By Brinker Ferguson, Digital Media Fellow, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
In the past several months, many museums have begun using live video chat as a way to enhance and foster new online discussions and interactions between museum educators and the public. One of the most popular tools has been Google Hangouts which is part of the Google+ social network. It allows for up to 10 users to video chat together and gives them the ability to broadcast the video stream live to a large audience and even record the session for future viewing. The recorded video, which is archived on the museum’s G+ page and YouTube channel, can be shared on various social networks. In addition, the videos collect (limited) analytics information so museums can track the attention it receives. Users who express interest in a museum video session ahead of time can be alerted when it is about to begin via Google+ email messaging.
This use of video chatting has spawned a new online forum that helps to bring together museum curators, directors, historians and educators with different virtual communities for in-depth conversations of art and ideas. Rather then a YouTube video, which disseminates information in a “I talk, you listen” format, video chatting can enable a more flexible and collaborative seminar style discussion. This idea of accessible online videos is very much in keeping with many museums’ mission of providing an open space for dialogue, learning, and exploration for the public, and working toward developing meaningful online communities of practice.
Though relatively new, there have been a large number of museums using Google Hangouts from all over the globe. This past month alone, MoMA debuted its “Art Hang” series, which brings together art educators with other art enthusiasts to discuss topics surrounding art and identity. The Google Art Project began its #ArtTalk hangouts with the National Gallery on March 20th and more recently with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The series, which discusses the stories behind famous works of art, will continue to take place each month at different cultural institutions such as the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar.
Likewise artists have conducted live studio visits, in which they talk with interested online groups about what inspires them, what their next artwork might look like, and get much needed critical feedback from online art communities.
Understanding Its Impact
Of course, use of a new medium brings new challenges. In trying to gauge the success of video chats, museums are learning how to interpret the relatively sparse analytics information provided by Google+ and YouTube. Statistics like “this video was viewed 5000 times” does not paint a full picture of just how beneficial the video was for the museum and its viewers. It is very clear, however, that hangouts have the ability to reach far greater percentage of the global online community and can do so in a more engaging way. And while it can be difficult to measure the success of these videos, museum educators know it is worth their time to continue exploring the limits of new this technology in order to captivate a broader audience and share more of the museum’s passion for art and cultural heritage.
Possible Uses in the Future
Tools associated with video chatting such as live commenting, image sharing, hash tags, and social media sharing have become additional ways of connecting online viewers with the live discussion. Recently, Mike Murawski of the Portland Art Museum brought up another possible use for video chatting. He suggested using Hangouts as a way of connecting living contemporary artists with museum visitors both in the gallery and online. What would it be like then to talk with an artist about his/her work right in front of the artwork in the gallery? Or watch an artist explaining his/her artwork online while you ask questions?
How can we use these new tools to better facilitate learning and interaction onsite and online in the future? Are there other ways that Google Hangouts or other chatting services will connect people, or perhaps help the museum’s visitors feel closer to its collection?
Taking this question further in a mini-thought experiment, imagine what would happen if the video feed were not fixed to the wall. What would a more intimate conversation with an artist look like? While you ebb and flow around the gallery, could an artist virtually tag along with you?
One company exploring the idea of digital presence is Anybots, a team that has created a roving avatar robot with video screen projecting the face of a remote participant. The robot is controlled remotely and reacts to speech frequencies to directly address and react to questions or comments from multiple people. Right now, the Anybots are in the hypothetical realm (due to the hefty $15,000 price tag).
While video chatting environments will continue to develop (though at the moment we are not yet sure in what form they will appear) the strides taken by #ArtHang, Google Art Projects, and many other institutions and artist communities will continue to push online connection and conversation.
I am part of the team that has led the development of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One and ArtLens iPad app. These new initiatives – blending art, technology, and interpretation – are garnering interest in the press and among museum colleagues. Many thanks to Mike Murawski for asking me to offer my perspective on the project, understanding that it is newly launched and we are in the process of gathering initial feedback. This project is the focus of a paper session at Museums & the Web 2013 in Portland (link to paper here). Responses so far have been enthusiastic as well as probing and have challenged us to think in new ways about what we’ve created and how we want to move forward. Recurring questions from reporters, colleagues, and visitors can serve as a way of introducing some of our goals and future ideas.
What was your plan behind integrating technology?
