Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Unexpected lessons with technology in museums #1

July 19th, 2015 by Seb Chan
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#advice

A photo posted by Bim Ricketson (@bim_cd) on

Early in June I was back in Sydney presenting one of the keynotes [slides] at Remix, a cross-sector/cross-industry event I also spoke at last year when it passed through New York. The keynote was based on a very long paper that Aaron Cope and I co-authored for Museums and the Web in April (a much shorter ‘clean 7″ radio edit’ is forthcoming in Curator too!).

There’s a couple of key bits that seem to have resonated particularly well and bear elaboration. So this is one of a series of posts that will do that elaboration.

#1 Have an opinion about the visitor behaviour that you want, then design explicitly for it

It sounds so benign and obvious – of course your museum has an opinion about how visitors should behave when they visit. Usually this is couched in “no this, no that” – or subtly in the social cues emanating from the architecture, the dress and attitudes of staff, and the behaviour of other visitors. There’s a whole slew of problems with ‘museum-going culture’ – and it is important to acknowledge the bountiful existing literature on who is already excluded or included in the ‘traditional museum’.

Writing about the ‘omg, those new museum visitors are doing what? photography! selfies!’ moral panic of 2013, Ed Rodley’s summary and discussion is worth re-reading;

“The solution seems to me to be to establish a new contract, and actually state it, instead of hoping that visitors will infer intent. I’d love to see museums generate explicit policies that state what the museum encourage, allows, forbids, and why.”

When we were thinking about Cooper Hewitt in the early days, the MONA experience was very much top of mind. The lack of object labels, the O – it all expressed a firm opinion about how owner, David Walsh, wanted you to experience his museum. As it turns out, even if you found this annoying, you admired the bravado – and it has and continues to be a huge, popular success.

Before the galleries were tackled, Cooper Hewitt’s online collection began to develop a very particular style – an opinion that carried through to the architecture of the website, and the linguistic choices on the front-end. That ended up influencing the entire ‘voice’ of the museum online – some of which you can see in the 2014 website redesign.

In the galleries and exhibitions we knew what we didn’t want. We didn’t want people staring at their own devices – they made the choice to come to the museum, so we wanted them to be ‘present’ – after all, everything they saw they could easily get access to later on online, and museum going should be a full body experience, right?

Amy Liprot writes about a visit to legendary Berghain club in Berlin;

On the way in, the door staff put stickers over the camera on my phone. There is an open minded attitude here to nudity, drugs and sex, yet taking a photo will get you thrown out. It’s highly refreshing that everyone’s not filming stuff. It’s hard for internet kids, by which I mean it’s hard for me, to have an unphotographed experience but I am really here, more than ever. This is not a place for observers but for active participants.

Whilst we did want active participants, we wouldn’t go that far – but we did think, and this is important, about the impact of everybody engaging in whatever it was we came up with.

Everyone’s usage (or non-usage) would impact the overall atmosphere of the gallery. If it was a mobile App, then how would it feel to have everyone in the museum using it at once? If it wasn’t an App but something else, then what would that feel like for visitors as a collective mass.

We knew – from the experience of MONA and of audio/media guides at other museums – that it was likely a choice between 90% take-up or <10% take-up with a chasm of un-met user frustrations in-between. So thinking about maximal usage was an important design consideration once we aimed for ubiquity. As it turned out, The Pen has had some interesting impacts. Usage has been pretty much ubiquitous with over 90% of visitors using it, and using it a lot [details over at Cooper Hewitt Labs]. There’s several years’ worth of research topics for enterprising museum studies and audience researchers in the data too!

Because it is very visible to others – a large-ish un-pocketable size, but has no screen – visitors seem willing to help each other when they see people having difficulties or using it ‘wrongly’. People don’t tend to do this sort of ‘social helping’ with mobile Apps because there’s nothing to indicate that the other person is actually using the ‘official App’ or just texting their friends.

As for photography, yes, that’s very much welcomed at Cooper Hewitt but you don’t see cameras out anywhere near as much as in nearby museums.

And once a behaviour becomes normalised, it starts to change expectations elsewhere.

In the next instalment I’ll talk about some lessons around ‘internal literacy’.

Don’t forget, these are ‘riffs’ based on the very long paper that Aaron Cope and I co-authored for Museums and the Web in April. If you’ve got a spare half hour then there is a lot of detail in that paper.

