Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Too busy to blog: a short round up of 2014

December 31st, 2014 by Seb Chan

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.

Tags: 5 Comments

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  • mrgazpacho

    Got here from a link on The Atlantic in their story on the re-opening. Definitely intend to visit when I can… although not sure when that will be. My brother Damien K here in Sydney still mentions you in conversation :-)

  • Lieuwe Jongsma

    Wasn’t it a bit early to do a roundup of 2015? ;)

    • oops – yeah that’s how busy it has been. Updated now!