Category Archives: research

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

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The Century of the Self

As we discussed in class, the “self” is a relatively recent invention. It seems that this shift has had a profound influence particularly on western society as we know it today but also more specifically the role of the museum and expectations and perception of the visitor. It has forced the museum to adapt radically in order to successfully compete with contemporary forms of media/entertainment. The Century of the Self is BBC four-part documentary series by Adam Curtis which reveals the fascinating process of the ‘invention’ of public relations and the move from ‘need’ to a ‘desire’ based society. It shows the context within which museums have developed over the last century and indirectly why they are what they are today. You can watch the series on Google videos. Part 1 is called Happiness Machines. Enjoy!

RH

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.

Data Graphics

Hans Rosling's Data Graphics at TED Conference

Edward Tufte is fantastic. If I had a log cabin I would go and read his books for days. After purchasing a film projector last week, I have immersed myself in watching TED talks projected large scale in my home. Also fantastic. Hans Rosling’s 20 minute lecture on being able to visualize statistics is simple phenomenal. Countries are represented in circles of different sizes relating to population and are placed on an X,Y axis of health and wealth and Rosling animates the graph moving the placement of those countries on the graph as time progresses. We see countries evolving or failing. Reassigning the X,Y values, we see life expectancy rise up in most countries but literally see sub Saharan countries fall back with HIV-related deaths. Who know that watching moving circles could be an emotional experience – but it is. The bottom line is that so many types organizations have access to this data, but Rosling makes the point that this data is sitting in databases not being comprehended.
While so many major global organizations can benefit from this instigating initiatives, museums can simply play the role of projecting this information for the public.
Thanks TED.

HC Smith

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

The Self

Many of our conversations in class today concerned the museum visitor historically, a changing sense of “the self”, how this contributes to identity and the ways in which museums engage their audience. Our conversation widened to explore the role of social networking technologies and the issues associated with self-selection and collaborative filtering and how that relates to a museum’s function, its authority and the role of the curator.

It is interesting to imagine that today people generally interact with a greater number of other people than at any other time in history. However these people are also far less likely to encounter someone who does not already share similar interests. One obvious conclusion is that we are in danger of losing the ability to be critical thinkers, to debate issues, and engage in rational conversations with consenting adults who disagree with each other.

You can see evidence of this in our political news media. There is a great deal of emotion, no shared language, and next to nothing that opposing parties can agree upon. As CFM’s “Museums & Society: 2034” study discusses, self-selection has led to a polarized society where constituencies gather in safe clusters of like-minded peers, institutions and their content. Technology plays a role in this but it may be more of a symptom of something deeper than technology as an instigator. It is always easiest to blame the tool. This does not mean that social networking technologies are inherently bad. But they do reveal a tendency that is growing stronger and should be better understood in the context of museums.

The idea of self-selection and the shaping of identity has a long history that predates Facebook and other applications by decades. In fact the shaping of identity in our political and commercial world  is largely informed by psychoanalysis and its contributions to commercial marketing and public relations beginning in the late 1930s. At this time analysts began seeking a practical means of applying their science to the public at large. I recently saw a recent BBC production titled “The Century of the Self “which explores this history in four chapters.  Its one of the most powerful and timely documentaries that I have seen. It is a must for anyone thinking about these issues. It is available as streaming media on Archive.org.

Tim Ventimiglia

The Future Museum

Following a rough history of the museum in the posts above, what shall we say about the future of the museum? Hopefully the rest of this semester will cast some light on this and put forth some informed speculations. When imagining the future one can really only talk about current trends and, if they show signs of continuing, to project how they might shape our world. Throughout history museums have followed changes in society and evolved to suit its needs. It is safe to guess that the increasingly rapid changes in society (technology, energy, education, economy, etc) will precipitate a need for museums to adapt sooner than later. In fact the existing museum models do seem a bit tired and are hard-pressed to keep up with and address a range of social and technological issues that are already in play. Thanks to a wide variety of thinkers in the museum community, some initial ideas are emerging.

Museum Stages.xlsx

We know that the museum of the future will have to recognize a world that is connected by a complex and constantly shifting network of influences, a disappearance of temporality and a sense of self that is shaped more by the social networks we inhabit moment to moment than by any singular defining experiences. Through collaborative filtering, users of Web 2.0 applications talk to more people than any generation before them but are less and less likely to meet someone who does not already share similar interests. We are by default all members of special interest groups. In fact each of us likely has multiple identities that inform our sense of self. Some of these may even conflict with one another. Museums already find themselves no longer serving categorizable audiences but micro-constituencies which take form and disappear with a speed that is impossible to respond to in traditional mediums. We are all simultaneously curators and consumers.  Content is generated by the user on-demand and the proliferation of free content via the internet has changed they way a younger audience perceives cultural value in a museum. Thinking about a new model for the future of the museum does not suggest we abandon the object or “the real” and supplant these critical assets with technology. But it does suggest that the new mediums and experiences of a generation who know the world through social networks and new tools must come into play. However to understand these new “Networked Publics” [ed. Varnelis] we should not look at the technologies but look more carefully at the desires of the society that gave shape to and created these technologies to serve its needs.

Some major influences on my thinking here include the recent work of historian and cultural theorist Kazys Varnelis, who is the director of Columbia University’s Netlab, Nina Simon who perhaps coined the term “Museum 2.0” with her notable weblog dedicated to the subject, and Dr Angelina Russo who presides over a weblog titled Museum 3.0 (perhaps trumping Nina, or maybe just because Museum 2.0 was taken). All three are amazing thinkers and far more qualified scholars than I am. I have also been reading AAM’s Center For the Future of  Museums’ recently commissioned study “Museums & Society: 2034” and The New Media Consortium’s “2009 Horizon Report” which forecasts the adoption of emergent technologies in public space. I will summarize those in a future post.

Tim Ventimiglia