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Experiencing an immersive solo documentary – Door Into The Dark

April 19th, 2015 by Seb Chan
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There are some very interesting experiments going on in the documentary format right now and last week I got the chance to explore some of the latest at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Door Into The Dark pitches itself as a ‘sensory documentary experience for one’ and is a wonderful mix of immersive theatre, spatial exploration, and storytelling. It was made by UK duo Anagram and first presented by Bristol’s Watershed. Wearing a sensory deprivation helmet and headphones you walk, blind, through a door into a landscape where you grasp for a rope and follow it, zigzag-ing through what feels like an enormous cavern . . . until the rope runs out . . . As you timidly grope in the dark, stories of different people who have lost their sight, their way, or their understanding of themselves are revealed using a mix of narration and first-person stories. Deprived of sight, you concentrate more on your other senses and this has the effect of building empathy with those whose stories you are hearing – although, crucially, at no point do you feel like you are ‘in their shoes’. That distinction is important.

Door Into The Dark uses iBeacons to trigger story elements and audio instructions as you wander, (although mine malfunctioned 3/4 of the way through sending me into a loop), it reminded me a lot of Halsey Bergund’s work like Scapes and experimental audio-only mobile games like Papa Sangre, as much as it did of immersive theatre. The clever use of physical props – the ropes, and later, a rather terrifying rock climb – combined with sensory isolation made this something really quite special.

I was fitted with a bio-tracker for My 40 minute journey into the dark as part of Anagram’s evaluation, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results. As I mentioned in my write up of If Book Then, the interest in the ‘monitoring of affect’ by authors is going to result in some very interesting new forms of ‘responsive storytelling’ in the next few years.

If you’re interested in privacy and the web (you should be!) then there is also the seven part Do Not Track from a consortia of Canadian and European partners. Packaged as a web series it has light interactivity that applies the main ideas of each episode to your own browsing habits, demonstrating that you, as a viewer, are not watching some abstract concept, but that you are already directly in-/af-fected.

**Update**

The Harmony Institute has just sent me a visualisation of my heart rate throughout the Door in the Dark experience. And here it is!

[click to enlarge]

[click to enlarge]

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“Not publishing” and bio-responsive futures at IfBookThen 2015

April 8th, 2015 by Seb Chan
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Last week I was in Milan as a guest of If Book Then 2015, ostensibly a conference about the future of publishing, but as it turned out, not that at all. In fact, If Book Then was focussed entirely on developing a better sense of ‘situational awareness’ amongst those in the publishing industry. ‘Situational awareness’ is a really useful term in strategic planning that importantly contextualises each strategic play – and British writer/consultant, Simon Wardley, sees it as a critical methodology in these rapid changing times. Thus IBT featured no presenters talking about the ‘state of publishing’ and no presenters even talking about ‘writing books’ or ‘publishing’. Instead every session explored emerging contexts in which media is being created and consumed, and the coming rush of even more radical changes in consumer technologies and experiences.

In the days before IBT I got a taste for the situation in the cultural heritage sector in Northern Italy. On arrival I gave an informal workshop for senior staff at a number of Italian institutions, and then the following day, a lecture at the Academy Brera, to the next generation of students who may end up in these institutions. I was struck by the sense of ‘that couldn’t happen here’ and ‘we’re so far behind’ – and I had to remind both groups that these feelings are universal and not some national trait.

But on to IBT.

A one day event, IBT opened with Peter Brantley from NYPL who spoke about the opportunities of working with reader data – not just around purchasing/borrowing preferences or subject/content classifications – but also of generative storytelling emerging from these preferences. Peter took this further raising the coming tide of sensorial data that is being gathered from our bodies by wearables. Could this sensorial data also be used by a library to align a recommendation with your mood? Or could an author write more effective narratives by understanding the peaks and troughs of emotion throughout a story? And, critically, who will own this data? Given that the concentration of ebook reader data is already held in the hands of a proprietorial few – Amazon, Apple, Google rather than by publishers, authors or readers – how can we ensure that this doesn’t happen with biometrics?

Following after Peter, I spoke about the Pen at Cooper Hewitt, positioning it as a ‘writing’ device inside the museum. Museum visitors, with the Pen, are in control of the narratives they wish to write about their visit. A ‘writable museum?’, as one audience member asked, “but how will they sell exhibition catalogues then?”. Of course the Pen and the new Cooper Hewitt is about a return to a ‘useful collection’ and the museum visit a means to bring that usefulness to the fore in ways other than (but complimentary with) an experience with the collection at home or elsewhere though a screen.