Our plan conceives technology as an interpretive tool to drive active experiences with art at CMA. Creating Gallery One and the ArtLens app has been part of our mission to put visitors front and center. We wanted to build a gallery experience at the entrance to the museum that would welcome all visitors, with particular focus on families, college students, and young professionals – audiences that have not always seen CMA as their kind of place. We wanted to offer them new possibilities to experience art in a participatory way through the medium of interpretive technology. We also wanted visitors’ encounters in Gallery One to spark interest in the museum as a whole and to provide tools of understanding and enjoyment that could enhance their experience of art in the galleries.
On January 21, 2013, we opened Gallery One and went live with the ArtLens iPad app. Gallery One is a unique space just off the museum’s main lobby in which 55 top-quality art objects from the permanent collection are arranged in thematic groupings that cross time and cultures. This organization allows visitors to make connections across CMA’s comprehensive collection of world art. For example, sculptures of the human form from ancient Rome, Japan, Africa, and 19th-century France greet visitors as they enter the gallery, prompting them to experience how our bodies have inspired art differently over time. Another installation groups paintings and ceramics from Europe and Asia, asking visitors to engage with roots of our contemporary, global culture. Interactive, multi-touch screens interpret selected art installations, allowing visitors to engage actively with the works on view by virtually creating their own works of art, or by physically striking a pose inspired by a work of art they see. Gallery One also includes Studio Play, a dedicated family space with hands-on art-making activities, as well as interactive technology stations that provide young children and their families with fun ways to have first encounters with art and CMA’s collections.
Within Gallery One, just off our new central atrium, a one-of-a-kind, 40-foot multi-touch Collection Wall displays high-resolution images of almost 4,000 works of art from the permanent collection, most on view in the galleries. Every 40 seconds, the wall changes views, showing groupings of art objects based on themes, allowing visitors to see that the collection is dynamic, depending on how you view it. Visitors can touch and browse objects on the Collection Wall to discover other artworks that are related and to find tours that connect objects throughout the collection.
The Collection Wall functions as a place to organize a visit through the permanent collection galleries by way of a unique connection with the ArtLens iPad app. By docking their iPad (or one available for rent) at the Wall, visitors can save their favorite objects to the app and create a personalized tour through the museum. The app’s way finding system directs them to the objects on their tour or to other objects in the collection. They can also find CMA-created tours to organize their visit according to themes they like. Alternatively, they can browse through the galleries and find works of art that engage them, discovering text and video interpretation within the app, or even scanning two-dimensional objects through image recognition to find quick bites of text or video.
What are your learning goals for visitors?
Our goals for what visitors take away involve experience rather than content. We hope that:
visitors have fun with art
the interactive games and interpretation provide tools for understanding and spark social experiences with art
visitors find transformative moments of discovery about continuing creative traditions that make art relevant for them.
Above all, we want to refrain from providing a single, authoritarian guide but instead to offer a variety of choices for visitor engagement. Rather than designing content to meet our own goals for visitors, we have learned from our audience evaluation and responded to the way many of our visitors browse through our galleries, drawn to particular works of art based on their own visual interests and prior knowledge. We’ve been mindful of Jay Rounds’ prescient advice in Curator (2006):
“Visitors come to museums for their own reasons, and those reasons are not necessarily congruent with the goals of the museum. No doubt their browsing through exhibits is suboptimal when compared against [a] museum’s goal that visitors ‘engage in systematic study or exploration.’ But the same [browsing] behavior may prove to be an intelligent response to the situation when measured against the goals of the visitors themselves.” (p. 134)
Gallery One and ArtLens were designed to honor browsing behavior. There’s no preferred path through Gallery One; visitors can move from one art installation to another, each with its own story. The Collection Wall asks visitors to browse rather than search: to find artworks they like visually, and to discover connections to related works by theme, medium, or time period. The “Near You Now” section of the ArtLens app follows browsers as they meander through the permanent collection galleries, indicating where they are in the building and the artworks near them. For objects with video interpretation, visitors can find a variety of short segments that they can choose according to their personal preferences rather than a prescribed sequence.
