting. I recognize this as a representation of patriotism and American pride. Going on to the next part of the painting, the elderly people lined up in rows on beds. There isn’t much to identify the various elderly by- except as Madeliene said, they have little to no hair- so they are most likely men. The elderly people are lined up on these beds- which do not appear to be comfortable by their stiff appearance. It seems that these people are just existing, not really being anything other than a case number or a medical condition. I believe that this represents the wounded soldiers that have returned from the various wars. When the soldiers came back from the war wounded this is how they were treated oftentimes, in a lifeless building or tent, not having anything to do or participate in, often making them become depressed which slowed or stopped the healing process completely. When Tooker made this painting I wonder why he depicted the wounded soldiers scene as so dreary and negative when he could have followed in the footsteps of others and sugar coat it to pacify the public and make it seem appealing enough. For Tooker’s honesty in this painting I admire him greatly. He really got his point across that the war wasn’t pleasant and it wasn’t pleasant afterwards either, because these memories still haunt you…
In addition, for many students this is the first time they have taken an online course, so they need support in learning the tools plus very well-defined and articulated expectations of the level and quality of work the course requires. Everyone is making significant progress. For example, early responses from all but a few students were rarely justified, but just five weeks in, student are better articulating their interpretations with more detail and inference, and justifying their claims with evidence.
Overall, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. There is a level of anonymity for each student that is freeing. They are not burdened by labels that they might encounter in their physical school. They are also able to contribute their ideas without ridicule. The way in which they engage with works of art and learn about the works is multi-model. And they are connecting with Crystal Bridges and the collection in a way that a one-time fieldtrip could never afford. In addition, Crystal Bridges is providing a unique course-offering to the state that expands access to quality arts education.
Crystal Bridges has a large agenda as it continues to expand upon this program. Next steps include:
Conduct an observational study of the current section of Museum Mash Up to analyze instructional design and quality, and measure student perceptions. Follow the observational study with a rigorous, experimental design to measure student outcomes including critical thinking and writing.
Develop an online teacher professional-development program that certifies teachers in any state to teach the course;
Create a second course offering that is grounded in studio and design practice;
Host an online professional learning community where teachers can receive support in teaching the online course.
Host a second Distance Learning Summit (details forthcoming this summer).
This project has been one of the scariest and most fulfilling in my career. The students are not the only ones who have a stake in the course; we as a museum cannot fail our obligation to them. I could not have conceived of it without the ground-breaking work by Michelle and Emily at NCMA. I also have to thank the talented and dedicated Crystal Bridges museum educators, Emily Rodriguez and Donna Hutchinson, for all their help in developing, researching, and designing the course outline, as well as EDCs project manager, Kirsten Peterson, for her unwavering dedication and belief in this project, and Diana Garrison, teacher extraordinaire at Virtual Arkansas.
ANNE KRAYBILL: Distance Learning Project Manager at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where she is developing online accredited courses for high school students and online professional development for teachers. In her previous position as the school and community programs manager at Crystal Bridges, she developed and implemented all of the Museum’s programming related to K-12 students, teachers and pre-services teacher as well as community groups. She has held positions at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Norton Museum of Art , the Center for Creative Education, and the Vero Beach Museum of Art. Prior to joining Crystal Bridges, she worked as the Art School Director at the Durham Art Council, managing visual and performing arts classes for over 3,000 youth and adult students annually. Anne has a B.F.A. in Photography from Maryland Institute College of Art, a M.A. in Museum Education from The University of the Arts, and a M.S. in Instructional Technology from East Carolina University. She is currently a Doctoral Academy Fellow in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Anne’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
This past June, I participated in a two-week workshop at Harvard University’s metaLAB called Beautiful Data: Telling Stories with Open Collections. Thanks to a grant from the Getty Foundation, the metaLAB brought together over twenty curators, technologists, educators, and scholars to grapple with how we might use publicly available data from museum collections in our work. In the first week, speakers as varied as digital museum specialists to experience designers to scientists who study vision all pressed us to think of our work in unexpected contexts. In the second week, we took what we’d discussed and applied them to projects of our own.
