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.

What are the right questions about museum websites?

It should be fairly simple to answer the question, ‘what’s the point of a museum website?’ because the answer should surely be some variant on ‘to further the mission and goals of the museum’.

But what is it about being online, about being on or of the web that problematises that answer?

Is it that there are so many other sites providing similar content, activities and access to knowledge? Is it that the niche role many museums play in their local communities doesn’t translate into online space? Is it that other sites got in earlier and now host better conversations about museum collections?

Or is the answer not really problematic – there have always been other conversations about collections and ways of accessing knowledge, and the question is really about where museums and their various activities fit in the digital landscape?

I don’t know, but it’s Friday night and I should be on my way out, so I’m going to turn the question over to smarter minds… What are the right questions and why is it difficult for a museum to translate its mission directly to its website?

Update, the next day… This quote from an article, Lost professors: we won’t need academics in 60 years, addresses one of my theories about why translating a museum’s mission into the online context is problematic:

…there are probably several hundred academics in Australia who lecture on, say, regression analysis, and very few of us could claim to be in the top 1% – actually only 1% of us.

The web allows 100% of the students to access the best 1%. Where is the market for duplication of mediocre course material by research academics?

I’m not saying any museum content is mediocre, of course, but the point about the challenges of the sudden visibility of duplicated content remains. If the museum up the road or in the next town has produced learning activities or expert commentary about the same regional/national history events or objects, does it further your mission to post similar content? What content or activities can you host that is unique to your museum, either because of your particular niche collections or context or because no-one else has done it yet?

Also, for further context, Report from ‘What’s the point of a museum website’ at MCN2011 and Brochureware, aggregators and the messy middle: what’s the point of a museum website? (which is really about ‘what forms do museum websites take’), and earlier posts on What would a digital museum be like if there was never a physical museum? and the related Thoughts towards the future of museums for #kulturwebb, What’s the point of museum collections online? (Angelina’s succinct response: digital content recognises audience experiences, providing opportunities for personal stories to form significant part of the process of interpretation) and finally, thoughts about The rise of the non-museum – museums are possibly the least agile body in the cultural content market right now.

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?

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.]

The challenge for museums in the 21st century?

Nick Serota, Director of the Tate, writes about modern museums in ‘Why Tate Modern needs to expand‘. I’m not sure he convinces me that the expansion needs to be physical, but it’s a brilliant case for expanding Tate’s online presence:

The world also sees museums differently. Wide international access, directly or through digital media and at all levels of understanding offers the opportunity for new kinds of collaboration with individuals and institutions.

The traditional function of the museum has been that of instruction, with the curator setting the terms of engagement between the visitor and the work of art. But in the past 20 years the development of the internet, the rise of the blog and social networking sites, as well as the more direct intervention in museum spaces by artists themselves, has begun to change the expectations of visitors, and their relationship with the curator as authoritative specialist. The challenge for museums in the 21st century is to find new ways of engaging with much more demanding, sophisticated and better informed viewers. Our museums have to respond to and become places where ideas, opinions and experiences are exchanged, and not simply learned.

The museum of the 21st century should be based on encounters with the unfamiliar and on exchange and debate rather than only on an idea of the perfect muse—private reflection and withdrawal from the “real” world. Of course, the museum continues to provide a place of contemplation and of protection from the direct pressures of the commercial and the market. It has to have some anchors or fixed points for orientation and stability, but it also has to be a dynamic space for ideas, conversations and debate about new and historic art within a global context.

The Tate’s Head of Online, John Stack, has put the Tate Online Strategy 2010–12, including their ‘Ten principles for Tate Online’.  Go read it – with any luck UK parliament will have managed to form a government by the time you’re done.

So, do you agree with Serota? What are the challenges you face in your museum in the 21st century?

What’s the point of museum collections online?

Earlier this week I posted on our developer blog to ask ‘what’s your number one question about presenting museum collections online?‘.

Merel van der Vaart (@MerelVaart on twitter), who has just finished an internship with the Science Museum’s climate change content team, posed an interesting question in response:

“I’m still struggling to decide what the value of online access is. Not  that I think it’s bad, but how exactly is it good?”

I tend to think that everyone knows the benefits of online collections – providing access to museum objects and the knowledge around them, to start with – so it’s actually a really good question: why are we putting collections online?  Who does it benefit?  Are the benefits clear to others in the museum, and to our audiences?

I can think lots of answers, but the exercise of stopping and examining my automatic response was really useful.  I’m still thinking about the presentation on selling your ideas because  it’s made me realise the importance of having answers to questions we’d forgotten might be questions.