The end of year wrap 2013

Sometimes the bad guys come out on top
Sometimes the good guys lose
We try not to lose our hearts, not to lose our minds
Sometimes the bad days maintain their grip
Sometimes the good days fade
Hurts the brain to think, hurts the hand to drink
(Ohm, Yo La Tengo)

Yeah its been an “interesting” year – in the manner of that Chinese curse (that apparently wasn’t actually Chinese at all). There’s been a lot going on and the “unnecessarily busy” times of New York City do grind you down. As does the general intensity of injustice and disparity. It doesn’t seem to be that much better back home either. Maybe its just seasonal affect disorder.


After a good run of domestic US talks, there were some very enjoyable overseas ones. The year really kicked off with my opening keynote for MuseumNext in Amsterdam. Although there was much that I could only hint at rather than reveal, that talk and slide deck set up a lot of what followed. Jim Richardson’s conference was remarkable and it was great to be part of it, along with catching up with everyone in Amsterdam who continue to be pushing things forward in a humane manner. Then there was the week in Rio delivering one of the keynotes for the MPR Committee of ICOM, spending time with the inimitable Luis Mendes and getting a whirlwind tour of the Rio art scene along with many discussions of the differing impacts of social technologies in Brazil. The graffiti there was great too and its prominence in the city landscape reminded me of my first time in Montreal long ago for Mutek 2003.

Then there was the week in Melbourne doing a keynote for the Circus Oz Living Archive ARC project at RMIT – one of the really exciting digital archive projects in the Southern Hemisphere that has digitised thirty years of Circus Oz performances. A later, separate trip resulted in a week in Sydney helping the Australian National Maritime Museum figure out where they need to be digitally and how to get there, and a few days in Portugal delivering a keynote for the International Council of Maritime Museums and a ‘Directors workshop’.

Slightly further out of usual orbits, I got pulled into some energising roundtable discussions of human-computer-interaction in Alberquerque and the Preserving.EXE digital preservation discussions at the Library of Congress, along with strategy sessions with ArtStor, and an ongoing role on an expert panel with Council of Canadian Humanities.

I went back to Salzburg for another round of the Salzburg Global Seminar, this time helping establish the framework for a very exciting 10-year program called Young Cultural Innovators that promises to hothouse and nurture a select group of cultural sector professionals each year from ten regional hubs across the globe and all continents.

My team won some awards, and, more importantly, made some pretty groundbreaking stuff out of very little. There’s a lot more of that to come as our collaborations with Local Projects will start to reveal themselves in 2014. We got some great press. As I said in a staff profile in September, one of the best things right now is the immediate small circle of people I work with – they are awesome.

The acquisition of Planetary by Aaron Cope and I for the collection was even more of an adventure to watch as its impact rippled out across the web. If anything I was struck by the sheer impact of traditional press coverage – and the great gulf between existing audiences (the few who know) and potential audiences (the many that can be interested) that it reveals. Never did I expect I would I rue using the metaphor of panda breeding programmes . . . or that the tech press could be so interested in museums.

Aaron and I were invited to lead a group of graduate students deep into the wilds and leave them their with only a few supplies and a rudimentary map to survive with. The students did a great job and the future of the field looks a little brighter as a result – even if some fellow old timers like Nate, Koven and Dana went their separate ways in to consulting.

Time on planes has meant more time to finish books. But I’ve continued to resist a Kindle and my book pile grows ever higher – although, having passed many books on to friends in the great move over to NYC, I’ve continued the practice of passing on. This has become especially important as the number of children’s books grows ever greater as we pass deeper into the voracious phase of mythical creatures, mechanical contraptions, space flight and various craft/science projects. These are seemingly supplemented rather than replaced by YouTube instructionals (would the Rainbow Loom craze exist without YouTube?) and Apps. Books, it appears, are far better for communal familial interactions.

“Let’s simulate late century (sensory) amplification

Musically it was a fantastic year. I saw some great live shows – the best being Nils Frahm, Clint Mansell doing his film soundtracks in a church, Pantha du Prince and the Bell Laboratory – helped in no small part by the Red Bull Music Academy setting up its home in NYC for all of May. And, of course, Massive Attack did their thing with Adam Curtis at the Armory. While I miss doing my own gigs and my music friends from Sydney, I’ve finally started to adjust to the rhythm of shows in New York and I’ve made peace with any sense of FOMO.

I bought some amazing records. This year, too, Bandcamp provided me with much fantastic music that I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise, and DripFM continued to be a way to supply some favourite labels with a regular payment. The radical democratising of access certainly makes for a much more diverse musical landscape once you lift the lid and go deep into a genre or sound. Despite this, I keep thinking about the now-5-year-old Spotify and, irrespective of their payments to labels and artists, the more sombre statistic they released was that 20% of their catalogue had never been played. Music discovery, along with general discovery on the web, continues to be a major challenge.

That said, looking back over my Last.FM plays for the year, I dipped back a lot into past memories with my multiple Australian trips each providing the opportunity to bulk digitise more old releases. Fortunately it didn’t feel as nostalgic as it might have because the zeitgeist seems to have finally caught up with the early 90s anyway. Belgian hardcore slowed by a third; early UK breakbeat reimagined by producers too young to remember it as well as those who lived through it; lots of 20th anniversary reissues and remasters of memorable moments of 1993 – it was all happening. It is often said that your music taste hardens and solidifies in your late teens and early 20s, and although I’ve tried to resist that by being involved in the ‘now’, listening back to a lot of techno records from 1992/1993 has revealed a lot of nuance that I definitely only subliminally heard/noticed at the time.

[Update! This Is My Jam has, once again, generated their annual Jam Odyssey so here’s a nice machine-generated mix of my 50 jam selections using the EchoNest algorithms. Go take a listen!]

You might be wondering what music has to do with my work in museums? I talk about it briefly in my interview with Anna Mikhaylova for her Ideas 4 Museums project but like several other museum technologists, music and the social practices that form around sounds and spaces has been a core means for me to understand the opportunities of a museum or other cultural heritage institution to connect people with the unfamiliar. But that is definitely for another post.

I guess that’s the result of finally joining Old Club.

But nothing ever stays the same
Nothing’s explained
The higher we go, the longer we fly
Cause this is it for all we know
So say good night to me
And lose no more time, no time
Resisting the flow

(Ohm, Yo La Tengo)


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

(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.

Exhibition technology

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

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 – – 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!