Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Since we last spoke. Rounding up 2015.

January 10th, 2016 by Seb Chan

Each year these roundups seems to get later and later! This one is an amalgamation of various ‘unpublished posts’ and related adventures, so carefully pour yourself a flat white, and nestle comfortably. (Don’t forget to open all the links in a new browser tab . . .)

1. Prologue

Three years ago I wrote an end-of-year post that summed up my first year in New York. Back then I was in the early stages of learning how museums in the USA worked, and how they differed from those in ‘centrally funded’ parts of the globe. Not unsurprisingly, funding and audiences are closely tied together – perhaps more closely than I had first thought.

Digital transformation is really about something else that often isn’t openly talked about – transforming audiences. Sure, we might change work practices along the way, but really digital transformation efforts are really in the service of visitors wherever they might be. In that sense, ‘digital transformation’ follows in the footsteps of the education-led museology of the 1990s. You can sense this in Nicholas Serota’s recently published “commonwealth of ideas” speech about a new Tate.

In the US ‘transforming audiences’ is especially tricky as the culture of private funding means that for most privately funded museums the ‘actual audience’ is a handful of board members and ‘significant donors’ (foundations and corporations), not those who actually attend or use the museum and its collections as visitors. The desired outcomes of different board members of the same institution may vary widely, and at times may even be in conflict with each other – pity the poor Director who is squeezed in the middle!

Elsewhere in the world, where museums are publicly funded or rise from grassroots community activation, ‘who funds the museum’ is theoretically closer to ‘who attends the museum’. In the case of central government funding the results may steer towards ‘instrumentalism’ where the institution becomes a delivery mechanism for social policy – Robert Hewison’s Cultural Capital: The Rise & Fall Of Creative Britain is a worthwhile read on instrumentalism as it played out in the 00s.

Either way, though, who is legitimated as belonging to, and who is able to come to the museum is as hotly contested as it ever was – although more ‘coded‘ than ever before. You can see this in all the debates about ‘how people behave’ inside museums, as much as in the socio-economic and racial disparities between different ‘levels’ of museum worker.

2. Departure lounge

Just before I finished at Cooper Hewitt I went to Orlando, Florida, to speak at the Tessitura conference.

Being down in Orlando gave me the opportunity to peek inside Disneyworld thanks to Micah’s unofficial connections. Although museum folks tend to look skeptically, if not disdainfully, at Disney’s theme parks, I think that there’s a lot to learn and understand from theme park design and the ways in which visitors use and create meaning in these places. That said, my theme park experience is somewhat limited. I’ve been to LegoLand in San Diego (2012)- somewhat disappointing for Lego fans – but I had a surprisingly wonderful time at Tokyo Disney (2011). My time at Tokyo Disney was unexpectedly enjoyable because of the way in which the Japanese visitors got deeply involved in the experience with even grandparents cosplayed as characters, and the lack of ‘queue aggression’. Both of those, I expect, are culturally specific responses.

A photo posted by Micah Walter (@micahwalter) on

Disneyworld in Orlando Florida was not the same. Micah and I hadn’t gone to go on the rides – but to get a first-hand sense of how the fabled Magic Band was working. Waiting for our informal guide, we sat outside the ticket area and watched the stream of families – tired, stressed, bickering – moving in and out of the ‘no turnstiles’ (the turnstiles having been replaced by touch sensors for the Magic Band).

Before you think that the Magic Band and the removal of turnstiles might mean fewer helper staff at the entrance, let me reassure that there was still one staffer for each entry path. Our guide advised us that some visitors had Magic Bands that didn’t quite work as expected and they were there to scan their tickets and help them align their bands with the ‘Mickey-shaped’ readers properly. Sound familiar?

Instead the Magic Band allows Disney to – the idea goes – get better analytics on the use of its parks. It doesn’t yet operate as a revenue generator in its own right, but in theory it reduces queueing and makes ‘guests’ happier (at least as far as their ‘park experience’ goes, probably not their lives as a whole). ‘Better analytics’ is the promise but as we discovered, there’s a fair few hardware issues still being worked on as those longer range RFIDs aren’t 100% accurate, and as always there are bugs. There’s also still a lot of guests who don’t have Magic Bands – those on day passes especially.

What was fascinating to hear, though, was that behind the scenes, Disney has joined up a lot of their backend systems. Those user accounts are now beginning to be ‘integrated’ – and I think that this is probably the bigger and more important achievement here. Effectively if you have an online account for any Disney service (which includes ESPN and ABC GO – and maybe also Club Penguin etc too), then those are increasingly going to be viewable by Disney as a single entity. For the customer this means ‘Single Sign On’, and for Disney it means vast seas of data. (Cue privacy and security challenges)

It was also good to hear about the surprises. Now that visitors can pre-plan their days at Disneyworld right down to the timing and order of the rides they want to go on they have begun to behave in unexpected ways. For a set of parks that had been designed on queueing systems and enticements to spend in particular ways, the Magic Band has suddenly upended some of the assumption that have been quite literally ‘built in to’ the parks and their business models for decades. Some visitors now optimise their visit to reduce the time spent between rides – that very time that the original park designs relied on for visitors to spend money shopping and dining.

