Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Tackling Ross Parry’s ‘post-digital normativity’ on a daily basis with visitors

December 4th, 2013 by Seb Chan
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(More old-ish drafts being pushed out the door)

We talk a lot in the office about the sort of digital experience we want in our new galleries. But without revealing what we are actually doing, here’s some of the conundrums that we’ve been processing over the last year – that are widely applicable across institutions.

In many ways, what we have been really talking about is Ross Parry’s notion of a ‘post digital normativity‘ (see also his paywalled journal article with a look at organisation structures and digital teams in UK national museums as PDF) – a new normal that doesn’t separate a digital experience into something different from the overall museum experience. Other people mistakenly describe this as ‘the elegant invisibility of technology’ whereas in fact it is about coming to a collective agreement that everyday life is inseparable from a technologically-mediated existence.

We’ve all observed visitors taking the #museumselfie, and a smaller cohort of visitors taking photos of object labels, and we’ve all seen families struggle with the anti-social nature of audioguides. We’ve tried to service the informational desires of visitors by deploying QR codes (ugh), NFC/RFID (see London’s Natural History Museum and their NaturePlus cards way back in 2009), and even short URLs to galleries only to find that they are rarely used, or if they are, audience research reveals that the resultant ‘extra information’ lacked the depth and specificities wanted by the curious visitor. (Perhaps an object phone direct to the relevant subject expert curator’s desk would be more effective!)

As museum staffers, too, we’ve also been frustrated at the difficulty of ‘getting visitors back’ as repeat visitors. Dallas Museum of Art’s DMA Friends is obviously one to watch on this. “Technology” was supposed to make that easier – as if its magic touch could transform a ‘nice family day out’ into something called ‘edutainment’ and transform single visit desires into ‘lifelong learning relationships’.

Of course every museum worth their salt is thinking about how to sort out the value of digital experiences in their galleries – be it through large scale interventions or mobile apps – and providing at least the opportunity for visitors to recall their visit later. The latter was probably best demonstrated in 2011 by Tasmania’s MONA, and can also be seen in MOMA’s 2013 media-rich ‘audio guide replacement‘. The former ‘s torch is being currently borne by the Cleveland Museum of Art’s impressive Gallery One. Across the field this threatens to become a race to out-screen and out-size the next institution with little consideration – especially by funders – of the ongoing costs and underlying content challenges.

Even the best don’t get near 100% take up rates – not even MONA which gets closest – where without the supplied device you are set a drift without any labels to guide or inform you of what you are looking at and also beneath the ground without mobile reception to distract you.

Thinking about this from the visitor’s own perspective is revealing because they have little conception of, or tolerance for, the museum’s own inability to meet their expectations. “Why do I need something to make my visit better?” “You’ve run out of devices – that’s bad planning”. The device doesn’t work the way they intuit that it should – “that’s bad design”. The content is little more than an extended label text – “I may as well have just used your website on my phone”.

And you still want to deploy that great technological intervention?

All of these interventions require services and systems to be built that touch on almost every aspect of the museum as well as cross-departmentally. And this is why it has been so difficult for institutions to firstly get it done, and, for those that do, to then get it right.

The front-of-house team has to be engaged enough with the motive and purpose of technologies deployed in the galleries to want to troubleshoot and provide the conduit for feature requests and bug reports between the visitors and the museum. The content production workflows need to be cogniscent of the time constraints for curators and educators so as to not overload them with yet another content production task on top of object labels, exhibition research and educational programming. The reality is inevitably that you will need more staff, not fewer – and not just in technical areas but across the institution as a whole. There will be some ability to restructure and redeploy existing staff to new roles – Lynda Kelly’s oft-heard mantra of “20% smarter not 20% harder” – but the reality may be that you also need 20% more staff!

Some questions worth answering –

– Does the technology make the visit appreciably better? How is this going to be measured?
– What proportion of visitors are going to use it? If it isn’t at least 50% then is it still worth the ongoing investment?
– Can and will there be investment in enough staff to meet the changed demands of visitors should they begin to expect more? What if they want what things that the museum was never setup to provide?

Every single day we poke at these questions. Its not getting any easier, nor is it likely to improve.

