Impressions from Mona, Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art

I went to Mona – David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art – in Hobart with my parents this week, and I’m quickly posting my impressions now, as my best intentions of posting a proper review later will probably be squished by the demands of my PhD and travel. I’ve also posted photos from my visit, though you may not be able to see my longer notes without clicking through to each photo.

Quick context: I’m a museum technologist and experience designer/analyst (though I’m currently a full-time PhD candidate researching digital history and crowdsourcing), we went from Melbourne to Tasmania specifically to see Mona, my parents are beyond retirement age but keep up with technology and are generally pretty active (physically and culturally). I had read various bits and pieces from other museum professionals about their visits, but didn’t discuss them with my parents beforehand because I wanted to observe their reactions. (Being observed while engaging with technology or museum experiences is an occupational hazard for my friends and family and I thank them for their patience with me!) I’d deliberately gone with very few expectations about the building and artworks, not least because one of the works I’d most wanted to see had already been removed from display and I didn’t want to be disappointed if I missed others.

The onboarding experience

Mona from the boat

Forgive the UX jargon-laden pun, but your experience of Mona begins with your journey there. Both transport options that leave from the matt black ferry terminal are called ‘Mona Roma’ (geddit? ‘Roamer’, though it probably only works with an Australian accent). The boat is painted camouflage greys and the mini bus has hot pink flames down its sides. The boat trip up the Derwent River was a nice bit of bonus sightseeing for a tourist like me, and the captain provided a brief commentary as we travelled. The passengers mostly seemed to be tourists, from backpackers to retirees, from Australia and across the world. Some people near us talked about their visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, others seemed to be there because Mona is on the list of things to do in Hobart. I’d love to know how many were going for the whole ‘controversial’ experience, how many to tick off one of Hobart’s sites and how many were going for the art.
When you arrive on site, you head up stairs from the landing, then a courtyard draws some visitors on to explore the grounds before entering the museum (and presumably helping avoid queues when a ferry arrives). I loved Wim Delvoye’s concrete truck (not that I knew what it was at the time, because Mona doesn’t have captions – one of the reasons it’s been ‘controversial’) and the views across the suburbs and river.

You’re given a printed Visitor Guide with your ticket (including a map, though printed in elegant thin grey type on black so almost impossible for my parents to read). The rules at the top of the stairs were clear – no food or drink, ‘no flash’ (so presumably other photography is ok – though I’ve just seen that the Visitor Guide says you can’t put photos on ‘personal websites’ without permission – does that include social media? The guide blithely says ‘Buy a postcard’, assuming you found one of the artwork you liked in the shop, but the O page encourages you to ‘share artworks with friends via facebook and twitter’ so I’m a bit confused about what’s ok and I take back it about the rules being clear!).

Then it’s down the spiral staircase into the depths of the earth. You get glimpses of other galleries on the way down to the third level, interspersed with sandstone and concrete walls that still bear construction marks.

The O

Would this prompt you to save the tour?

At the bottom of the stairs, you’re given your ‘O’, or interactive guide (basically an iPod Touch in a solid case). The ‘O’ is one reason museum technologists and exhibition designers have been so curious about MONA. As the guide says:

‘We don’t have labels on the walls. We have the O. Use it to read about the art on display and to listen to interviews with the artists. It’s free.’

There are seats near the Void Bar that are also handily placed for sitting down and sorting yourself out before you start, so I took a few photos as I got started with my O. Getting started is pretty simple (and as expected, my parents had no trouble with it). It explains that you should ‘tap the O update button’ when moving between galleries to get a list of artworks nearby, then ‘tap an artwork in the list to delve further’. When you tap into an artwork, you see a thumbnail image, artwork title, date, artist name, then a brief artist bio and list of materials used in the artwork. There are options in the top right-hand corner to ‘love’ or ‘hate’ the artwork. There’s no room for neutrality, though I wonder if a shrug is possibly the worse possible response to a modern artwork and worth recording on some level? (Though they could presumably easily get a list of the works that elicited the fewest love or hate responses.)

The additional information icons for the first work I looked at were tied to the ‘Red Queen’ exhibition theme – Ruminations, Tweedledum, Jabberwocky (additional media, often audio). Others were ‘gonzo’ (David Walsh’s voice), ‘art wank’ (art historical information), ‘ideas’ (often quotes from literature, sometimes questions, but only once a clunky museum education-style question). There seemed to be a ‘Red Queen exhibition’ view that shows only nearby artworks with special interpretation (Mum discovered it accidentally but as the icon change was very subtle she didn’t realise why it wasn’t showing anything around her; with a bit more signposting it’d be a useful function for repeat visitors who want to catch up on new stuff). Rather than a traditional exhibition with ‘key messages’ and learning outcomes, the Red Queen seemed to be a group of works collected together to think about particular themes (and in a sense is probably a microcosm of Walsh’s overall collecting strategy). Intellectual concerns emerged in some of the interpretation, but there wasn’t an overall narrative, and I didn’t miss that one little bit. Mona probably showed me that I love stories at an individual level but can feel a bit lectured-at by the whole-gallery narratives I’ve encountered in other museums. I discovered some audio content while still near the entrance so went back to ask for headphones, but they weren’t handed out by default when we visited.

Saving ‘your tour’

I was curious about when and how I’d be prompted to ‘save my tour’ for viewing later. The prompt appeared to be triggered after I’d tapped through to a few artworks, but when it appeared, it didn’t really convince me to sign up – I’d love to know what their response rate is and whether they’ve tested different versions of the text. ‘All the works on display at Mona will be available to you on our website’ isn’t as informative as the text on the O page which you’ll probably only see if you’d saved your tour while onsite: ‘Saving your tour while at Mona enables you to see your entire path through the museum including a list of viewed, loved and hated works. You can read all available interpretive material, share artworks with friends via facebook and twitter, change ratings and more…’ Dad saved his tour, Mum didn’t. I did because I had a sense of what the website would offer me, but I don’t know if I would have otherwise.

What’s around you?

The O’s location awareness seemed to work pretty well (an achievement in itself), but I’d love a smarter version that knew the difference between physical proximity and physical accessibility. It’s all very well to know an artwork is two metres from me, but if there’s a gallery wall between me and the work, it’s just another thing to scroll past in search of the artworks that are actually in the same space as me. The biggest usability issue with the O (for me) was the length of the list – if it more accurately reflected the artworks visible in the space (as opposed to physically nearby) then it’d be much easier to find the work you were looking for. Perhaps it doesn’t need location at all – broadcasting a short list of the artworks in the room would be just as effective (though the list would still be quite long in some of the galleries), or electronic wall labels that can be read in low light could replace printed captions. The list view was pretty handy for working out whether you’d seen everything in a particular area, as it added ‘viewed’ to artworks you’d tapped into.

But if you couldn’t match the artwork in front of you to a picture in the list, you were out of luck. No caption, nothing. I was reminded of Mary Beard’s recent statement about “letting the objects speak for themselves” — which usually means “letting the objects speak to those who know about them already”‘.

Overall, the O…

…kinda worked. I preferred reading about the works to listening to an audio guide (I hate having to listen to slow talkers when I could be skim-reading). Given the amount of material there was to read or listen to while you’re around the artworks, more seats would have been ace (but at least there were some around, particularly in the higher levels). And the content was great – it took me two hours to go through the lowest floor because I wanted to read or listen to everything while I could relate it to the artwork in front of me. As the O screens glow when you need to read text, the galleries themselves could be dark and as a result some of the objects were *beautifully* lit.

There are some kinks to work out – I accidentally ‘loved’ or ‘hated’ one or two works when the O bumped about and tapped from a list to a work and hit a button, and couldn’t undo it. It was also tricky when viewing artworks set into slits in the wall – it made the art feel both more monumental and intimate, but it meant scrabbling around on the O to find the right artwork while being aware that you were blocking the view for others in the meantime. That said, I’ve been wondering where friction has been deliberately left in and where it’s a bug. Does it matter that it only registers an artwork as ‘seen’ if you’ve tapped through from the list to the caption? And if labels don’t matter, why do you have to tap through to one for a work to count as ‘seen’? Does it matter that you’re poking at a device instead of doing an emu dart in-and-back to read a caption on a wall?

But overall, I would have preferred basic captions on the walls, leaving the O for works I wanted to explore beyond a simple what/who/when caption. Being able to find out more with the O added to my experience and I loved the different voices and approaches it enabled, but I spent an awful lot of time scrolling around trying to find the entry for the artwork I was standing in front of (and I helped other people find artworks when they got stuck). The technology doesn’t exactly distract from the art, but it does get in the way a bit.

[Update: I realised a while later that they can get away with a lot with the O’s text because a) the whole set-up is iconoclastic and b) we don’t look to Walsh and his curator mates for authority. It doesn’t matter if you think they’re wrong or that they haven’t been representative and even-handed – it’s not their job. Public museums don’t have that freedom, though they could still learn something from the amount of personality the O manages to convey.]

The O website

If you give your email address to save your tour, you get an email later that day with a link to retrieve it from the website. I can’t see how to change my ratings, share artworks on twitter or facebook, and I only seem to be filter by ‘Works you viewed’ and ‘Works you missed’ not those I’ve loved or hated – which would be fine if all that wasn’t promised on the front page. The timeline/map of what you saw is pretty but didn’t give me direct access to works I remember seeing at different points in my visit. Artworks don’t have permanent (indeed, any) URLs, so I can’t easily save or share the artworks I’m still thinking about.

Since it only counts an artwork as ‘viewed’ if you tapped through from the list view, it’s not really an accurate list of what you viewed or missed. I also have a feeling the O will beep if you take it out of the building, which makes ‘viewing’ some works outside the building tricky. I’d also love to be able to see pieces that aren’t on display any more, and personally I think I’d have gotten more out of my visit if I’d been able to get a sense of some of the artworks on the website before I went – I’m definitely a ‘listen to the album before going to the concert’ kinda person. That said, being able to check the name of an artist or work easily is great – I wish all museum websites made it so easy to find the objects you’ve seen.

Art wank?

The O’s ‘art wank’ label and icon

I don’t think I would have thought anything of this, except that an American friend (hi @erodley!) was a bit taken aback by it. I didn’t have to ask Mum (who is quite proper) what she thought of it as she came up to me and said she liked ‘the art thing’. She wasn’t bothered when she put on her glasses and realised the label said ‘art wank’ – she’s heard it used in Parliament – though when she realised what it was I don’t think she was too keen on the icon itself. I asked Dad later, and he thought it matched Walsh’s ‘knockabout character’, deflating people who are a bit ‘up themselves’.

Finally, the art…

I loved a few pieces, I didn’t hate any pieces though one was mildly irritating, some I would have loved to label ‘meh’. Mum made me jump on a trampoline so she could hear the bells, I lined up to experience Death with my parents, and I realised that there’s something about ‘traces of pigment’ on old statues that gets me every time. By the time I left, I felt a bit like I’d spent the day at a playground for art – partly because all my senses had been involved at some point, and partly because of the eclectic range of works I’d encountered (and maybe even because of the ‘mild peril’ hinted at in the lead up to the Death gallery experience).

Many of the artworks I liked best had a story attached, though it might have come from the original context of its creation, from Walsh’s gonzo pieces or related to something in my own life. Others were just plain beautiful or charming or made me think, which is probably a good line on which to finish.


Update: I’ve snuck away from the PhD write-up for a minute to collate a list of other museum nerds’ reviews of Mona and the O:

Let me know of any others in the comments…

Also in poking around I’ve also found a link to a tiny snippet of Mona’s art (mostly) not on display, including some of the content you probably would have seen on the O at the time.

[If I ever re-write this, I’m going to add a clickbait headline ‘3 things you’ll love about MONA and 1 you’ll hate’. Or ‘This one weird trick that really works for art history’.]

Does ‘slow art day’ work online?

Saturday was ‘slow art day‘, and the Getty Museum (@GettyMuseum) shared a Robert Hughes clip that really resonated with me:

‘We have had a gutful of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in 10 seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.’

I was tied to my desk writing that day so I wondered how I could have a similar experience: can you ‘do’ slow art online? Assuming you can switch off all the other distractions of email, social media, flashing ads, etc, and ignore the fact that your house, office or library is full of other tasks and temptations, can you slow down and sit in front of one art work and have a similar experience through an image on a screen, or does being in a gallery add something to the process? On the other hand, high-resolution images and reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) mean you can see details you’d never see in a gallery so you can explore the artwork itself more deeply*. And to remove the screen from the equation, would looking at a really good print of a painting be as rewarding as looking at the original? And what of installations and sculpture?

Related to that, I’ve been wondering how to relate online collections (whether thematic, exhibition-style or old school catalogues) to audience motivations for visiting museums. I’ve just been reading a great overview of people’s motivations for visiting museums in Dimitra Christidou’s Re-Introducing Visitors: Thoughts and Discussion on John Falk’s Notion of Visitors’ Identity-Related Visit Motivations. Christidou summarises Falk and Storksdieck’s 2005 research on ‘museum-specific identities’ reflecting visitor motivations:

  1. Explorers are driven by their personal curiosity, their urge to discover new things.
  2. Facilitators visit the museum on behalf of others’ special interests in the exhibition or the subject-matter of the museum.
  3. Experience seekers are these visitors who desire to see and experience a place, such as tourists.
  4. Professional hobbyists are those with specific knowledge in the subject matter of an exhibition and specific goals in mind.
  5. Rechargers seek a contemplative or restorative experience, often to let some steam out of their systems.
Once I’d gotten past the amusing mental image of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s head exploding at the concept of ‘big’ and ‘small’ online identities that change according to context, interests, motivations, etc**, I thought the article provided a useful framework for returning to the question of ‘what are museum websites for?‘. We can safely assume that most gallery sites consider the needs of ‘professional hobbyists’, but what of the other motivations? Some of these motivations are embedded in social experiences – do art sites enable multi-user experiences online, or do they assume that ‘sharing’ or facilitation only happens via social media? Does looking at art online go deep enough to count as an ‘experience’? And how much of the ‘recharging’ experience is tied to the act of getting to a particular space at a particular time, or to the affordances of the space itself and its physical separation from most distractions of the world?

What new motivations should be added for online experiences of museum exhibitions and objects? What’s enabled by the convenience, accessibility and discoverability of art online? And to return to slow art, how can museums use text and design to cue people to slow down and look at art for minutes at a time without getting in the way of people who want a quick experience? (And is this the same basic question I’d asked earlier about ‘enabling punctum’ or ‘what’s the effect of all this aggregation of museum content on the user experience‘?)

* Assuming you don’t look so closely that you slip into ‘inappropriate peering‘.
** I’m sure Zuckerberg knows people have different identities in different situations, it’s just more convenient for Facebook not to care. Christopher ‘moot’ Poole opposed this push quite well in a series of talks in 2011.

Notes from ‘Crowdsourcing in the Arts and Humanities’

Last week I attended a one-day conference, ‘Digital Impacts: Crowdsourcing in the Arts and Humanities‘ (#oxcrowd), convened by Kathryn Eccles of Oxford’s Internet Institute, and I’m sharing my (sketchy, as always) notes in the hope that they’ll help people who couldn’t attend.

Stuart Dunn reported on the Humanities Crowdsourcing scoping report (PDF) he wrote with Mark Hedges and noted that if we want humanities crowdsourcing to take off we should move beyond crowdsourcing as a business model and look to form, nurture and connect with communities.  Alice Warley and Andrew Greg presented a useful overview of the design decisions behind the Your Paintings Tagger and sparked some discussion on how many people need to view a painting before it’s ‘completed’, and the differences between structured and unstructured tagging. Interestingly, paintings can be ‘retired’ from the Tagger once enough data has been gathered – I personally think the inherent engagement in tagging is valuable enough to keep paintings taggable forever, even if they’re not prioritised in the tagging interface.  Kate Lindsay brought a depth of experience to her presentation on ‘The Oxford Community Collection Model’ (as seen in Europeana 1914-1918 and RunCoCo’s 2011 report on ‘How to run a community collection online‘ (PDF)). Some of the questions brought out the importance of planning for sustainability in technology, licences, etc, and the role of existing networks of volunteers with the expertise to help review objects on the community collection days.  The role of the community in ensuring the quality of crowdsourced contributions was also discussed in Kimberly Kowal’s presentation on the British Library’s Georeferencer project. She also reflected on what she’d learnt after the first phase of the Georeferencer project, including that the inherent reward of participating in the activity was a bigger motivator than competitiveness, and the impact on the British Library itself, which has opened up data for wider digital uses and has more crowdsourcing projects planned. I gave a paper which was based on an earlier version, The gift that gives twice: crowdsourcing as productive engagement with cultural heritage, but pushed my thinking about crowdsourcing as a tool for deep engagement with museums and other memory organisations even further. I also succumbed to the temptation to play with my own definitions of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage: ‘a form of engagement that contributes towards a shared, significant goal or research question by asking the public to undertake tasks that cannot be done automatically’ or ‘productive public engagement with the mission and work of memory institutions’.

Chris Lintott of Galaxy Zoo fame shared his definition of success for a crowdsourcing/citizen science project: it has to produce results of value to the research community in less time than could have been done by other means (i.e. it must have been able to achieve something with crowd that couldn’t have without them) and discussed how the Ancient Lives project challenged that at first by turning ‘a few thousand papyri they didn’t have time to transcribe into several thousand data points they didn’t have time to read’.  While ‘serendipitous discovery is a natural consequence of exposing data to large numbers of users’ (in the words of the Citizen Science Alliance), they wanted a more sophisticated method for recording potential discoveries experts made while engaging with the material and built a focused ‘talk‘ tool which can programmatically filter out the most interesting unanswered comments and email them to their 30 or 40 expert users. They also have Letters for more structured, journal-style reporting. (I hope I have that right).  He also discussed decisions around full text transcriptions (difficult to automatically reconcile) vs ‘rich metadata’, or more structured indexes of the content of the page, which contain enough information to help historians decide which pages to transcribe in full for themselves.

Some other thoughts that struck me during the day… humanities crowdsourcing has a lot to learn from the application of maths and logic in citizen science – lots of problems (like validating data) that seem intractable can actually be solved algorithmically, and citizen science hypothesis-based approach to testing task and interface design would help humanities projects. Niche projects help solve the problem of putting the right obscure item in front of the right user (which was an issue I wrestled with during my short residency at the Powerhouse Museum last year – in hindsight, building niche projects could have meant a stronger call-to-action and no worries about getting people to navigate to the right range of objects).  The variable role of forums and participants’ relationship to the project owners and each other came up at various points – in some projects, interactions with a central authority are more valued, in others, community interactions are really important. I wonder how much it depends on the length and size of the project? The potential and dangers of ‘gamification’ and ‘badgeification’ and their potentially negative impact on motivation were raised. I agree with Lintott that games require a level of polish that could mean you’d invest more in making them than you’d get back in value, but as a form of engagement that can create deeper relationships with cultural heritage and/or validate some procrastination over a cup of tea, I think they potentially have a wider value that balances that.

I was also asked to chair the panel discussion, which featured Kimberly Kowal, Andrew Greg, Alice Warley, Laura Carletti, Stuart Dunn and Tim Causer.  Questions during the panel discussion included:

  • ‘what happens if your super-user dies?’ (Super-users or super contributors are the tiny percentage of people who do most of the work, as in this Old Weather post) – discussion included mass media as a numbers game, the idea that someone else will respond to the need/challenge, and asking your community how they’d reach someone like them. (This also helped answer the question ‘how do you find your crowd?’ that came in from twitter)
  • ‘have you ever paid anyone?’ Answer: no
  • ‘can you recruit participants through specialist societies?’ From memory, the answer was ‘yes but it does depend’.
  • something like ‘have you met participants in real life?’ – answer, yes, and it was an opportunity to learn from them, and to align the community, institution, subject and process.
  • badgeification?’. Answer: the quality of the reward matters more than the levels (so badges are probably out).
  • ‘what happens if you force students to work on crowdsourcing projects?’ – one suggestion was to look for entries on Transcribe Bentham in a US English class blog
  • ‘what’s happened to tagging in art museums, where’s the new steve.museum or Brooklyn Museum?’ – is it normalised and not written about as much, or has it declined?
  • ‘how can you get funding for crowdsourcing projects?’. One answer – put a good application in to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Or start small, prove the value of the project and get a larger sum. Other advice was to be creative or use existing platforms. Speaking of which, last year the Citizen Science Alliance announced ‘the first open call for proposals by researchers who wish to develop citizen science projects which take advantage of the experience, tools and community of the Zooniverse. Successful proposals will receive donated effort of the Adler-based team to build and launch a new citizen science project’.
  • ‘can you tell in advance which communities will make use of a forum?’ – a great question that drew on various discussions of the role of communities of participants in supporting each other and devising new research questions
  • a question on ‘quality control’ provoked a range of responses, from the manual quality control in Transcribe Bentham and the high number of Taggers initially required for each painting in Your Paintings which slowed things down, and lead into a discussion of shallow vs deep interactions
  • the final questioner asked about documenting film with crowdsourcing and was answered by someone else in the audience, which seemed a very fitting way to close the day.
James Murray in his Scriptorium with thousands of word references sent in by members of the public for the first Oxford English Dictionary. Early crowdsourcing?

If you found this post useful, you might also like Frequently Asked Questions about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage or my earlier Museums and the Web paper on Playing with Difficult Objects – Game Designs to Improve Museum Collections.

How things change: the Google Art Project (again)

The updated Google Art Project has been launched with loads more museums contributing over 30,000 artworks.  The interface still seems a bit sketchy to me (sometimes you can open links in a new tab, sometimes you can’t; mystery meat navigation; the lovely zoom option isn’t immediately discoverable; the thumbnails that appear at the bottom don’t have a strong visual connection with the action that triggers their appearance; and the only way I could glean any artist/title information about the thumbnails was by looking at the URL), but it’s nice to see options for exploring by collection (collecting institution, I assume), date or artist emphasised in the interface. 

Anyway, it’s all about the content – easy access to high-quality zoomable images of some of the world’s best artworks in an interface with lots of relevant information and links back to the holding institution is a win for everyone.  And if the attention (and traffic) makes museums a little jealous, well, it’ll be fascinating to see how that translates into action.  After all, keeping up with the Joneses seems to be one way museums change…

Reading some online stories about the launch, I was struck by how far conversations about traditional and online galleries have come.  From one:

As users explore the galleries they can also add comments to each painting and share the whole collection with friends and family. Try doing that in the Tate Modern. Actually, don’t.

Although, of course, you can – it’s traditionally known as ‘having a conversation in a museum’. 
But in 2012, is visiting a website and sharing links online seen as a reasonable stand-in for the physical visit to a museum, leaving the in-person gallery visit for ‘purists’ and enthusiasts?  (This might make blockbuster exhibtions bearable.)  Or, as the consensus of the past decade has it, does it just whet the appetite and create demand for an experience with the original object, leading to more visits?

Can ugly babies save museums?

Since coming across Ugly Renaissance Babies, I’ve been wondering: is Tumblr* the best thing to happen to broad public engagement with art history**?  They’re dead simple posts – an image and a short comment, but they spread widely (as you can see from the number of re-posts), and arguably make renaissance art more interesting to people who wouldn’t normally view it.  Can sites that curate content from across different collections like this create serendipity through decontextualisation, and bring art history to the masses?

Like image macros, they can bring history and popular culture together in amusing ways (e.g. Joseph Ducreux, the Bayeux Tapestry and song lyrics), but is this irreverent commentary and re-contextualisation exactly the kind of thing that skeptical curators worried about when we were all getting excited about online collections?  So I also have an entirely different question – does it matter to museums, galleries if (like the V&A) your painting appears in Ugly Renaissance Babies?

 Attributed to Master of the Kress Epiphany, The Expulsion of the Money-Changers (detail), around 1480-1500; We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious.
Attributed to Master of the Kress Epiphany, The Expulsion of the Money-Changers (detail), around 1480-1500
‘We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious.’

Is it ok to point out ‘bad’ art like this?  Visitors often make rude comments about the ugly babies or whatever as they pass through museum galleries, but unless someone is there to hear them their comments are ephemeral.

And does it matter if the site author doesn’t link back to the holding collection or image source?  [I think it does – for context and finding related items more than ownership, but I’ve been told that’s a museum-y way of looking at it.]

I posted the tumblr link and asked some of these questions a while ago on Twitter, but frustratingly, I can’t get back as far as the original post in the @-mentions page so I’m missing any comments I didn’t reply directly to at the time.  (The reliability of free social media services is a whole other post…)  The one set of comments I can retrieve was from Erika Taylor (@erikajoy), who said, ‘surely you would be proud as punch having an original renaissance ugly baby in your collection? May change the significance perhaps’ … ‘an interesting additional social significance to add to whatever the existing significance is’ and best of all,

‘also, how cool would it be if museums collected memes of their paintings back into their collection.’ 

Finally, since this is presumably my last post for the year, I’d like to thank you for reading and commenting, and for inspiring conversations at conferences and on twitter – may your 2012 bring wondrous things to you and yours.

* insert your favourite social media service here.
** I suspect artistic objects are more ‘portable’ than social history or science objects, as they make visual sense without a story explaining what they are or why they’re important.

The rise of the non-museum (and death by aggregation)

A bit of an art museum/gallery-focussed post… And when I say ‘post’, I mean ‘vaguely related series of random thoughts’… but these ideas have been building up and I might as well get them out to help get them out of ‘draft’.

Following on from various recent discussions (especially the brilliantly thought-provoking MCG’s Spring meeting ‘Go Collaborate’) and the launches over the past few months of the Google Art Project, Artfinder and today’s ‘Your Paintings‘ from the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation, I’ve been wondering what space is left for galleries online.  (I’ve also been thinking about Aaron’s “you are about to be eaten by robots” and the image of Google and Facebook ‘nipping at your heels’ to become ‘the arbiter of truth for ideas’ and the general need for museums to make a case for their special place in society.)  Between funding cuts on the one hand, and projects from giants like Google and the BBC and even Europeana on the other, what can galleries do online that no-one else can?

So I asked on twitter, wondering if the space that was left was in creating/curating specialist interest and/or local experiences… @bridgetmck responded “Maybe the space for museums to work online now is meaning-making, intellectual context, using content to solve problems?”  The idea of that the USP of an museum is based on knowledge and community rather than collections is interesting and something I need to think about more.

The twitter conversation also branched off into a direction I’ve been thinking about over the past few months – while it’s great that we’re getting more and more open content [seriously, this is an amazing problem to have], what’s the effect of all this aggregation on the user experience?  @rachelcoldicutt had also been looking at ‘Your Paintings’ and her response was to my ‘space’ question was: “I think the space left is for curation. I feel totally overwhelmed by ALL THOSE paintings. It’s like a storage space not a museum”.  She’d also just tweeted “are such enormous sites needed when you can search and aggregate? Phaps yes for data structure/API, but surely not for *ppl*” which I’m quoting because I’ve been thinking the same thing.

[Update 2, July 14: Or, as Vannevar Bush said in ‘As We May Think‘ in 1945: “There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”]

Have we reached a state of ‘death by aggregation’?  Even the guys at Artfinder haven’t found a way to make endless lists of search results or artists feel more like fun than work.

Big aggregated collections are great one-stop shops for particular types of researchers, and they’re brilliant for people building services based on content, but is there a Dunbar number for the number of objects you can view in one sitting?  To borrow the phrase Hugh Wallace used at MuseumNext, ‘snackable‘ or bite-sized content seems to fit better into the lives of museum audiences, but how do we make collections and the knowledge around them ‘snackable’?  Which of the many ways to curate that content into smaller sets – tours, slideshows, personal galleries, recommender systems, storytelling – works in different contexts?  And how much and what type of contextual content is best, and what is that Dunbar number?  @benosteen suggested small ‘community sets’ or “personal ‘threads'” – “interesting people picking 6->12 related items (in their opinion) and discussing them?”.  [And as @LSpurdle pointed out, what about serendipity, or the ‘surprising beauty’ Rachel mentioned?]

I’m still thinking it all through, and will probably come back and update as I work it out.  In the meantime, what do you think?

[Update: I’ve only just remembered that I’d written about an earlier attempt to get to grips with the effects of aggregation and mental models of collections that might help museums serve both casual and specialist audiences in Rockets, Lockets and Sprockets – towards audience models about collections? – it still needs a lot of thought and testing with actual users, I’d love to hear your thoughts or get pointers to similar work.]

‘Reshaping the Art Museum’

I’m sneaking a moment from revision to point you to this thought-provoking article ‘Reshaping the Art Museum‘ in Artnews:

To an unprecedented degree, market research about the needs, wants, fears, and anxieties of visitors is shaping how museums are designed. “We got a lot of comments that it’s just overwhelming to come to museums,” says Lori Fogarty, director of the Oakland Museum of California, which inaugurates a complete reinstallation of its art, natural history, and science collections this fall. So the new galleries will feature “loaded lounges” where visitors can relax, read catalogues, or do hands-on activities, along with open spaces that accommodate up to 25 people for concerts, storytelling, or other such programs.

But a bigger change in her plan is connecting people who might never have visited art museums with the people who curate them. Fogarty calls it transparency—”breaking the fourth wall”—having curators answer questions about how and why they choose works. Visitor feedback will be encouraged, and the exhibitions, in turn, will be based on the “wiki model,” with curators representing only one voice in a mix that includes conservators, community members, and artists. “We can’t count on the fact that potential visitors were brought to museums as kids,” Fogarty says. “Many have no cultural or experiential reference; they don’t think of the museum as a place that welcomes them or has anything of interest to them.”

At the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, director Olga Viso is also using a major reinstallation as an opportunity to remake the museum into a more civic space. “We want to be in dialogue with the audience instead of in the place of authority,” as she puts it. Such efforts may mean involving the community in the organization of shows or asking people to vote on the selection of artworks. When the new installation opens in November, says chief curator Darsie Alexander, curators will hold in-gallery office hours—giving visitors insights into the way exhibitions happen, and giving the staff a chance to find out “how visitors encounter work in space—the kinds of questions they ask about art, what they find interesting, and how long they stay.”

And for all the innovations in programming, marketing, and education, Campbell argues, the core mission remains the same. “We can make ourselves more user-friendly, but ultimately one of the key experiences of visiting a museum is that moment of standing in front of an object,” he says. “Suddenly you’re responding to something physical, real, that changes your own perspective. And great museums will always do that, as long we get people through the doors.”

BBC to put 200,000 paintings from the Public Catalogue Foundation online

This could be fantastic – I hope the BBC will work with the museum sector to complement the work they’re already doing or planning to get their collections online.  From the Guardian, BBC to put nation’s oil paintings online:

A partnership with the Public Catalogue Foundation charity will see all the UK’s publicly owned oil paintings – 80% of which are not on public display – placed on the internet by 2012.

The BBC said it wanted to establish a new section of its bbc.co.uk website, called Your Paintings, where users could view and find information on the UK’s national collection.

The Public Catalogue Foundation, launched in 2003, is 30% of the way through cataloguing the UK’s collection of oil paintings.

In addition the BBC said it was talking to the Arts Council about giving the public free online access to its archive for the first time, including its wide-ranging film collection dating back to the 1950s. 

[Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, said:] “Today we are not only reaffirming our commitment to arts, but we’re announcing a series of measures that will put this relationship on an even stronger footing. Through innovative new partnerships, I believe the BBC can deliver big, bold arts programming that is accessible, distinctive and enjoyable.”

I do wonder what Time Out’s Tony Elliott would make of it.

Art is everywhere

Described as ‘a project of awareness to stimulate the imagination through “art”‘,
Art is everywhere finds some interesting pieces, including empty art frames on city walls that make the wall underneath appear as possible art, and invisible monuments. I like their statement, ‘To seek for the beautiful in the daily things it undoubtedly helps us to… live better’.