Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Where Do We Put It? Fitting the Web Into Museums

Thanks to Kyle Evans, who forwarded me the fascinating, lengthy master’s dissertation .art: Situating Internet Art in the Modern Museum by Karen Verschooren at the MIT Comparative Media Studies program. In it, Karen provides a survey of the evolving relationship of Internet art to art museums. The first 150 pages give a background on Internet art projects in museums, ongoing debates about their value, and Internet art's place in traditional collections. And while there's lots of good stuff in these sections (including an introduction for me to some wild net artists), it's the last chunk that interests me most, where Karen explores the question of how and where Internet art should be exhibited.

Karen separates the exhibition of Internet art into three techniques:
  1. separation (Internet art displayed solely on the web, either through museum portal or links)
  2. sepragation (Internet art displayed in the physical museum, but in its own distinct viewing room/area) (and no this is not a real word)
  3. integration (Internet art alongside the physical collection via computers, kiosks, or more innovative platforms for display and interaction)
These techniques and the related questions about exhibition aren't limited to the display of web-based art. They are applicable to any kind of internet- or network-based experience in the museum, whether that experience draws content from museum visitors, outside data, or the web. Citizen science programs. Networked exhibits that allow you to armwrestle people at other museums. In some cases, the medium is the message, as in globes that display real-time weather data from satellites. But other times, it's not clear where the content belongs.

Let's say you create a magic scoring device that allows visitors in the museum to rate each exhibit on a scale of 1-5. Where do you display those ratings? Alongside the exhibits? At the info desk with the maps? On the website?

How do you decide? Let's examine the case for each of Karen's techniques.

Separation. In her thesis, Karen concludes that relegating Internet art to museum websites is in most cases not sufficient and should be seen as a stepping stone to inclusion in the physical museum. She states that separation means that such art "can be called marginal in the number and broadness of public it attracts and the institution's commitment to the art form it communicates." I was a little surprised at this conclusion; after all, museum websites have arguably a broader, large audience than the physical museums themselves. Then again, many museums still think of their web visitors as second-class citizens, and may be unwilling to put on the floor what they put on the web.

Fear is never a good reason to put things (like ratings or visitor comments) on the website only. Experimentation is better, IF there's an expectation that positive web experiments might bleed onto the floor.

In my mind, the distinction of web-only is useful when:
  • the content provides a personal, repeatable experience. Blogs and social networks fall in this category. Sure, it might be nice to broadcast your blog feed to a screen in the museum somewhere, but the real value is for readers who can visit again and again from the flexibility of their own environment.
  • the website has a distinct enough brand to constitute its own institution. In her thesis, Karen quotes Charlie Gere of the Tate as saying "the website is the sixth Tate site, after Tate Britain, Modern, St Ives, Liverpool, and Tate Store." It's useful that he added the store as one of the Tate "sites." We're already comfortable thinking of museum stores as separate but related entities from their parent museums. Why not think of websites similarly? As web-only becomes a more viable option for all kinds of experiences, the web-only component or site for a museum may similarly grow to adulthood.
  • the content is best-used in concert with other web content. One of the interesting problems Karen raises when it comes to putting internet-enabled computers in the museum is the question of whether visitors should be able to move beyond the Internet art to other websites. We could have a whole other discussion about whether people should be able to check email in the galleries. However, if the general consensus today is "no," then web-based content that encourages further exploration on other sites, links, etc. may be best suited to a web-only environment, where visitors can surf unrestrained.
Sepagration. To me, this is the least interesting model, in which museums provide standard computer stations for visitors to explore web-based content. Why do that at the museum when I can do it at home?

When I stretch my brain, I can imagine this being useful when:
  • most of the museum-going audience does not have regular access to computers/web. Of course, in these cases, I would advocate for museums providing full computer services a la libraries. This is related to the utility of meeting visitors "where they are," that is, couching uncommon experiences in the common experience of using a computer. Again, I think this is only valid if you truly meet them "where they are" and let them email, web surf, etc. while at the computers.
  • the content is presented programmatically. I may not spend much time at a computer in the museum perusing websites on my own. But I might enjoy a "tour" of web content facilitated by a staff member, especially if I could then take home a list of the pages we perused, or, even better, have them automatically added to my or other link set.
  • the museum wants to promote its web content. If web content is new for your museum and you want people to spend a little face time with the resources, that's reasonable. I think this should follow the museum store model, where there are teasers or limited amounts of content available from the museum, with an expectation that the visitor will go to the dedicated (web) site to learn more.
Integration. This is where it starts to get interesting. If content is "made" for the web, what does it mean to recast it in physical space? Karen talks about a variety of methods and projects attempting to break out of the standard "put a computer on the floor" model, the most exciting of which (to me) is the Walker's "revolving door" shown in the image at the top of this post. Users push the door to "open" new pages of web art, thus experiencing both a metaphorical and virtual portal into the content.

Ultimately, I'm most interested in a sub-category of integration I'd call embedment, where the content is naturally part of rather than shoe-horned into the exhibit or museum design. This is challenging when it comes to art, where the original intent of the artist may be distorted if web-only content is squeezed into a non-web-typical interaction. But when it comes to other kinds of web-based experiences and data, embedding the content into exhibits and spaces can help realize its full interactive potential.

In particular, I think integration/embedment is useful when:
  • the content is potentially social. We are conditioned to think of PCs as objects with which we have personal interactions. Any socializing is done through the computer, not around it. Embedding content into collaborative touch tables, large-scale projections, and other multi-person accessible experiences may foster social exchange.
  • the content delivery is flexible. If your content HAS to be seen on a 640 by 480 window, fine. But if not, why not experiment with new ways to design it into the space? Why not devise new ways to touch it, to move it, and to see it? New technologies around web display and interaction are the darlings of Siggraph, TED, and other hipster conferences. Why not explore them in museums?
  • the content requires interpretation. Particularly when it comes to collaborative projects, in which the content is drawn from thousands of data points or blogs or videos, it's useful to have an interface that prioritizes and organizes the content. The interface doesn't have to be web-based as long as it's web-capable. Sometimes, the best interfaces make the web reliance totally invisible to the guest, as in a mountain of beans that grows as the world population does (or something way better than that).
  • the content forms the basis for a great in-museum experience. This is the most obvious, simplest reason to embed. If the content will help educate, thrill, or challenge visitors on the floor, it's worth putting it there.
One of the most powerful things about the web is its ability to facilitate connections among people, data, and ideas. When we intelligently harness and display those connections in museums, we can create experiences that feel personal, relational, and global. This is not to say that everything in the museum should be web-based, but its use and integration is another excellent option to keep in the design toolbox.

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