Tag Archives: museum interpretation

Looking Up, Looking Down: Designing Mobile Interpretation that Engages with Art

Written by Rebecca Friday

When the Clark Art Institute reopened its doors this summer, visitors were greeted by an astounding new building by architect Tadao Ando, expansive views of the rolling hills of Williamstown, Massachusetts, and beautifully redesigned galleries for the museum’s extensive permanent collection. With this renovation and expansion, we faced the challenge of how to encourage visitors to engage with the art in new and inspiring ways. Previously, the museum had been renting audio wands; however, these were limited to a single layer of audio and had no screen option. Thus, a new interactive interpretive system was needed to accommodate deeper layers of exploration and engagement with the collection.

Through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the nostalgic audio wands have been replaced by mini iPads, which we call multimedia guides – although they are so much more than that. The multimedia guide currently has 150 objects from our permanent collection, each with a zoomable image, basic information, label, and audio (along with audio transcript). Many of the objects also give the visitor the option to explore the artwork further with varied layers of content. The multimedia guide is free with museum admission or visitors can also download a streamlined version onto their personal device. The guides also include information about the Institute’s founders, Sterling and Francine Clark, special exhibitions, and a grounds map.

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This interpretative project was several years in the making. Over the past two years I have worked closely with Media Manager Laurie Glover and Project Manager Viktorya Vilk to develop a system that embraced the mission of the Clark and its dedication “to advancing and extending the public understanding of art.” Central to our approach was the importance of looking at art — we did not want to detract from the importance of this practice, nor replace it with gazing at a screen. Instead, we found ways that would enhance the looking experience and point out things that visitor could not have learned otherwise. In many ways, we were inspired to the Van Gogh museum’s recent app, Touch Van Gogh, which allows audiences to examine the painterly process up close in ways never before possible.

So, how to accomplish these things?

To tackle this bold mission of active looking and learning, our process included months of brainstorming with the Clark curators and educators to decide which works of art would benefit most from additional content. We asked them what stories they liked to tell about the art, what questions they were most often asked, what special thing no one knew. From these stories, we slowly whittled down our extensive list to 150 objects and designated about half of them for additional content. Each of these objects would have no more than three or four sections of content. The content is layered, so there was an option to go deeper if there is interest but we did not want anyone to feel bogged down by the amount of content. We wanted to maintain choice in the pace the information is provided, the depth of knowledge one might be seeking, as well as a direct search for a particular artwork versus a more casual browsing of the collection.

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We endeavored to create content that most enhances the visitors’ understanding of the artwork – when it can make the invisible visible and inspire curiosity for deeper learning. We found conservation stories from X-rays that unearthed hidden secrets. We found collection stories from the diary pages of our founder. We also worked with Tristan Interactive to build a semi-customized content management system and develop three kinds of interactive within the application. These include:

1) Drag and Drop: This interactive works sort of like a puzzle, in which small details from the artwork can be matched to the larger whole to reveal interesting details. This works particularly well for very detailed paintings because it encourages the viewer to look back up at the actual painting to find the detail in front of them.

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2) Slider: By sliding your finger along a scrub bar the image changes to tell a story or transform an image. For example, this feature works well with our Domenico Ghirlandaio painting, Portrait of a Lady. The transformation shows the painting pre-conservation, when the painting was altered with the addition of a halo and wheel identify the sitter (mistakenly) as Saint Catherine. One of the things that was most important was developing functionalities that could be adapted in various ways: for example, the slider could move something in space, reveal a hidden layer, or move through a narrative.

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3) Hotspots: Pulsing circles appear on different part of the image – when tapped, screen pops up to reveal more information about this part of the work.

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After our initial beta-build of the device we invited 80 volunteers and docents to act as a sort of focus group. We handed out the multimedia guides with a survey/set of instructions to help guide each individual through the 20-ish objects we had built into the device. The survey asked each person to the rate the difficulty of these tasks (i.e. “play the audio,” “find the Unpack Me interactive,” etc.). Because our focus group was limited to volunteers and docents, the demographic was mostly 50 years of age or older.

As we expected, there was a lot of initial confusion and outright contempt for the devices; mostly because they were perceived as new and scary. This was not a sample group that felt comfortable with technology or even used an iPhone or iPad on a regular basis. However, the more time we spent explaining their functions, the more they found joy and value in them. The less confusing the process became, the more impressed they were! Given our visitor demographic, it reinforced our commitment that the app be intuitive with lots of onscreen help. We worked with the engineers to create built in “hints” that appear on the tablet screen and encourage/guide the user.

