Friday, July 11, 2008

Why Click! is My Hero (What Museum Innovation Looks Like)

There’s a value of this exhibition that extends beyond the exhibition itself. We’re accustomed to the notion that people are enfranchised in the democratic process. We’re not accustomed to the idea that they are enfranchised in the cultural process. This is a really unique experiment. Things like this are far and few between.
No, these are neither the words of a self-important curator nor a well-spoken museum director. They are the words of a contributing editor at Wired Magazine, Jeff Howe, and he’s talking about Click!, the crowd-curated photo exhibition now open at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Why is a leading technologist paying such loving lip service to a photo exhibition? Because Click! isn’t a standard exhibition. As Shelley Bernstein, organizer of the show, puts it, “it’s a conceptual idea put on the wall.” It’s a research project about crowd-based decision-making—one so well-executed and interesting that Jeff Howe can’t help but get excited.

Click! is an exhibition of photos that were submitted by open call and judged by individuals over the Web in an experiment following the collective intelligence model set forth by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. In keeping with James’ model, the judging process was highly designed to mitigate influence (people could not view other votes or comments, vote more than once, or skip to specific images), respect the artists (judges used a sliding scale instead of quantifiable ratings, artists could choose to be anonymous on the web, in the museum, or both), and capture diversity (judges were asked to self-identify by geography and art expertise).

I’ve written at length about what excites me about Click! It is a substantive research contribution by the museum to the social technology field at large. As James comments in the attached podcast (scroll down), Shelley’s team did something that he thought was “too hard” to do in his work—tackle the effect of crowds on the subjective question of art evaluation. The research is now very understandably portrayed on the Click! website, where you can explore the results in a variety of ways (and if you get confused, there’s a webcast tour to guide you).

Click is not just a clever use of technology—it’s an original use of technology. To people like James and Jeff Howe, it’s a new data set in their work on crowd-sourcing and collective intelligence. To the museum world, it’s a new attempt to merge people, the web, and a physical exhibition. Shelley’s team created new rules for every step, from the attribution options during the open call to the way the photos were sized and hung to represent the data set.

You may not think it’s pretty. One of the most challenging moments in the podcast is when contemporary art curator Eugenie Tsai says, “[Click!]’s about data, and making the data visual. It’s not really a photography show in the way I would curate a photography show.” Shelley and Eugenie are both explicit about the fact that Brooklyn made decisions in favor of the research and against the most beautiful exposition of the art. All the photos were printed with the same process, and their sizes were determined by the judging process, not aesthetic preferences. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post commented that the resulting show is not that visually impressive, but they are comparing Click! to photo exhibitions, which Shelley and Eugenie would deem inappropriate. It would be more correct to compare it to data visualizations like tag clouds or spark charts.

And that’s a really interesting element of this whole story. Click! isn’t just a research project; it’s a deliberate attempt by the museum to present something and say, “don’t judge this as art.” Not everybody believes or wants to hear that. I asked Shelley if she received any negative feedback from the artists about their work being treated like data rather than art. There was rousing debate about the validity of the crowd-curated model on the blog before the opening, but Shelley said that for the most part people got it because her team was so open with the artists throughout the process. And as one woman comments in the podcast, for her, the thrill was about having her photo in the museum. There is dynamic tension between what the museum wants to present and what participants, visitors, and reporters want to experience.

And that’s a good thing. It’s proof that Click! is not a popularity contest made to "give the people what they want". As with any good museum exhibition, Click! was designed and created by staff to challenge, educate, and add value to patrons’ lives. On the podcast, Eugenie Tsai reacts with surprise to the fact that online evaluators spent an average of 22 seconds on each image. She thinks of that as incredibly long, both compared to her own curatorial process and to the standard museum visitor (who spends an average of 6 seconds on each piece of art). Click! produced a new kind of visitor behavior. As in the Exploratorium’s experiments in active prolonged engagement, Click! designers devised new models that connected visitors with exhibits in a different way. Not necessarily better, but different and new.

A wise poet once said to me: the only way to get any better is to change. We have to do these experiments, explore the different and new, if we ever hope to get better at what we do. Click! may not be the future of museum exhibitions. But it’s the best thing we have so far to help us get there.