Shifting quickly to commerce, speakers from Lancome, Maxxus and Facebook’s internal agency – the ‘Creative Shop’, presented around storytelling in advertising and the changing patterns of both media production and consumption. Striking in Nico Abruzzese’s (Maxxus) presentation was the appropriation of social justice campaigns by brands (deterring sexual assault in darkened commuter areas of India by deploying branded lighting installations but then evaluating their success purely in terms of brand awareness instead of actual public safety), and Lancome’s investment in making its own media with its customers/fans to reshape and reflect concept of luxury and an imagined Paris (and the burning question of ‘is it product placement if its in your own media?’). Facebook Creative Shop’s efforts to make video that sucks your attention in a ‘stream’ is already a reality for those of you who still use Facebook frequently, but more important was the assertion that where once photograph replaced words, video is fast replacing photograph – despite the relative immaturity of ‘mobile video’ aesthetics.

After lunch, Rosalind Picard from MIT’s Affective Computing Group began by demonstrating computer-based emotion detection with facial detection and analysis using a web application and webcam [go try it!] – highlighting the near-future reality of Brantley’s vision of books that “know how we feel as we read them” (or mueseum exhibitions that track surprise, delight, and concentration levels). In the live demo, appropriately, it was TV advertising that was being “reacted to”. Picard then moved into the story of a wrist-band tracker (MyEmbrace.com) that is able to detect stress and emotional response even more effectively than facial imaging. Fascinating in this story was the way in which the ability to detect and warn of seizures became the key feature after early testing revealed its value for epileptics.

Andrea Onetti from ST MicroElectronics followed. Onetti’s company makes sensors and unsurprisingly his presentation portrayed a future where sensors are omnipresent. None of this is new, but if anyone in the audience was thinking that Brantley, Picard or even my presentations were describing outlier environments, Onetti made it clear that we weren’t. As Danny Bradbury in The Guardian today quotes Usman Haque, “people should be able to set policies governing which devices can talk to the devices that they own, and what information is shared about them”. We as a society need to have some clear discussions about what ubiquitous, omnipresent sensors actually mean for us.

Before Porter Anderson gave a conference wrap, David Passig from Bar-Ilan University was up next presenting somewhat controversial research examining improvements in learning generated through using immersive virtual reality environments and other technologies. Passig’s work was especially interesting when he spoke about tools to allow people to simulate the experiences of toddlers and those with dyslexia – as a means to design better environments, systems, and inclusive learning tools.

And that was that – it was all over in one day with no parallel sessions. I’m already looking forward to next year.

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Thank you. Now, let’s begin.

March 10th, 2015 by Seb Chan
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The final chunk of the new Cooper Hewitt finally birthed today.

The first visitor from the general public got to use The Pen as a part of their visit shortly after 10am. And, perhaps representative of the audience shift the museum has made, it was a parent with a small child.

A photo posted by Cooper Hewitt (@cooperhewitt) on

It has been a huge effort and everyone involved has done incredible work – my immediate crew, the rest of Cooper Hewitt, Local Projects, Sistelnetworks, GE Design, Undercurrent, MakeSimply, Ideum and Tellart. Beyond the talented public faces of these partners – and definitely beyond me – it is the highly technical people writing code late into the night; the graphic, industrial, media and interaction designers toiling away to make just ‘one more improvement'; the engineers testing and fixing things that ‘weren’t supposed to go wrong'; the IT folks keeping the lights on and the network pipes flowing; and the assemblers on the assembly line, who really deserve the praise for what has been achieved here.

Critical, too, has been the ‘venture philanthropy’ provided by Bloomberg through their Bloomberg Connects program. We pitched a ‘holistic’ and ‘bleeding edge’ concept for a program that had previously only funded audio and multimedia guides/apps and they didn’t blink.

By now, I’m sure regular readers have already seen the longform piece in The Atlantic on my team. Of all the press that the new Cooper Hewitt has gotten, and probably will get for a little while longer, it is this one that I think properly grasped what and why we did what we did. Even after my team disbands, changes, transforms – as inevitably it will, everyone involved should be very proud of what they’ve done.

Its remarkable really.

What Aaron said at the end of that Atlantic piece is important – “[We’re] the Smithsonian. We should be that good”.

But we know it is far from perfect. And so, in the great tradition of a digital product launches – now the real work starts.

