Too busy to blog: a short round up of 2014

Like many of my friends who work in museums, media or related disciplines, I’ve been feeling the pressure of being ‘too busy to blog’. Not just to blog, but to write anything really. But in the spirit of Dan Hon (who has trained himself to be able to write eloquent things at the hardest of times), it is worth writing something about what’s been going on. Its the end of the year, too, and there’s an entire year to be written about.

As many readers will know, my year has been about getting to the opening of Cooper Hewitt – or ‘rebooting it’ as I prefer to say. The press is all over the museum right now and they’re saying ‘nice things’ about the ambitions the museum staff and the board collectively had for it. More importantly, though, seeing the visitors streaming through the door, many for their first ever visit, younger and more diverse too, has been incredibly gratifying.

Alexandra Lange in the New Yorker captured it well, writing, “At a time when so many museums seem intent on new spaces for new design and new art (like the Whitney, Upper East Side deserter), it’s a relief that the Cooper Hewitt finally spent the time and the money to make their 1902 Carnegie Mansion sing. Rather than being a straightjacket, the mansion’s ornate rooms and halls now form a rich and idiosyncratic frame for design objects of all ages.”

And Julia Friedman’s closing comment in her piece for Hyperallergic was echoed by many reviewers, “The reimagining of the Cooper Hewitt demonstrates an openness to engage not just with the history of design but with its future as well — an ambitious and laudable undertaking.” If you want photos, there’s a room-by-room photo essay at NY Curbed.

I’m really proud of all the things that my team has been able to achieve at the museum. My team’s work in collaboration with staff and Local Projects, Ideum, Tellart, Sistelnetworks, GE, Tessitura, Undercurrent and others has been pretty much universally good. Collaboration at this scale and pace is usually not like this at all.

It is definitely a very different museum now.

Some things we got (mostly) right this year

– Making the museum ‘digital all over’ rather than creating separate ‘interactive areas’ where visitors, content and experience gets inevitably silo-ed

– Moving away from investing in single-person museum mobile apps in the galleries to focussing on social multi-user huge screens (experiences unable to be replicated online or offsite) whilst welcoming photography and device usage

– Combining the museum reopening narrative with an open access/open source narrative from the open source corporate font with the brand launch to the 3d mansion scan data release and as much of the backend code as possible. Or, in other words, making the most of the opportunity to change ‘default’ practices.

– Putting an API at the heart of everything and ensuring that everything Local Projects and Tellart built interfaced directly with it, even with the developer overhead that brought for all involved

– Putting the collection (and objects) at the heart of in-gallery experiences and using digital media to allow visitors to explore, transform and build upon it in new ways

– Maintaining “velocity and rhythm” with the team and those we worked with most closely, minimising (but not entirely eliminating) ‘crunch’ time

– Continuing to work from a principle of the “smallest dumbest thing” (and then iterate) even when it might have been easier to want to jump in and over-design [Aaron Cope is a master of ‘task deconstruction’ in this regard]

– Our team’s insistence on generous interfaces (coined by Mitchell Whitelaw) privileging browsing over search, which were then nicely realised in-gallery by the designers at Local Projects

– Investing in the right hardware to give the galleries necessary longevity [because at 84″s a 4K resolution is pretty much all that will cut it given that we all have such high resolutions in our pockets] and the content on S3.

– Spending the time and relationship management required to fix the underlying licensing, rights, permissions around objects and media (including loans) to ensure that everything in-gallery is available online for as long as visitors now expect it to be

– Focussing on short-form video production [with subtitling] in the galleries, and the same with audio available on the web

– Building advance online ticketing for general admission in-house that actually works because its very easy [a ‘no-cart’ system] and also saves visitors money

– Making the decision to downgrade the main website from Drupal to WordPress on the basis of better serving the needs of content creators [possibly at the expense of system adminstrators]

It was a relatively quiet year for talks, especially the second half of the year, but 2015 promises more traveling and talking. No doubt some of those talks will look back on the last 18 months revealing more of the back stories and strategic rationales, and some will be more focussed on the ‘next thing’ . . .

It is now my fourth winter in New York, and I have just turned over three years in the city. Its about this time of year that my family misses having fish & chips after work on Bronte Beach, and our distant friends. Fortunately the coffee in the new cafe at work is now up to the expected standard. Small pleasures.

So if you’re visiting NYC do pop by.

API Conceptual

Things that didn’t get made #754 – the ‘eBay/museum API valuation’ web service

One of the things that is most commonly asked of a museum’s collection is “so, how much is it worth?”.

In an art museum context this question is usually asked with an air of incredulity – as in “That much? Really? For that?”. In a history museum it is often asked because the inquisitive person has something similar sitting gathering dust in their attic or shed.

In both situations the museum is mute. And with good reason – even if it sometimes results in uncomfortable exchanges.

So one of the digital products that sat unmade but staring everyone in the face at the Powerhouse was an eBay/museum API mashup. The idea was that ‘recent prices’ would be shown just like, say, Discogs does for its own marketplace.

(example Discogs sale history)

It made a lot of sense for much of the social history collection. We even talked internally about how many public enquiries such a service would reduce for the museum.

But these things can’t be made inside an institution.

Now harvesting the auction house sales prices from Blouin’s Art Sales Index and making a browser plugin that revealed recent sale prices as you hovered over artist names on art museum websites, would be a thing. In fact I’m sure it is already on Blouin’s roadmap.

But more useful and less provocative would be to build that more prosaic, less political, and more useful, social history collection eBay lookup service. Think of what it could do for thrift store hunts.

This came to mind again as I was reading one of Dan Hon’s recent daily letters (a veritable treasure trove). Dan mentioned, in passing, Amazon’s Flow app (iOS and Android)- “the idea of being able to point a camera at anything and being able to find out its current worth via a simple lookup on Amazon Marketplace or eBay”. Right now, Flow is aimed at buying new consumer goods and isn’t about secondhand items, but it won’t be long.

It would make for a nice two day project for a student . . . just not one working inside a museum. DPLA or Europeana APIs, anyone?


A commencement speech to exhibit designers


Tonight I did one of those things that felt really ‘American’ – I gave one of those commencement-type speeches for a group of graduates of the SUNY/Fashion Institute of Technology Exhibition Design Masters program. The student work was on show at the venue and I was heartened by its quality and diversity and I was excited to be amongst it all.

Here’s my rough notes for what was a 15 minute speech. This is the 12″ extended mix but I’ve kept most of the ‘talkiness’ in. The slides aren’t included but hyperlinks are, because, links are better.

“Hi, my name is Seb. I’ve been working in and with museums for quite a while now and I’m here to try to convince you that, as exhibit designers, that there couldn’t be a better or more exciting time to be graduating.

When I first started working with museums and technology we were still talking about interactive kiosks, and making virtual museums. Back then I had a Nokia cellphone.

This is an exciting time. Especially an exciting time to work in museums.

We have finally all the components in place to reposition museums as truly global ‘seed banks of culture and ideas’.

Even if this is also an uncertain time and there are many troubling things afoot.

Designer Anab Jain wrote (and spoke) last year about a concept she called The New Normal. This, she wrote, was a catch-all for “[this] period of protracted super density. Dystopia and chaos all at once”. I’m a huge fan of Anab’s work and her New Normal is a useful way to describe the conflagration of economic collapse, environmental collapse, and social stress that in engulfing much of the world right now.

It isn’t going away. The New Normal is here to stay. It is times like these that we need museums more than ever to help us make sense of the present.

Museums are changing. They desperately want to change, they really do. And I believe them. And as new graduates it is your job to help them, and to make sure they don’t embarrass themselves by telling too many dad jokes. Because they do that too. Museums are better off not trying to be cool.

Museums now explicitly compete with other venues, experiences, events and media. It is the new exhibition designers job to make sure that when you get someone’s attention that you deliver something compelling and respectful of that visitor’s choice to spend time in or with your creations.

Because the plumbing that we’ve all been waiting for is nearly complete. Museums are finally getting networked and their networks are becoming good enough for exhibit designers to make better use of them.

I note with interest that the big sports stadiums are now kitting themselves out with enough wifi network capacity to deliver individual HD streaming replays to every seat in their house.

And, despite the NSA and now the FCC [watch Vi Hart’s great primer], the network globally is growing stronger. As a public ,we barely think about the physical and legislative infrastructure that keeps it running. That is until its fragility becomes apparent. Like when the main undersea internet cable from Egypt is cut during an uprising.

This same fragile network is what is finally allowing museums to build more porous boundaries between ‘the gallery’ and ‘the rest of the world’. It is your responsibility to experiment and push on these boundaries even more.

You’ll also undoubtably be designing physical spaces to cater for robot visitors too – who will wander amongst the other visitors, streaming vision to other parts of the country or globe. This isn’t distant speculation – it is happening now.

Here’s a great example of distance learning in museums through robotic telepresence in Australia. Much like the currently staid and static Google Streetview walkthroughs on Google Art Project, you’ll become aware of the affordances and challenges of designing exhibitions that look and feel immersive and legible both in the flesh, and through spherical lenses.

I hope when you look outside the walls of the exhibition you consider how new stories can be told at a city scale like the playful Hello Lamp Post project.

And don’t expect that 3D scanning is anything other than the New Normal too. Because where the really pressing and urgent challenges lie are with born-digital objects which, when introduced into museums, act like trojan horses for revolution and change.

As we collect software, code, and physical objects whose existence and operation relies, too, on software, code, and complex networked systems, how will you design exhibitions to reflect the increasingly ‘immaterial present’? Let alone, the coming bio-engineered future?

You, as exhibition designers are charged with deigning the new infrastructure for the museums of the future. Everything you will design is no longer capable of being standalone. Your work needs to plug in to, and build upon the work of others.

If we collectively get this right then we will be;

– enabling new forms of public engagement
– enabling new forms of exhibition
– enabling institutions to collect the present
– enabling new forms of scholarship
– enabling a new type of institution

And not a moment too soon.

Because museum visitors are changing. Back in 2010 when the American Association of Museums commissioned their Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums report (PDF) it warned of the significant under-representation of so-called ‘minority audiences’. Core museum visitors, in 2010, were made up of only 9% minority audiences whilst the minority population of the US sat at 34%. Projected to 2035, minority populations were expected to reach 46% and core museum audiences need to reflect this demographic transformation. This is our New Normal.

Museums are responding with a turn towards participation, experience, spectacle and events.

As exhibit designers you’ll also be actively contributing to the surveillance that is also now part of the New Normal. Surveillance, malevolent and the more benign, is part of the Faustian bargain we have made with networked technologies, and at the very least visitor tracking data is seen as having the opportunity to design better, more usable galleries and effective exhibits.

In such a world, we need new values for exhibit designers that foster openness and transparency. Visitors need to be aware of this surveillance and have agency in how their data is kept and used.

Similarly we need to find ways for exhibit designs, themselves, to be as transparent and revelatory as when the web first came along 21 years ago and that moment when you discovered ‘view source’. Unexpectedly, even as we’re seeing ‘view source’ increasingly obscured in our browsers, we’re already seeing moves towards a ‘view source’ in other parts of the design community with the Open Design movement in Europe and elsewhere.

Perhaps these are utopian dreams. And as we know ‘utopia’ is, by its nature, always out of reach.

As I’ve said elsewhere, we’re ‘building a house in the middle of a fast flowing river’. You are now part of a global community trying to tackle similar problems in a variety of different institutions. Some in the museum sector are trying to hold on to the old world, but you, as new graduates are lucky in that you can escape that past.

This is an exciting time. Especially an exciting time to work in museums.

Go forth and help us figure out how to make museums even more relevant and impactful in the world.”

Big thanks to Brenda Cowan, chair of the Exhibition Design program, for inviting me. It was a lot of fun.

Conferences and event reports

Optimism & dystopia – Future Everything & Museums and the Web 2014

I’m not so sure it was such a good idea to go to the Future Everything (Manchester) just before Museums and the Web (Baltimore). The speculative futurism of Future Everything really brought into sharp relief a narrowing of concern at MW.

I’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, Future Everything – an annual citywide festival of forward-looking art, music and design in a wealth of different venues.

Here I was, back in Manchester, a city I only briefly visited way back in 1998 (then for mainly musical reasons, before I was involved with museums). A lot had changed. Most startlingly I was far more aware of the near universal presence of public smoking. And big elaborate donut bun hair.


At Future Everything, the City Fictions art program took over the NOMA district for the weekend creating a ‘speculative city’ exploring some of the ways that life might change in the near future. The inclusion of a fictional newspaper (PDF) from 2018 included in the Manchester Evening News likely diversified the audience mix bringing in inquisitive families and onlookers alongside media artists and other more usual types at this sort of event.

There was Adam Harvey’s anti-surveillance/anti-computer vision ‘makeovers’, Hello Lamp Post’s infrastructural conversations, Adrian Hon’s (excellent) book History of the Future in 100 Objects turned into a mini-exhibition, ‘critical 3D printing’ with Golan Levin, a BBC’s R&D hackathon, a bio-tech kitchen and stacks more.