Over the past four months, I’ve let the ideas and theories of Beautiful Data percolate in my visitor-centered soul, and I’ve come to realize this: although open collections is a movement born in the digital realm, I believe its principles are essential to how a 21st-century cultural institution can reach visitors today—whether virtual, physical, or personal.
What are Open Collections?
“Open collections” is a museum technology term that refers to a museum (or more appropriately, a GLAM—gallery, library, archive, or museum) “opening” all of collections data for anyone to freely use, reuse, or distribute it. In this context, data refers not only to an image of an artwork in a collection, for example, but all of an object’s “metadata” or supporting information, such as artist, time of creation, subject matter, size, medium, and so on. If the collection of your museum is digitally open, you release an API (application programming interface) that allows programmers to easily pull that data into lots of different contexts, such as websites or apps. The idea, according to the OpenGLAM movement, is that it allows “users not only to enjoy the riches of the world’s memory institutions, but also to contribute, participate and share.” (For a more in-depth explanation of museum APIs, check out this blog post from the SFMOMA Lab.)
Metadata sounds like tombstone information—in other words, that basic information that lives on a museum label, and on its own, might not necessarily be that compelling. The magic of open collections data, though, is that through technology, all those individual bits of information can be packaged together and unpacked, visualized and disseminated in different ways. In short, like many of our most successful museum education programs, the cool stuff happens when you release it into the wild and let people play.
Perhaps the most famous example of a museum opening up its collection is the Rijksmuseum, which in 2011 published an API and allowed free access to high-quality images of its artworks. But most stunningly, it not only allowed, but loudly encouraged anyone who wanted to create new interpretations of those artworks, from coffee cups to clothing. They even hosted a contest on the huge handmade marketplace website Etsy.
Another great example is by Florian Kräutli, one of my fellow Beautiful Data participants, who took Tate’s open collections data and visualized it—noticing that over half its collection is by J. M. W. Turner, prompting him into a rabbit hole of discovery into exactly why that is (you can read his blog post on the project to find out more). Museums are supporting this type of play in-house, too: the Cooper-Hewitt team has a treasure trove of ways they’ve used their collections data on their blog, including a search-by-color tool and “Robot Rothko” (which is just as awesome as it sounds). As his final project, Beautiful Data participant Richard Barrett-Small, formerly of Tate, built on the Cooper-Hewitt’s color tool to create Colour Lens, a color visualization explorer for multiple museum collections.
In short, the big idea here is that open collections allow cultural institutions to complete their educational missions: not only showing our objects to as many people as possible (no matter where they are in the world—thanks, internet!), but giving people ownership of our collections and spaces by welcoming them to engage in any way they can dream up.
Investigating Transformative Experiences with Art
Let’s turn back to my personal experience at Beautiful Data. It’s rare that museum staff are ever able to think about the what ifs and why nots, to set aside time to imagine, play, and prototype. Happily, at Beautiful Data, we had two full weeks to do exactly that.
As a visitor-centered museum educator, I think a lot about the humans experiencing our institutions. As a visitor-centered museum technologist, I think about people too, albeit those in the ether of the web—no less real than my students, though often more anonymous. At Beautiful Data, though, we went extremely big-picture—this meant discussions of data visualizations (graphical ways to show stories about data), institutional collecting patterns and preferences, and thinking about how not just staff but organizations could collaborate together through comparing and sharing their collections data.
To be honest, this sometimes frustrated me. As one of two educators in the group, I was always asking, “but what about the people who will actually use this information?” That question was certainly on the minds of other participants, but I came to realize that “users” could just as often mean internal staff members as external visitors.
With all this in mind, for my Beautiful Data final project, I decided to tackle an idea that has been a seed in my work for some time: amassing stories or personal connections with works of art from museum visitors, and seeing what patterns I could find about how people interact with collections. I posted a survey asking people to share their “transformative experiences with works of art,” and waited to see what I’d get.
