Author Archives: museumdesignlab

Flickr Museums

Over the course of the Fall 2010 semester Museum Lab students worked in four teams of three to invent and develop fictional museums using Flickr. This experimental format supplanted the Lab’s more traditional design assignment as the majority of students were non-design grads from Media Studies, History of Decorative Arts and Fine Arts. The aim was to see if we could practice the internal functions of the museum – including collection, conservation, interpretation, education and exhibition – using Flickr’s editorial and content management features.

While Flickr did seem at times to be a bit of an antiquated program, and lacking in participatory features of more popular social networking sites it did provide an environment for discussing a wide range of very general museum issues in an an abstract and easy to manipulate surrogate to a real museum. Questions explored included: What is a mission statement? How does mission relate to a collecting policy? How do you create and manage metadata to sort and access information? What editorial decisions are involved in creating a thematic exhibition? How can we effectively use the tools of social networking including collaborative and participatory modes of interaction, user generated tags and comments? How does the from and functions of a networked media environment influence the reading of the content?

Salon de Refuse: A Trash Museum
A museum of re-purposed objects and materials for the creation of new works of art. The Salon de Refuse derives its name from late 19th Century Parisian Salon Refusés that was founded by artists who were refused by jury of the officially sanctioned Paris Salon.
Students: Michelle Jackson, Ryan Massey, Logan Sibrel.

Gotham City Street Art Museum
This Street Art Museum creates an online site for exploring graffitti, painted murals, paste-ups and other ephemeral urban artistic practices in public space.
Students: Tori Jones, Jayme Elterman, Kadie Yale

The Play and Learn Collection: Toys that Influence
This museum explores the effects of designed objects on early childhood development including gender roles, race, occupation and identity.
Students: Meagan Elevado, Racini Andres, Ruby Hoette.

New Yorker’s Tribute Museum
The Tribute Museum explores the space of memory archives the many often unoticed memorials and monuments in New York, including spontaneous acts of memorialization, tribute tattoos, and municipally sponsored memorial installations.
Students: Sinnead Lawler, Livia Di Mario, Jessica Peterson.

Critics invited to the final review included Shannon Mattern, Professor at the New School Department of Media Studies; Ilona Parkansky, Educational Media and Technology Planner at Ralph Appelbaum Associates and Susan Sellers, Founder and Principal of 2×4 Design.

Tim Ventimiglia

The Met’s Luce Center for the Study of American Art

On Monday the MuseumLab visited the Henry R. Luce Study Center for American Art at the Met. Curator Amelia Peck and Technologist Leela Outcalt gave us a tour of the existing facility, talked about its history and showed us a prototype of the new user interfaces that they are implementing.

The Luce Center was the first of many Luce Foundation funded study centers including the New York Historical Society, the Brooklyn Museum, and most recently the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in DC. The Met’s Luce Center was created in the late 1980’s when American became an official department  after consolidating collections that were previously scattered across multiple departments. The Luce  Center was revolutionary for its high-density open storage approach and use of digital object records that could be accessed by visitors. There are now over 18,000 objects of decorative arts, art and design in the American Department and these are distributed in a variety of gallery types including art galleries, period rooms, the study center, a recently renovated courtyard and some back of house storage. Adding loaned objects they are currently holding over 21,000 objects. The basic idea behind the study center was to democratize access to the collection, not just for scholars, but for the visiting public. There is a great article in Museum News (July 1991) by Carrie Rebora chronicles the early years of the project and how it came about so I wont dwell on the history here (I will digress with one footnote–the entire collections database and user interface ran on two 330 MB drives with 4 MB of RAM!).

Amelia and Leela gave us their assessment of what works and what doesn’t and a peek at some new interfaces the are developing with Small Design Firm. Their plans include a much larger number of interactive study stations each with a large touch screen monitor at a table to support longer object browsing and study. The prototype of the new interface was quite sophisticated and allowed you to search using any field, and organize the collection chronologically, by accession date, and by material.

They are also adding small monitors to the ends of each case, allowing users to browse the contents of the case in closer physical proximity. These compact screens  are visually very simple and easy to navigate. Objects are represented as thumbnail photographs in a grid. Touching and object icon opens a page containing its metadata. The systems seems easy to navigate, is visually unobtrusive and is automatically updated with new data every week to keep pace with new acquisitions, loans and new curatorial information for each object.

