Friday, December 08, 2006

Interview with Elisa Giaccardi

Today, a conversation with Elisa Giaccardi, from the Center for Lifelong Learning and Design at University of Colorado, Boulder. Elisa’s focus is interactive arts, media design, and cultural management, and she has been involved in many pertinent projects, such as MUVI (the Virtual Museum of the Collective Memory of Lombardia). Elisa calls the virtual museum a “living organism linking the people, visions, interpretations, and values” of various locations and stakeholders, and we sat down to poke that organism a bit and see what makes it squirm.

My favorite pieces of this conversation dealt with 1. the question of how cultural objects are defined and valued and 2. our final thoughts about the value of “encounters” as opposed to “experiences.” Enjoy!

I’d like to start by asking you to tell us a little more about your current project, the Silence of the Lands.

The primary objective of the Silence of the Lands is to engage the Boulder community in a focused way of listening to natural quiet. And then, to provide them with a narrative mechanism to express and share and learn from that experience. In doing so, we want to achieve a way for the community to access the natural heritage through the sonic filter, and basically be able to connect to each other’s perceptions about quiet through the ability to record the sounds directly from the natural environment.

What motivated you to start this project?

The anecdote behind the project was a lecture by Patty Limerick at CU—the Director for the Center of the American West—where she was explaining a project they had that related to natural quiet. She talked about how hard it was to get different social groups to share perspectives on how sound should be managed.

This is an interesting problem related to natural heritage and how it is shared and enjoyed. So we wanted to create a mechanism to have these connections over sustained time. Environmentalists, the Museum of Natural History at CU, they all responded very enthusiastically to this. The stakeholders are really engaged.

How are you selecting the people who will record the sounds?

This year, we will complete the development of the first two technologies—the recording mechanism and the collaborative mapping tools. We will engage volunteers to evaluate the technologies for how usable—and socially adaptable—they are. We have to see how this mechanism will help create a meaningful social experience. So in summer 2007, we will have 30 volunteers from Boulder, from different social groups, use the technologies and we will evaluate.

How do you develop mechanisms specifically to encourage connection?

What we’re interested in is not only user content generation in the sense of starting from an artifact that is out there in a museum and adding meaning… I’m really interested in the process of defining what is a cultural object, and how we assign value to that. The way in which we appreciate and interpret cultural objects changes over time, and I believe things should be really tied into the values and experiences of the people who use them.

So the value of the mechanisms is to let people find and reflect on what natural heritage is—how it can be defined, represented, and shared. Using social software mechanisms allows people to browse and aggregate content in a way that is very fluid and flexible, but it is also critical that they are allowed to collect the object itself. And then giving it back to the community through a social interface—to share that knowledge back with the community.

So how do you connect this kind of ongoing project to a museum, which has the challenges of displaying something for people who were not involved in generating the data?

We are discussing how to do that [with the CU Museum]. Basically, they will renovate their space and incorporate an interactive table that allows visitors to access this content. There are two strategies. We have the City of Boulder naturalists, who are involved in organizing field activities for the community—bringing the community into the open spaces—to facilitate that collection. Then we have the museum that is doing the same but drawing from the installation in the museum—so they will plan activities around that installation—to bring groups of visitors out to collect data. The idea is to have a migration path between these different spaces—so people who usually take the naturalist hikes get interested in the museum side. What the museum will do is, once you have this set of social practices and a set of data that’s accessible—how can they build a narrative on top of that. For example, the museum is very interested in biodiversity. Ccan you engage visitors who weren’t part of the process of generating the sounds to use and manipulate the soundscape and learn about biodiversity?

Who chooses the narratives for the museum? Is it the curator or the people?

That’s the critical point—how far do we want to push this. As you’ve said, we often have projects where users can create content without letting them understand how the content is chosen or aggregated. I think it really depends on the kind of project and the objectives of the museum. When can people do it themselves and when do they need help? We let users do it themselves when they have an emotional connection to the content—we need to get them engaged deeply in emotions, socially, in social practices. Then on top of that—we either find a way through the design itself for people to self-organize the content—but that’s a challenge that will take 5-10 years, to find out how the combination of generating cultural items and social practices for sharing… or develop a close relationship with an institution—museum, publisher—or a set of stakeholders who want to overlay their own narrative. When social practice of collection becomes very active—when this solidifies—then one solution is to have the present stakeholders collaboratively come in and help them guide them to create the narrative.