I was struck by the stories I received. Regardless of length or whether the respondent was a museum professional or a scientist, even if they had only seen the work one time, each story was full of heart—beautiful, nostalgic, sometimes wrenching connections between a work of art and the person’s own life.
Despite a week blissfully surrounded by all things nerdy-tech (read: 3D printers, APIs, and Lytro cameras), instead of building a minimal website or massaging the words into data, I instead was compelled to handwrite key phrases on paper, print out full responses and images of their chosen piece, and pin them to a wall. My project quickly turned into a completely physical installation: a purposefully unscientific data visualization of the responses people had submitted.
Documentary photos of my installation can be seen through the photo gallery below, or you can visit my album on Flickr.
Some stories were long, others just a handful of cryptic sentences. Some had art historical, factual descriptions backing up their thoughts; others never looked up a single extra bit of information about the artwork after they saw it. Some ruminated on the object for many years; others were hit in the gut all of a sudden upon turning a corner.
For all that, every single story had two things in common. In each, there was a deeply personal reason behind the individual’s connection to the artwork, and each was written in a tone of reverence—towards the power of these images to arrest a person, to stir up unexpected thoughts or feelings, to stick in their mind for years and years afterward.
Open Collections—Beyond the Digital
When my teen program started up again this fall, I brought my students into the Milwaukee Art Museum galleries to look at a single work of art for an hour (you can read more about this process here.) As usual, I noticed the high schoolers opening up to each other, to new ideas, and to finding ways that art relates to their everyday life—whether a photograph of Milwaukee or a landscape by a Baroque Italian painter. These discussions are guided by the students—I might throw in some useful facts to open up the conversation, but they take the lead. As a result, on any given day, we might relate artworks to religion, politics, narratives, families and friends, or even moods and feelings.
During these sessions, the teens are given permission to engage with these objects in a manner entirely new to them: instead of the 7-second “drive by” glance, they’re encouraged to bring their own opinions, thoughts, and questions to these artworks.
This fall, as I watched the students unfold these pieces and their own thoughts every week, and as I thought about my own project at Beautiful Data, I started to realize how intimately connected my discussion-based teaching style and experience-based project are to the big ideas behind the open collections movement.
In the realm of digital, opening collections data and encouraging people to play with it allows for deeper engagement in and participation with our collections. For my teen programs, which take place physically in the museum, the same goal holds—for my students to feel comfortable engaging with and connecting with the collection. For my Beautiful Data project about transformative experiences with works of art, each respondent was open to having an experience with a work of art that turned out to be intimate and meaningful.
Too often in the museum field, we become siloed. The cross-pollinated conversations and projects at Beautiful Data with folks from many different museum departments helped me see that most of the time, we’re all saying the same thing.
We all want our collections to be open to the public. We all want to give visitors opportunities to engage with objects. All that said, the devil’s in the details, as they say, and, as I learned from fellow participants at Beautiful Data, “openness” might mean different things in different contexts, or to different people within our institutions. For a museum technologist who’s part of the OpenGLAM movement, it might mean creating an API for her institution’s collection. For a curator, it might mean presenting art with minimal labels to allow visitors to bring their own thoughts to the work. For an educator, it might mean hosting a monthly “slow art” day, facilitating a one hour conversation about a single work of art. For a visitor, it might mean taking a selfie with a work of art to share with friends on Instagram—or perhaps having a life-changing, transformative moment with an object—or maybe exploring the collection online even though they live halfway around the world from the institution itself.
If we’re all saying the same thing, then why does it sometimes seem like we’re not on the same page? It might be because we’re speaking slightly different languages (after all, our departments borrow from our content areas—whether technology terms, art history/academic jargon, or educator-ese). It might be because when we are speaking together, we’re only hearing what we want to hear instead of what the other person is actually saying. It might be because we’re not taking time to speak to each other at all.