The Luce Center’s collections interfaces and the period room interactive programs are a smart technological retrofit of an existing facility and provide a strong contemporary complement to older (but still effective) exhibition techniques. To me the most interesting aspect of this interface is that it enables the Met to graphically represent the entirety of the collection in a number of ways that reveal larger trends like the proportion of objects in the collection across decades, or the proportion of silver, to glass, to ceramic, etc. These visualizations reminded me of some of the great Victorian collections displays where the entirety of the museum’s collection were visible in a kind of panoptic spectacle that was meant to convey the collection’s taxonomic structure at a glance.

Tim Ventimiglia

Steven Conn Podcast

Here is a podcast interview with Steven Conn, who we read in class this week. The conversation is based around his book “Do We Still Need Objects?” and its pretty interesting to hear his views. I thought that some of the class might enjoy hearing more about his thoughts.

Jess Petersen

Back of House

In the Fall 2010 semester the Lab will explore the essential functions of the museum with the aim of inverting the traditional museum program and identifying new ways of making its internal processes of collection, conservation and interpretation more accessible and socially engaging. As evident in a range of recent projects, museums are increasingly interested in making their internal processes transparent –even participatory– for their visitors through on-the-floor staff interactions, visible study collections, interfaces to digital resources and the use of social media. These techniques and technologies allow museums to explore and even to blur the boundaries between ‘front of house’ and ‘back of house’ functions and afford new ways for the museum to connect with its audience.

The American Association of Museums (AAM) defines the museum as being comprised as a set of specific activities that are conducted under a guiding mission. These include: collection, conservation, interpretation, education, and exhibition. Unless we are museum professionals working within an active museum, most of our attention as members of the public is traditionally focused on exhibitions, and perhaps occasionally on an educational event or program.  The first three activities listed represent for most of us that mysterious hidden world behind the gallery walls and are often misunderstood, or at the very least under-appreciated while the activities of collection, conservation and scholarship are essential to any museum. Some might even suggest that there is a subtle institutional progression implied in this list of activities that places them in a linear hierarchy with the first – collection – being somehow the most essential and the last – exhibition – being almost an operational burden.

It goes something like this: if you do not collect there is nothing to conserve. Scholarship and interpretation requires an object of study. If you do not have scholarship then you cannot teach and if finally you do not have anything unique to say then what will your exhibition hope to communicate to its visitors? That may be a bit rash but you get the point.

Historically the systems of collecting and interpreting natural, cultural and artistic heritage have indeed informed the development of a museum’s architecture, its exhibitions and public programs. As systems of collecting and the construction of knowledge have changed over the last two centuries, we have seen corresponding changes in museum architecture, exhibition and programming.  We will explore how these changes played out in the museum, what societal forces drove the changes, and how design and museum practices have responded. We will identify emergent approaches in a range of new and existing museums. We will look at architecture, exhibition, technology, media, and the role of the curator and designer in shaping museum experience.

I am in interested in weaving together a number of disparate threads that I believe are catalyzing in this shift toward making the museum’s ‘back of house’ increasingly visible and essential to connecting with their visitors. After a decade characterized by iconic museum buildings and expensive permanent exhibitions and the subsequent decline of philanthropic support due to the downturn in the economy, museums are now looking hard at ways of making more value out of their existing assets. Back of House aims to explore this trend across at least three modes of implementation: the physical, the personal and the digital.

Themes and Threads

Architecture Inside Out
Over the last 50 years there has been a dramatic change in museum architecture. Long gone are the vaulted, naturally lit galleries of the early 20th Century and the ideals of symmetry, solid masonry walls, steep stairs and pillared portico entries. Modernism brought a disciplined rationality to buildings that were optimized for flexibility, flow and operational performance. Postmodernism was marked by what we might be called narrative architecture. These are buildings that are purpose-designed to a specific text and meant to convey a specific story. Now, at the culmination of a  museum building boom that lasted almost 20 years, there is a new trend emerging. In museums both recent and currently underway we are seeing an opening up of buildings, deconstructing the formality of the gallery, extensive use of glass and day-lighting, dramatic views both inside and beyond the walls of the museum, views into research areas, visible storage, study centers and high density collections displays, and a hybridization of traditional museum program or ‘nested’ programs where learning laboratories and other facilities are literally embedded within the gallery.  The Luce Foundation sponsored study centers at the Smithsonian, Metropolitan Museum or the Brooklyn Museum are examples of this approach. Another example might be the London Museum of Natural History’s new Darwin Centre­—a multistory, light-filled building attached to the original neo-gothic structure of this venerable museum, like a cocoon that opens to reveal the scientific research and collections functions of the museum to the visiting public.