I don’t know if you have seen the yahoo time capsule—this is a project of everyday archeology—people could submit all kinds of electronic information (images, text, sounds, video) to be included in a digital time capsule. Basically, they took a snapshot to see what kind of content people provide—but I don’t find it successful because you really lose the sense of a narrative. It’s interesting, but the content is so diverse, and the overarching thought is not powerful enough to converge to a narrative.

It sounds like you are saying that you need to start with a strong narrative framework to drive collection of data… which can then be used to generate new narratives.

Definitely. You need a narrative to engage users in the process itself. It’s not that you have to tell them, “collect these things and these will be your cultural objects,” but you need a narrative to engage people. If it’s too loose, it just doesn’t work.

You talked about it taking many years for us to develop the “social practices” around user generation and sharing to really see this come to fruition. Can you explain what you mean by that—what are we lacking now and where do we have to go?

I really don’t have an answer to this. I want to see what happens next summer with these volunteers—this experience is supposed to change their properties of reflection and how they react to each other and what they’ve collected. We’re working on the semantics of what kinds of social processes may be involved.

What are the barriers to developing these social practices?

One major barrier is a difficulty in opening up the deep conversation of what the role of the museum is today. We are working with new technology in old frameworks. We are trying to find out how to use social tagging in big museums to engage more users. In a standard museum, I can’t change the way the content is aggregated. That, to me, is a major cultural barrier to investigating the ways that we can use technology to see how these changes can be enacted.

Technologically, we are very early in the use of social technology, so there are so many usability and design issues that it will probably take time to get a good grasp of and use to full potential.

You talk about the cultural challenge of working with museums. One thing that occurs to me as I’ve been exploring these ideas is the possibility that this can’t work with museums as they currently exist. On the web, user generation isn’t just an add-on—it fundamentally changed the platform. Can regular museums even do this?

I think that some museums will need a much longer period of time—for example, art museums—there are valuable artifacts and it’s much harder to play with these museum pieces and think how the museum could change. And that will probably happen when the kind of artistic production that uses new media will become predominant in the museums. At that point, there may be two kinds of museums—one kind holding cultural objects from the past that won’t change their identity as much. But I see as one of the most promising areas to explore and experimenting is tangible and intangible heritage in local museums that traffic in cultural objects. Because even when you have a museum focused on intangible heritage, material objects will always have a connection—the intangibles are embodied there.

If we go down the path of cultural objects that are created by and for current users, what happens to historical cultural objects? Where do they belong?

I hope they won’t become isolated pieces—that we will somehow find ways to put them into the interpretation. I think the Steve museum project is a very good example of this.

Social tagging in art museums?

Yes. Here they are experimenting with engaging museums and users in playing with social tagging and seeing what are the patterns of usage. I think we’ll learn some good things from that.

What is your dream museum of the future?

My dream museum is a museum without walls, where the objects are very much embedded in the social and cultural practices of the community. And more people have a stake in telling each other what is worth being told and shared and communicated. And we have a more collaborative way of defining our cultural process and identity.

Elisa, this all sounds very exciting. But then I have these nagging concerns… You know, when the National Museum of the American Indian opened on the Mall here last year, there was a lot of criticism because they reached out to tribes and gave them a large role in determining what would be in the exhibits. The result was that for many visitors, the larger narrative—of the experience and history of American Indians—was not present. I had that reaction too—and it made me wary of situations where people are generating their own cultural content and how that works (or doesn’t) for the visitor.

This is an example where they have two different audiences—you do not belong to the tribe, so you go to the museum with an external perspective and expectations, so you cannot share the same values through the content provided because that says something to them but not to you. So you want a birds-eye view, not a view from within.

Hm. I don’t think I want a third-person perspective. But in a way, you’re right—I don’t want something that’s all about the creator, whoever it is. It’s like if you went to a kid’s house and he had a museum that was all “me” stuff. I want the “you” stuff—the museum experience that reaches out to the visitor. The You Museum.

Yes, exactly. It also makes a clear analysis—if you have user-generated content, it’s still unclear how your audiences will connect and engage with it. Do you want a result that is meaningful only to the users or to someone else as well? If you look to the MUVI project, the stories—even though they are about a foreign place—they are so engaging and captivating. It’s so interesting to have that window into their experience. The point is the encounter—how do you create a space for someone else to encounter and have a meaningful experience with your content.

That’s a great way to put it. Because we all have had experiences where a story or object reached out to us—even though there was no obvious link. So the question is how to focus on that—creating successful encounters with visitors.

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