When visitor evaluation begins later this spring, we can find out how these tools are working for our visitors. In the meantime, we’ve been fortunate to have visits from a variety of museum colleagues who have shared initial responses. Following his on-site visit, Peter Samis of SFMoMA wrote to our CMA team:
“The Collection Wall reminds me of David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous (2008): it makes every artwork equally available, democratizing the collection…, it enables me to create a tour that threads me like a needle through all the various parts of the building. It disappears the architecture, the molecules, and replaces them with a new organizing principle: visual interest.”
Cool! Interpretive technology serves visitors’ visual interests and democratizes the collection. The challenge comes in the connectivity between the Collection Wall and the iPad app. With the ability to save almost any object to their iPad, what will visitors expect when they reach the actual objects in the galleries? Currently only a portion have video and audio interpretation within the app, some draw web texts and label copy from our databases, but others feature only basic “tombstone” information. We’re eager to discover visitors’ expectations, and in the meantime, to develop priorities for creating new interpretive content.
How can visitors contribute their own art interpretation within the iPad app?
ArtLens video and audio content draws on conversations with curators, educators, conservators, and community members. We hope the variety of voices allows visitors to feel part of the conversation and to suggest that there is no single way to interpret or enjoy a work of art. The community voices are particularly important, as they call up continuing traditions that grow from the artworks on view and connect visitors with people in their community – like the Imam of the Cleveland Mosque for whom the Islamic prayer niche in our collection is part of a living tradition, or the Cleveland ballet dancer who brings his creative perspective to Degas’ Frieze of Dancers.
ArtLens also allows visitors to create their own tours – playlists of their favorite objects with their own catchy titles: “Randomness and Variety,” and “Lightning Tour Before Dinner Dash.” They can share favorite objects through Facebook and Twitter. We conceived these as first steps toward more extensive visitor participation. We’ve discussed the potential for gathering visitors’ stories about CMA’s artworks and incorporating them into the app. We’ve also dreamed about the potential to capture visitors’ voices within the app, so that they can contribute their own insights about their favorite works of art from the galleries or from off site.
We encourage you to download ArtLens to your iPad and give us your feedback. Our project is ambitious – an interpretive system that reaches throughout CMA’s permanent collection. I’ve outlined some of our ideas and plans here, but there’s much more to come, so stay tuned!
I want to extend huge thanks to the members of my CMA team in Education and Interpretation responsible for the development of interpretive content in Gallery One: Seema Rao, Patty Edmonson, and Hajnal Eppely, and in ArtLens: Jennifer Foley, Lori Wienke, and Bethany Corriveau. They are part of CMA’s Gallery One development team, led by Griffith Mann in Curatorial, Jane Alexander in Information Technology, Jeffrey Strean in Design, and myself. Local Projects of New York is responsible for all media design and collaborated with us on the concept development. Earprint Productions of San Francisco produced the ArtLens app digital content, in collaboration with the CMA interpretation team.
CAROLINE GOESER currently serves as theDirector of the Department of Education and Interpretation at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Joining the museum in 2009, she reorganized the Education Department in 2012 to focus on two primary goals: 1) invigorating classroom experiences through object-based educational programs, and 2) creating vital experiences with works of art in the galleries through interpretive text, technology, gallery teaching, and public programming for visitors of all ages. Caroline collaborates with the Chief Curator and Directors of Information Technology and Design to oversee the new Gallery One, an interactive gallery for intergenerational visitors. She has facilitated and enhanced the museum’s collaborative interpretation program, which has garnered national recognition with the recent award of an NEH Challenge Grant. With colleagues at CMA and Case Western Reserve University, she has worked to re-envision the joint CWRU-CMA doctoral program in art history, which recently received a major grant from the Mellon Foundation to focus on object-based study. Caroline’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Cleveland Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
The we/customize project at Oakland Museum of California explores the Bay Area perspective on the popular cultural activities of hacking, remixing, tailoring, modding, mash-ups, kit bashing, and customizing. The connecting spark in each of these spheres of activity is the shared impulse of the maker to radically alter the familiar to personal standards.
we/customize was born of a conversation about custom motorcycles, and grew into something akin to adulthood as the consequence of friendship and collaboration.
As non-participants in this part of our culture, Carin Adams (Associate Curator of Art and Material Culture) and I (as the Research and Experience Coordinator) were trying to find the kernels of interest connecting us to choppers. This lead us to observe how people form communities focused on the radical alteration of objects, how these groups self select themselves, and develop identity by means of their chosen activities. To round out the team and help us think about connecting disparate groups, Carin and I asked Evelyn Orantes (Senior Experience Developer) to join us to create our curatorial trio.