Status of the Object
The second theme we will explore is the status of the physical object in museums.  While this will not be a class on materiality or material culture, we will explore the role of the museum collection as it relates to the function of the museum, conservation, interpretation, and exhibition. Recent publications such as Sherry Turkle’s Evocative Objects or historian Stephen Conn’s Do Museums Still Need Objects? explore the status of the analog object in the age that appears to favor the digital medium. The title of Conn’s book is striking. In fact it is almost alarming. Conn is a scholar and has spent a career rigorously mapping the changing topography of the museum as it responds to nuanced changes in society. The title is very direct and implies that an urgently needed, practical discussion will follow. The fact is that there are many, and perhaps even an increasing number of museums without objects. What is at stake in this trend?

Social Networks
The third theme concerns the advent of social networking applications and the integration of technology into the museum experience and the consequent “decline of the expert.” The ubiquity of social networking applications may be a symptom of society’s constant search for order and empathy that has been enabled and made visible by new technologies. At the very least, it reinforces the increasing importance we place in the definition of the Self as we seek to clarify and document our unique worldview, while at the same time atomizing into online micro-communities of like-minded individuals. We define ourselves by the connections we make in social space and the things we collect and give preference to. Museums have also traditionally facilitated this. The boundaries between traditional roles, responsibilities and authorities have shifted. We are now simultaneously content producers, curators and consumers. Museums are exploring ways to incorporate user-generated content and participatory experiences where the visitor becomes integral to the production of the experience. The scholar’s voice is just a starting point. In some cases it does not exist at all. The visitor’s voice joins a cacophony of others to form an infinite number of meanings where the project of interpretation is never finished. Nina Simon’s new book The Participatory Museum explores these ideas in depth and is sure to become a staple for museum professionals for the years to come. Other projects like steve.museum explores ways that social tagging can enhance the public assess and use of museum resources. What do these new social networking tools and digital assets provide to museums as they seek to communicate with our public? What does this mean for the role of the curator, scholarship and education in the museum?

Museum as Muse
Lastly, and more so than any architect or museum design professional, I am deeply motivated by a number of artists who actively use museum architecture, collections and processes as a site for their art. David Wilson’s LA-based Museum of Jurassic Technology; Ilya Kabakov’s immersive, and sometimes intentionally unfinished art gallery installations; Sophie Calle’s documentary approach utilizing photography and objects as evidence of a grand narrative; Andrea Fraser’s unauthorized, although seemingly ‘official’ museum tours; Mark Dion’s use of traditional archeological and forensic sciences and mock expeditions in unexpected places; filmmaker Peter Greenaway’s “100 Objects to Represent the World” and interactive room-sized talking painting “Wedding at Cana” at the last Venice Biennale; are just a few that come to mind. We will explore these works of art and see what they might teach us and ways of visually expressing the essential activities of the museum.

Museum Futures Symposium Online

Well its been a while (a month) since the semester’s end. After a much needed break we finally have the video of the symposium up on the Cooper-Hewitt’s YouTube ChannelEnjoy!

0:00 – 3:52   Welcome & Acknowledgments

3:53 – 17:42 Introduction to Museum Futures by Tim Ventimiglia

17:43 – 27:10 Proposal for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum by Jenny Florence & Maria Antonia Villegas

27:15 -37:15 Proposal for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum by Clarisa Llaneza, Kate McAleer & Edith Whitsitt

37:22 – 47:37 Proposal for National Museum of the American Indian by Philip Kwok, Kendall Tynes & Jill Vance

47:42 – 56:10 Proposal for the New York Hall of Science by Stephen Kaye & Ryan Massey

56:30 – 1:03 Proposal for the American Museum of Natural History by Miranda Elston & Emily Kramer

1:04:06 – 1:16:40  Proposal for the Museum of Modern Art by Lara Huchteman, Kelly Lo & Eri Yamagata

1:16:44 – 1:52:31  Panelists and Students Discussion with Allegra Burnette, Eric Siegel, David Harvey, Tim Ventimiglia, Lindsay Stamm Shapiro and Sarah E. Lawrence

Pop(up) Art Museum on the Mall

Hirshhorn Museum Transformation by Diller Scofidio + Renfro Architects

This is a truly great project, a spectacular transformation of an already iconic museum building, bring it new life, it is conceptually clear, technically genius, brilliant that it can be performed annually like a circus coming to town. Washington D.C. needs more of this. Bring it on.