I can tell you firsthand with Beautiful Data under my belt that it’s worth it to step outside the comfort zone of our own department. Internally, let’s challenge ourselves to learn new vocabulary and have discussions with others outside of our own departments. That way, our principles and beliefs can start to be shared among staff in different areas. When we speak the same language internally, we’ll have the power to push our institutions into a new paradigm, as Jay Rounds discusses in a recent article on Museum Questions, or as Mike Murawski suggests in his article about museums embracing a “digital mindset.”
And externally? Open collections, at its core, is about access to our institutions—whether digitally through collection APIs, physically through innovative programming in our galleries, or personally through highlighting the stories of people who have had powerful experiences with objects. Opening access in this way can be scary, because it can sometimes mean giving up some control, such as rights, an authoritative institutional voice, or even the context and purpose of looking at artwork. But those risky moments are also when great change has the potential to occur. If we want our collections to be relevant and meaningful in the 21st century, we must be brave enough to open up our doors—physically and virtually—to support, encourage, and celebrate the profound and magical experiences with art that happen next, whatever they might be.
Reposted from CODE | WORDS, an experimental publishing project on Medium exploring emerging issues concerning the nature of museums in light of the impact of digital technologies on society. This collection of essays has since been published in book form by Museums Etc.
As the AMC series Mad Men aired its midseason finale back in May 2014, more than two million viewers were graced with an unexpected song and dance performance from senior advertising executive Bert Cooper, played by actor and past Broadway star Robert Morse. In this musical equivalent to hitting the pause button on a much anticipated final season that does not resume until next spring, Morse crooned the lyrical lines first written in 1930: “The moon belongs to everyone; the best things in life are free.”
For me, it was certainly one of the most intriguingly beautiful and surprising moments on television in recent years. The song comes during the last two minutes of an episode in which the daily dramas of the show’s characters are laid on top of, and intertwined with, the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. At one point in the episode, everyone gathers around a television, wherever they are, to watch Neil Armstrong take that small step onto the surface of the moon — engaging in one of the most memorable shared human experiences of the 20th century (an estimated 600 million people worldwide were watching the moon landing live on television at that very moment).
Technology, engineering, and new media undeniably acted to create a profound connection. In her Los Angeles Times column about the Mad Men episode, Meredith Blake wrote:
“It was an unexpectedly hopeful hour of television, one that reaffirms the possibility of positive collective experience while contradicting the notion that technological progress must come at the expense of human connection.”
This perspective has particularly resonated with me at a time when I have been grappling with the effects of digital technologies and media on the educational role of museums. Are my own core values of human connection, shared experience, and community co-creation a part of the digital transformation happening in museums? When we’re overly suspect of digital technologies, are we missing out on a greater opportunity to embrace a ‘digital is everywhere’ mentality—a mindset that brings together thinking about digital technologies and the new ways in which humans connect, share, and learn in a digital age?
Yes, and yes.
Well …. how did I get there?
In May 2013, I gave a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (followed by a short thinking piece online) entitled “Museums Un/Plugged: Are We Becoming Too Reliant on Technology?” that explored my uncertainties about the growing emphasis on technology in museums. Far from being anti-technology, I was, however, exploring some burning questions I, myself, had about the role of digital technology in museum learning and visitor engagement through the polemical dichotomy of ‘plugged in’ versus ‘unplugged.’ Among many questions, I asked:
“As we focus more and more on digital and online experiences, are we sacrificing any of the human-centered elements that have been at the core of museum education for more than a century? If your museum lost power, how would that affect the learning experiences in the galleries and across programming?”
After seeing some museums investing more in a single digital project than other museums have in their entire annual operating budget, I was genuinely concerned that we might be losing sight of the basic ‘unplugged’ human interactions at the core of learning that allow these institutions and their collections to have public value and mean something to the communities they serve. I even wrote, “when I head into the galleries to facilitate a learning experience, technology often falls away and I find myself focusing entirely on the analog elements of museum teaching.”
Yet, I have come to realize that we can no longer unplug the effect of digital technologies and Internet culture on the ways we think about and re-imagine museums today. If the lights go out in the museum and all the WiFi hotspots and screens go dark, we might lose the physical technology infrastructure, but we do not lose the powerful participatory, networked, open source culture that has taken root in our audiences and communities in the 21st century. In this regard, digital technology cannot simply fall away.