To create an exhibition around the activity of customization and the associated communities, we set out to develop the project differently than through the traditional museum approach. Our goal wasn’t to create a new working model for museum exhibitions, nor would we necessarily recommend the particular path we took. We wanted to have fun putting the project together while finding a means to exhibit the content we felt was the most exciting. This subject matter lent itself to be sifted out of conversations and by building relationships with these communities. Our process of content development, did however, reinforce the changing role of the museum as a forum for living cultural activity.
To build the exhibition in conversation with audiences – we made our initial public foray on two fronts. First by going out into the public at Oakland Art Murmur and asking people on video – “What do you customize?” The second, we hosted a panel discussion at OMCA, with Johnny Chung Lee, Jesse Hernandez, and Daniela Rosner about their work and views on customization. These conversations became the basis for how we framed our research, and the public interviews remain part of the content.
To further the dialog, we began with our interviews and panel discussion, we decided to continue going out into the public to build the content for the exhibition. This decision either allowed or forced us to divide the public side of the project into three main phases.
PHASE I: September 26–December 22, 2012
Using the Oakland Rover—a Might-E Truck by Canadian Electric Vehicle, customized by designers Martin Sprouse and Dan Rosenfeld for Oakland Museum of California, we traveled throughout the Bay Area engaging communities in creative projects that explored how people modify objects to serve their own needs. From toy hacking to airbrushing, sound remixing and bike modification— Oakland Rover programs led to rich interactions with the public, who contributed their projects and ideas. These “missions” featured customizers who brought the public a variety of workshops, demonstrations, and participation in the conversation about customization.
The first phase of our project also saw the launch of our social media campaign to continue our conversations with the public online with our blog (wecustomize.org) and on Twitter (@OaklandRover). These exchanges gave us valuable feedback shaping the second and third phases of the project.
PHASE II: December 22, 2012–January 28, 2013
The Oakland Rover’s missions ended when it rolled into OMCA’s Great Hall on December 22. The exploration of customization continued with the transformation of the gallery itself. With paint still on the walls from the previous exhibit, we filled in the space with findings from the Oakland Rover missions as well as visitor input. Starting January 4, guest customizers began on-site demonstrations of their work and invited visitors to join their projects. From scraping out bikes to toy hacking to clothing customization, visitors helped us prototype the Customizer-In-Residence Series and develop interactives.
PHASE III: February 9, 2013–June 2, 2013
The final phase of the we/customize project is the exhibition, exploring the many forms of customization. The weekly Customizers-in-Residence Series will activate the space through live interactions with people from a variety of customization groups. Through the four months of the exhibition, the space will continue to build, with new projects by both our audience and our Customizers-in-Residence living in the space.
While planning the project we realized a tradition opening celebration was out of context with our intent. As the exhibition transforms over time – as a consequence of customizers on site and the objects we’re accumulating – we realized the exhibition wouldn’t be complete until the show closed. With this in mind, we’ve planned on brining all the Customizers-in-Residence as well as museum staff together for a final closing party. Not only as a celebration of the conclusion of the project but our final attempt at igniting that initial spark, within each of these spheres of activity, in a culminating experience.
“What do you customize?” – Join the Conversation
The we/customize project began when we asked ourselves how we connect across communities. We launched the project by asking the public “What do you customize?” While we’ve refined our questions as the project developed, we still want to know – What do you customize? What do you start with? What tools do you use? and Why? Where is the boundary between a customization and an invention?
Sean Olsonis the Research and Experience Coordinator at the Oakland Museum of California, and is a member of the we/customize curatorial team trio. An artist and an educator, he has an MFA from Mills College. He has taught at Diablo Valley College as well as Mills College. Sean lives and rides his bike in Oakland. Look for the guy with the custom dress shoes with SPD cleats.
