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


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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