Please go to the Click! website and see the results for yourself. Please listen to this amazing 52 minute recording of the discussion among Shelley Bernstein, James Surowiecki, Jeff Howe, and Eugenie Tsai. You can also download the audio here and listen to it in the subway and fist pump at the good parts.

If 52 minutes sounds daunting, here are some highlights to jump to:

  • On Implementation: Concise, useful information from Shelley about the specific choices they made “to come up with a formula that was good to show the data and also respectful to the artists,” (starts at minute 25) and to hang the show as data, not art (43 and 48).
  • On the Role of the Curator: Eugenie Tsai talks about the range of curatorial options and expands on the concept that “museums should be looking for new ways to organize exhibitions” (min 19).
  • On Value to the Field: Jeff and James discuss how this reflects something “very different than the kind of collective problem solving or endeavors that you see on the web.” (min 32)
I’ll leave you with this gem from an audience member at the very end of the show:
You have set a model for doing this—research! It’s a research project! You are setting an example for museums to go out and find out what people think, and for curators it’s a teachable moment … I see you doing research, presentation, and education on so many levels, and it’s really an exciting project that is a true foundational experience for future exhibitions.

5 comments, add yours!:

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Um ... not to pee in the 2.0 Kool-Aid here, but it seems clear that exhibitions need to be about both process AND product.

What difference does it make to the end user inside the Brooklyn Museum HOW a particular exhibition was put together?

To not judge Click! against other photo exhibitions just because it was developed using Web 2.0 technologies seems disingenuous.

Is there much really that much difference in the end result between Click's process, and just using a random lottery to choose the final images? The people selected would have still been excited and happy, and there still would have been a wide range of images on view.

While it is great that Click's development process was heavily community-oriented (or at least the community that is "plugged in." Especially in Brooklyn the notion of a "digital divide" is not inconsequential.)

Click! strikes me as a great experiment, but it also runs the risk of losing the true impact of community involvement under the currently white-hot limelight of "2.0"

Nina Simon said...

Yes, there really is a difference in the end result. Process is important--as a champion of prototyping I imagine you feel similarly. Whether or not THIS process is a good one is still yet to be seen--but it is a well-conceived, well-executed experiment.

I agree that ultimately all exhibitions should serve end users. I don't know how much visitors are enjoying Click!--all I know is the critical response. My guess is that the first interactive exhibits were also flawed from a critical perspective. We haven't answered all (or even many) questions about participatory exhibits yet, and each of these experiments gives us new data to get to a more successful model for design.

But there's also lots of precedent for art exhibits that are not entirely about how the final product looks on the wall or how enjoyable visitors (or critics) find it to be. Some installations are entirely conceptual. That's the context in which I see Click!.

Shelley said...

Hi Paul, thanks for your comments. With click we were trying to do two things - mount a photography show, but stay true to the conceptual idea and the process which shaped the end result. [The show is not exactly web 2.0 at all - in fact, many of the things we had to do during the eval process to keep it fair and within the strictures of the theory were about as far from community technology as you could get!] Because process was such a large part of what we did and why you see the things on the wall you do today, we needed to acknowledge that in a way that would be clear to the visitor coming to click for the first time and clear to someone who had been with us from day one. - for us, this was a careful balance and the relative size idea is easy to grasp because it's in our everyday lives for the most part. I think what I liked from Nina's perspective is this show really is different than a typical photography show - you can judge it however you would like, but we hope some of the theory comes out. More than a photography show - it's really a conceptual idea translated to both a physical space (the gallery) and then there's more on the web if you want to go further. Do you agree with what is on the walls in every case? Probably not, but this show wasn't curated by one person - so taste is variable, art is subjective and it shows in the selections.

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D3D said...

Late to this discussion...but...I think this type of study and alternative creation of exhibitions is invaluable. It is live testing, active research and increasing engagement of the public. The more of this that is done in response to tapping into the way people are communicating and curating other aspects of their lives, the more normal it becomes, and thus more acceptable. Curation isn't as familiar in the science museum as in the art museum. Art isn't the relationship to facts but the relationship to perspective.