Ouroussoff’s review here.

Energizing Museums

Western Science Center, Michael Lehrer Architects

Two years ago the first museum to win a LEEDs platinum rating opened in the town of Hemet in a arid, rural basin just south of Los Angeles.  Owned and operated by the County, and designed by Michael Lehrer Architects, the Western Science Center interprets a trove of fossils that were found when the Diamond Lake Reservoir was created by the Metropolitan Water District. Its mission is to educate the public to appreciate the importance of finite natural resources and our relationship to the environment we live in.  The museum also generates its own power with a massive array of photovoltaic panels. Needless to say this museum fulfills its mission in in its architecture which is strongly influenced by massive public works infrastructure more so than it is by the  iconic museum architecture we have come to expect.

Thousands of new and existing museums across the country are faced with an energy conundrum. While most museums adhere to a basic commitment to principals of conservation in their mission statements, and science museums are even more committed to discussing principals of sustabability, finite resources and stewardship of our environment, museums are also some of the largest energy consumers among building types. The requirements to maintain constant environmental conditons for the preservation of sensitive artifacts and specimens, the dramatic fluctuations in HVAC loads caused by the heat and humidity of daily throngs visitors and intense theatrical exhibit lighting all put a high price tag on building systems and require high energy consumption. Actually a large percentage of any museum’s project budget goes into the museum building’s mechanical systems. Sometimes this represents a higher percentage of budget than is spent on the public experience of the collections through exhibits and programs. So why not make those systems an integral part of the experience? My guess is that that is what Lerher intended with the Western Science Center. But looking at the design I wonder, is it a ‘green’ museum that fulfills its conservation driven mission, or is it a power plant with a museum attached?

This month’s issue of AAM’s Museum News features a great article on museums and energy consumption.

Tim Ventimiglia

Museum Futures Symposium

This end of semester event will feature the research and speculative proposals of the students of the Fall 2009 Museum Design Lab at the Parsons School of Design’s School of the Constructed Environment.

The evening will begin with an overview of some key trends in museums and a series of short presentations by six student teams who will each talk about their work with a partner museum. The teams represent a mixture of students in programs of architecture, interior and lighting design and the history of decorative arts and design. Their work includes an analysis of their museum partner’s unique assets and speculative proposals for dealing with a range of challenges that the museum will likely face in the next 25 years. A panel discussion in response to the work and other questions will be moderated by Tim Ventimiglia.

Panelists representing the Museum Lab’s museum partners include:

Allegra Burnette, Creative Director, Digital Media, Museum of Modern Art
David Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs, Lower East Side Tenement Museum
David Harvey, Senior Vice President for Exhibitions, American Museum of Natural History
Dr. Sarah E. Lawrence, Director MA Program in History of Decorative Arts & Design, Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum
Eric Siegel, Director and Chief Content Officer, New York Hall of Science
Lindsay Stamm Shapiro, Exhibition Manager, Smithsonian Institution Museum of the American Indian

Seating is limited so RSVP to: christensen.heather@gmail.com
A confirmation of your reservation will be sent to you before the event.

Tim Ventimiglia

Museums Under New Management. Yours.

Yahoo Ad at Times SquareOver the last decade museums have become increasingly focused on their audience, what it knows and what it desires. While the focus group and formative evaluation has been around for a long time, there is a new trend in museums to solicit and feedback a visitor’s ideas as an integral part of their experience ‘on the floor’ . This is rapidly becoming the most valued mode of interactive engagement. True to the very notion that these experiences are essentially anti-authoritative, there is no agreed upon terminology for what this new activity is. Common terms used are ‘user-generated content’, ‘public-curating’, ‘crowdsourcing’, ‘bottom-up planning’, ‘audience engagement’, ‘user-centered design’, ‘talkback’, among many others.