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What does a student-curated digital/physical exhibition look like? Museums and the Network 2013

December 3rd, 2013 by Seb Chan
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So tonight the students brave enough to take the class that Aaron Cope and I have led at Pratt this semester opened their exhibition. I say ‘brave enough’ because this was always going to be a seat-of-your-pants experimental class broadly titled “Museums and the Network: Caravaggio in the age of Dan Flavin lights”. It ended up covering everything theoretical from digital culture, media art theory, surveillance, and startups through to the more prosaic intricacies of map making, databases, web scraping, object labels and networked project management.

But graduate students in the information and library sciences are an eager and very talented bunch. And the chaotic tendencies of both Aaron and I were tempered by a stellar set of guests who parted their professional wisdom – Sherri Wasserman, John Powers, Dan Phiffer, Fiona Romeo, Virginia Gow, George Oates, Nicole Cama, Matt Knutzen, and John Allspaw.

After their first class project collected data from cultural institutions around New York to build network maps of philanthropy – thedonorparty.com – something very aligned with the ‘digital’ nature of the course, their main project forced them to start again and built a physical exhibition with tangible objects, but informed by their growing understanding of “the affordances of the networks that surround and envelop them”.

The exhibition, its topic, its objects, and its argument were all their responsibility and the one they ended up choosing to explore was ‘Communting and Communing’. The exhibition “explores several facets of the act of commuting on the NYC subway … we have organized an exhibition that explores the subway’s sights and sounds, the interactions that occur with people as well as objects and the virtual communities that come together as a result of their commuter experience.”

Here’s some photos from the opening.

Hand-recorded visualisation of happenings on a single end-to-end train journey
Hand-recorded visualisation of happenings on a single end-to-end train journey

Some found objects and the hardware running the MTA.WIFI backchannel
Some found objects and the hardware running the MTA.WIFI backchannel

Overheard conversations on Japanese fans with hyperlinks to computer-voiced conversations.
Overheard conversations on Japanese fans with hyperlinks to computer-voiced conversations

Fan detail and hyperlink
Fan detail and hyperlink

Array of found objects with geospatial metadata.
Array of found objects with geospatial metadata

Found objects detail and hyperlinks
Found objects detail and hyperlinks

More found objects and hyperlinks.
More found objects and hyperlinks

Text panel for sound clips and video loops
Text panel for sound clips and video loops

Backchannel label
Backchannel label

Aaron Cope visits the exhibition 'over the network' from a hotel room in Rotterdam (DISH2013)
Aaron Cope visits the exhibition ‘over the network’ from a hotel room in Rotterdam (DISH2013)

Of course, this course was about ‘the Network’ so the students have used Tumblr as their collection management system and exhibition catalogue. The ‘archive’ view of Tumblr provides a great way of visually browsing the objects and other media assets, whilst the standard view gives a more linear look complete with auto-playing subway soundtrack. The catalogue includes all the found objects, nicely accessioned and photographed with location metadata, as well as documentary and process evidence. There’s a Twitter account too.

The exhibition also included short URLs for every object bringing visitors back to additional information and in the case of the fans, supporting media. The commuter video loops were accompanied by audio soundtracks that can be downloaded for playback on your own subway journeys too. A final AV component was a subway Supercut! More of this content is going up to the Tumlr over the next few days.

For the exhibition backchannel, a public wifi darknet was set up using Dan Phiffer’s Occupy.Here projects its basis. This allowed visitors to post comments and images anonymously whilst in the exhibition.

If you’re in New York and would like to pop in and see it drop me a line and I’ll see what can be done.

And great work class of 2013!

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Brief thoughts on dystopia/utopia – interactive design fiction for museums?

November 11th, 2013 by Seb Chan
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First a couple of minor updates before the main course (which is full of long video links . . . ).

Aaron has written up the full length version of the talk in Adelaide for the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material National Conference last week. It covers a lot of the conceptual work around our acquisition of Planetary for the Cooper-Hewitt collection and “what it means to be a design museum” in the early 21st century. Its a good (long) read especially if you haven’t been subjected to one of Aaron’s or my recent public talks on this topic. Aaron and I will soon be in an episode of Museopunks about this too.

