Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Term Limits

maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museums In my last post, I touched up on the idea that a simple environmental shift in an exhibit can serve as an "interaction" for a museum visitor. Oftentimes in our conversations with clients we run into problems with this term. It's become a ubiquitous descriptor for a museum experience- is a flip panel an interactive? What about pushing a button to watch a video? If I turn a page in a book, is that interactive? This interpretation can vary widely amongst individuals and institutions. Then there's what museum professionals think it is, the client, and, oh yeah... the visitor (do they care?). Whew. I'm lost. You've probably figured out that the reason I'm bringing this up is because I think it's time we agreed that "interactive" has become too inclusive, and therefore, too confusing a term. In his paper "Museums and their languages. Is interactivity different for fine art as opposed to design?" (2002), James Bradburne suggests that we suspend the idea of interactive for a bit, and consider what kind of activity you want in your museum (he goes on to answer the question, which I'll leave to you). This is a great way to start, because it forces you to define and then describe/articulate in greater detail what are the experiences we want our visitors to have. For example, if you want open-ended conversation, then the space you create for it will be as important as the exhibit itself. Or, if you want surprise, investigation, and discovery, then you'll consider more than just one exhibit standing alone in a gallery as part of that goal. So am I talking about the importance of environment on experience? You bet- but there's more to it. If what we hope to achieve for our visitors is a revelation, transformation, or education, then I think we need to be a little more articulate about this intellectual, emotional, or physical transaction we've been calling interactive. By defining the activities we want our visitors to be having in our institutions up front, then we have moved beyond what buttons to push or technology to use. We've started to create a considered world for that experience (even if that world is intentionally surprising or unexpected), and a fuller immersion into the ideas we're trying to expose them to.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Oh, Olafur!

I think the museum exhibit world owes a debt of gratitude to Olafur Eliasson. He's taken the idea of "immersive environments", and firmly placed it on our palette. Not that creating colorful, immersive spaces is new, but Eliasson has provided us with a series of spectacular case studies which have developed a new consciousness around this tool.

Through his work he has reinforced this point: a sparse environment completely devoid of "interactives" can foster a transformative and accessible experience for a diverse audience. These audiences are leaving with a memory that persists.

For the foreseeable future, I imagine many of us will walk a line of not wanting to be derivative of his work, and yet build on it.

So thank you, Olafur, I look forward to the challenge.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Museums + LEED certification: a series

LEED certification, maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museums Have you been wondering what LEED stands for? It's: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Next week, we'll begin a series of posts about LEED certification and museums. It will be guest blogged by Scott Moulton, Gyroscope Exhibit Designer. Scott has a degree in architecture from Berkeley, and co-founded Union Studio. His work has been featured in the SFMOMA permanent collection, and in magazines such as Interior Design, Abitare, Metropolitan Home, Dwell and the SF Examiner Magazine. By the way, I've already been corrected, so I'll save you the trouble- it's LEED not LEEDs.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Touch, Don't Touch!

maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museums This quote comes courtesy of the Linda Moore, curator at the Fort Collins History Museum. It was overheard at the "Poor of Me, Good of Dog" May Wilkins exhibit, where they put out typewriters for visitor use. After I stopped feeling old (and laughing) it reminded me of a dilemma I sometimes saw at the Exploratorium. A new parent would come in and tell their children "don't touch" but figure out about 1/4 of the way through that it was all about touch. I once worked on a project where I agonized about what type of barrier to use. It was a natural history exhibit that had numerous taxidermied animals and delicate artifacts. Like most designers, I didn't want to put up a visual barrier. The director said that we only needed to put up a simple cable. His argument was that the psychology of crossing the line would be so great that visitors wouldn't need more than that. In the final build however, they made the sides of the exhibit so steep, no one could reach the artifacts, cable or not. At Gyroscope, we addressed this problem at Exploration Place in Wichita by putting dried wheat grass as a no-touch barrier slightly above the rail. It has been very effective, yet makes the visitor feel that they can have some contact with the objects since they're not "under glass". It's wonderful to leave objects out- it helps visitors feel closer to them. But what happens when you're in a history museum context and you reverse the expectation as visitors move from gallery to gallery. Some cases where you want visitors to touch, and most others where you don't? I know that I get into a "mode" when I'm at certain museums- where I almost feel reluctant to move from passive to active. At the recent Bay Area Now 5 show at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, I noticed a number of the artists were using "takeaways" as part of their pieces. They gave large prints and questionnaires (ala Felix Gonzales-Torres). This is not always clear to visitors, and the guards have to sometimes tell folks it's Ok. This got me to wondering about how to make it clear and inviting as people shift from gallery to gallery with an ever-changing set of expectations? One thought I have is to be a little more deliberate. For example, create a "interactivity ramp" between elements when a visitor is in an environment where they don't expect to interact. That model might look like this:
I'm going to try this out in a future project, and I will let you know how it goes. What methods have you used to foster interaction in unexpected places?

Giving Context to Experiences

maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museumsWe've been working on several historical projects recently. These history museums and societies provide more than facts and figures about the past. At their best, they foster an understanding of the contexts that led up to events, and forge connections between history and individuals. One such example is a project from the United States Holocaust Museum "Children of Lodz Ghetto". USHMM collected stories from diaries and interviews with survivors of the ghetto. These were archived together wi th photos of artifacts, people, film footage, and individual stories. For example, the history of Jutta Szmirgeld provides snippets of her time from age 12 in Lodz to her amazing survival of Auschwitz. Such collections enable us have empathy for the past by providing us with a more complete picture of life at that time. The technology allows us to gather and share these stories fluidly with one another, while allowing the museum to do what it does best: give us an open-ended, yet informed experience of the past. [originally posted elsewhere, revised]

Friday, September 19, 2008

From Audiotours to iPhones [Conference Review by a Guest Blogger]

maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museums Hi, Janet Petitpas here. I work for Gyroscope in London. I recently attended the "From Audiotours to iPhones" conference at the Tate Modern. It was a particularly interesting conference for me as I have a background at low-tech museums and am not experienced in using, maintaining, or facilitating interactive technology in the museum environment. Many of the stars of the field were at the seminar (Peter Samis, Nancy Proctor and Jane Burton, to name a few). I was pleased at how down to earth and un-seduced by the technology everyone turned out to be. Here were a couple of take-aways for me, and things that all presenters repeated:
  • There is no silver bullet out there. The technology available needs to be seriously assessed and is not always the best option for every visitor, every institution, or every exhibition.
  • The audience and the content are king. Don’t get swept away in cool technology– the content has to be excellent and the technology has to fit the audience.
  • While some content can be used for multiple media (a label, a podcast, a hand-held) there are important differences in what visitors expect from each type of media, and the content should have some tailoring.
  • Museums are moving towards the creation and ownership of their own content (unlike the old audio guide/Antenna Audio contracts in which the vendor owns the content).
  • The majority of visitors to Museums do not chose to use technology during their visit.
Some of the questions everyone seems to be grappling with include:
  • How can you promote a social experience with technology that is solitary?
  • How do you help visitors chose a platform when they may not be familiar with the technology and may be even be familiar with the technology that have brought with them?
  • How can you maximize use of content yet be tailored to the strengths of different devices?
The presenters set up a great wiki site that has copies of presentations, PowerPoints, case studies, general resources etc. If you’d like to know more, check out: http://tatehandheldconference.pbwiki.com/FrontPage Janet Petitpas Senior Associate Gyroscope, Inc. janet [at] gyroscopeinc [dot] com

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The 3 C's: Community, Creativity, + Critical Thinking

maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museums Last spring, I participated in the MakerFaire in San Mateo, by putting together an exhibit called "The Power of the Prototype". It was a great experience for me, both personally and professionally. I came in contact with a broad swath of people that I might not have otherwise met in a museum setting. I learned a tremendous amount from this experiment. It got me thinking about how powerful that intersection of Creativity, Community and Critical Thinking can be, and how we might continue to foster it in the museum world. This is a topic I will definitely come back to from time to time. I attended my first MakerFaire in 2007 with other Gyroscopians. We wanted to evaluate some of the public programs there for a new institution we were working on called The Leonardo, in Salt Lake City. A large part of the concept we developed with The Leonardo was to fill the museum primarily with workshops, rather than exhibits. We wanted to encourage daVinci-esque thinking, by providing places where visitors could make things- be they artistic, scientific, or purely inventive. The LeonardoWe also wanted to provide an area where they could share and show off their work. So we developed what we called "Community Looms". These were essentially wall dividers that displayed the visitor-made products. This, we hoped, would have the effect of elevating their work, both to themselves and others. We sought to create a cyclical effect (not unlike the MakerFaire) where visitors would be inspired by seeing people from their community creating and sharing their work, and thus, being a point of inspiration. The Leonardo is still in development, but we'd love to hear from others about their experiences with a workshop-based approach. Do you have a story to tell? Have you seen a workshop model that worked well (or didn't) for you? Up next on this topic: what makes the MakerFaire so successful?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Visitors as Curators

maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museumsIn an era where people can select the news they want to hear, they are making their own decisions about their experiences in museums and galleries. As we know, they can blog, comment, and even give each other context about what they experience. After all, it is their experience. The question for museums is how to help individuals make meaning out of these choices? How do you reach them? How do you validate their experience... and add to it? One answer is find out what people are saying. Give them ample opportunity to post what they think about your exhibits. For example, you could offer them the opportunity to respond with a multi-pronged approach, divided along favored types of input:
  • Tween/Teen set: you can offer a "text us at 555-1212", then post vetted comments online or in the museum
  • Bloggers: you could advertise the blog for the museum or exhibit in-house and invite them to comment. Provide them with a terminal on-site so they can record their experiences immediately. You can moderate their posts, if necessary.
  • Luddites: provide the greenest option of them all- a notebook (a real one, not a computer). Scan in their comments from time to time. Rip out the offensive ones or find a funny sticker to put over them.
Then link to other sources of information about the topic du jour for your visitors. Sites they may or may not normally associate with the subject. Provide backstories to your own research on the topics- such as, a historical museum may have an interesting story about how they acquired a certain object. Of course it's important to balance all this interconnectedness with the key topics that the exhibit is raising and not get off-track. After all, visitors are coming to your web site or museum because they want to learn something they didn't already now (if you're looking for some ways to think about this, there are a few models mentioned here). Finally, respond to what they are saying. Figure out what the recurring questions are, and find a way to make public the fact that you are listening and responding. If you have a very prolific or passionate visitor, invite them to guest blog or have an interview with them that you can post on-line and in-house. If you have questions about the investment of time, there's a good article at Museum 2.0 called "How much time does web 2.0 take?". This interconnectedness is here to stay, and it's good news for museums. It means you have more opportunities to extend the visit, and reach new audiences, which I'll write more about in future posts. Way back in 2005, Michael Haley Goldman of the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Kathryn Haley Goldman, Institute for Learning Innovation wrote a paper for Museums and the Web which predicted: " I see in the future more collaborative experiences, more real-time collaboration, but also [an] untapped market for curators to use the power of the Web to collect stories. – to solicit content from the users, of wanting to get broader range of experiences, to build collaborative virtual collections." The future is now. Is your institution ready? -- Suggested reading: Brooklyn Museum's "Click" Exhibit

Thursday, September 11, 2008

How to Read a Floor Plan - the drawing sheet

maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museums This is the first part in a series about understanding design and construction drawings. It's fairly common to work on a museum project and have folks at the table who aren't familiar with architectural drawings. Most of us are in that boat who haven't studied architecture (I know I was). Yet these same people are put in the position to make key decisions based on these plans, so it's important for them to be able to decode what they are seeing. Floor plans can be used at various stages in the museum planning process- from schematic all the way to final design. For the moment, we'll focus on scaled architectural plans. Let's start with the basics [click here to see the notes]: The Title Block: shown above is a blank drawing sheet with a title block and drawing label. The title block gives you the big picture information on the drawing. Such as: who the drawing is for, who made it, what project it is about, what phase of the project, and what the overall sheet is describing (a floor plan, an exhibit, or a component). The Drawing Label indicates what that particular item is, what type of view it is (a plan, an elevation), the scale, and the number. This number is important because often on a plan you will see a number in a circle pointing to something. On a plan, that directs you to the sheet and drawing on that sheet where you can find the details for that component. FYI, there can be several drawing labels on a sheet, but on a floor plan, there is usually only the plan. Next up on this topic: we'll delve into the sheet to sheet references mentioned above.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What do you think is useful?

maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museums From time to time on this blog I have referred to other sites which offer great info to institutions... for free. What I'd like to know is, what information do YOU find most helpful? Is it useful to have an article to forward to a higher-up that supports a novel approach? Or is it better to have a "how to" approach which you can implement immediately? What's worked? What hasn't? Is there anything you'd like to see?

Identity Control: Part 3

maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museums This week, I'm participating in an on-line forum at ASTC Connect (American Science and Technology Center, for our non-science museum readers). It's predominantly about Web 2.0, and how science centers are struggling with and adapting to it. What's clear is that there is no "right" answer, but rather, what works best for your institution. You can find more about that in places like Nina Simon's blog. Back to brand and identity, here are some simple guidelines for getting to a zen state with your institutional image management in this new world: Be willing to throw the first stone. Up front, foster a culture of inquiry. Ask provocative questions about yourself and find out what your audience thinks. Just the act of doing so will show that you are open to conversation, and that you know they are out there, looking, listening, and wanting to respond. Give them such invitations repeatedly. Make it clear. If you want feedback give them clear criteria, and be deliberate in your inquiry if you are asking for input or feedback. Many visitors are still afraid of museums. This will also help them shape their input in a meaningful way. Let go. Yup, this is the best way to move forward. Those that love or hate you can both be your allies. Finding ways to engage with that conflict and passion will make you a smarter institution. I like to think of it as being Lincolnish. Do you know where your visitors are? -- Suggested reading: Starting and Fostering Online Communities, Brand Recovery in the Social Networking Era -- Up next: How to read a floor plan

Identity Control: Part 2

maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museums If the identity of your institution is not just in your hands, then what do you think the future of that identity looks like? I think this is a good time to think about things from a more… philosophical point of view. Any person or group who takes and adversarial stance towards your institution is a passionate audience member. This is a good thing! The key for you is to find out how to engage with their passion, and make it work for you. If you don’t, you’re missing an opportunity and leaving yourself open to a negative backlash. Ok, but if visitors are taking pictures of your exhibits, and posting them on the web, then why do they need you? First, they need you to continue to do what you are doing. You’re good at it. You help by raising an issue (which you have done, by creating an exhibit) and given them a safe forum (your museum) in which to explore it. If you can create the possibility for follow up with visitors after they leave, or build in places of engagement on-line while they are there, you’ll increase the likelihood that they’ll come back on-line or off. This strategy has been covered in many places on and offline*, so I'll restate it simply: find out where your visitors are on-line, and what they are saying about you. Respond to them. Your strength as an authority is that you can help give the public context for what they may have seen. It’s no longer a model where you are “preaching” to them, but rather, conversing with them. You may still be the pro on the topic du jour, but they are the authorities on their experiences of it. If you can help them see it in a different light …or they can help you, then you both benefit. The Tech Museum has a few exhibits where you can have images of yourself made in various ways. You get a "Tech Tag" which you can enter into their website at home, and download the images. This is great, and lots of fun. One place where they fall short is at the point of the download. That’s the key moment to re-engage and offer them context and more information about the technology or idea behind what they are grabbing. Finding out where your visitors are is one piece of managing your identity. The other is following through with your mission to educate and by doing so, you will reinforce it. -- *Suggested reading: Groundswell, by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff.

Identity Control: Part 1

maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museums The issue of identity and how to manage it in a “commentable” world came up for me this week. As the mantle of "curator" gets redirected by the impact of web 2.0, institutions are struggling with how to remain true to their identity and yet be inclusive. I’ve been thinking about how to foster such an identity that is both the trusted author and the inclusive conversationalist. With visitors being able to comment on your institution inside and outside your walls, it's important to get your arms around this. Let's say that you have a strong authoritarian identity at your institution. However, visitors are taking pictures, blogging, and writing reviews on sites like Yelp and others. Some of these fit your vision of yourself, and some don't. What is a strategy for managing you identity but allowing conflict, debate, or an unfavorable point of view? One idea, suggested by Nina Simon of Museum2.0 fame, is to worry less about whether user generated content will dilute the brand [which you can't control] and focus on "selecting user-engagement opportunities that really fit with the institutional image" [which you can]. Building on that idea, actively reaching out to your visitors in the various forums and fostering dialogs with them will increase your outreach, and also strengthen who you are. Having a more permeable, or inclusive brand may be the reverse of traditional brand strategy. However, if a museum's goal is to ask questions and educate, then shouldn’t its brand be an open-ended invitation? -- Suggested reading: Common Craft, Reach Advisors post Cultivating Online Identity Management

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Welcome to Museums Now

By Maria Mortati

This blog will be a place to examine issues for museum-related institutions, as well as a place to explore provocative ideas about the museum world. As institutions reach out to their audiences in a landscape rich with options, the pressure is on to stay relevant or better put-- connected.

Why Museums... Now? 

I work at Gyroscope Exhibits in Oakland, California as an Exhibit Developer. I've also worked in-house at the Exploratorium. The interesting thing about working "on the outside" is that we get to see inside a diverse set of institutions, and cultures. We learn a tremendous amount with each project, and we are constantly writing and sharing with our clients. This is an ideal vehicle for us to share what learn with you. From time to time other "Gyroscopians" will guest blog, as we have diverse backgrounds in our office- from science center administration to architecture, early childhood education, and interaction design.

This week I'm going to delve into the topic of institutional identity, and explore some ways to think about it in our highly editable world.