Last week, I saw the new Olafur Eliasson show at SFMOMA. Artwork aside, SFMOMA deserves kudos for taking on every maintenance nightmare short of fire—the exhibition includes falling water, pools of water, moving floorboards, and the piece de resistance—a room permanently kept at 14 degrees F to preserve the icy art car inside.
But this exhibition isn’t just a descent into sub-freezing temperatures; it’s also a tentative first step for SFMOMA using blog technology as part of the online accompaniment to the exhibition. I say “blog technology” instead of “blog” because SFMOMA has done something unusual and admirable; rather than creating a standard blog, they created an online tool, using a third party blogging application (Wordpress) as a base, that specifically suits their needs. So often, people struggle to shoehorn museum content into new technologies. Instead of letting the technology take control, SFMOMA put their needs first and used the technology as a tool to create an intelligent, simple application for visitor comments.
The Eliasson blog doesn’t look like a blog. There are no posts. There’s no RSS feed. It’s not separate (either in design or location) from the rest of the Eliasson online exhibition. SFMOMA’s goal was to create a way for visitors—online and onsite in their learning lab—to "share their experience" of the Eliasson show. To achieve this goal, they hacked the Wordpress blogging application, stripping it down a comment sharing/moderating/displaying system. When you go to the Eliasson online interactive feature, you can click on images from the show, leave your own comment, and view other comments on the image. That’s it.
Of course, Web 2.0 purists may say, “This isn’t a blog! It’s just a glorified comment board!” It is true that the Eliasson application doesn’t fit the standard definition of a blog: it does not present content in a chronological order nor can it be accessed as a feed. That’s a negative if the goal is to get out into the blogging or social network community. There’s no way to add the Eliasson blog to your blogroll, or even to access it through traditional blog links or sources. When I asked Tim Svenonius, the SFMOMA producer of the online interaction feature, why they call it a blog, he agreed that it's not a blog--it's just run by a blog engine. He surmised that the marketing folks may have branded it as a blog because the word has more cache than a phrase like "share your own experience."
But whether it's called a blog or not doesn't really matter. What matters is that SFMOMA recognizes the value of Web 2.0--and is willing to do some work to repurpose the technology to fit their goals. SFMOMA looked at themselves, and realized they didn’t want to publish original content in posts and try to elicit related visitor comments. They wanted to use the museum content directly, with no chronological timed release. They wanted a way for people in the museum’s learning lab and people at home to share comments and to see each others’ submissions.
On the technical side, working with the Wordpress engine offered Tim and his team some powerful readymade featurees. Wordpress has a built in comment and comment moderation system. Multiple users can be logged in at the same time to work on or moderate the site. Of course, on the flip side, the SFMOMA team had the challenging task of modifying the wordpress application to remove unwanted features and, most significantly, to massage the comment style seamlessly into the larger Eliasson site. Tim commented that next time, they will either be less vigilant about style-matching, or they will host the content completely on their own server (for greater flexibility in modification). Despite the headaches, however, using wordpress as an engine allowed SFMOMA to quickly get off the ground running with this pilot project in visitor participation.
A few other museums are also using third party applications to allow visitors to comment on images or content from their site without having to commit to continual content updates. Blogging applications aren’t the only or necessarily the best ones to use, especially if you are willing to have your content reside on another server and play by someone else's style rules. Some museums are using Flickr to allow people to comment on exhibit images. Others are uploading videos of their public programs to YouTube. SFMOMA went for a more customized approach, skinning the Wordpress comment service as part of the online experience.
This all excites me because it implies some mastery and ownership of Web 2.0 as a tool. At its best, all technologies are tools--things we know how and when to use to our benefit. Think of a chef’s knife. I’m an average knife-user: I know how to mince garlic and slice eggplant, but fundamentally I only know about three ways to wield a knife. My friend who’s a chef, however, is a knife master. She can effortlessly use the same knife in a huge range of cutting situations. That versatility allows her to do more with less, and to know when and how to use knives.
Right now, most museums are at the beginner stage in their comfort with Web 2.0 technologies. They’ve just been handed their first knife, know it’s sharp and potentially dangerous, and are more than a little nervous that they will use it incorrectly. The fact that the Eliasson blog is SFMOMA’s first foray into online visitor participation means their team spent a lot of time thinking about and getting comfortable with the potential value of blogs before they ever picked up the knife for the first time.
There’s a huge range of Web 2.0 applications out there to explore. Many have the same core functionality (create, share, and comment) with different content, visual interface, or focus. It’s worth spending some time in the virtual knife shop, as SFMOMA did, to see what you like and what works for your needs. And then, once you’re ready, you’ll be able to cut through the hype and the techno babble to create something that truly works for you and your visitors. And isn’t that what this is all about?