In the 2014 Let’s Get Real 2 report developed from the second Culture24 Action Research Project involving 22 arts and cultural organizations, experts from across the field noted that institutions are struggling to embrace the new realities of audience behavior (via the web, mobile devices, social media, etc.). Jane Finnis, Project Lead, remarks in her foreword to the report:
“this challenge is absolutely not about technology, which we are often guilty of fetishising as a solution to problems. It is first and foremost about audience and the ways in which digital technologies are changing their behaviours: at work, at home, on the move, learning, playing, questioning, socialising, sharing, communicating. Forever.”
For museums in the 21st century, becoming more aware and responsive to these changes requires a shift in thinking at all levels — a shift that embraces a wider ‘digital mindset.’ This approach envisions a deeper fluency and understanding of web behaviors, mobile behaviors, and social media behaviors across all areas of museum practice, rather than relegated to the IT, online collections, or website functions of a museum. In her core essay from the 2014 Sharing is Caring anthology (a must read, by the way) entitled “This Belongs to You: On Openness and Sharing at Statens Museum for Kunst,” Curator of Digital Museum Practice Merete Sanderhoff sets out to define “a new foundation for our work, one that comprises digital infrastructure and a digital mindset in equal measure” (23). She continues:
“Technology should not govern the museums’ work. But in order to learn and understand how we can use new technologies and benefit from the opportunities they open up for us, we must explore and incorporate not just technologies themselves, but also the changes in behaviour and expectations they prompt in users. We must think like users.”
So how might we begin to think more like users, and see our audience as users, as well?
Be More Open
With the rise of the Internet, the phrase ‘open source’ began as a way to describe open access to software source code and the collaborative model for how it is developed. Key elements of this development model have been: universal free access and redistribution of the source code, an openness for users to modify and adapt that blueprint in any way desired, and an emphasis on transparency and collaboration.
In museums today, one of the direct effects of this open source movement can be found in the ways through which institutions have released their collection data. As the OpenGLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museum) initiative coordinated by the Open Knowledge Foundation asserts:
“The internet presents cultural heritage institutions with an unprecedented opportunity to engage global audiences and make their collections more discoverable and connected than ever, allowing users not only to enjoy the riches of the world’s memory institutions, but also to contribute, participate and share.”
In 2013, the Rijksmuseum released 150,000 copyright-free, high resolution images of public domain works — one of several art museums that have made collection data and images openly available online. But they have gone beyond simply releasing images and data, and actively encouraged people to share their collection, remix the artworks to create personalized collections, print reproductions (including everything from posters and canvas prints to coffee mugs and bed covers), and allow artists free reign to use these images to create something new. As of October 2014, visitors had created more than 169,000 new virtual exhibitions through the RijksStudio web platform. Ed Rodley’s recent CODE | WORDS essay “The Virtues of Promiscuity” lays out an interesting case for museums like the Rijksmuseum being promiscuous with its collection.
Pushing open use of a collection even farther, in January 2014 the Walters Art Museum hosted its second Art Bytes hackathon to bring together technology and creative communities to use the museum’s rather new API to create games, Twitter bots, scavenger hunts, 3D prints, web apps, e-books, digital docents, etc. This competition not only utilized the collection data to inspire community-wide creative rethinking about the Walters, but it led to a whole series of incredible adaptations, recreations, and visitor experiences with the collection at the core.
One of Denmark’s leading IT lawyers, Martin von Haller Grønbæk, writes in his essay “GLAMourous Remix: Openness and Sharing for Cultural Institutions” from the 2014 Sharing is Caring anthology:
“All cultural institutions should endeavor to be as open as possible in the sense that as many people as possible should have the easiest access possible to the institution’s content. At the same time the institution should seek to ensure that the freely available content is shared, enriched, and processed by users, whether they are citizens, students, scholars, researchers, or commercial ventures.” (142)
If we think of the concept of ‘open’ in the broadest way possible (beyond releasing collection data), it has the potential to challenge museums to let go of some of their control and the limitations that come with this control. Embracing a mindset of openness changes the way we think about museum practice, inspiring a more participatory mentality focused around creating, transforming, and adapting — without the traditional restrictions that have limited forms of public cultural learning.