Not unlike museums, though, the challenge will be sticking with the systems and their ongoing maintenance and upgrades until this data and the analytics starts to really bear fruit.

What a learning experience that was.

3. Now boarding

So at the beginning of September I farewelled New York, and with it, the USA.

The Cooper Hewitt work was as ‘done’ as much as it could be – and in the aftermath of the ‘big opening’, the museum proved that it was possible to retain momentum and keep pressing on towards the launch of the Pen in March. Not only that, but the staff also doubled down on a cycle of iterations (that happily continues even today).

I’ve long argued that museums need to get better at doing ‘exhibitions as continuous productions’ [the work on The 80s Are Back at Powerhouse is a useful historical example] – not ‘launch and move on to the next thing’ – but it is hard to make that a reality.

Cooper Hewitt definitely had a pretty good go at attempting that shift. And the awards kept coming – more importantly, though, so did families.

4. Safety briefing

Leaving any city is hard and the ‘leaving New York‘ story is already so overused in popular culture [spoiler – it’s usually a ‘rags to riches’ or the ‘voyage and return’ plot] that I won’t bore you with the full details.

Instead in the tradition of data dumping, here’s some pointless data collected from my time in NYC –

Months living in Manhattan – 46
Rent – far too much
Music listened to – 66,099 songs
Concerts and club nights attended – 61
Number of museums visited [excepting Cooper Hewitt]- 206
Out of city flights – 36 domestic USA, 26 international

And to prove that New York is indeed a walking-city, here’s a map of my Manhattan travels on foot for the last 12 months. You can probably figure out that I lived close to the office “in the 90s”.

Walking in NYC 2015

It definitely wasn’t all ‘work’ – there was plenty of ‘play’ too. New York was a great base from which to explore the North Hemisphere, and endlessly full of interesting music and cultural things to do.

There’s many friends that I miss – from lovely work colleagues, ‘museum friends’, my late night music co-conspirators, right down to the local donut ateliers and our building superintendent.

However, deep winter is something I’m glad to be rid of.

5. In-flight entertainment

2015 was a good year for music – whose relevance to my museum work is explored a bit in an interview that Thomas Padilla did with me for DH+Lib.

It was notable for some particularly wonderful live shows. FKA Twigs absolutely killed it in Brooklyn during Red Bull Music Academy, and the same goes for Kamasi Washington at Blue Note which happened to be my last night out in NYC. Sao Paolo/Chicago cornettist Rob Mazurek, too, was in fine form at Shapeshifter and I was so happy to have caught ska legend Derrick Morgan at the final Dig Deeper at Littlefield. Bunker provided some great long nights too with Moritz von Oswald and Atom TM and my lucky kids got a chance to see Bjork and Arca at Carnegie Hall and dance to Caribou in the East River Park. Being back in Australia now, though, it has been a lot of fun to wind up the sound system again and get out and back playing some shows of my own.

Release-wise, there were plenty of great records that are worth checking out from Jerusalem in my Heart & Esmerine, both on Montreal’s Constellation label; a new album of introspective NZ pop from SJD; the reissue of Turkish producer Baris K’s splendid live recording of Kime Ne by his band Insanlar reworking a 17th century Sufi poem; my go-to “lucid dreaming in long haul cattle class” music, Max Richter’s 8 hour Sleep epic; Holly Herndon’s Platform; Joanna Newsom’s Divers; Roger Robinson & Disrupt’s Dis Side Ah Town; and great EPs from Luke Abbott & Jack Wyllie, Tropic of Cancer, Nidia Minaj; Pilooski; and a bunch of faceless techno bollocks and the entire Super Rhythm Trax label.

6. Slow descent & holding pattern

So we left New York at the start of September and as our container load of belongings departed on the Ever Legend (to Kaoshing) then the Ital Mattina (from Kaoshing to Melbourne) we spent a month travelling.

I spent a fascinating week in Buenos Aires listening to South and Central American museums discuss their collective futures – it was probably exactly what I needed after New York, a ‘cultural palette cleanser’. The contrast between challenges of New York museums and those talking in Argentina couldn’t have been sharper. The manifesto produced at the event is a must read.

Then it was off to Paris to visit some of the smaller, stranger museums including the fantastic Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature, complete wth super cute instructional videos and type-written ‘accession cards’.

Great 'no flash photography' animated signage

A video posted by Seb Chan (@sebsnarl) on

Publicly browsable collection and provenance records.

A photo posted by Seb Chan (@sebsnarl) on

Also great was the Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée, which has been kept pretty much as it was when it was built for the 1900 World Fair. No technology, just endless skeletons – and considerable more interesting for the kids than the newly refurbished Grande galerie de l’evolution which is more sparse, screen-oriented, and with ‘tasteful taxidermy’.

Now that's how you display a natural history collection!

A photo posted by Seb Chan (@sebsnarl) on

Following Paris it was over to Glasgow, then London, Brighton for Culture 24’s Lets Get Real 2015 conference, then on to Bristol for the Watershed’s No Boundaries complete with a side trip to Banksy’s Dismaland.

Despite visiting the UK several times a year whilst I was in New York, this last trip – with its extended drive down from Scotland – felt different, darker. Austerity bites hard, and the cultural sector is in tough times. There will be more closures, and hopefully a new wave of artists and cultural workers. Certainly at Lets Get Real and No Boundaries, there was a wealth of provocative ideas – and a sense that the time for politely accepting austerity had long since passed. Cultural organisations, museums, libraries have all begun to speak up. The talks from No Boundaries are all up online and are worth digging in to.

We got to Bristol on the last day of Dismaland, Banksy’s dystopian theme park. I’d been watching how art critics and art press had dutifully lined up against it – “its bad art”, “its so obvious”, “its so, ugh, ‘general public'” – yet here it was overflowing with people. Numbers crunched, it turned out to be one of the most well attended art events of the last decade despite only running for six weeks, and being far from London. But numbers aside, what was striking about Dismaland was how unpretentious it was – theatrical, definitely, but exclusionary, no. The scale was immense – far beyond that which museums and galleries can ever hope to accommodate – and amongst the individual works that didn’t work, there were plenty that did like Jimmy Cauty’s massive model city sculpture ‘Aftermath Displacement Principle’. As far as providing an alternative to the ‘art market’ and its ‘art (un)fairs’, Dismaland was engaging and perversely gave us all a sense of hope at the end of a long ‘austerity UK’ tour.

Dismaland – The Official Unofficial Film from Jaybee on Vimeo.

7. Landing

The new thing at ACMI is well underway. Melbourne, it turns out, is a lovely city – and lives up to much of its ‘most liveable city’ hype.

My first months at ACMI began with a flurry of activity – several sprints with Tellart (interaction design), Morris Hargraves Macintyre (audience research), and Meld Studios (service design) – and has now settled into more of a rhythm. You’ll start seeing a lot more leaking out over the next few months as changes become more tangible, so follow along over at ACMI Labs if you’re curious. Much like Cooper Hewitt Labs, ACMI Labs is ‘just’ a semantic construct, not a physical reality – a space for all staff to be self-reflective in their practice by blogging quickly about what they’ve just done.

Not unexpectedly at ACMI, intellectual property is a big issue now that I’m back in Australia. It isn’t just that I’m now working with films, TV and games – but that Australia has no ‘fair use’ in its Copyright system, and that much hope of change on that front is lost as the Australian Law Reform Commission’s report is effectively on ice.

8. Jetlag

Somewhat bizarrely I had two trips to Europe on my schedule shortly after I started at ACMI. These had been on the calendar for many months, from well before I’d even thought of moving out of the northern hemisphere . . . and so in mid October I was in Salzburg to lead some workshops for Salzburg Global Seminar’s latest cohort of Young Cultural Innovators. It was my third time in Salzburg and like the previous times, spending time with the attendees was fascinating and energising. On the way back through Vienna I called in to Ars Electronica (Linz) and MAK (Vienna) to see what they were up to. I was particularly entertained by Ars Electronica’s new 8K cinema and MAK’s handwritten object labels – each at very different ends of the technology spectrum.

A photo posted by Seb Chan (@sebsnarl) on

The second trip back to Europe took place in November and I spoke at an event at the newly expanded Museumplein in Kerkrade in the south of the Netherlands. The Museumplein now features three institutions – the long running science centre Continium, along withe newly built Cube design museum and Columbus ‘Earth Theatre’. The Cube is attempting to be a new type of design museum focussed entirely on the design process with labs throughout where students from the nearby universities are researching, prototyping and making. The Columbus Earth Theatre is a bit like an upside-down planetarium, built to look down into the earth. The surrounding towns have a long history of coal mining and the theatre allows visitors to look down into the earth below them. Its other use is to look at the whole of the earth from space, simulating the ‘overview effect‘ that astronauts are thought to experience when they look back from space. The overview effect’s main proponent, Frank White, was at Museumplein speaking at the same event and it was interesting to hear him describe the potential impact that VR and immersive experiences like the Earth Theatre might have on people.

Heading back to Amsterdam to fly back to Melbourne, I took a short day trip to Maastricht to visit the Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture where Dutch artist Levi van Veluw had taken over the historic house with a vast immersive artwork. Director Valentijn Byvanck has been exploring ideas around multi sensory museum experiences for quite a while and his commission – also crowdfunded – pushed van Veluw, known mostly for his works on paper, to make a work that emphasised other senses.

Van Veluw’s The Relativity of Matter was one of the best things I’ve seen/experienced in the last few years. As a booked solo or duo experience only, visitors are led through the front door of Marres and then left to explore on their own – devices, bags, everything is taken away. The 350sqm installation is dark and disorienting, some rooms feel damp and musty, others are scented, and I felt hyperaware of everything once inside. Many of the rooms are based on Van Veluw’s charcoal drawings – which will give you a sense of what it looked like along some photos from this Dutch review. As a site-specific work built especially for the rooms of Marres it is unlikely it will pop up anywhere else.

8. Epilogue

Melbourne, it turns out, is pretty far away from the rest of the world.

Crossposted with fewer images over on Medium.

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