These ideas follow a general trend in society based on a constant re-definition the self through the objects and ideas we associate ourselves with (see earlier post on this topic). With the notion of personal self-fulfillment at its apex, this new sense of how our identity in constructed also re-defines how we as individuals relate to society on the whole. We no longer expect to identify with overarching ideas and desires of a collective, societal-level experience, unless we select to join that experience. In fact over arching ideas are treated as suspect ideology. For the last 40 years or so the commercial sector has been bolstering this sense of the self determining individual, desire and focus on the self with generations of products designed around an expectation that products and services will be personalized and responsive to individual customers needs and interests. (No matter that we as consumers we eventually become slaves to some company’s idea for who we are).  If museums have traditionally reflected ideas about society and transformed to keep pace with larger shifts and societal identifications than it can be assumed that museums must also necessarily change to reflect this obsession with self-definition.

Last week we began to explore how a range of social-networking technologies have emerged to meet this new desire.  The social network is essentially a device that builds on the processes of self-selection and personalization, placing the user at the center of his web-based world, filtering content and creating associations that reinforce the user’s sense of self. Following the Web 2.0 Summit, Facebook founder, Sean Parker relates his vision of the future of internet commerce and posits that very soon, if not already, information services (like Yahoo, Google, YouTube, MSN) will be outmoded by network services (like Twitter, Facebook, Ebay, Paypal)” as the core value of the internet. Sean says that “Collecting data is less important than connecting people.” and ” New economic value on the internet will not be generated by the search, but by the number of connections it generates”. In other words, it is not the content but the connections that count. Crowdsourcing and auto-generative processes that lend meaning generated by collective actions of individual users over the opinions of experts, has now become a new tool for the production of the museum experience. In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki asserts that a diverse crowd is often wiser at making decisions than expert individuals. The Brooklyn Museum took this idea to heart when they ‘crowdsourced’ their recent exhibition titled Click.

pyramid_n

Illustration by Nina Simon (museumtwo.com)

Nina Simon writes extensively on this topic of museums and how they relate to Web 2.0 technologies and social participatory experiences. In her post titled Hierarchy of Social Participation, she created the above diagram that illustrates five potential levels of a museum’s engagement with visitors. These range from passive receptivity at the bottom (most museum experiences) to collective social engagement in the creation of the museum experience (few but a growing number of museums). You could say that these emergent museums are “under new management”… that of the visitor.

It is interesting to try to imagine a museum that has no authoritative voice, no scholarly enterprise at its core, and perhaps no content of its own. This kind of museum would simply provide the infrastructure and the interface to connect visitors in a creative and generative process that aggregates an ever-changing and collectively produced content. The process itself and the feeling of being connected to other people becomes the experience. One commenter on Nina’s site likened this highest level of creative participation to that of a rave party. The Brooklyn Museum is a rapidly emerging as a pioneer in this area of Museum 2.0 exploration. It is not surprising that they also have regular, late-night, public parties in their exhibition halls after the curators and collections managers go home.

Tim Ventimiglia

Cocoon

The Darwin Centre at London's Natural History Museum (photo by Tim Lee)

The Darwin Centre at London Natural History Museum (photo by Tim Lee)

One of the newest and most anticipated installations in the world of Natural History is the London Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre 2. This iconic facility opened a month ago and a few friends have since visited and reported back to me. The Cocoon – a large egg shaped structure inside a glass box and provocatively nestled up against the Victorian-Era museum building – contains 20 million insect and plant specimens as well as 220 working scientists. One of the overarching goals of the project is to make the museum’s collections and research accessible to museum visitors. This is a general trend as museums of all types seek to engage more sophisticated audiences by providing access to previously hidden away: study collections, research, registration and conservation. Darwin Centre 1, which as a sort of modest prototype for this project built a few years ago (and which I did visit), used curators as docents that took you on behind the scenes tours of collections areas as they talked about their work. You felt privileged to have access to their world and though it still had carefully controlled set of windows, you saw a lot of real stuff. I suppose a day long program of tours was a lot to ask of the curator whos’ minds should really be on research and not entertaining the public.  Darwin Centre 2 seems to dispense with the warm, human (albeit scripted) interactions. Here a set of digitized curator avatars introduce the audience to the research and the experience is focused mostly on a series of interactive media experiences that allow visitors to explore both real and digitized versions of collections, interact and provide feedback on a range of current scientific debates. I kind of like the mix of real stuff and high tech interactive interfaces, but word is that the human touch and the awesome spectacle of millions of specimens is missing here. I think this is a great model for existing museums to leverage what they already have going on behind the scenes and deliver a public view into the authentic, mysterious, museological, inner-sanctum. However, the walls of this cocoon may be still too opaque.

Another review with descriptions and images of a few exhibits here and the official video tour here and another video here.

Tim Ventimiglia