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Too busy to blog: a short round up of 2014

December 31st, 2014 by Seb Chan
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Like many of my friends who work in museums, media or related disciplines, I’ve been feeling the pressure of being ‘too busy to blog’. Not just to blog, but to write anything really. But in the spirit of Dan Hon (who has trained himself to be able to write eloquent things at the hardest of times), it is worth writing something about what’s been going on. Its the end of the year, too, and there’s an entire year to be written about.

As many readers will know, my year has been about getting to the opening of Cooper Hewitt – or ‘rebooting it’ as I prefer to say. The press is all over the museum right now and they’re saying ‘nice things’ about the ambitions the museum staff and the board collectively had for it. More importantly, though, seeing the visitors streaming through the door, many for their first ever visit, younger and more diverse too, has been incredibly gratifying.

Alexandra Lange in the New Yorker captured it well, writing, “At a time when so many museums seem intent on new spaces for new design and new art (like the Whitney, Upper East Side deserter), it’s a relief that the Cooper Hewitt finally spent the time and the money to make their 1902 Carnegie Mansion sing. Rather than being a straightjacket, the mansion’s ornate rooms and halls now form a rich and idiosyncratic frame for design objects of all ages.”

And Julia Friedman’s closing comment in her piece for Hyperallergic was echoed by many reviewers, “The reimagining of the Cooper Hewitt demonstrates an openness to engage not just with the history of design but with its future as well — an ambitious and laudable undertaking.” If you want photos, there’s a room-by-room photo essay at NY Curbed.

I’m really proud of all the things that my team has been able to achieve at the museum. My team’s work in collaboration with staff and Local Projects, Ideum, Tellart, Sistelnetworks, GE, Tessitura, Undercurrent and others has been pretty much universally good. Collaboration at this scale and pace is usually not like this at all.

It is definitely a very different museum now.

Some things we got (mostly) right this year

– Making the museum ‘digital all over’ rather than creating separate ‘interactive areas’ where visitors, content and experience gets inevitably silo-ed

– Moving away from investing in single-person museum mobile apps in the galleries to focussing on social multi-user huge screens (experiences unable to be replicated online or offsite) whilst welcoming photography and device usage

– Combining the museum reopening narrative with an open access/open source narrative from the open source corporate font with the brand launch to the 3d mansion scan data release and as much of the backend code as possible. Or, in other words, making the most of the opportunity to change ‘default’ practices.

– Putting an API at the heart of everything and ensuring that everything Local Projects and Tellart built interfaced directly with it, even with the developer overhead that brought for all involved

– Putting the collection (and objects) at the heart of in-gallery experiences and using digital media to allow visitors to explore, transform and build upon it in new ways

– Maintaining “velocity and rhythm” with the team and those we worked with most closely, minimising (but not entirely eliminating) ‘crunch’ time

– Continuing to work from a principle of the “smallest dumbest thing” (and then iterate) even when it might have been easier to want to jump in and over-design [Aaron Cope is a master of ‘task deconstruction’ in this regard]

– Our team’s insistence on generous interfaces (coined by Mitchell Whitelaw) privileging browsing over search, which were then nicely realised in-gallery by the designers at Local Projects

– Investing in the right hardware to give the galleries necessary longevity [because at 84″s a 4K resolution is pretty much all that will cut it given that we all have such high resolutions in our pockets] and the content on S3.

– Spending the time and relationship management required to fix the underlying licensing, rights, permissions around objects and media (including loans) to ensure that everything in-gallery is available online for as long as visitors now expect it to be

– Focussing on short-form video production [with subtitling] in the galleries, and the same with audio available on the web

– Building advance online ticketing for general admission in-house that actually works because its very easy [a ‘no-cart’ system] and also saves visitors money

– Making the decision to downgrade the main website from Drupal to WordPress on the basis of better serving the needs of content creators [possibly at the expense of system adminstrators]

It was a relatively quiet year for talks, especially the second half of the year, but 2015 promises more traveling and talking. No doubt some of those talks will look back on the last 18 months revealing more of the back stories and strategic rationales, and some will be more focussed on the ‘next thing’ . . .

It is now my fourth winter in New York, and I have just turned over three years in the city. Its about this time of year that my family misses having fish & chips after work on Bronte Beach, and our distant friends. Fortunately the coffee in the new cafe at work is now up to the expected standard. Small pleasures.

So if you’re visiting NYC do pop by.

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Things that didn’t get made #754 – the ‘eBay/museum API valuation’ web service

May 18th, 2014 by Seb Chan
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One of the things that is most commonly asked of a museum’s collection is “so, how much is it worth?”.