“With the web has come a new collaborative approach to knowledge generation and sharing, a recognition of multiple perspectives, and an expectation by users that they will be able to contribute and adapt/manipulate content to meet their own needs.” (Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the 21st Century, 6)
A hundred years ago, people relied on museums as a repository for the knowledge and information related to its cultural collections. If you wanted to learn more about the artists, artworks, cultures, and places of its collection, you walked inside a museum’s grand halls of knowledge. Today, that has completely shifted. Visitors can access far more information through their smartphone or mobile device than any museum could ever hold (as of October 2014, 87% of people in the US use the Internet, 67% own smartphones, and they have access to more than 672 billion gigabytes of data from more than 1 billion websites).
During a visit to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, I found myself sitting in front of an amazing Franz Kline painting entitled “Turin” in their Abstract Expressionism collection. While the pithy 98-word unattributed ‘voice of god’ label offered a few tidbits (“Kline used commercial house paints,” and that the painting was “named after a city in northern Italy”), I quickly went to my iPhone to search for more—I was hungry for more. From the 350,000 Google search responses, I instantly found videos, photos, Wikipedia entries, curatorial essays, poetry, music, visitor comments, slow looking reflections, and links to dozens of other museums that had works by Kline in their own collections. While I may have been standing in the Nelson Atkins building, I found myself reaching outside of its walls and connecting digitally with a wide distributed network of authorities and communities of knowledge—even sharing my own content to this mix with tweets and Instagram photos. When I sat down with docents in front of this painting for deeper conversations, we opened up further layers of thoughts, insights, and questions that were not part of the authoritative knowledge repository of the museum.
We have rapidly moved out of the era of passive consumption of content selected by a few experts, and museums now have an opportunity to actively reshape their own authority in this new equation. The digital age does not negate the authority of museums and curatorial expertise, but, rather, it puts this authority in public conversation and dialogue with a wider network of knowledges, voices, and experiences. Cultural authority is not something solely established by a didactic label, curatorial essay, or published catalog; it is negotiated through discussion and collective participation, and shared with our community and the users (yes, I said ‘users’ instead of ‘audience’). with which we connect. In his 2009 essay “A Manual for the 21st Century Gatekeeper,” New York-based curator Michael Connor explores the ways in which the internet, social media, and new collaborative ways of working are fundamentally changing the relationship between arts organizations and their audiences. He writes:
“A curator’s authority pales in comparison to the audience’s vast collective stores of knowledge and passion. How can gatekeepers redefine their role in ways that harness the power of the audience without losing the sense of subjectivity and personal risk that lie behind aesthetic decisions?”
As museums work toward sharing authority, they can begin to allow for the voices of specific communities and the public to be heard inside the walls of these institutions—to speak for themselves. In her guest editor preface to the July 2013 issue of the Journal of Museum Education focused on this theme of “shared authority,” Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello includes a powerful quote from historian Karen Halttunen that relates to the role museum staff play as workers in these public institutions:
“We [must] divest ourselves of the special authority sometimes granted to us … [and we must] enter democratic partnerships with other members of our communities.”
For me, the Memory Jar Project a couple years ago at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History really stands out in terms of a museum working to renegotiate traditional, monolithic structures of authority (using a ‘digital mindset’ in an analog way). Part of a larger community-sourced exhibition project called Santa Cruz Collects, visitors were invited to ‘bottle up’ a memory in a jar, label it, and leave it as part of this exhibit to share with others. The Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories initiative also continues to strive toward shared authority and multiple voices (see “Sharing Authority/Sharing Perspectices: Native Voices”). By redefining authority through these processes of co-creating knowledge and meaning with the community, a museum has the potential to be far more than just a place that holds and disseminates knowledge.