Of course, there will always be visitors who do not want to engage with the tablets when visiting the museum. We worked hard to create something that was user friendly and, hopefully, a seamless transition from the traditional audio wand. We hope that audiences will want to engage with the collection in new and deeper ways through the expanded layers of content. Content that is presented in a variety of ways, with the belief that it will appeal to a variety of users.

As many others in the field have already noted, there is a constant grappling with the pros and cons of bringing technology into the galleries. Although I personally believe in the power of individual, intimate experiences with art, I also strongly value the communal experience that can be cultivated through conversation in front of a work of art. I can see the appeal and value of both experiences and I hope that each visitor is able to travel the path that best accommodates their needs. We chose iPad screens because they are shareable, a single headphone to make the experience less solitary, layers of content to pick and choose from. Interpretation should be available to those that seek it; it should spark curiosity and reveal what makes us love a work of art.

We have recently finished conducting an expansive survey in the Clark galleries, both with visitors who used the multimedia guide, and those who did not, to gauge it’s effectiveness, value, and possible issues that might have arisen with usability. Although we are still waiting for the concrete data, preliminary results indicate that our visitors love the app and love using the iPad minis. They enjoyed using the interactives, sharing tidbits with their family and friends, and listening to the audio components. However, those that did not take the device, often voiced negative comments about it. It seems the negativity is rooted in the unknown – something that is new, possibly complicated, and technological.

As is often the case on ArtMuseumTeaching (and a very valuable case), I’d like to open the floor to all of you. What are your thoughts on the future of technology in museum galleries? What are its positive effects and what are the possible criticisms it faces? Can an iPad screen really enhance a solitary and personal experience with a work of art? Or is that kind of thinking becoming increasingly elitist and limiting to everyday audiences?

About the Author

headshotREBECCA FRIDAY: Rebecca earned her Bachelor’s Degree from Sarah Lawrence College and Master’s Degree from Williams College, both in Art History. She spent the last two years working as a Curatorial Assistant at the Clark Art Institute. In addition to her contributions on the multimedia guide project and interpretation of the reinstallation of the permanent collection, she also served as curatorial coordinator for Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History, Cast for Eternity: Ancient Ritual Bronzes from the Shanghai, and Radical Words: From Magna Carta to the Constitution. Prior to her position at the Clark, Rebecca worked at the Williams College Museum of Art as well as several New York City art galleries, including Galerie St. Étienne and Robert Miller Gallery. She is currently looking for her next adventure in museum interpretation.  Rebecca tweets at @Fridayfridaygrl. Rebecca’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Clark Art Institute’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Sharing Authority / Sharing Perspectives: Native Voices

Written by Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs, Portland Art Museum; and Deana Dartt, Curator of Native American Art, Portland Art Museum

In 1989, the Portland Art Museum brought together a group of about twenty people to discuss the museum’s Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast Native American Art. Gathering in the museum’s basement, the group included museum staff, art experts, anthropologist and historian James Clifford, and a group of Tlingit elders accompanied by translators.  Objects from the collection were brought out one by one, presented to the elders for comment with the expectation that they would tell museum staff about how each object was used or by whom they were made.  Instead, as Clifford recounts:

“the objects in the Rasmussen Collection, focus for the consultation, were left—or so it seemed to me—at the margin. For long periods no one paid any attention to them. Stories and songs took center stage” (“Museums as Contact Zones,” p. 189).

Rather than providing historical details and context that could be easily converted into research files or didactic labels, the session brought forth voices, songs, dances, ongoing stories, and lived experiences that challenged the museum with alternative perspectives on these objects as well as a potential way of decentering the museum’s authorial voice. Instead of envisioning ways to bring these voices and stories into dialogue with the collection, the Museum bid the group goodbye and archived the audio and video footage of the consultation.

Twenty-five years after these ‘conversations in the basement,’ the Portland Art Museum is actively working to re-address many of the issues around interpreting its Native American collection. This post highlights a new interpretation project—being prototyped as part of the museum’s Object Stories initiative— that has gathered stories from Yup’ik tribe members in southwestern Alaska to share these voices and stories directly with museum visitors both online and in the galleries.

Object Stories

Object Stories gallery at the Portland Art Museum.
Object Stories gallery at the Portland Art Museum.

Framed by larger challenges facing museums in the 21st century, the Portland Art Museum has been involved in a broader process of rethinking how it relates to its public audience and exploring strategies to be more relevant to its community. It was out of this ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born in 2011. Since its inception, Object Stories has evolved into an educational platform for engaging audiences and bringing community voices into the process of interpreting the collection.  By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, Object Stories aims to demystify the museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities.  This initiative also allows the museum to explore how new media and other technological innovations can contribute to more genuinely inclusive engagement with audiences and communities.

Scholars have questioned how a museum’s voice might be changed from monovocal (single voice, often an institutional “voice from nowhere”) to a more polyvocal (many voices, without much sense of hierarchy).

“In this scenario, museums are encouraged to give up some of their control and their authorial voice to allow the public or specific communities to speak for themselves and be heard in a public space.” (“One Voice to Many Voices?”, 164)

Connecting Collections with Communities: Yup’ik Stories

Early in 2013, education and curatorial staff at the Portland Art Museum collaborated with Alaskan artist and photographer Katie Basile to record a series of “object stories” with native Yup’ik elders, artists, and youth. During several visits to the southwest Alaskan communities of Quinhagak, Kotlik, and Bethel, Basile captured stories from these individuals that reflect upon objects of personal significance as well as selected Yup’ik masks and dance wands from the Museum’s collection.  For this project, Basile used a new iPad app designed for the Object Stories project to allow for recording stories outside the walls of the museum.

As part of the larger initiative to generate knowledge and interpretive resources with the Native community in the public spaces of the museum, these Yup’ik stories have been exhibited in the Arctic Native American Art gallery through an iPad listening station adjacent to their related objects. Bringing together personal object stories and collection-based stories, the museum is offering visitors a layered and nuanced learning experience as the Yup’ik tribe members share their personal and cultural perspectives. The organic, first-person narratives presented here allow for an emphasis on individual Native voices and begin to disrupt the stereotype of a “community voice” that assumes a single “Native” way of being, thinking, and art-making.

The content developed during this pilot Yup’ik storytelling project has proven so meaningful that the Museum plans to expand the model to targeted communities, utilizing the connections and expertise of Native artists to record community members’ stories as part of the Object Stories initiative. First-person narratives by origin community members will then be available to museum visitors through iPads, online collections, and other digital strategies.

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Alaska Native artist Drew Michael, whose stories are featured as part of this project. Photo by Katie Basile.

Bringing Back the Story

Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Center for Native American Art, Portland Art Museum.
Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Center for Native American Art, Portland Art Museum.

In 1989 (pre-NAGPRA), the Portland Art Museum was bold and progressive, if only somewhat ethnocentric, to secure NEH funding to bring Tlingit tribal members to the museum to help the institution tell a more meaningful story of the ancestral objects as it redesigned the Native American galleries. While motives were pure and collaboration was intended, the museum stood between the objects and the stories. The museum attempted to serve as the bridge for the visitors between the ancestral object and the descendent storyteller. However, the stories and objects out of context required much more interpretation than time allowed, so the tapes sat idle with museum staff clueless about any connection to the collection the stories were intended to enliven. Museums have continued to mediate the connection between story and object. We hope to step out of the way.

Object Stories allows people to bring story back to objects disembodied from their cultures and their people. We hope that through this work we can reunite the ancestors with (while introducing museum visitors to) the energy, language, and living traditions of Native people. Initiatives like Object Stories have the potential to transform museums from “sites where knowledge is transmitted to passive audiences to potential forums or contact zones where new voices and visibilities are raised and new knowledge(s) actively constructed” (Viv Golding, Museums and Communities, 25).

In many ways, the Object Stories platform challenges the museum, its audiences, and its communities to consider the complex types of exchange and dialogue that might occur with its collections beyond the traditional experience of passive, didactic looking.  This platform is enabling us to facilitate, and then share, the dialogue between the maker and the viewer and through a process of shared authority and unmediated connection may transform the way museums see, utilize, and present Native American art.

‘De/reskilling’ Artistic Practice and Museum Education: College Students as Museum Interpreters

Students interact with Dan Flavin’s “Untitled (to Donna) 2” (1971) at the Portland Art Museum. Photo by Sarah Wolf Newlands.

Karena, a senior at Portland State University, leads us to reflect on a pool of natural light in a gallery at the Portland Art Museum near a Robert Irwin light and space sculpture. The effect is a state of near-meditation.

Another student, Lisa, asks us to consider the different ways in which we value a work by Dan Flavin. We then move to a darkened classroom to collectively make our own version of a Dan Flavin sculpture out of glow sticks. She informs us that she will be auctioning off our completed work, and that the proceeds will be going directly to the electric bill in order to keep the Flavin work running.