In an art museum context this question is usually asked with an air of incredulity – as in “That much? Really? For that?”. In a history museum it is often asked because the inquisitive person has something similar sitting gathering dust in their attic or shed.

In both situations the museum is mute. And with good reason – even if it sometimes results in uncomfortable exchanges.

So one of the digital products that sat unmade but staring everyone in the face at the Powerhouse was an eBay/museum API mashup. The idea was that ‘recent prices’ would be shown just like, say, Discogs does for its own marketplace.

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(example Discogs sale history)

It made a lot of sense for much of the social history collection. We even talked internally about how many public enquiries such a service would reduce for the museum.

But these things can’t be made inside an institution.

Now harvesting the auction house sales prices from Blouin’s Art Sales Index and making a browser plugin that revealed recent sale prices as you hovered over artist names on art museum websites, would be a thing. In fact I’m sure it is already on Blouin’s roadmap.

But more useful and less provocative would be to build that more prosaic, less political, and more useful, social history collection eBay lookup service. Think of what it could do for thrift store hunts.

This came to mind again as I was reading one of Dan Hon’s recent daily letters (a veritable treasure trove). Dan mentioned, in passing, Amazon’s Flow app (iOS and Android)- “the idea of being able to point a camera at anything and being able to find out its current worth via a simple lookup on Amazon Marketplace or eBay”. Right now, Flow is aimed at buying new consumer goods and isn’t about secondhand items, but it won’t be long.

It would make for a nice two day project for a student . . . just not one working inside a museum. DPLA or Europeana APIs, anyone?

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A commencement speech to exhibit designers

May 16th, 2014 by Seb Chan
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Tonight I did one of those things that felt really ‘American’ – I gave one of those commencement-type speeches for a group of graduates of the SUNY/Fashion Institute of Technology Exhibition Design Masters program. The student work was on show at the venue and I was heartened by its quality and diversity and I was excited to be amongst it all.

Here’s my rough notes for what was a 15 minute speech. This is the 12″ extended mix but I’ve kept most of the ‘talkiness’ in. The slides aren’t included but hyperlinks are, because, links are better.

“Hi, my name is Seb. I’ve been working in and with museums for quite a while now and I’m here to try to convince you that, as exhibit designers, that there couldn’t be a better or more exciting time to be graduating.

When I first started working with museums and technology we were still talking about interactive kiosks, and making virtual museums. Back then I had a Nokia cellphone.

This is an exciting time. Especially an exciting time to work in museums.

We have finally all the components in place to reposition museums as truly global ‘seed banks of culture and ideas’.

Even if this is also an uncertain time and there are many troubling things afoot.

Designer Anab Jain wrote (and spoke) last year about a concept she called The New Normal. This, she wrote, was a catch-all for “[this] period of protracted super density. Dystopia and chaos all at once”. I’m a huge fan of Anab’s work and her New Normal is a useful way to describe the conflagration of economic collapse, environmental collapse, and social stress that in engulfing much of the world right now.

It isn’t going away. The New Normal is here to stay. It is times like these that we need museums more than ever to help us make sense of the present.

Museums are changing. They desperately want to change, they really do. And I believe them. And as new graduates it is your job to help them, and to make sure they don’t embarrass themselves by telling too many dad jokes. Because they do that too. Museums are better off not trying to be cool.

Museums now explicitly compete with other venues, experiences, events and media. It is the new exhibition designers job to make sure that when you get someone’s attention that you deliver something compelling and respectful of that visitor’s choice to spend time in or with your creations.

Because the plumbing that we’ve all been waiting for is nearly complete. Museums are finally getting networked and their networks are becoming good enough for exhibit designers to make better use of them.

I note with interest that the big sports stadiums are now kitting themselves out with enough wifi network capacity to deliver individual HD streaming replays to every seat in their house.

And, despite the NSA and now the FCC [watch Vi Hart’s great primer], the network globally is growing stronger. As a public ,we barely think about the physical and legislative infrastructure that keeps it running. That is until its fragility becomes apparent. Like when the main undersea internet cable from Egypt is cut during an uprising.

This same fragile network is what is finally allowing museums to build more porous boundaries between ‘the gallery’ and ‘the rest of the world’. It is your responsibility to experiment and push on these boundaries even more.

You’ll also undoubtably be designing physical spaces to cater for robot visitors too – who will wander amongst the other visitors, streaming vision to other parts of the country or globe. This isn’t distant speculation – it is happening now.