At the core of the digital age are new ways of relating to one another, new ways of interacting, new kinds of groups, and new ways of sharing, learning, collaborating, and connecting. In their 2012 book Networked: The New Social Operating System, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman argue that the large online social circles of familiar platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. actually expand opportunities for learning, problem solving, and personal interaction. Their work at the Pew Internet Project and the NetLab (especially research for the Connected Lives Project) suggests that digital technologies are not isolated — or isolating — systems, but rather networked systems built upon these social networking platforms as well as mobile device technologies.
“People’s relationships remain strong — but they are networked. Neighbors, and neighborhoods still exist, to be sure, but they occupy a smaller portion of people’s lives. It is hard to borrow a cup of sugar from a Facebook friend 1,000 miles away, but it has become easier to socialize, get advice, and exchange emotional support at whatever distance. Where commentators had been afraid that the internet would wither in-person ties, it is clear that they enhance and extend them.”
Through countless digital projects and social media activities, museums are tapping into global networks and becoming more connected to this growing virtual community (that, in many cases, actually has a strong relationship with a museum’s physical community). As Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, stated in a 2014 New York Times piece, “We live not in the digital, not in the physical, but in the kind of minestrone that our mind makes of the two.”
Through the Portland Art Museum’s #captureParklandia project, we were able to effectively explore the interconnected network of interest-based social media communities (via Instagram) and the physical communities in Portland itself. The overall reach of this project through Instagram was far larger than the museum’s annual in-person attendance, motivating us to rethink how we define our audiences and the new ways in which we might bring them together through moments of exchange. Rob Stein explores related ideas in his CODE | WORDS essay “Museums… So What?”, writing:
“… the face-to-face dialog that happens in real life at the museum is critically important, but I keep thinking about all the ways we could enhance and improve this dialog digitally and online. What if we considered how we might detect when meaningful discourse happens in our social media and online activities?”
The Question Bridge project is a particularly powerful example of using digital technologies in a participatory way to bring people together in dialogue and exchange. Organized by artists Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair, this innovative transmedia art project aims to facilitate a question-and-answer dialog between black men from diverse and contending backgrounds and create a platform for representing and redefining black male identity. In addition to its online interactive site, the project has been installed at over 25 museums and galleries, including the Brooklyn Museum, Fabric Workshop and Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, Oakland Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, the Exploratorium, and the Missouri History Museum, and includes a multiple-screen video installation as well as a youth development curriculum and specialized community engagement events. The project (about which I encourage you to learn more) is all about dialogue and listening, and it taps into both technology and a digital mindset in order to enhance the connective and collective experience of participants in a digital age.
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In her book Museums in the Digital Age, Susana Smith Bautista discusses how notions of place, community, and culture are changing for museums in the digital age. In her conclusion, she writes:
“If museums are to remain relevant, vital, and meaningful, then they must adapt to a changing society, which means not only recognizing and incorporating new digital tools for communication, but more importantly, recognizing the changing needs and aspirations of society as reflected in their communities of physical and virtual visitors.” (225).
As the behaviors of our audiences and communities change, so do the ways in which they learn. A core part of this digital transformation in museums (see “Museums Morph Digitally”) involves expanding our concepts of learning and engagement to be responsive to an Internet culture defined by participation — and not just ‘participation for the sake of participation,’ but as serious involvement in the deep, connected forms of cultural and creative learning that can occur with museums.
Embracing a digital mindset of openness, participation, and connectivity allows museums the chance to extend the boundaries of what is possible, and serve as sites for profound human connection in the 21st century—in much the same way that new technologies brought people together for that powerful shared moment 45 years ago to witness Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap.’
After all … the moon belongs to everyone.
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On November 12, 2014, the NAEA Museum Education Division hosted a Peer2Peer Hangout that focused on these ideas of ‘digital mindset’ and ‘digital museum practice’ with Ed Rodley, Chelsea Kelly, Michelle Grohe, and Juline Chevalier. It was a lively conversation with lots of good questions from people watching live. View the video archive of this Hangout below: