Monday, April 20, 2009

Avoiding the Participatory Ghetto: Are Museums Evolving with their Innovative Web Strategies?

I just got home from the Museums and the Web conference in Indianapolis. I’d never attended before and was impressed by many very smart, international people doing radical projects to make museum collections and experiences accessible and participatory online. But I left uneasy, grappling with questions that plagued me throughout the conference. The people at Museums and the Web are on the forefront of web-based innovative museum practice. How does their work relate to their physical institutions? Are participatory activities happening on the web because that is the best place for them? Or is the web the dumping ground for activities too messy or uncomfortable to do onsite? How can participation, openness, innovation, and institutional change become part of a broader conversation? I'm afraid that the web is becoming a participatory ghetto rather than an integrated driver of innovation in museums.

This fear was precipitated by a painful visit to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Max Anderson, the museum’s director, delivered an inspiring keynote address on the first day of the conference about “moving from the virtual to the visceral.” Max argued that museums should use the web to give online visitors the same level of emotional, experiential, exciting engagement that they have onsite. He spent a long time discussing the IMA’s award-winning online dashboard, which shows real-time data about everything from visitor zip codes to photography requests to the size of the endowment. He spoke convincingly about how the dashboard and other efforts are helping the IMA become a more transparent, open place that respects and involves visitors in all aspects of the organization.

I was thrilled by Max’s talk and looked forward to seeing how the physical site reflected the transparency and engagement he spoke about. I showed up at the IMA expecting innovation. Instead, I found a standard art museum. Nice art. Impersonal guards. Lovely grounds. Obtuse labels. Interesting architecture. There was nothing that connected me to the visceral, exciting institution Max had sold in his talk, the institution that exists on the web.

Is this a problem? I think so. I felt like I had met someone online, someone sexy and open and intriguing, and then on our first date that mystery museum turned out to be just like all the others. This is a problem that many of the museums doing the best work in social media may soon confront. You join the Brooklyn Museum’s posse. You tag your brains out on the Powerhouse online collection database. And then you show up in person and feel jilted. Where are the friendly, open, participatory experiences you came for? Where’s the museum you know and love?

Some might argue that this disconnect is not a bad thing—that museums are using the web to reach new audiences, just as specifically tailored programs reach new audiences. But studies have shown that temporary exhibitions and programs targeted to specific “non-traditional” audiences are not effective at converting those audiences into general museum visitors. They come for their singular program alone. They don’t become institutional advocates, members, or donors. You may be able to engage a thriving community online, but if their experience with the institution is fundamentally different from the onsite one, they will remain online-only visitors.

I still believe that museums offer the greatest value in their physical venues. And with that in mind, I’m worried that people’s online experiences may not be giving them the right impression of who you are and what you offer at the physical site. This used to be a problem of properly conveying the “visceral” in the “virtual.” But now, for some of the more innovative institutions on the edge, it’s a problem of making the visceral as relevant, dynamic, and interesting as the virtual. If you do fabulous things online and not onsite, your online audiences will show up and be disappointed. They will feel deceived.

It's not impossible to translate our most innovative virtual activities into onsite experiences. I ran a workshop on "going analog" at the conference in which we explored ways that physical museums can be more like wikis, fantasy baseball services, social networks, and more. All it takes is a willingness to put this stuff into the museum and the cleverness to design the right metaphor. Consider the IMA’s radical transparency online. Why can't they be comparably transparent onsite? They could add the accession price of artworks to their labels. They could explain why the art is being displayed, what value it is perceived to have, and why it is shown in the context of the other works in the room. They could share the arguments that go into the creation of every exhibition. They could explain WHY you can’t touch the giant, highly tactile sculptures throughout the main entrance. Online, the IMA is respectful, open, and provides deep levels of information. Onsite, it’s an authoritative cipher.

When I talked with Rob Stein, the IMA’s CIO, about my frustration, he suggested that “institutional change has to start somewhere.” And he’s right. Maybe I’m being too hard on the IMA. Maybe the innovative work they are doing on the web will lead to comparable innovations to the onsite experiences.

But I’m nervous it won’t happen for a number of political reasons. In most museums, technologists are still seen as service providers, not experience developers. They live in well-defined (and self-protected) silos. There are stereotypes flying in many directions—that curators won’t give up authority, that technologists don’t respect traditional museum practice, that educators are too preachy, that marketers just want to get more live bodies in the door.

How are we going to bridge this divide? Many of the technologists I met at Museums and the Web never go to regional or national museum conferences. When I asked why, people said, “no one there understand what we’re doing,” or “it just reminds me of how far behind the rest of this field is.” I understand the desire to learn from and spend time with people in your part of the field, but I was surprised at the extent to which people had no interest in cross-industry discussions. I’m teaching a graduate course at University of Washington right now on social technology and museums. Four of my students were at Museums and the Web. None are attending AAM (the American Association of Museums). They don’t see it as relevant to their future careers. This worries me.

We need to do a lot more talking across the aisle, working hard to adapt our specialized vocabularies to a common discussion about institutional mission and change. I want museums to be open, participatory, dynamic, and relevant in all places, not just online. If we only do it online, it doesn’t force us to fundamentally change how our institutions work and present content to visitors. It just creates a virtual outpost for change. And I don’t want to live in that ghetto.

28 comments, add yours!:

irasocol said...

While I understand that much of what you describe might be chalked up to the fact that it is more difficult, more time consuming, and more expensive to change physical places than virtual ones, I too am frustrated by what you describe, because, while "cultural institutions" are now often doing much better outreach, they are failing to "close the deal" via 'real world' experience.

From fixed admission rates (see current Art Institute of Chicago controversy), to sullen security staff, to labels with no information (or information which requires an art and/or history degree to understand, even just the lack of good wifi (not expensive) which would allow visitors to merge the online and physical, museums continue to tell new or occasional visitors that they are not worthy of being there, and are surely not worthy of engaging with the experience.

I've suggested here before how I think the Brooklyn Museum could turn their lobby into an effective interactive space. Food, furniture, wifi, terminals connecting visitors to the web experience. It would cost nothing - the profit from the food would likely support it all. And if I go upstairs, I don't want just video support for the exhibits and great labels (Brooklyn is superior in both aspects in some galleries), I also want interaction. I want user created content. I want to be able to add what I know to the painting of Brooklyn in 1700 (or whatever it is) and I want to see what current Brooklyn schoolchildren say about it. If I'm looking at their Assyrian Art (a long time favourite of mine), I want to be able to link to others who are interested, both historically and from the graphic design design view.

I do know that I keep crossing museums off my list. I won't pay for the Art Institute (though I use to give them a lot of money when it was voluntary). I've given up on the Grand Rapids Art Museum because their security staff is scary and their exhibition design brutally confusing. MOMA will have to make themselves free before I go again, they are just surly elitists, and I feel like I'm trespassing. And I'm a "likely" art museum attendee, with art school in my background.

All of this to say - good points Nina.

- Ira Socol

MaBu said...

It's the reason why this will be my AAM conference #10. I prefer to better understand museums need, and on that base developing something really useful. On the base of the visibility problem I create and after I start to collect museum blogs publishing the first list of them and after creating the Museum Blogs WebRing.
Now I will go to better understand what to create. ;)

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

Hi Nina,

Congratulations on a well-placed blow to the digital museum world's solar plexus!

One a more positive note, I think one way the "physical museum world" could better emulate the "digital museum world" is through cheap,rapid prototyping.

One of the reasons that creating physical interactive environments is so difficult and time consuming (as Ira astutely observes) is that the typical exhibition development process is larded with unneeded levels of bureaucracy and inbred institutional resistance to change.

Exhibit experiments (even digital ones) are often messy, and can lead to dead ends. But unless we promote taking more risks in our physical museum spaces, our institutions will continue to ossify while our digital assets become exactly the type of "participatory ghetto" you aptly describe.

samuel said...

Reading your interesting post i wonder if online museums can "really" be participatory, open, conversational and all,...if they are not that way onsite ? by "really" i mean institution-wise. To me it's about bringing coworkers, their expertise and their offers online. Or you get a museum's webmaster participatory website, at best. how do get interesting content to twit about otherwise, how do you comment pictures relevant to your museum field on flickr groups...? maybe online/onsite museums have to merge anyway to be participatory in all what they "really" are.

Seb Chan said...

As the head of digital at one of the institutions Nina singled out, I'd suggest that this has a lot to do with the positioning of the digital and online teams within the structure of the organisation.

Organisational change takes time and for it to be successful in breaking down the silos that Nina talks about it needs to be driven by a Director who understands the pivotal role of digital within the organisation.

For this to happen it needs the digital and online teams to brush up on their communication skills and manage upwards. I know this is the trickiest part of all - especially in a large institution it is much easier to get back in your box and keep pushing out exciting online content and ignore the difficulties of trying to lobby and cajole those who "don't get it".

It might be nice for AAM and other bigger conferences to start cherry picking keynote speakers from the digital events as an olive branch between the two communities.

jtrant said...


when i was at the IMA on sunday i saw numerous examples of what museums are really good at: providing a venue for conversations between people. the participation i saw depended on art not technology.

i'm still struck by the memory of a foursome: grandparents and two young grandsons. the grandfather was as average as you could possibly caricature, and he, his wife and those kids had the greatest time, really looking at art and talking to each other. and they did it in one of the few inter-generational spaces left in our society.

he questioned, engaged, and encouraged -- and the kids looked. "do you remember who diana is? ... that's right, she was a god. her bow? she's hunting... what do you think she's hunting?" "A BEAR!" ... "what about a deer?"...

later, we ran into them again, and he was asking "what do you think it felt like to be there?" the kids were challenged, empathetic, and enlightened. that group was in the museum as long as we were, and those two boys hung in longer than i did.

sometimes it doesn't take a digital catalyst to spark participation. sometimes -- like we've seen in some research about audio tours -- the tour actually limits the sociality of the visit.

aren't the on-site museum experience and the on-line experience different? sure they can overlap -- the YouTube meetup @ the Ontario Science Centre is a great example of that. but shopping online isn't the same as shopping at the mall for a reason...

i'm amused to see i'm sounding curmudgeonly: must be post museums and the web fatigue ;) but i will say that i go to AAM maybe once every two or three years - since my first in the late 1980s. aside from a personal dislike for very big meetings, i've found that the general focus [there's an oxymoron] means the discussion feels formulaic. when they are struggling to specialize, it doesn't surprise me that your students wouldn't put it at the top of their lists.

Jason Herrington said...

Nina, a few weeks ago you asked me what I thought about AAM. I argued that AAM does not do a good job representing and providing products and services to my museum, or most American museums. And while I think the leadership at AAM care about reaching smaller museums, I haven't seen much progress towards us, yet.

So when you ask me if I will attend the AAM conference this year, I say: no. But what about our regional association conferences? I will gladly support the Washington Museum Association and the Western Museum Association. These associations actually make a difference to me and to my museum: they lobby for us in the state capitol and they connect me to my peers at neighboring institutions. It is incredibly useful for me to build relationships across town and across the state with people who I can talk to and meet in person, who I can share relevant local insight with, who I can actively collaborate and commiserate with.

Nancy Proctor said...

"Innovation happens at the margins," as I've heard Mike Edson say many times. The digital has long been marginal in the museum - discounted as less important than the 'real' objects and spaces, and as a result underfunded, unsupported, etc. - but that marginalization is also a boon. It gives us a space outside the box of traditional practice in which to invent something new, under the radar, which is a sort of sanctuary for all that is threatening to the status quo...

So yes, the fact that the physical museum generally does not yet measure up to what we've invented in the digital space is a bad sign that the 'real world' museum is lagging behind (not surprisingly, given the stakes and the historical investment in the 'traditional' museum that rigorously defend it against change), but it is also a good sign. It means that the digital museum is still a sandbox. Degrees in museum technology (and I teach a course for one too) are in a sense a sign of impending ossification. It is the beginning of the codification, the hierarchy, a new canon.

OK but that's the romantic in me speaking. More practically, there is a good reason for the revolution to start 'online': most museums get 3-10x the visitors online than we get in the physical museum. If we want to make a real difference in numerical terms, and a global one, we need to reach out online - perhaps first and foremost. The funding will catch up with us soon enough, as the term ROI infiltrates even the most ivory of museum towers. And then we'll all need PhDs in digital curation to work with museums, and the revolution begins again with some silly young upstarts proposing who knows what heretical museum practices that have never occurred to us...

I hope I don't respond then as I do now when I see the kids with their britches falling down! I hope I'll be a Socratic gadfly, helping to ensure we are always aware of what we don't yet know.

Nina Simon said...

Great comments. Nancy, I love your analysis. But as an exhibit designer I'm not willing to wait until you figure it all out online before I can start changing the physical space... :)

JTrant, I struggled with the question of whether onsite/online differences are fundamentally distinct from other programmatic differences across the broad set of museum services. But I think this is a concern not because the online activities are different but because the online brand and relationships are different. The IMA literally feels like a different place online, in a way that made the onsite visit feel jarring and uncomfortable.

I don't think the experiences need to be identical, but I need to feel like I'm having them in the context of a relationship with the same institution.

Kathryn said...

I'm still mulling over the big ideas here, but just a small note for now: most of us students can only afford to go to one conference! I'm not convinced that indicates a lack of interest in cross-talk -- for me, at least, it's a simple reality of money and time.

Michael said...

You mention that "Max argued that museums should use the web to give online visitors the same level of emotional, experiential, exciting engagement that they have onsite."

If this is the case then the online visitor experience will be so great that the online visitor should not need to visit the physical site of the Museum.

But I don't believe this will happen as you yourself have demonstrated. I believe that the online version of the Museum will attract people to WANT to visit the physical site.

Much the same way movie previews may influence us in our movie choices and who hasn't said after some movies "all the best bits are in the preview". That is the experience you had with the IMA.

I would like to put forward that the online experience is primarily a marketing tool to ultimately attract visitors to the physical site of the Museum. Without the physical site the online visitor experience has no reason for being. If the "technologists" happen to give the online visitor a great experience as Max argues all the better for everyone.

Nate said...

As an educator in a very large institution, I spend my day interacting with people and art. I would almost consider what I do a simulacra of the web 2.0 experience, engaging visitors in a dialogue and providing space, tools, inspiration to create something to share with others.

Are educators the physical or visceral counterpart to the museum's digital or virtual presence?

Emma said...

I'd say that one of the best ways to reposition digital teams within the structure of the institution is through strong partnerships with the education and/or programs departments. Many museums have been focusing on teen audiences in the recent years (and that has been shared at AAM and NAEA), through teen arts councils (TAC) or very specific teen programming (i.e. the Walker, the Science Museum in Saint Louis, the Bronx, LACMA, and many others, including my institution: the ICA Boston).

When you are working with teens there’s no way you can stay away from technology; and I mean the actual techy equipment as well as the relational dynamics that technological advances have brought to our lives. For our programs we use the whole concept of new media literacies (MIT) to explore a new set of skills that has emerged in our current participatory culture: Play, Performance, Simulation, Appropriation, Multitasking, Distributed Cognition, Collective Intelligence, Judgment, Transmedia Navigation, Networking, Negotiation, and Visualization. These new skills build on the traditional ones already being explored in the classroom and the museum, and can be addressed and experienced in our galleries both viscerally and digitally.

I think it’s awesome that Rose Sherman implements dipity workshops for history teachers; or Robin, Nate, and Justin work so closely with the WACTAC. The ICA tour guides receive the usual training on educational strategies and art history, but also in Second Life, DJ culture (mashups, remixes, sampling, etc), and folksonomy; plus they access and contribute to all ongoing training on a wiki.

In most cases education programs, and especially those with teens (usually recognized as under-served audiences), are largely funded. So I guess inviting educators into your sandbox have many layers of benefits…and keep in mind that we actually want to be there trying new things too!

Unknown said...

I echo much of your sentiments Nina as well as the thoughts of other commenters.

However, Nina,you must visit a history museum where content and objects are organized around stories meant to give guests a context for their lives. Where activities are designed to include guests in the story.

This post isn't meant to be a commercial for the Minnesota History Center's new exhibit opening Memorial Day weekend about Minnesota's Greatest Generation. However, it is an excellent example of how the online world connects with a participatory onsite exhibit. In this exhibit, you'll sit inside a C-47 transport airplane where visitors are transported into the harrowing experience of a D-Day flight through a multimedia presentation. Talk about visceral, you'll feel the rumble of an aircraft and you don't leave the airplane without profound respect for those who serve.

This is just one of many personal stories told in the exhibit. Some of these stories told were found in our Share Your Story web site which has collected more than 1,000 stories from over the past 3 years.

After you complete your trip through the stories of the Depression, WWII and the post-war boom, you'll be able to send a video postcard to share what stories have inspired you or have been inspired in you.

While you're here you can visit the MN150 exhibit too! And visit the Science Museum of Minnesota just down the hill from us and see how they've incorporated the Science Buzz throughout the exhibits.

Come to St. Paul!

Nina Simon said...

Don't worry, R. I really, really want to come to St. Paul. You guys have all the best big museums-SMM, MHC, WAC. Can't wait :) Just need to stop getting on airplanes to other places.

I love the comments about education. I thought a lot about educational programs as I wrote this post. In many cases, education is in a very similar boat--doing amazing interactive programs with visitors and specialized audiences, but often invisible/marginalized in the larger exhibition context. Emma makes a great point about funding and making connections through teen programs. The next challenge is for all that awesomeness in education/digital to get connected to exhibits.

K said...

Thank you Nina for thinking about educators and advocating for our inclusion in the imagining and realization of less frustrating museum spaces and experiences. As you know, in small museums we are often the pioneers embracing web 2.0 strategies and advocating for the voice and needs of the visitor, i.e. swimming against the stream of museum tradition. Although we come in all stripes ranging from active experimenters to stuffy academics--as do curators, exhibition designers, and digital tech designers--educators as a group tend to be collaborators, especially those of us who are constructivist in our approach. Unfortunately, we are often marginalized and systemic change is mainly talk with little action. My understanding is that the IMA digital team--which is doing something very interesting things--does not include IMA educators and the Ed department was just cut by four full-time and four part-time people, more than any other department. They serve very large numbers of visitors of all ages including participants in in-school and after-school programs (yes, facilitated by real people using VTS and other inquiry-based strategies), and have created a series of experimental exhibitions called The Viewing Project, which were not on display last week during M&W. It would have been very useful for us to have seen those gallery interventions and to have heard the voice of IMA's thoughtful and experimental Ed leader in those IMA voices at the conference. long as educators continue to be mainly disempowered and (some) curators are allowed to stay busy reinforcing their traditional walls, I advocate for the digital and exhibit designers and educators to get together and play--mix your knowledge and creativity together and take good notes of what your visitors say about their experiences. Everyone will be better off as we museums evolve into what they will be in the future. Change is happening anyway, just look at the demise of newspapers.

Dan Spock said...