Anna Mikhaylova interviewed me at MuseumNext back in May for her Ideas4Museums: A Biography of Museum Computing project which speaks to technologists inside museums. She did a great job editing together something coherent from my caffeinated ramblings and it is now live. It might be of interest to those curious as to why I work with cultural heritage and it builds on a number of earlier interviews for Museum ID and Desktop Mag.

I spent an inordinate number of hours as a fifteen year old playing Wasteland on my Commodore 64 which I wrote about for The 80s Are Back exhibition when I was working at the Powerhouse Museum. And, in time for the long weekend it got a re-release as a bonus for Kickstarter backers of its long awaited sequel due in 2015. Wasteland looks nowadays like a clunky old-school role playing game and its treatment of a post-nuclear world deeply shaped by the 1980s. But the story and the way it unfolds over many many hours of grinding gameplay (I think I spent far too many hours stuck, low on ammunition and desperately outgunned in the Las Vegas sewers), still makes it one of the best computer game experiences all-round.

As games become more cinematic and cinema becomes more influenced by the structure and design of games, something strange is happening to the way we deal with our mass culture neuroses. Introducing playability into our neuroses allows them to be pushed and pulled at, alternative scenarios and endings explored, as the reader/viewer/player makes use of their (limited) agency. So reading around post-apocalytic narratives in film and gaming, I came across a recent post on the fabulous reborn Snarkmarket that sent me down a rabbithole around narrative design and interactive storytelling in the ambitious The Last of Us.

Ostensibly a triple-A high budget video game for adults, The Last of Us for the Playstation 3, is probably best described as a cinematic narrative (obviously with nods to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road etc) stitched together with first-person survival horror and puzzle game elements – the ‘stitching’ pointing to the challenge of reconciling real interactivity and strong narrative. (Watch a longplay video of it to get a sense of the game if you haven’t played it – be warned, its M17+ territory. Perhaps it is one game that works best as a ‘watching’ experience!).

James Howell’s multipart YouTube deconstruction of the internal systems and logic of the game is remarkable. The way in which Howell draws attention to the way in which the game system is an integral part of the narrative and the playability of these is critical to the player’s understanding and immersion in the narrative itself. The subtle, and not-to-subtle ways in which the game hints and nudges the player through the narrative using frequent learned prompts gives a rhythm and purpose beyond combat sequences. This is a departure from the strongly ‘challenge-oriented’ approach of games in the 80s and 90s where games only expected a very very few elite players to ‘complete’ them. Now, with narrative-based games, the very notion that average players couldn’t ‘complete’ them to the end – and get a satisfactory ending – in a reasonable (but not too short) amount of play time seems ridiculous in retrospect.

What might exhibition design learn from this sort of deeply structured interactive design?

hon-future100

And as far as dystopian/utopian futures of a less interactive sort goes, you can’t really go wrong with Adrian Hon’s History of the Future in 100 Objects. Initially a response to the British Museum and BBC’s History of the World, Adrian’s book is a lovely piece of near-future fiction written from the perspective of 2082 it covers the objects and services that changed the world between 2014 and 2079. In amongst the futuristic whimsy there are, as in all good science fiction, insights into the present across design, technology, sociology and politics – not to mention what it might mean for museum curators to present such a collected exhibition in 2082. The 100 short curatorial essays offer a dizzying vision of globalised future that is equally exciting and terrifying – just the way it should be. Along with many other nerds of my generation I grew up on Usborne’s 1979 World of the Future trilogy (compiled here) by Kenneth Gatland – and I’d love to see an illustrated version of Adrian’s book sometime in the future (hint hint!). I’m sometimes worried about the lack of similar titles for children these days – but that’s usually on my other irregular blog.

The print version launches in London this week for all those who don’t like longform reading on screens. Otherwise make sure you get yourself a electronic copy.

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“Completion”, participation, and purpose

November 3rd, 2013 by Seb Chan
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A couple of things circulating at the moment that perhaps interrelate.

Ed Rodley’s suggestion that art museums are paying the price of being the new “temples in our secular society” is certainly worth considering. The current wave of agitation against the notion of ‘participation’ might just be coincidence but it might also be a timely call for museums to better articulate who they really are for (or want to be for). Art museums seem to have a tougher time of this – especially with the rapidly changing demographics of the USA.

