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Migrated to a newsletter!

Since I moved to Melbourne – you can find me on Medium, and, even better, Fresh and New lives on a subscriber newsletter direct to your inbox with regular words from me – usually about 2000 words of reading and links each time.

You can sign up for free (originally on Substack and now migrated to Buttondown).

An experiment in fast writing. Thinking in progress about technology, design, heritage, music and sound – and where they all intersect. Precursors to fully formed ideas and projects. A notebook in progress in the form of a newsletter by Seb Chan.

This began in 2019 as an escape from the writer’s block of longer form ‘public’ pieces. It is my semi-private way of sharing thoughts and ideas in a range of interconnected fields with a close knit community of readers without the all-seeing eye of social media.

Think of it as an art project, or a diary of ideas related to my thinking across many domains. It is not an extension of my ‘work’ – topics will vary and intersect.

What remains on this site/domain, is now pretty much an archival repository dating back to the early days when this blog was part of the Powerhouse Museum site. After I left Sydney at the end of 2011 it moved with me to New York so you can find some of the pieces I wrote between 2011-2015 here too.


Hello 2017. Recapping 2016.

As has been the tradition, welcoming in 2017 began with a playing gig at Kooky’s (almost nearly) annual New Years’ Day party. There’s nothing more bacchanalian or comforting than sweating it out in one of Sydney’s longest running safe spaces. And, sadly, it looks likely that over the coming years those safe spaces are going to be more important for many communities – and not just as places where people like myself have the luxury of visiting as ‘allied tourists’.

For many of my friends, especially those not in Australia, 2016 was a tough year. 2017 is already starting out like it might be similar.

For me, 2016 was a year of reacquainting with Australia, discovering new things in Melbourne, and in the museum world, shifting roles and priorities.

It turns out that my part of Melbourne is pretty great. Good public transport, good public services, and work that is making a difference. When I started at ACMI there were a sense that the organisation was, compared to many other museums, pretty high functioning – and I was a little concerned that building momentum to do ‘different things’ would be considered as being ‘just for the sake of it’. Fortunately it hasn’t felt like that – at least not all the time. The team and concentric circles radiating out from the team have been generous and interested – willing to take a risk. As a result it feels like a lot has been achieved – even if most of that ‘achievement iceberg’ is well below the water line. A bunch of writings sit over at that discuss some of the ‘above the waterline’ projects whilst some of the VR and game-related things are still undocumented. Hopefully over 2017 I’ll be able to reveal some of the scale of that iceberg and where it is now drifitng . . . the vision is no less bold than that at Cooper Hewitt.

Australia, as I reminded myself in the 2015 wrap up, is very far from the rest of the world. While I didn’t get back to the East Coast to visit my Smithsonian friends, I did catch up with many at Museums and the Web in LA in April. On that trip I realised that as Museums and the Web turned 20, I’d been to 10 of them – and more than a couple of the ‘new’ themes were, in fact, slight variations on the themes that were being tackled a decade earlier. Sometimes this meant new perspectives and new approaches, but more often than not it felt like the next generation repeating the errors of the last. No doubt this happens cyclically. Following MW2016 I spent a week at UCLA as one of the guests for their Cultural Analytics & UX Design and got genuinely excited about some of the new ways mathematicians are thinking about cultural products, and what digital humanists are doing to problematize a purely algorithmic approach.

I was lucky enough to spend even more time in LA doing the Getty Leadership Institute in June – thanks mostly to the recommendation and nudging of Janet Carding, and the generosity of my ACMI colleagues to let me be away from the office for an extended period of introspection. More than anything, the course solidified my commitment to the field. There were plenty of personally challenging moments for everyone on the course – we all were emotionally exhausted afterwars but the new friends made around the world during it have been a truly supportive and diverse bunch. On the one afternoon when we were left to oursleves, I headed back into central LA and finally got to check out the Museum of Broken Relationships. A versioning of the Zagreb original, its a great ‘reading’ experience – with the stories bringing each donated object to life – and one that made be think of Fiona Romeo’s long ago comment on visitors ‘not coming to museums to read 40,000 word books while standing up’. In this case I think I looked at labels for far more time than the objects at Broken Relationships, and didn’t feel bad about it at all. Following the Institute, amongst other things, I’ve decided to start formally mentoring a number of ’emerging professionals’ – and am increasingly committed to building the next generation of culture workers – we’re going to need them.

The latter half of the year had much less travel except for three trips to New Zealand – my first return to NZ for about 6 years. I was once again reminded of the splendid people who work in our sector over there – and felt that there had been a genuine cultural transformation in the years between visits. Bi-culturalism felt deeper and far more embedded in daily life and although deep structural inequalities remain, New Zealand seems to have pulled much further away from Australia and Canada in how the future looks with its first peoples, and its new migrants. The first trip was to speak at Museums Australia/Aotearoa – a joint event held in Auckland. The second trip was spent at Te Papa in their Mahuki museum incubator helping the first cohort interrogate and kick the tyres of their museum startups.

Inbetween Te Papa and Mahuki, I spoke at Web Directions – now just Directions, in Sydney. The day after the US election and alongside many US-based speakers, Directions was considerably more spikey and political than I remember it being. I really enjoyed reconnecting with many of the Australian tech scene – and the splitting of the technical sessions of Web Directions out into their own events has turned the new look Directions into an even better highly curated single track event. I should probably also mention that Directions had the best conference catering of any event this year too! If you watch one talk from it, make it the closer from Maciej Ceglowski – he was in fine form.

The third time back in NZ, several weeks after my time at Mahuki, was for National Digital Forum – one of my favourite events and something I’d really missed when I was in New York. This year I asked that my keynote be done as a Q&A with one of my favourite kiwi museum people. So, Courtney Johnson and I sat on stage around a pixel fireplace (stoked occasionally by Digital NZ’s Andy Neale) and talked about the differences between museum cultures in various parts of the world and building supportive and reflective work cultures for teams. It seemed to go down well and the casual nature of the chat probably meant we covered topics in a more forthright manner than if it had been a ‘prepared’ deck of slides. You can watch our chat over on Youtube.

The final trip of 2016 was to Singapore. It was the first time I’d stepped outside the airport in Singapore. Emerging into the humidity, I found the place full of contradictions. I got a chance to visit both Cloud Forest and the fantastic Art Science Museum. The Cloud Forest is a microclimate inside a biodome – and despite a heavy handed climate change message at the exit, its a spectacular, if dystopian, glimpse into the future. The nearby Art Science‘s permanent exhibition galleries are made up of 16 interactive experiences by Japanese agency TeamLAB. TeamLAB’s work has been exhibited in many places these days and their model of being a hybrid agency/design/art studio is fascinating. Here at ArtScience, though, the impact of all 16 works put together into ‘zones’ brings a scale and gravitas to the best of their work. It’s very impressive – and very accessible – in a way that some fo their scaled down, individual pieces aren’t.

This year was one of my most heavy listening years since 2008 – perhaps unexpectedly as I’d noticed that I’ve had a lot less headphone time during office hours this year. I clocked up 20,426 plays of 10,639 different songs from 3,148 different artists – and I went to 21 live gigs.

There were a lot of great new releases this year – and many discoveries of older things. My interest in deep synthesized soundscapes continued with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani’s collaboration being one the highlights alongside a fabulous compilation of 70s/80s music put out by Light In The Attic – The Microcosm: Visionary Music of Continental Europe, 1970-1986. Add to that Wolfgang Voigt and Deepchord’s remixes of Peter Michael Hamel’s Colours of Time and I went far down a wormhole I hadn’t visited since the early 90s and the days of running our ambient recovery parties, Cryogenesis, and parties with our friends at Punos. I’ve mentioned in passing that I’d now describe this as ‘music for self care’.

On a similarly ‘home listening’ tip, I did interviews with Ian Hawgood of Home Normal, Dave Howell of 130701 and Dave Wenngrenn of 1631 – all home to different aspects of a very loosely defined ‘modern classical’ sound. 130701 put out Ian William Craig’s Centres – one of my favourite albums of the year full of delicate processed vocals. It was good to get back into a bit of music-writing, and maybe that wil expand over 2017. I’m also starting to draw stronger connections between my recent work and my musical life and this has started to leak out in interviews like this one with Dan Koener of Sandpit.

Being at ACMI has pushed me much deeper into games again. I don’t think I’ve played (or enjoyed playing) video games this much since I was a teenager, or perhaps when i was moonlighting as a reviewer in the 90s. In between the indie games, I caught up on lost time with Witcher 3, thoroughly and unexpectedly enjoyed the single player mission of Titanfall 2, and spent q lot of hours playing Life Is Strange with my daughter. I could talk about improvements in game narratives, or the immersion of a good VR game, but mostly I’m currently interested in the spatial design of the worlds in which these games take place – virtual architectures – and how they affect gameplay, how their edges are increasingly hard to find.

Perhaps I’ll get to write more this year. I had to disappoint a few people by pulling out of writing projets in 2016 which I’m still apologetic for. Life is busy.

[Crossposted with bonus pics on Medium]


Keep an eye on Medium

Regulars may have noticed that I’m not writing as much on here now as I used to.

Partially that’s because of time constraints, but its also because I’m doing more of my writing over at Medium. Sometimes things will be cross-posted here but otherwise take a look at my Medium writings and, of course, ACMI Labs. There’s also some older writings from 2011-2015 over at Cooper Hewitt Labs.


Since we last spoke. Rounding up 2015.

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.


Farewell Cooper Hewitt. Next stop Melbourne.

Playing card. Gift of Mrs. Dexter J. Purinton. 1955-78-2-46. From collection of Cooper Hewitt.
Playing card. Gift of Mrs. Dexter J. Purinton. 1955-78-2-46. From collection of Cooper Hewitt.

Maybe you heard the news, yes, I’m heading to ACMI in Melbourne to take up a new type of role as Chief Experience Officer. It all happened rather quickly and the idea of the CXO at ACMI is a kind of ‘post-digital’ role (see Parry 2013) around which new shape and form is still yet to coalesce.

I’m a little sad to be leaving New York. The last four years have been a wild ride with some fantastic and challenging collaborations that have resulted in some great work.

The scale of change that Cooper Hewitt has undertaken is pretty much unprecedented – and not just for the museum world – and the whole museum and its multitude of external collaborators and co-designers should be immensely proud. Cooper Hewitt is now well and truly on people’s radar and, although it will take a while for all those people who are now aware of Cooper Hewitt to come and visit, the presence of families and children in the galleries is an indication of where the audiences of the future are. With the mass digitisation of the entire collection due to be completed mid 2016, policy changes that bake-in ‘openness’, continuous improvements to the gallery experiences, and more born-digital objects now in the collection, the next few years should be easier.

It has been an enormous collective effort from across the entire museum from curators to security staff, and the board through to my own little team of caffeinated makers and doers.

Thank you to everyone for their trust and support – especially because I know some of the changes have been painful.

Janet Carding, now director of TMAG (formerly ROM Toronto), told me recently that when you’re brought in with an explicit instruction to catalyse change, you come with a certain amount of ‘change capital’ which, over time, gets used up. I really like that idea and it speaks to the reality that change capital can’t be ‘re-earned’ – it can just be spent wisely.

Looking back at Cooper Hewitt I can divide my short time there into two phases – an energetic possibility space opened up by Director Bill Moggridge who was one of the most generous people I’ve worked with. And then an equally energetic production phase where, following Bill’s sudden death in August 2012, we all pulled together to make something that – at least in my team’s mind – would be bold and impactful enough to honour Bill’s legacy and deliver the mission as he saw it. Bill’s successor, Caroline Baumann, raised a huge amount of money and trusted us enough, and loosened the reins so we could pull it off.

Everyone has heard about The Pen, but that is just the visible tip of the iceberg. Under the waterline are a huge amount of incremental changes that have added up to all that makes the visible things possible. When I started, 7% of the museum’s collection was online, and today that number is 92%; the release of collection metadata under a CC0 license was a first for the Smithsonian, as was some of the born-digital collecting that was done too; and an API at the core of all the things.

A lot of these sorts of changes have become the irreversible sediment on which new things can be built, not just The Pen. Most of that journey has been documented by my fantastic, and now partially dispersed team, over at the Cooper Hewitt Labs blog. If you’re looking for a ‘digital strategy’ document, then that’s worth reading in chronological order.

I’m going to miss them. We had some hilarious and productive times – there’s definitely a causal relationship between hilarity and productivity.

Conferences and event reports User behaviour User experience

Unexpected lessons with technology in museums #1


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.

Conceptual Digital storytelling Interactive Media User experience

Experiencing an immersive solo documentary – Door Into The Dark

There are some very interesting experiments going on in the documentary format right now and last week I got the chance to explore some of the latest at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Door Into The Dark pitches itself as a ‘sensory documentary experience for one’ and is a wonderful mix of immersive theatre, spatial exploration, and storytelling. It was made by UK duo Anagram and first presented by Bristol’s Watershed. Wearing a sensory deprivation helmet and headphones you walk, blind, through a door into a landscape where you grasp for a rope and follow it, zigzag-ing through what feels like an enormous cavern . . . until the rope runs out . . . As you timidly grope in the dark, stories of different people who have lost their sight, their way, or their understanding of themselves are revealed using a mix of narration and first-person stories. Deprived of sight, you concentrate more on your other senses and this has the effect of building empathy with those whose stories you are hearing – although, crucially, at no point do you feel like you are ‘in their shoes’. That distinction is important.

Door Into The Dark uses iBeacons to trigger story elements and audio instructions as you wander, (although mine malfunctioned 3/4 of the way through sending me into a loop), it reminded me a lot of Halsey Bergund’s work like Scapes and experimental audio-only mobile games like Papa Sangre, as much as it did of immersive theatre. The clever use of physical props – the ropes, and later, a rather terrifying rock climb – combined with sensory isolation made this something really quite special.

I was fitted with a bio-tracker for My 40 minute journey into the dark as part of Anagram’s evaluation, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results. As I mentioned in my write up of If Book Then, the interest in the ‘monitoring of affect’ by authors is going to result in some very interesting new forms of ‘responsive storytelling’ in the next few years.

If you’re interested in privacy and the web (you should be!) then there is also the seven part Do Not Track from a consortia of Canadian and European partners. Packaged as a web series it has light interactivity that applies the main ideas of each episode to your own browsing habits, demonstrating that you, as a viewer, are not watching some abstract concept, but that you are already directly in-/af-fected.


The Harmony Institute has just sent me a visualisation of my heart rate throughout the Door in the Dark experience. And here it is!

[click to enlarge]
[click to enlarge]
Conferences and event reports

“Not publishing” and bio-responsive futures at IfBookThen 2015

Last week I was in Milan as a guest of If Book Then 2015, ostensibly a conference about the future of publishing, but as it turned out, not that at all. In fact, If Book Then was focussed entirely on developing a better sense of ‘situational awareness’ amongst those in the publishing industry. ‘Situational awareness’ is a really useful term in strategic planning that importantly contextualises each strategic play – and British writer/consultant, Simon Wardley, sees it as a critical methodology in these rapid changing times. Thus IBT featured no presenters talking about the ‘state of publishing’ and no presenters even talking about ‘writing books’ or ‘publishing’. Instead every session explored emerging contexts in which media is being created and consumed, and the coming rush of even more radical changes in consumer technologies and experiences.

In the days before IBT I got a taste for the situation in the cultural heritage sector in Northern Italy. On arrival I gave an informal workshop for senior staff at a number of Italian institutions, and then the following day, a lecture at the Academy Brera, to the next generation of students who may end up in these institutions. I was struck by the sense of ‘that couldn’t happen here’ and ‘we’re so far behind’ – and I had to remind both groups that these feelings are universal and not some national trait.

But on to IBT.

A one day event, IBT opened with Peter Brantley from NYPL who spoke about the opportunities of working with reader data – not just around purchasing/borrowing preferences or subject/content classifications – but also of generative storytelling emerging from these preferences. Peter took this further raising the coming tide of sensorial data that is being gathered from our bodies by wearables. Could this sensorial data also be used by a library to align a recommendation with your mood? Or could an author write more effective narratives by understanding the peaks and troughs of emotion throughout a story? And, critically, who will own this data? Given that the concentration of ebook reader data is already held in the hands of a proprietorial few – Amazon, Apple, Google rather than by publishers, authors or readers – how can we ensure that this doesn’t happen with biometrics?

Following after Peter, I spoke about the Pen at Cooper Hewitt, positioning it as a ‘writing’ device inside the museum. Museum visitors, with the Pen, are in control of the narratives they wish to write about their visit. A ‘writable museum?’, as one audience member asked, “but how will they sell exhibition catalogues then?”. Of course the Pen and the new Cooper Hewitt is about a return to a ‘useful collection’ and the museum visit a means to bring that usefulness to the fore in ways other than (but complimentary with) an experience with the collection at home or elsewhere though a screen.

Shifting quickly to commerce, speakers from Lancome, Maxxus and Facebook’s internal agency – the ‘Creative Shop’, presented around storytelling in advertising and the changing patterns of both media production and consumption. Striking in Nico Abruzzese’s (Maxxus) presentation was the appropriation of social justice campaigns by brands (deterring sexual assault in darkened commuter areas of India by deploying branded lighting installations but then evaluating their success purely in terms of brand awareness instead of actual public safety), and Lancome’s investment in making its own media with its customers/fans to reshape and reflect concept of luxury and an imagined Paris (and the burning question of ‘is it product placement if its in your own media?’). Facebook Creative Shop’s efforts to make video that sucks your attention in a ‘stream’ is already a reality for those of you who still use Facebook frequently, but more important was the assertion that where once photograph replaced words, video is fast replacing photograph – despite the relative immaturity of ‘mobile video’ aesthetics.

After lunch, Rosalind Picard from MIT’s Affective Computing Group began by demonstrating computer-based emotion detection with facial detection and analysis using a web application and webcam [go try it!] – highlighting the near-future reality of Brantley’s vision of books that “know how we feel as we read them” (or mueseum exhibitions that track surprise, delight, and concentration levels). In the live demo, appropriately, it was TV advertising that was being “reacted to”. Picard then moved into the story of a wrist-band tracker ( that is able to detect stress and emotional response even more effectively than facial imaging. Fascinating in this story was the way in which the ability to detect and warn of seizures became the key feature after early testing revealed its value for epileptics.

Andrea Onetti from ST MicroElectronics followed. Onetti’s company makes sensors and unsurprisingly his presentation portrayed a future where sensors are omnipresent. None of this is new, but if anyone in the audience was thinking that Brantley, Picard or even my presentations were describing outlier environments, Onetti made it clear that we weren’t. As Danny Bradbury in The Guardian today quotes Usman Haque, “people should be able to set policies governing which devices can talk to the devices that they own, and what information is shared about them”. We as a society need to have some clear discussions about what ubiquitous, omnipresent sensors actually mean for us.

Before Porter Anderson gave a conference wrap, David Passig from Bar-Ilan University was up next presenting somewhat controversial research examining improvements in learning generated through using immersive virtual reality environments and other technologies. Passig’s work was especially interesting when he spoke about tools to allow people to simulate the experiences of toddlers and those with dyslexia – as a means to design better environments, systems, and inclusive learning tools.

And that was that – it was all over in one day with no parallel sessions. I’m already looking forward to next year.


Thank you. Now, let’s begin.

The final chunk of the new Cooper Hewitt finally birthed today.

The first visitor from the general public got to use The Pen as a part of their visit shortly after 10am. And, perhaps representative of the audience shift the museum has made, it was a parent with a small child.

A photo posted by Cooper Hewitt (@cooperhewitt) on

It has been a huge effort and everyone involved has done incredible work – my immediate crew, the rest of Cooper Hewitt, Local Projects, Sistelnetworks, GE Design, Undercurrent, MakeSimply, Ideum and Tellart. Beyond the talented public faces of these partners – and definitely beyond me – it is the highly technical people writing code late into the night; the graphic, industrial, media and interaction designers toiling away to make just ‘one more improvement’; the engineers testing and fixing things that ‘weren’t supposed to go wrong’; the IT folks keeping the lights on and the network pipes flowing; and the assemblers on the assembly line, who really deserve the praise for what has been achieved here.

Critical, too, has been the ‘venture philanthropy’ provided by Bloomberg through their Bloomberg Connects program. We pitched a ‘holistic’ and ‘bleeding edge’ concept for a program that had previously only funded audio and multimedia guides/apps and they didn’t blink.

By now, I’m sure regular readers have already seen the longform piece in The Atlantic on my team. Of all the press that the new Cooper Hewitt has gotten, and probably will get for a little while longer, it is this one that I think properly grasped what and why we did what we did. Even after my team disbands, changes, transforms – as inevitably it will, everyone involved should be very proud of what they’ve done.

Its remarkable really.

What Aaron said at the end of that Atlantic piece is important – “[We’re] the Smithsonian. We should be that good”.

But we know it is far from perfect. And so, in the great tradition of a digital product launches – now the real work starts.