Carin Adams is the Associate Curator of Art and Material Culture at the Oakland Museum of California and is a member of the we/customize curatorial team trio. She joined OMCA in 2006 as curator for the off-site exhibition program at Oakland International Airport. A resident of Oakland and the mother of two, Carin has an endless supply of toys to hack. She has BFA from California College of the Arts and a MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Evelyn Orantes is the Senior Experience Developer at the Oakland Museum of California, and is a member of the we/customize curatorial team trio. With over a decade of museum work at OMCA under her sparkly belt, she delivers meaningful moments of honor, discovery, memory and inclusion for visitors, from the annual Días de los Muertos special exhibition to programs stimulating the minds of all ages. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she is the queen of California culture mash-ups, dishing the authentic complexities of California, one exhibition or program at a time.
This post has been a long time coming. When Mike first contacted me about the possibility of doing a guest post for Art Museum Teaching many weeks ago, I was too busy to immediately do so. I thought it was just a lack of time and clear head space. But even after the deadline driven urgency of that time had passed, I still hesitated and put off writing. Why? I was writing amply on other things, so it was no longer time that was the problem, nor general inspiration. So what was it? What was preventing me from starting this project?
It turns out that my problem was one of elasticity, or more accurately, a lack thereof. I was feeling stretched, and my avoidance of writing this post was a tactic to avoid the discomfort that brought.
Let me explain. When I write for my own blog, I have a very definite comfort zone. I have defined the intellectual space, and I know intimately its boundaries. In fact, its boundaries are my boundaries. I can stretch or push them, I can expand them as far as I am comfortable, and still exist within a very safe space. I recognise the likely readers and know their vocabularies and topical touch points. I know intimately what’s been covered before and what people have responded to, because it has all been within my own domain. The community of readers is my community; the space is my environment. Even when I am exploring ideas that are at times uncomfortable and that push me to consider things that I have not previously, I still retain a certain level of control.
But I don’t have the same sense of easy intimacy with the Art Museum Teaching website or audience. I know less who reads this site, and the sorts of topics and ideas they will respond to. I have not worked as a museum educator myself, and was uncertain what I could contribute that would be of interest to those who are.
So even though I was undertaking an act that I do regularly (writing), I was on edge. Unnerved. Stretched.
Such feelings, then, seem to resonate with two concepts that are at the very focus of the current investigations here on Art Museum Teaching.
The first of those is of art museum education itself. When students come into a museum, or come into contact with art – sometimes for the first time – they may be out of their own comfort zones. That sensation can be in response to the physical space of the museum, where students might not know the rules or customs of the space; and it can be intellectual, when students have not encountered or don’t know about art and may not understand its language or how the art world is constructed. In many cases, students will feel both these sensations – out of place and uncertain of the context in which they find themselves.
The second way this sense of being stretched beyond comfort resonates is in the professional space of the museum, when ideas like the Elastic Manifesto that push for experimentation require that the museum itself, and its staff, make themselves deliberately uncomfortable.
Innovation and learning both require a certain amount of discomfort. They need a step into unknown territory, which will often be accompanied by a reciprocal jolt of fear. For some people who crave the new and who yearn to explore new spaces, this will be a great sensation. Such natural adventurers will likely thrive from these conditions. But there are many who will find such sensations stressful and do what they can to avoid them.
Henry Kissinger said that “The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.” It is a useful angle for conceiving of the role of both art museum educators, and advocates for change and experimentation in the museum.
Getting uncomfortable is important for growth, but mitigating that discomfort to keep it at an acceptable level is also useful. How can we provide scaffolding for that process, so that those who embark on the journey to somewhere new have the tools and permission to explore and accomplish, without fear that making an error will be cataclysmic? How can we make the museum space a safe environment for exploration and unknowning, both for students and staff?
I’d argue that one step in this process is for those who advocate for change in others spend a little time getting uncomfortable themselves, to remember the mildly unpleasant sensations the process can evoke. Stretching yourself, reaching beyond your normal boundaries can remind you that even small moves into unfamiliar territory can be challenging. Even writing this post, beyond my own ‘normal’ space, has required that I extend and stretch myself to find a creative solution. It has been a thoroughly rewarding process, but was neither easy nor fast. It required getting uncomfortable, and living in that state for an extended period of time. Being aware of such things is useful.
What do you think? How can we as museum professionals make sure that the museum is a safe space to get a little uncomfortable? How can we scaffold the process of experimentation, innovation, and learning, to draw out creativity and productivity, whilst mitigating the pain of the unknown?
(And if you don’t normally comment on posts, feel free to use this as an opportunity to get a little uncomfortable and step beyond your own safe space.)