Hey everybody, this is a really provocative blog, thanks for the thoughtful remarks. I think it's true that certain corners of the museum world have had trouble getting respect or notice. Certainly museum educators had to battle a long way (think Excellence and Equity with an emphatic manifesto that, darn it, museums are educational institutions), but there are plenty of backwaters still where the educator gets brought in at the end of an exhibit process, too late to change the outcome. I do think museum technology, both in the gallery and online, has this same flavor: a tag on. Museums are particularly challenging to design because all mediums of expression can be marshalled in an exhibition, this makes museums variously delightful or a horrible hodge podge. I keep wanting to ask what does a museum medium want to be with respect to new media? What is its natural landing place? If, as an analogy, TV screens, and all the content in the world, can be seen at home, why should museums use them unless they are using them in some way that enhances and optimizes the unique spatial qualities, the spaceness/placeness/stuffness of the museum? It can be done, of course, but it needs to thought about in a different way. The same goes for new media. What are the "killer apps" that makes the new potential redolent in this stuff meaningful and adaptable to the spaceness/placeness/stuffness of meatspace museums? I used to think that the self-directed serendipity of web surfing might have direct parallels to museumgoing, but now I see that this is not so much what the web does especially well. It is ever becoming a fantastic way to get very specific information and images quickly and reliably. Museums are wonderfully ill-suited for this, counting on chance encounters or experiential goads to impart information haphazardly at best, and we like this about them. The social aspects of museumgoing and Web 2.0 seem to have some parallels, but online "spaces" have proven more comfortable places to project oneself, explore alternative identities, find communities of affinity, than formal museum spaces which still feel constraining and where the sense of public embarrassment or shame in a face-to-face encounter always lurks nearby in the shadows of elite museum authority. The web embraces pluralism and facilitates the easy creation and dissemination content by anyone with the motivation to do it. Museums still cling to the role of universal cultural arbiter, a role which is becoming increasingly hard to justify or explain. But are these things inherent to the spaceness/placeness/stuffness of museums as a medium, or are they merely residues of an inheritance; surmountable?

Sean said...


Great blog, just stumbled across it.

One thing that isn't getting mentioned here is that the way museums engage with visitors really depends on how we position them. The marketing department thinks of them as "customers"; the educators consider them "students."

Customers are served; students are educated.

So what if we think of them, instead, as "citizens"? Citizens who have a right and responsibility to engage with the museum, and shape the institution on a fairly deep level?

Philip Yenawine said...

I wish I shared your enthusiasm for what museums are doing on the web tho it's true that some are experimenting more online than they are onsite. If there is any innovation in the presentation of art, it often comes from efforts by education departments, and Max Anderson just cut his by half its staff and half its budget, disproportionately higher cuts than other departments suffered. Still, the IMA's education staff runs many programs that engage non traditional audiences, ordinary museum visitors (most of whom have different questions than yours; Abigail Housen's data richly describes the strengths and interests), and students/teachers in both schools and the IMA in ways that allow for deep experiences looking. Many of these use VTS, a teaching/learning strategy I co-developed with Housen. These programs don't necessarily discuss the process by which installation decisions are made or how much the art cost, but they allow people to dig into meanings they find in art.

The IMA also has a series of exhibitions called the Viewing Project that offers many ways of making the viewing experience more active. These are collaborative efforts between education and curatorial, and while underfunded, at least keep ideas of change on the table. One observation I would make about this attempt--I have been an occasional advisor--is that curators who have no interest are not encouraged by Dr Anderson to get over themselves and try new things.

I am going to stop now before I sound defensive or before you get the impression that I disagree with the point you make. Many years ago David Ross, then the director of SFMOMA, said if museums weren't careful, they'd end up as road kill on the information highway.... (indeed a long time ago) but his implicit criticism is still relevant. As is yours. I just don't want to see existing tho not always obvious efforts to change the experience of viewers as they look at art to be left off the list of things that museums can do, and that indeed some are.

Joe Hoover said...

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas...

Museum staff tend to look towards other museums and their peers for innovation and ideas. Getting the Museums and the Web people to attend the American Association of Museums barely gets them out of that box. Museum staff need to leave their comfort zone entirely, it's not completely cheeky to say if you want to see the cutting edge of interactivity between institutions and their customers go to Vegas.

The revolution will not be televised (or on a Twitter feed).