The preceding examples are projects developed by students for a class at Portland State University, called “Object Talks: Creating Meaningful Experiences at the Portland Art Museum,” co-taught in the summer of 2011 by artist and professor Sarah Wolf Newlands, Stephanie Parrish, a senior staff member in the Portland Art Museum’s Department of Education and Public Programs, and myself. The class was an experiment in opening up the interpretation of the Museum’s collections to college students through experiential, conversation-based interpretation informed not only by best practices in the field of museum education, but also by the work of artists engaged in social practice. We collaborated with artist/educators Jen Delos Reyes and Lexa Walsh from Portland State University’s Social Practice MFA program to introduce students to this form of art-making, which we feel shares many concerns with the work of museum educators. These mutual concerns include the need for outreach to communities not necessarily involved in the art world, movement towards the so-called “educational turn” in museums, a desire for collective involvement and collaboration—and above all, an interest in the shared social space that constitutes an experience with a work of art. This linkage between artist and museum educator is nothing new, and its history is chronicled in this excellent article by Michelle Jubin.

However, the involvement of students in this process, who are not necessarily formally trained as educators or artists, and yet, are performing these roles in public outside of the “laboratory” of the classroom, raises questions for me about where the role of interpretation in a museum lies and who has ownership of this process. The training period for docents at the Portland Art Museum is over a year and an MFA in social practice is typically a two-year endeavor. University Museums often employ college students as docents; however, they typically receive much more training than we were able to offer on this class. Our students had eight weeks to craft and deliver their interpretive experiences. A cynic might suggest that we are devaluing a complex skill that requires more expertise than a summer class can provide. Furthermore, this course is part of the college’s University Studies program, a general education requirement for all students which is very interdisciplinary in nature. Critics of these programs often point to interdisciplinarity as responsible for what they believe as the death of specialization. However, I would like to consider this topic through the lens of the deskilling—and indeed, reskilling—movement that has been a concern for artists since at least Duchamp.

In Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade (a review and summary can be found here) John Roberts addresses this very topic and its implications for the art that has followed Duchamp. His discussion of the readymade and its role in deskilling the work of the artist’s hand in favor of reskilling an artist’s work in the realm of immaterial labor is particularly appropriate for socially-engaged artists. However, I would like to consider this same process of deskilling and reskilling in light of our class. When confronted with the open-ended conversational gallery teaching techniques advocated by Rika Burnham, Elliot Kai-Kee, and many of the other museum educators that they read during the term, several students expressed concern in what they felt was a disengagement from the art historical structures that had colored their past experiences with art. Nor did they like the process of moving away from the more lecture-based modes of presentation they were accustomed to from their art history classes to relinquishing some level of control to their audience for the more conversational methods of inquiry that we advocated. Admittedly, these responses surprised us—even though we are used to these tensions between the fields of art history and museum education, we did not expect them from our students.

Though, in the strictest sense, the term “deskilling” refers to the process of eliminating skilled labor in the workforce in favor of time-saving technologies, it has taken on new meaning within arts discourse. It is linked not only to a movement away from artisanal production in the visual arts of the twentieth century, but also significantly, in aesthetic valuation (Roberts 86). In this sense, deskilling acts not only on physical labor, but on intellectual work as well. It also takes on new meaning in social practice as a way of democratizing the artist’s work (Ibid 159).

In asking our students to think of their projects as social practice, were they not engaging with these discourses of deskilling?

Through streamlining the training process and asking students to forgo some of their learning from previous classes, were we not deskilling some of the intellectual labor of museum interpretation?

Conversely, I would also like to argue that these students engaged in a process of reskilling by learning to be more adaptive and improvisatory in their approach to the works in the Museum’s collection. They often sidestepped certain art historical lines of inquiry in favor of interpretations found in other disciplines, as well as understandings from personal life experience. In learning these skills and in rejecting others for the purposes of this class, I should stress it was not our intent to supplant the skills and knowledge these students were learning in other classes, but rather to provide them with alternative tools for interpretation. Nor was it our goal to replace our experienced docent core with students. Instead, we hope that our work with college students opens up the role of interpretation in the Museum to new voices. After all, we can learn a lot ourselves from the openness, curiosity, and enthusiasm found among students at this crucial stage of life.

Add to the Conversation…

I welcome comments from those of you who have also worked with college students as educators in your museum. What worked in your program and what did not? Furthermore, I would love to hear thoughts on the intersection of social practice and museum education, as well as the place of re- and de-skilling in the museum.