Friday, March 21, 2008

Observations from The Tech Virtual Museum Workshop, Month 3

It's been awhile since I've shared the progress of The Tech Virtual, the web and Second Life-based virtual exhibit workshop that The Tech Museum of Innovation opened in December of 2007. (You can read other posts about this project by clicking Tech Virtual in the "Past Posts By Topic" sidebar on the right.)

The goals of The Tech Virtual are:
  • to create an online space for museum professionals and creative folks of all kinds to collaborate on exhibit development and design
  • to codevelop the best of these virtual designs as real exhibits at The Tech Museum (and to offer that opportunity to other museums as well)
Since opening in December, 166 members have initiated 70 exhibit projects on The Tech Virtual website, and about half of those projects have been built as 3D models within the virtual world of Second Life. More excitingly (to me), in the last month we have selected 6 virtual exhibits for codevelopment at The Tech as real exhibits, and we plan to put 8 "virtual to real" exhibits on the floor in June for an exhibition to coincide with the Zero1 festival. We got a lovely bit of press on the first four exhibit selections, and I'm thrilled by the diversity of participants and novel creations that have been submitted thus far. We'll be "closing shop" on the June exhibit submissions at the end of March, but we then plan to open up to the virtual community a much broader set of exhibition themes--both from The Tech and other museums--for experimentation and creative exhibit development.

In January, I wrote about the challenges and opportunities of using Second Life as a design space. This time, I want to talk about the codevelopment process--how we are taking these virtual exhibits and transforming them into floor-ready interactive experiences. Over th
e last month, my job has shifted from cultivating a creative community to serving as the liaison between that community and The Tech's exhibit engineers and fabricators. Functionally, I'm now project managing a very rapid exhibition production process... with a few significant differences.

First, there's the question of creative control. The exhibits that have been selected were created by members of our virtual community. Some of these people are professional artists or exhibit designers, but most are just talented folks with an interest in museums. They aren't commissioned to create exhibits; they're invited to take part in a contest. The winners do receive prizes from The Tech, but all of their work is under a Creative Commons attribution license, which means that any museum/institution/inspired person could take a virtual exhibit and run with it as long as they credit the original creator(s) by name.

All of this means that the codevelopment process by which the exhibits are translated from virtual to real is rather fluid and different for each exhibit. We told our community from the outset that the viability of exhibits in real life largely depends on Tech staff's confidence in our ability to design/build the exhibits based on pre-existing Tech expertise. Removing the burden of knowing "how" to make your exhibit in real life opens up involvement in the
virtual process, but it also means that for the most part the exhibit conceptualizers/creators have little say in the final real life result. We did have a community member who left the community in January because she felt that the real life version of her exhibit being discussed did not appropriately reflect her vision; since then, we've tried to set clearer expectations of how translation to real exhibits might happen for each exhibit and talk people through what changes might need to happen on an individual level. Frankly, most people are just excited to imagine their vision coming to life. It will be interesting to see if that "life" accomodates their vision when they come to the exhibition opening in June.

That relates to a more general question: How do virtual exhibits translate to real exhibits? Consider the Wikisonic, a beautiful collaborative instrument initiated by Jon Brouchoud, an architect from Wisconsin. In Second Life, this instrument is a cylinder of nearly invisible spheres floating in the air. People can touch individual spheres, each of which represents a musical note, to activate them, and the spheres create a song that evolves as spheres are activated and deactivated.

It's lovely. It's mu
ltiuser. It also ignores the laws of physics, and, more subjectively, is a little more precious than Tech visitors may appreciate. In this case, we discussed potential real world implementations on the project wiki for Wikisonic. Jon was able to express what was most important to him (the instrument being accessible to multiple people at once) and that has helped drive the real exhibit design, even as we have let go of other elements of the original virtual design. What in Second Life was a cylinder of floating spheres will be a wall of buttons in real life--retaining the spirit, if not the 3D shape, of Jon's virtual creation.

This is how exhibits often happen in museums--an exhibit developer comes up with a core idea, and then designers twist it into something usable. When the developer and designer are both on staff, the conversations and evolution of the exhibit can be fluid and shared, but as more of us work with contract design/build firms, more of us find ourselves in the same position as The Tech Virtual's community: forced to communicate virtually to ensure that the exhibit is being created as desired/intended. In the case of The Tech Virtual, the fact that The Tech Museum is the ultimate client lessens this tension, as we are both the designers and the client (working with external developers/conceptualizers).

Working with contractors or communities across the country--or world--isn't easy. Holding virtual meetings and prototyping things in Second Life can be a useful alternative to endless conference calls and drawings that mean different things to different people. But that's just a start. Going virtual means we've been able to include international participants, but the not-so-surprising reality is that we have the best working relationships with the exhibit winners who happen to be local (like Richard, shown here with our exhibits team, who conceptualized a panoramic photo exhibit). In those cases, we can bring the exhibit initiators to The Tech to sit down with our engineers and brainstorm real implementations that reflect the initiators' vision and museum needs. We can do face-to-face, which becomes pretty darn useful when you are drawing squiggly lines on whiteboards and jumping up and down to demonstrate how visitors will use an exhibit.

A necessary next step for this project is to evolve our exhibit production process so that we are more clearly and openly documenting our work so geography doesn't limit these virtual exhibit designers' ongoing participation in the process. Theoretically, participants anywhere in the world could come to meetings, transfer content and software to us, and really be a part of the real world creation of their exhibit. We've already seen the value (and created the infrastructure) to develop exhibit ideas in this open way. Now we've got to keep virtualizing so we can keep sharing throughout the whole, and do it without slowing up the other pieces of the exhibit creation process.

Ultimately this is about opening up the exhibition design process, and it's useful whether to improve communication with contractors, visitors, or other museum professionals. Many people complain that it's too much work, that it's bad marketing to air our missteps and debates, or that it will erode visitor confidence in our authority. As a member of this field, I am enlightened and improved every time a museum shares its processes. Yes, I can read reviews of "what we should have done" on ExhibitFiles, but the lessons learned during a project are always more concrete than those expressed after completion. It doesn't have to be a blow-by-blow on your poor decisions; I love seeing how giant paintings get moved into museums (SAAM), early concept drawings for new exhibits (COSI), even how floor staff and visitors perceive exhibits (Exploratorium). When we're honest (and positive) about our work, we look good, whether we're struggling to get a giant totem pole in the loading dock doors or debating what the best user interface for an exhibit will be.

We're already at the point where documenting projects after the fact, via conferences, papers, and sites like ExhibitFiles, is par for the professional development course. As new technologies and approaches lead us to be more open with visitors, we should also consider how these can help us be more open with each other as well. I used to think that only other museum professionals (or contractors) would be interested in watching video from exhibit meetings or checking out other institutions' shop drawings. Now, I'm working with an outside visitor community, and that emphasis on open participation highlights our own closed doors. They want in on the whole process. The Tech Virtual is breaking down a barn door in the exhibit conceptualization and development process. But there are more doors to unlock before we can truly call ourselves an open museum. It's as practical as it is philosophical. And I don't know about you, but I prefer open spaces.

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