Here’s a great example of distance learning in museums through robotic telepresence in Australia. Much like the currently staid and static Google Streetview walkthroughs on Google Art Project, you’ll become aware of the affordances and challenges of designing exhibitions that look and feel immersive and legible both in the flesh, and through spherical lenses.

I hope when you look outside the walls of the exhibition you consider how new stories can be told at a city scale like the playful Hello Lamp Post project.

And don’t expect that 3D scanning is anything other than the New Normal too. Because where the really pressing and urgent challenges lie are with born-digital objects which, when introduced into museums, act like trojan horses for revolution and change.

As we collect software, code, and physical objects whose existence and operation relies, too, on software, code, and complex networked systems, how will you design exhibitions to reflect the increasingly ‘immaterial present’? Let alone, the coming bio-engineered future?

You, as exhibition designers are charged with deigning the new infrastructure for the museums of the future. Everything you will design is no longer capable of being standalone. Your work needs to plug in to, and build upon the work of others.

If we collectively get this right then we will be;

– enabling new forms of public engagement
– enabling new forms of exhibition
– enabling institutions to collect the present
– enabling new forms of scholarship
– enabling a new type of institution

And not a moment too soon.

Because museum visitors are changing. Back in 2010 when the American Association of Museums commissioned their Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums report (PDF) it warned of the significant under-representation of so-called ‘minority audiences’. Core museum visitors, in 2010, were made up of only 9% minority audiences whilst the minority population of the US sat at 34%. Projected to 2035, minority populations were expected to reach 46% and core museum audiences need to reflect this demographic transformation. This is our New Normal.

Museums are responding with a turn towards participation, experience, spectacle and events.

As exhibit designers you’ll also be actively contributing to the surveillance that is also now part of the New Normal. Surveillance, malevolent and the more benign, is part of the Faustian bargain we have made with networked technologies, and at the very least visitor tracking data is seen as having the opportunity to design better, more usable galleries and effective exhibits.

In such a world, we need new values for exhibit designers that foster openness and transparency. Visitors need to be aware of this surveillance and have agency in how their data is kept and used.

Similarly we need to find ways for exhibit designs, themselves, to be as transparent and revelatory as when the web first came along 21 years ago and that moment when you discovered ‘view source’. Unexpectedly, even as we’re seeing ‘view source’ increasingly obscured in our browsers, we’re already seeing moves towards a ‘view source’ in other parts of the design community with the Open Design movement in Europe and elsewhere.

Perhaps these are utopian dreams. And as we know ‘utopia’ is, by its nature, always out of reach.

As I’ve said elsewhere, we’re ‘building a house in the middle of a fast flowing river’. You are now part of a global community trying to tackle similar problems in a variety of different institutions. Some in the museum sector are trying to hold on to the old world, but you, as new graduates are lucky in that you can escape that past.

This is an exciting time. Especially an exciting time to work in museums.

Go forth and help us figure out how to make museums even more relevant and impactful in the world.”

Big thanks to Brenda Cowan, chair of the Exhibition Design program, for inviting me. It was a lot of fun.

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Optimism & dystopia – Future Everything & Museums and the Web 2014

April 29th, 2014 by Seb Chan
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I’m not so sure it was such a good idea to go to the Future Everything (Manchester) just before Museums and the Web (Baltimore). The speculative futurism of Future Everything really brought into sharp relief a narrowing of concern at MW.

I’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, Future Everything – an annual citywide festival of forward-looking art, music and design in a wealth of different venues.

Here I was, back in Manchester, a city I only briefly visited way back in 1998 (then for mainly musical reasons, before I was involved with museums). A lot had changed. Most startlingly I was far more aware of the near universal presence of public smoking. And big elaborate donut bun hair.

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At Future Everything, the City Fictions art program took over the NOMA district for the weekend creating a ‘speculative city’ exploring some of the ways that life might change in the near future. The inclusion of a fictional newspaper (PDF) from 2018 included in the Manchester Evening News likely diversified the audience mix bringing in inquisitive families and onlookers alongside media artists and other more usual types at this sort of event.

There was Adam Harvey’s anti-surveillance/anti-computer vision ‘makeovers’, Hello Lamp Post’s infrastructural conversations, Adrian Hon’s (excellent) book History of the Future in 100 Objects turned into a mini-exhibition, ‘critical 3D printing’ with Golan Levin, a BBC’s R&D hackathon, a bio-tech kitchen and stacks more.

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Over at the National Football Museum there was an exhibition curated by John O’Shea in conjunction with Near Future Laboratory and the CCCB, time warped back from 2018, too, giving bemused football fans a series of speculative looks into a future of their beloved game where current broadcast, coaching, and biometric technologies had been extended just a little bit further. The sports newspaper (PDF) produced for the exhibition was a great provocation.

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John and Scott Smith let me play in their future of football workshop – a design fiction sprint that challenged teams to come up with different ways in which technology would change sport from the perspectives of fans, players, coaches, broadcasters, and others.

There’s a nice piece on BBC World Service that spoke to a lot of the people at City Fictions.

By the time the formal conference kicked off, I’d been thoroughly exhausted by all the great conversations! I spoke about ‘museums and collecting the present’ on a sessions with Alex Fleetwood (ex-Hide & Seek) who spoke about his proposition for a new type of institution able to support, commission, distribute, and collect/archive UK games; and Ben Vickers who spoke about UnMonastery, a live-in ‘born digital’ (but physical) institution in Italy. Our three perspectives neatly explored the different affordances of institutional types and the different battles each faces. Alex’s proposal for videogames riffed off the Channel4 model and seems eminently sensible and made us all consider what a ‘public service Steam’ might be like and how it might invest in and develop games that fall in the cracks between the indie scene and AAA market-driven titles.

Keep an eye out for the videos once they go live – Anab Jain‘s keynote was particularly fantastic, although I missed most of the second day travelling.

Then I jumped on a plane back to the US and on to Museums and the Web.

Museums and the Web is still one of the best museum technology conferences because of its wide draw from around the globe and varying levels of seniority of attendees. There have been plenty of other reports on the event (Ed Rodley’s are a good read 1 | 2) but this year it felt different. Gone were the discussions of previous years of the potential of the web in bringing museums together, instead replaced by a slightly inward-looking retreat from scale. Most of what I heard was about singular institutions dealing with their own issues, rather than discussing and confronting sector-wide challenges (of which there are still many). Perhaps this is a result of deepening funding cuts and more uncertain times, or the ongoing Balkanisation of the web in general. Whatever it was, it felt like the big ideas had been re-calibrated to institutional scale.

Aaron Cope and I presented talked around our joint paper “Collecting the present: digital code and collections“. Rather than stick to our paper, the slides we ended up using were an extended remix of the ones I’d presented a few days earlier at Future Everything. Despite that we were up early in the conference, following an interesting opening keynote from one of the folks from Disney’s R&D labs, so we decided to take it further ‘off road’.

In the paper we talk about collecting the iOS app, Planetary, for the Cooper Hewitt collection as an example of interaction design and use the affordances of being a ‘design museum’ rather than an ‘art museum’ to focus on ‘the idea and process’ not the ‘instance and object’. Aaron expanded the discussion of equivalents in videogames to talk about Glitch and the boiled-down ‘de-make’/resurrection of it by building an HTML version of its environments and chat functionality ignoring the missions and trading elements. Much like the way in which Cooper Hewitt collected and released the ‘versioned’ codebase of Planetary, the developers behind the popular Threes – motivated by the cloning of their game – released publicly three years of email discussions between the development team in a vain attempt to ‘prove’ their game was conceptually superior to the clones.

We could have gone on for much longer.

Micah Walter from my team presented a paper at the end of the event on downgrading the Cooper Hewitt website from Drupal to WordPress (http://labs.cooperhewitt.org/2014/downgrading-your-website-or-why-we-are-moving-to-wordpress/) – something that is ongoing. It is a useful reminder that the content creators on your website are a very important user group, without whom you either have a lot of work to do yourself as a webmaster, or you don’t have a website – so it is worth spending the effort on making editing interfaces easier and simpler.

Hopefully next year in Chicago there is a return of some of the bigger ideas of previous years.

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Announcing ‘The Contemplator’

April 26th, 2014 by Seb Chan
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(Another post that has sat as an unfinished thought for months – so rather than finish it, here it is)

As some readers know, I’m buried in an avalanche of work trying to make a formerly historic house/decorative arts museum into something that feels and operates like part of the 21st century. Inevitably this means turning a museum often described as a ‘sleepy hidden treasure’ into something that is visibly more interactive, welcoming, and playful.

However a small group of influential people want museums to be their sanctuary from the outside world, its noise, its people, and its relentlessness.

I can understand this.

