Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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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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