Over at the National Football Museum there was an exhibition curated by John O’Shea in conjunction with Near Future Laboratory and the CCCB, time warped back from 2018, too, giving bemused football fans a series of speculative looks into a future of their beloved game where current broadcast, coaching, and biometric technologies had been extended just a little bit further. The sports newspaper (PDF) produced for the exhibition was a great provocation.


John and Scott Smith let me play in their future of football workshop – a design fiction sprint that challenged teams to come up with different ways in which technology would change sport from the perspectives of fans, players, coaches, broadcasters, and others.

There’s a nice piece on BBC World Service that spoke to a lot of the people at City Fictions.

By the time the formal conference kicked off, I’d been thoroughly exhausted by all the great conversations! I spoke about ‘museums and collecting the present’ on a sessions with Alex Fleetwood (ex-Hide & Seek) who spoke about his proposition for a new type of institution able to support, commission, distribute, and collect/archive UK games; and Ben Vickers who spoke about UnMonastery, a live-in ‘born digital’ (but physical) institution in Italy. Our three perspectives neatly explored the different affordances of institutional types and the different battles each faces. Alex’s proposal for videogames riffed off the Channel4 model and seems eminently sensible and made us all consider what a ‘public service Steam’ might be like and how it might invest in and develop games that fall in the cracks between the indie scene and AAA market-driven titles.

Keep an eye out for the videos once they go live – Anab Jain‘s keynote was particularly fantastic, although I missed most of the second day travelling.

Then I jumped on a plane back to the US and on to Museums and the Web.

Museums and the Web is still one of the best museum technology conferences because of its wide draw from around the globe and varying levels of seniority of attendees. There have been plenty of other reports on the event (Ed Rodley’s are a good read 1 | 2) but this year it felt different. Gone were the discussions of previous years of the potential of the web in bringing museums together, instead replaced by a slightly inward-looking retreat from scale. Most of what I heard was about singular institutions dealing with their own issues, rather than discussing and confronting sector-wide challenges (of which there are still many). Perhaps this is a result of deepening funding cuts and more uncertain times, or the ongoing Balkanisation of the web in general. Whatever it was, it felt like the big ideas had been re-calibrated to institutional scale.

Aaron Cope and I presented talked around our joint paper “Collecting the present: digital code and collections“. Rather than stick to our paper, the slides we ended up using were an extended remix of the ones I’d presented a few days earlier at Future Everything. Despite that we were up early in the conference, following an interesting opening keynote from one of the folks from Disney’s R&D labs, so we decided to take it further ‘off road’.

In the paper we talk about collecting the iOS app, Planetary, for the Cooper Hewitt collection as an example of interaction design and use the affordances of being a ‘design museum’ rather than an ‘art museum’ to focus on ‘the idea and process’ not the ‘instance and object’. Aaron expanded the discussion of equivalents in videogames to talk about Glitch and the boiled-down ‘de-make’/resurrection of it by building an HTML version of its environments and chat functionality ignoring the missions and trading elements. Much like the way in which Cooper Hewitt collected and released the ‘versioned’ codebase of Planetary, the developers behind the popular Threes – motivated by the cloning of their game – released publicly three years of email discussions between the development team in a vain attempt to ‘prove’ their game was conceptually superior to the clones.

We could have gone on for much longer.

Micah Walter from my team presented a paper at the end of the event on downgrading the Cooper Hewitt website from Drupal to WordPress ( – something that is ongoing. It is a useful reminder that the content creators on your website are a very important user group, without whom you either have a lot of work to do yourself as a webmaster, or you don’t have a website – so it is worth spending the effort on making editing interfaces easier and simpler.

Hopefully next year in Chicago there is a return of some of the bigger ideas of previous years.


Announcing ‘The Contemplator’

(Another post that has sat as an unfinished thought for months – so rather than finish it, here it is)

As some readers know, I’m buried in an avalanche of work trying to make a formerly historic house/decorative arts museum into something that feels and operates like part of the 21st century. Inevitably this means turning a museum often described as a ‘sleepy hidden treasure’ into something that is visibly more interactive, welcoming, and playful.

However a small group of influential people want museums to be their sanctuary from the outside world, its noise, its people, and its relentlessness.

I can understand this.

Living and working in New York, even the idea of silence is seductive. This isn’t a new desire – but it has gotten more air than usual with concerns about technology, interactivity and participation in museums getting uncomfortably caught up with discussions about ‘new audiences’.

In the tradition of design ideation – let’s reverse the problem.

So for the small group of the museum public who want museums to be their quiet sanctuary, we provide The Contemplator – in the vein of Hugo Gernsback’s ‘Isolator’. A helmet that fits comfortably and provides a focussed field of vision limiting the visual interference of ‘other visitors’. Instead of the audio of an audio guide, a calming white noise generator is provided with noise cancelling headphones to return the sensation of silence to the museum visit.

Huge Gernsback's The Isolator (via The Great Dismal)
Huge Gernsback’s The Isolator (via The Great Dismal)

What would it feel like for those who wish museums to be quiet and empty to be the ones who are forced to adapt?

The best dystopian science fiction often presents the future as dirty, noisy, and crowded. Perhaps the ‘contemplative museum visit’ is not yet the equivalent of the ‘disruptive’ upper crust car rental Ian Bogost rails against – “it’s not car rental that sucks, but dealing with the everyman, being in his presence, even knowing he exists” – so let’s try to keep our increasingly diverse audiences happily co-existing.

Maybe this is already being prototyped in a museum lab near you? Now that’d be fun.

Conferences and event reports Web metrics

The value of museum content, attention, and time

It is that time of year again.

In a few weeks time I’ll be running the nth iteration of my annual ‘web metrics for museums’ workshop at Museums and the Web. This year I’m joined by the Smithsonian’s analytics guru Brian Alpert. As usual we will be working through the realities of a museum’s web presence and the new ways to measure how it is performing and how to communicate that to the rest of the organisation.

Every year it gets harder.

There’s now more people than ever before with access to the web, and with that brings the unrealistic expectation from management that those new web users are going to flock to a museum’s content, even though it was likely never created or designed with them in mind.

Let me digress.

I spent most of my spare time in my twenties and early thirties involved in music. My friends and I put on a huge number of gigs, we toured international artists, put out some CDs, ran a weekly club night for a decade, put on festivals, ran a music magazine, and did a weekly radio show on public radio (equivalent of US college radio) for nearly two decades.

We were doing this just as the web became mainstream and the way that music was distributed, consumed, and the cultures that grew around it was in rapid transformation. The music scene that we were involved in was niche but not small – some of the larger parties drew as many as 4000 – and there was only one or two international tours that we lost money on. In a city the size of Sydney that wasn’t too bad. The value of what we did in those years was best measured in its long term impact – not on an event-by-event basis.

We knew how to make it work financially but over the years we also realised that there was a difference between ‘growing a scene’ and ‘sustaining a community’.

The former reaches a point at which the bubble bursts and the scene rapidly contracts, whilst the latter keeps supporting the social needs of the people involved as they get older, their tastes change, and in some cases, pair off into domesticity.

What the web brought to music was two-fold. Firstly it opened the gates for ‘publishing’ – anyone could upload their music, release it, and cut out (or downgrade) the middleman. Second, it opened the gates for ‘fans’ – anyone could, in theory, get access to all this music, talk about it, and build communities around it by themselves

Music discovery metastasized. Personal networks exploded globally, record stores began to be eaten by chains and then die, music media was no longer constrained by ‘issues’ and freight, and then Napster/SoulSeek/torrents took over at the turn of the millennium. Online music media, YouTube and Spotify and similar services have replaced much of what there used to be in terms of music magazines (especially NME/Melody Maker in the 1980s), record stores and music discovery through radio.

So what we have is easier publication, easier access, and, transformed discovery. (Arguably music has gained more than it has lost, although that doesn’t mean musicians have gained)

What didn’t change was people’s time to listen to music, or their urge to listen to music. Listeners just don’t have more hours in their days.

It is worse for museums.

We make short videos. We record long epic lectures. We write essays and ebooks. We publish these online. We ‘effectively utilise social media’ (whatever that means these days). And then we foolishly expect that the world is all going to rush to watch/listen/read them.

But we misunderstand the value of what we’ve made. Unlike the transactional parts of our websites, these are all things that will only reveal their value over the long term.

We barely create time and momentum for people to interrupt their busy lives to consider visiting a museum with their precious spare time – how can we expect it to be an different with our online content?

If you have doubts, the Culture24 Lets Get Real project reports are essential reading.

Its not just museums, everyone is struggling with this.

More at Museums and the Web in Baltimore.


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!


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

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?


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.