Living and working in New York, even the idea of silence is seductive. This isn’t a new desire – but it has gotten more air than usual with concerns about technology, interactivity and participation in museums getting uncomfortably caught up with discussions about ‘new audiences’.

In the tradition of design ideation – let’s reverse the problem.

So for the small group of the museum public who want museums to be their quiet sanctuary, we provide The Contemplator – in the vein of Hugo Gernsback’s ‘Isolator’. A helmet that fits comfortably and provides a focussed field of vision limiting the visual interference of ‘other visitors’. Instead of the audio of an audio guide, a calming white noise generator is provided with noise cancelling headphones to return the sensation of silence to the museum visit.

Huge Gernsback's The Isolator (via The Great Dismal)

Huge Gernsback’s The Isolator (via The Great Dismal)

What would it feel like for those who wish museums to be quiet and empty to be the ones who are forced to adapt?

The best dystopian science fiction often presents the future as dirty, noisy, and crowded. Perhaps the ‘contemplative museum visit’ is not yet the equivalent of the ‘disruptive’ upper crust car rental Ian Bogost rails against – “it’s not car rental that sucks, but dealing with the everyman, being in his presence, even knowing he exists” – so let’s try to keep our increasingly diverse audiences happily co-existing.

Maybe this is already being prototyped in a museum lab near you? Now that’d be fun.

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The value of museum content, attention, and time

March 19th, 2014 by Seb Chan
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It is that time of year again.

In a few weeks time I’ll be running the nth iteration of my annual ‘web metrics for museums’ workshop at Museums and the Web. This year I’m joined by the Smithsonian’s analytics guru Brian Alpert. As usual we will be working through the realities of a museum’s web presence and the new ways to measure how it is performing and how to communicate that to the rest of the organisation.

Every year it gets harder.

There’s now more people than ever before with access to the web, and with that brings the unrealistic expectation from management that those new web users are going to flock to a museum’s content, even though it was likely never created or designed with them in mind.

Let me digress.

I spent most of my spare time in my twenties and early thirties involved in music. My friends and I put on a huge number of gigs, we toured international artists, put out some CDs, ran a weekly club night for a decade, put on festivals, ran a music magazine, and did a weekly radio show on public radio (equivalent of US college radio) for nearly two decades.

We were doing this just as the web became mainstream and the way that music was distributed, consumed, and the cultures that grew around it was in rapid transformation. The music scene that we were involved in was niche but not small – some of the larger parties drew as many as 4000 – and there was only one or two international tours that we lost money on. In a city the size of Sydney that wasn’t too bad. The value of what we did in those years was best measured in its long term impact – not on an event-by-event basis.

We knew how to make it work financially but over the years we also realised that there was a difference between ‘growing a scene’ and ‘sustaining a community’.

The former reaches a point at which the bubble bursts and the scene rapidly contracts, whilst the latter keeps supporting the social needs of the people involved as they get older, their tastes change, and in some cases, pair off into domesticity.

What the web brought to music was two-fold. Firstly it opened the gates for ‘publishing’ – anyone could upload their music, release it, and cut out (or downgrade) the middleman. Second, it opened the gates for ‘fans’ – anyone could, in theory, get access to all this music, talk about it, and build communities around it by themselves

Music discovery metastasized. Personal networks exploded globally, record stores began to be eaten by chains and then die, music media was no longer constrained by ‘issues’ and freight, and then Napster/SoulSeek/torrents took over at the turn of the millennium. Online music media, YouTube and Spotify and similar services have replaced much of what there used to be in terms of music magazines (especially NME/Melody Maker in the 1980s), record stores and music discovery through radio.

So what we have is easier publication, easier access, and, transformed discovery. (Arguably music has gained more than it has lost, although that doesn’t mean musicians have gained)

What didn’t change was people’s time to listen to music, or their urge to listen to music. Listeners just don’t have more hours in their days.

It is worse for museums.

We make short videos. We record long epic lectures. We write essays and ebooks. We publish these online. We ‘effectively utilise social media’ (whatever that means these days). And then we foolishly expect that the world is all going to rush to watch/listen/read them.

But we misunderstand the value of what we’ve made. Unlike the transactional parts of our websites, these are all things that will only reveal their value over the long term.

We barely create time and momentum for people to interrupt their busy lives to consider visiting a museum with their precious spare time – how can we expect it to be an different with our online content?

If you have doubts, the Culture24 Lets Get Real project reports are essential reading.

Its not just museums, everyone is struggling with this.

More at Museums and the Web in Baltimore.

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