If I understand right, Nina is not talking necessarily about incorporating new media technology in museums but rather the new ways of thinking that new media has thrust on society. That the technology is secondary to new ways of social interaction. A museum can have kiosks with their web site set up in their galleries and not encourage interaction with the museum itself, which is a little like a museum in the 1960's bringing a color TV into the gallery but not including people of color into their collections or exhibits. The museum may get the technology but it missed the cultural revolution.

Even when it comes to technology few think of new ways of developing it outside the "browser zone" and to think of the web was a holistic organism to be wrapped around an exhibit or museum rather than simply boxed in a kiosk.

Maybe some day...

Elizabeth said...


This is a beautiful description of the paradox that can come from the ease of sharing content online.

Yes, it is relatively easier and faster to design the online experience for visitors, for all the reasons people have mentioned - expense, siloed cultures, departmental politics.

I think Paul makes a great point about rapid development.

What about using another process from the digital world, and making exhibit design iterative?

Social sites on the web are successful when they see how their users *want* to use the site, and constantly improve.

PS to Emma - I've only been once, but the ICA does an incredible job. I can't wait for my next trip to Boston to go again. I also love the "Fearless" T-shirts.

Nina Simon said...

Absolutely! It's funny; if you go back to the presentation on the ABOUT page, I focus on four aspects of Web 2.0 that could be applied to physical museums: venue as platform, architecture of participation, perpetual beta, and modular support for plug-ins. Over the last two years, I've really focused on #1 and 2, but I think the others (especially 3) are really important as well. They're easier to understand but just as hard (if not harder) to do.

Alex said...

Nina, please don't worry about us students just yet! I am one of your four students that attended MW2009, but you never asked me why I wasn't going to AAM. I'll tell you: like Kathryn mentioned, I could only afford to go to one conference, both monetarily and time-wise. Believe me, I wanted to go to both, and next year I'll probably switch it up and try for AAM (and I know a few members of my program will do the opposite and try to go to MW instead of AAM next year). Because, I do actually think AAM is relevant to my career. In fact, I'd like to experience as many professional conferences as I can. So don't worry about us students not going to AAM. Be glad & encouraged that we took the initiative to find the funding (because we surely can't pay out of pocket) and time to go to a professional conference while in graduate school in the first place :)

Janet said...

Wow! This topic and all these comments could become a blog in and of themselves! (Web 2.0.3 & 2.0.4 peut-etre?)

Our museum is constructing a new building, has designed new exhibits that will begin fabrication later this year, and is scoping a new web and social media platform to establish a new relationship between the public and the Museum.

We have defined the museum visit at the ultimate experience in the relationship, acknowledging that the "museum visit" extends beyond a gallery visit, but includes all opportunities to be onsite at the museum. Just as outreach programs have been used over the past decade as an extension of the onsite museum experience, we are designing our new web platform with two primary "jobs":

1. To draw people into a museum experience.

2. To extend the museum experience into their "daily life", whether that is a tourist traveling around our state or a resident coming back to the website/social community for "more".

While we acknowledge that some people will be served only through the website (without ever a Museum visit), that is not the focus -- or purpose -- of our new site. It is designed to draw people into (and back into) the physical museum experience.

However, you have raised critical questions about joining the museum and the website from a "consistent environment of openness and innovation" perspective, the importance of embedding the web expertise into the exhibit and program design expertise and/or process, and how to structure the organization so that the "visitor experience" is in sync regardless of the platform: teaser web site, physical museum visit, physical museum on or off-site program, post visit engagement...One Infinite Loop (oops, I think that is taken!)

Thanks for expanding our minds!

Mia Ridge said...

Great post (and comments)!

Possibly relevant is that the pre-requisites for joining a web team are generally more open (or less specialised) than those for becoming a curator, or exhibition designer or developer. This means web teams have a wider range of backgrounds, and often also more diversity of work experience as museum web developers have often worked outside the sector.

It's also easier for web people to see what's happening internationally and build on great ideas for interfaces or interactions you see on someone else's site.

I've realised that it's relatively rare for the web team to be involved in the early stages of exhibition design or planning - maybe involving web teams early that would help bridge the gap. