One reason why (science) museums rock

When I started work at the Science Museum a few years ago, after five years with a social history museum and archaeology service, I was curious about how the additional tasks of communicating scientific principles, contemporary science news and the history of science and technology would affect interpretation, collections and exhibitions. With that in mind, I did some research about science museums and came across an article about the impact of the Palais de la Découverte (a science museum in Paris) translated for me as:

In a recent work entitled ‘Comment devient-on scientifique?‘ (How does one become a scientist?) published by Editions EDP, Florence Guichard indicates the results of a survey undertaken in the Ile-de-France: 60% of scientists over 30 and 40% of scientists under 30 claim, without prompting, that the Palais de la Découverte triggered their vocation. Pierre Gilles of Gennes, the winner of the Nobel prize for Physics is one of those ‘lovers’ of thePalais de la Découverte who was still visiting the place a few years before his death in 2007.

[Update – coincidentally, the day after posting, I came across another reference to the impact of science museums on children’s interest in science:] The evolution of the science museum:

When did scientists first become interested in science? A 1998 survey of 1400 scientists, conducted by the Roper Starch organization for the Bayer Foundation and NSF, reported that a respected adult, such as a parent, was the biggest factor in stimulating childhood interest in science. […] a variety of informalactivities had an effect. […] 76 percent said science museum visits

That’s pretty amazing.  But ok, for people who aren’t scientists, why does science matter?  Well, for a start, the UK needs to keep up with the rest of the world, and there are global problems that we need scientists to help solve.  At about the same time, President Obama stated in his inaugural address that he would “restore science to its rightful place”. Ed Yong, among others, answered the question, so ‘what is science’s rightful place?’:

…underneath all of the detail lie some basic principles that science is built upon and these, I feel, ought to be more mainstream than they perhaps are. We should be strive to be unceasing in our curiosity, rational in our explanations and accurate in our communication. We should value inquiry and the power of evidence to change opinions. We should be unflinching in our search for understanding and the desire to test the world around us.

There is no question in my mind that these tenets should act as guides to our lives (albeit not exclusively; they are necessary, rather than sufficient). This is the greatest contribution of science to society. It acts as a stimulant that keeps us from sleepwalking through a wonderland. It is a cloth that wipes away superstition and myths to reveal an ever-closer approximation of the truth. It is a mental prophylactic that shields our minds from the folly of confirmation bias or the lure of unrepresentative anecdotes.

Tell people about the latest discoveries and many will ask what the significance is to their lives. In some cases, there’s no way to answer that – they either appreciate it or they don’t. But the very question misses an important point. The actual results may not be relevant but the principles that underlie them most definitely are, and they are omnipresent. Curiosity. Investigation. Communication. What could be more human or more pertinent to our casual existence?

The UK curriculum (key stage 1, key stage 3) aims to teach the value of scientific enquiry and perhaps fire a lifelong ‘curiosity about phenomena in the world around them’, and I suspect science museums make that teaching just a bit easier.  I know that the majority of people I talk to can still remember their school visit to science museums, but I haven’t yet asked them what effect it might have had on their lives – does anyone know of any research?

‘The strikethrough is the canonical symbol of the Web’

Below is a quote from Wired’s Chris Anderson on museum, curatorial authority and the long tail, from a Washington Post report, ‘Smithsonian Click-n-Drags Itself Forward‘ on Smithsonian 2.0 (‘A Gathering to Re-Imagine the Smithsonian in the Digital Age’).

The quote really covers two issues – making failures and mistakes in public and leaving them there, and training external volunteers and experts to curate parts of collections, because no one curator can be authoritative on everything in their remit: “in exchange for a slight diminution of the credentialed voice for a small number of things, you would get far more for a lot of things”.

I suspect this is a false dichotomy – there’s a place for both internal and external expertise. The Science Museum object wiki doesn’t mean the rest of the collection catalogue and interpretation has no value or relevance. The challenge lies in presenting organisation and user-contributed content in the same interface – can those boundaries be removed? Is it wise to try? And what about taking external content back into the catalogue?

This isn’t a new conversation for museum technologists, but it’s a conversation I’d love to have with curators. I’ve never been sure how the technologists who get really excited by the possibilities of sharing content online in various ways can go about working with curators to find the best way of managing it so that the public, the collections and the curators benefit.

Anyway, onto Chris Anderson:

The discovery of the “long tail” principle has implications for museums because it means there is vast room at the bottom for everything. Which means, Anderson said, that curators need to get over themselves. Their influence will never be the same.

“The Web is messy, and in that messiness comes something new and interesting and really rich,” he said. “The strikethrough is the canonical symbol of the Web. It says, ‘We blew it, but we are leaving that mistake out there. We’re not perfect, but we get better over time.’ “

If you think that notion gives indigestion to an organization like the Smithsonian — full of people who have devoted much of their lifetimes to bringing near-perfect luster to some tiny pearl of truth — you would be correct.

The problem is, “the best curators of any given artifact do not work here, and you do not know them,” Anderson told the Smithsonian thought leaders. “Not only that, but you can’t find them. They can find you, but you can’t find them. The only way to find them is to put stuff out there and let them reveal themselves as being an expert.”

Take something like, oh, everything the Smithsonian’s got on 1950s Cold War aircraft. Put it out there, Anderson suggested, and say, “If you know something about this, tell us.” Focus on the those who sound like they have phenomenal expertise, and invest your time and effort into training these volunteers how to curate. “I’ll bet that they would be thrilled, and that they would pay their own money to be given the privilege of seeing this stuff up close. It would be their responsibility to do a good job” in authenticating it and explaining it. “It would be the best free labor that you can imagine.”

It didn’t go down easily among the thought leaders, who have staked their lives’ work on authoritativeness, on avoiding strikethroughs. What about the quality and strength of the knowledge we offer? asked one Smithsonian attendee.

You don’t get it, Anderson suggested. “There aren’t enough of you. Your skills cannot be invested in enough areas to give that quality.”

It’s like Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, Anderson said. Some Wikipedia entries certainly are not as perfectly polished as the Britannica. But “most of the things I’m interested in are not in the Britannica. In exchange for a slight diminution of the credentialed voice for a small number of things, you would get far more for a lot of things. Something is better than nothing.” And right now at the Smithsonian, what you get, he said, is “great” or “nothing.”

“Is it our job to be smart and be the best? Or is it our job to share knowledge?” Anderson asked.

Notes from ‘Extending the CMS to Galleries’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from the presentation, Extending the CMS to Galleries by Dafydd James at the MCG Spring meeting. Dafydd’s slides for Extending the CMS to Galleries are online. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. Any of my comments are in [square brackets] below.

This paper talked about extending the CMS discussed in Building a Bilingual CMS. See also notes from the following talk on ‘Rhagor – the collections based website from Amgueddfa Cymru‘.

Oriel I [pronounced ‘Oriel Ee’ rather than ‘Oriel one’ as I first thought] is an innovative and flexible gallery, created under budget constraints. Dafydd worked with the curatorial departments and exhibition designer.

It feeds 15 interactive touchscreens, 7 video streams, sound, content can be updated by curatorial department. They’re using Flash, it was a better option at time than HTML/Javascript, and it can be used alongside PHP for data.

They assigned static IP addresses to all PCs in gallery. Web pages ran in kiosk software on Windows XP PCs.

They had to get across to curators that they didn’t have much room for lots of text, especially as it’s bilingual. The system responds quickly if user interacts – on release action, though interactions need to be tested with ‘normal’ people. Pre-loading images helps.

Future plans: considering changing some of the software to HTML/Javascript, as there are more Javascript libraries are available now, and it can be faster to load, and it’s open source. Also upgrading to a newer version of Flash as it’s faster.

They’re looking at using Linux, they want more flexibility than Site Kiosk which uses an IE6 engine.

They’re thinking about logging user actions to find out what the popular content is, get user feedback, and they’re trialling using handhelds with the CMS to deliver smaller versions of webpages.

Electronic exhibit templates?

Ideum and the Association of Science-Technology Centers are looking for feedback on “a project that will allow us to develop, test, and disseminate three open source software templates that will allow museum professionals’ to assemble electronic exhibits for the museum floor.”

They’ve put together a survey “to gain insight into the state of electronic exhibits at a variety of museums, to gauge interest in the Open Exhibits software templates, and to better understand museums’ technical expertise and constraints”. You can read more at their original blog post or go straight to their survey.

They don’t really define an ‘electronic exhibit’ but perhaps that’s part of the exercise. They also say they’ll share the results with everyone who took part, which is nice.

Museums as social spaces – the good, the bad, and the (ugly) conversations of others

I’ve linked to two articles about museums as social spaces or the behaviour of the public in museums; one refers to virtual and the other to physical space but the issues are related.

In museums, social situations, control and trust, Jennifer Trant says:

as soon as you put museum collections in a public place, the public will do what they do …. search logs show us that many look for ‘nude’ … and if you let people comment, they will: they will tell you about your typos; they will tell you that their child could have made that painting; and they will argue about the significance of works. they will also tell you things that you might never have known, and you can learn from that. but what happens when two branches of a family choose your museum’s site as the venue for a dispute about what was ‘true’ family history?

She also makes the point that museums “can’t demand control” and have to trust that users will respect their content when they allow users to use their collections in the users’ personal space.

This is one issue that probably causes a lot of anxiety within museums at the moment. We’ll only really find out whether users will respect our content when we let them respond to it. What kind of visitors have the means and self-motivation to comment on, link to pages or display images, or otherwise respond to cultural heritage content?

On another note, is it worse to be disrespected or ignored?

I’m just quoting one more bit from her post before I go on, because I thought it was worth repeating:

“there are a number of different value propositions for distribution of reproductions of works of in their collections. there may still be some great icons that will sell. but in many cases the value of having a collection known may outweighs worries about lost revenue, particularly when the images being released on the public web really aren’t large enough to do that much with.”

So from visitors respecting content, to visitors respecting other visitors, and perhaps to whether museums respect the visitor experience…

Giles Waterfield relates his experience of the crowded New York MoMA in The crowds swamping museums must be tackled – soon and makes some good points about “the over-population and over-use of the museum space”:

“the predominance and ready availability in our society of visual images can mean that apart from the (sometimes over-exposed) icon, works in a gallery risk becoming another form of rapidly-absorbed consumer fodder. … visitors at many contemporary art museums now often behave similarly, pausing only to take pictures of celebrity works”

This matters because:

“looking at art is a difficult experience, one that has to be learnt and that requires concentration. Little art was created specifically for the museum or gallery, at least until recently, and the museum is not necessarily the best place to appreciate it. If the museum experience becomes one in which the visitor is regularly concerned with negotiating a way through the crowds and avoiding noise, the status of the museum as a vehicle for displaying art becomes highly questionable.

…the series of subtle, intense and inter-linked experiences that are created require an appropriate environment. The Demoiselles may just about survive, but quieter works of art drown and the carefully considered relationships between them disappear when the pressure of visitors means it is hardly possible to concentrate or to view more than one work at a time, if that.”

His article is specific to art galleries, and the types of attention, learning and reflection may well be different for art works and social history objects; but the effect of interactions between the space in which the object is seen and of encounters with other visitors is interesting.

In my own experience, I have to force myself to go see blockbuster exhibitions because I dread the crowds – not only can is be really difficult to have a decent look at the art or objects; the sheer number of people means that tempers are shorter and the atmosphere is slightly more ‘Oxford Street on a Saturday’ than ‘quiet temple of contemplation’.

If you give up waiting for a chance to read the captions or panel text over someone else’s shoulder, it’s easy for objects to appear only as visual entertainment.

A golden age before copyright was king?

Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow in the Guardian on the pop art exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery:

Does this show – paid for with public money, with some works that are themselves owned by public institutions – seek to inspire us to become 21st century pop artists, armed with cameraphones, websites and mixers, or is it supposed to inform us that our chance has passed and we’d best settle for a life as information serfs who can’t even make free use of what our eyes see and our ears hear?

Perhaps, just perhaps, this is actually a Dadaist show masquerading as a pop art show. Perhaps the point is to titillate us with the delicious irony of celebrating copyright infringement while simultaneously taking the view that even the “No Photography” sign is a form of property not to be reproduced without the permission that can never be had.

Warhol is turning in his grave

New ways of experiencing museums

This article presents a lovely perspective on the ways different audiences now engage with museums. It’s also interesting to wonder how these changing perspectives affect the online experience of a museum, exhibition or single object.

The idea of a museum visit as a kind of promenade theatre event is a comparatively new one for me. I am typical of my generation, I suspect, in still expecting a trip to a gallery to be improving – with the emphasis on it as a place where one will be educated, and above all, somewhere one will be infused with morally uplifting sentiments.

Younger gallery-goers, by contrast, go in search of a more immediate experience – looking for something emotionally challenging, against which to measure the tide of information that floods us, in our engulfing sea of online information.

Or, in the case of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall or the V&A’s Friday Late, they simply go to hang out with similarly inclined others, for the shared sense of occasion.

Last weekend’s outing to Tate Modern succeeded in convincing me that the excitement of the encounter is an important part of today’s visit to the museum.

According to the French intellectual Andre Malraux – Minister for Culture under General de Gaulle for 10 years from 1959 – whereas once the visitor went to a museum to be provided with answers, now, the responsibility lies with us, the visitors.

The museum experience exists most richly in our own imaginations, created out of a collection of images we each carry with us, gleaned from books, magazines, photographs and film. We bring remembered visual material with us into a museum space which has thereby become imaginary. The installation or exhibition merely acts as a catalyst, prompting us to ask our own questions which we look to the artist to answer.

From the BBC, Making contact