Designer Khoi Vinh makes a good critique of the latest piece of Snowfall-style rich multimedia journalism from The Guardian.

Also, there’s the fact that both “NSA Files Decoded” and “Snowfall” so clearly take the form of what I like to call “The Editor’s Prerogative.” What is The Editor’s Prerogative? It’s when you take a piece of journalism and make it huge in scale and elaborate in delivery so that it is more in line with how important an editor thinks the story is than how new audiences actually want to consume it.

And Newsbound’s Josh Kalven comments,

This gets at a question that’s rarely talked about in journalism circles: “Did people read it?” We often talk about how many people arrived on the page and how many people shared it. But the industry doesn’t seem to care about “completion” as a metric.

My former teammate Renae Mason (About NSW, The 80s Are Back etc) recently built one of these Snowfall-style projects for Penguin before she moved to Triple J. I’m know she has a lot to say about the real cost and effort that goes into making these pieces.

(Digital teams in museums are already being badgered about “when is my exhibition mirosite/catalogue” going to look like that online, so we better figure this out soon. There’s a growing Google Doc of all these sorts of multimedia pieces if you haven’t seen many of them)

I wonder how much museums – participatory or not – really care about ‘completion’ as a metric in their exhibitions, publications or digital projects? Audience tracking studies have, for years, shown that visitors rarely take the ‘right path’ through an exhibit even when one is clearly articulated.

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The last few months. Hello World. Again.

October 26th, 2013 by Seb Chan
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Its been a long time since the last missive and much has happened. Enough, in fact to fill several posts in their own right. I could use the excuse of busy-ness but I’m endeavouring to get back on the wagon with regular posts. In the interim, here’s some pointers to some of the recent goings on that you may have missed.

The office did a feature interview with me about what I currently do at Cooper-Hewitt in the monthly email newsletter. You can read the nitty gritty here. It is probably as good a summary as any.

Back in August Cooper-Hewitt announced its first code acquisition. This was something that Aaron Cope and I had been working on for several months in secrecy and it was very rewarding to finally get it out and public along with all the press. Planetary, an iPad app, is interesting as an acquisition for number of reasons – detailed in the long curatorial piece we wrote together. Personally, I hope it triggers a lot more discussion in the field around what it means to ‘collect’ already ubiquitous objects and interactive systems.

Aaron and I have also been collaborating on a course at Pratt, and our students have been poking at a number of things – the first, their mid-session assignment, is online. As they say, “[they] are collecting information about large donations sent to museums and other cultural institutions and sharing it with the public.” . . .

And in October the my team hosted the lovely Virginia Gow as the Paul Reynolds Travelling Scholarship recipient for 2013. Virginia spent three weeks onsite, deeply embedded, contributing a lot of fresh ideas. She’s blogged about her experience over on the Labs blog.

Stay tuned.

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More non-linear narratives, museums & immersive theatre: Then She Fell

July 18th, 2013 by Seb Chan
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I’m just back from another immersive theatre instalment.

This time I went with some friends to Then She Fell, a performance piece by Third Rail currently being staged in Williamsburg. Then She Fell invites audiences to “explore a dreamscape where every alcove, corner, and corridor has been transformed into lushly designed world. Inspired by the life and writings of Lewis Carroll, it offers an Alice-like experience for audience members as they explore the rooms, often by themselves, in order to discover hidden scenes; encounter performers one-on-one; unearth clues that illuminate a shrouded history; use skeleton keys to gain access to guarded secrets; and imbibe elixirs custom designed by one of NYC’s foremost mixologists.”

I loved it. You should go. Really.

And like my experience at Sleep No More, it points to some interesting ideas for exhibition and experience design.

Then She Fell follows a different model to Sleep No More. For a start it operates at a far reduced scale – only 15 audience members per performance. This has the benefit of creating a very intimate experience and one that guarantees everyone gets several intense one-on-one moments with the performers. In fact my journey began with an intimate moment inside a cupboard and later in the performance when I ended up in a larger group with other audience members I felt a little annoyed at their presence – as if they’d now were able to share ‘my journey’.

The other difference is that it, as we say in video game parlance, is far more ‘on rails‘. Unlike the sandbox world of Sleep No More in which the audience roams pretty freely and events/acts happen at certain times in certain places whether or not audience members are there or not, in Then She Fell you are led along your path – often hand-in-hand with a performer. Importantly, every audience member is on a different path that come together and intersect at various points. Speaking to my friends afterwards it was clear that there is a core series of sequences that every audience member gets to experience in different sequences, but that there are also a group of other unique experiences that are only happen to one or two people. The choreography of the 15 audience members with this sequencing reminded me of the intertwined stories for the different playable characters – each with their own story – in Dragon Age: Origins.

This points to a complex multi-linear narrative as opposed to the almost non-linearity of Sleep No More. No one can accidentally ‘miss everything’ as I’ve heard a few complain of the Sleep No More experience, and this makes it instantly rewarding for ‘all’. In museum terms, it means it is more like that private collection tour with a senior curator – which all museums have trouble ‘scaling up’. (Although Neal Stimler’s experiments with Google Glass-led curator tours at the Met and the National Museum of Australia’s robot docent trials might offer new opportunities).

More broadly, I’m finding that these sorts of performances point to a growing pervasiveness of ‘video game literacy’. Not only do these productions draw on the tropes of video game design and multi-linear nested narratives, the audience is supposed to know and understand how to inhabit the worlds that these narratives create. This is something that museums haven’t worked out how to do well yet – and yet our audiences are increasingly developing these literacies charged by the mainstreaming of video gaming and also their influence on mainstream TV and cinema.

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On ‘institutional wabi sabi’

April 23rd, 2013 by Seb Chan
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So at Museums and the Web 2013, Sarah Hromack from The Whitney and John Stack from Tate published a lovely little photocopy zine – Institutional Strategy Digest – to go with their institutional change panel.

I have a short piece inside called ‘Institutional wabi sabi’. The phrase was one that I used at a talk a few weeks ago as part of ArtsTech with Aaron Cope where we spoke about the role of language and tone in humanising communications between institutions and their publics.

In the International Strategy Digest I write,

Wabi-sabi is a challenging concept for Westerners raised on a diet of Modernism. It celebrates impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness. It celebrates the small and the intimate. It is the rough hewn bowl, not angular refined box.

Importantly, though, it is not an excuse for incompetence.

Consider how your museum could be ‘a bowl’, rather than ‘a box’. A tumble of objects rather than a grid.

The museum as a ‘rough hewn bowl’ should be an idea that resonates with Nina Simon’s ‘perpetual beta‘ concept for exhibit design and Ed Rodley’s ‘Making a museum from scratch’ series. Or even Shelley Berstein‘s celebration of the ‘scrappy solution’ in her technology work.

Anyway, other than a nice soundbite, I’m hoping that ‘institutional wabi sabi’ frames these issues in a new way and perhaps allows us to connect and draw upon the deeper Japanese aesthetic and philosophy of wabi sabi beneath.

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Considering museum collections as 8-bit versions of history

March 1st, 2013 by Seb Chan
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c64-ise

For the past while, Aaron Cope and I have been bouncing around the notion of the acceptability of incomplete object records. We know this from our work with Cooper-Hewitt’s ‘art museum quality’ collection records, and I have many stories from my past at Powerhouse that reinforce the value and potential engagement created through the public release of even the most minimal records. And increasingly even the most staid and conservative institutions around the world are understanding the opportunities.

But we’ve been bouncing the idea around for another reason.

We want to improve our collection records. We want, and need, them to be more than just pointers to shelf locations. We want them to better express the knowledge and at least hint at the impassioned storytelling that the curators engage in when you ask them one-on-one about an object. But we also know that we simply will never have enough staff, let alone curators, to make much of a dent in the museum’s 217,000 objects. There’s just too many objects and too many years of hermetic documentation practices – problems that are common across every museum.

Collectively we’re about to try something new by considering adding a couple of new compulsory cataloguing fields to our records to try to find a middle ground. A middle ground that is achievable in terms of workload, and that exponentially increases the ‘narrative potential’ of our object records with a few simple ‘pointers’.

But there are limits.

Databases are woeful boxes in which to tell ‘stories’. We don’t yet have ‘poetic databases’. And we aren’t likely to in the near future.

We also know that this might be a fruitless exercise. Nick Poole has been good at reminding all of us that ‘metadata’ and ‘content’ are not the same, and that the ‘users’ of each are often very different and have different intentions. Much like the difference in use and experience between exhibitions that use collection objects and the collection objects themselves.

Last week Aaron pointed me to John Powers’ excellent piece titled “The Art Of 8-bit History“.

You really should read it.

The history I lay out may not have the richness of detail we find in an heavily annotated academic survey, but just as an 8-bit portrait is still a photograph, an 8-bit history is still a history. Likewise, the “truth claims” of Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Lincoln, and even Django Unchained shouldn’t be dismissed because those films simplify complicated histories. While these films can never provide full historical resolution, they remain important looks at important moments.

I grew up on 8-bit computer games for a large part of the 1980s. There’s certainly nothing ‘lesser’ about 8-bit – and many of the best games and interactive fiction of that period are still as immersive and rewarding now as they were then. They just don’t ‘look’ that great – but your brain and imagination fills in the gaps.

Or in design-speak, there are certain affordances that 8-bit provides that are lost with greater resolution.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the public, or our visitors, to fill in the gaps too. We might just need to give them a little more than we currently do.

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‘Constant short term nostalgia’

February 14th, 2013 by Seb Chan
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Suse Cairns, writing about how carrying her iPhone around with her as a (then) later adopter PhD student changed her way of seeing (and experiencing) the world,

I now see socially. I listen, not just for myself, but for what I can translate and share to my networks. I pay attention to the ideas that you, my network, is interested in, and in so doing, I encounter the world through that lens. The things I notice are not of interest to me alone. I notice those things that I think you would be interested in too, and I think of you when I am noticing them.

This is probably a familiar experience for many of you.

But I also think it is one that passes – over time – and in my case has been replaced by a sense of ‘constant short term nostalgia’.

Timehop is a good example of a service that feeds this desire. It works by reminding you everyday of what you did exactly one year, two years, three years and more, ago to the day on the various social services that you’ve given it access to – your tweets, your photos, your location checkins.

There is no forward or back in the interface. Just the past, exactly to the day. It is a constraint that greatly enhances its appeal/addiction.

Much like my children who won’t, until the Great Power Outage comes, be able to forget the overly-detailed photographic renderings of their childhoods, Timehop (and the more diary-like Momento) is a constant reminder of what you were saying that you were doing, what you thought was interesting enough to photograph, and where you were.

I’m not as concerned as, say Simon Reynolds, about this, but it is uncharted territory. This is related to, but qualitatively different from, the constant warnings to young people about the ‘permanency’ of unfortunate public overshares.

Just as there is value in being able to forget, there may also be value in not ‘seeing socially’ (Goffman, anyone?) – or at least, being able to un-see.

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Coming back around to colour in 2013 via 2009 via 2005

February 13th, 2013 by Seb Chan
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The online collection experiment that changed a lot of the way I looked at museum collections was the Electronic Swtachbook that we launched at Powerhouse way way back in 2005. The first version took a selection of high resolution images of fabric swatches from the Powerhouse collection of swatchbooks and made them available for free download, asserting that their Copyright had lapsed and that they were now in the Public Domain. One twist was that, because they were not individually catalogued, we enabled user tagging. The experience with that project led directly to the development and launch of the Powerhouse’s then influential “OPAC 2.0” the following year.

Giv Parvaneh who worked as a developer on the Swatchbook and OPAC2.0 as part of my team back then left the Powerhouse and went to work in the UK. A few years later while he was at the BBC we circled back and he added some long discussed ‘colour search’ features to the Electronic Swatchbook in 2009.

Fast forward to today and at Cooper-Hewitt we released colour browsing on the Cooper-Hewitt’s prototype online collection site. Aaron Cope took a look at the colour analysis code that Giv eventually released on GitHub, made a few modifications and enhancements, building upon that good work and now it is live.

In keeping with the generous spirit of Giv’s code release, Cooper-Hewitt also released its code and method to the world.

There’s little value in keeping useful code, useful tools, and useful methods to yourself in the museum sector. As I’ve said many times before, it ends up just keeping everyone from moving forward.

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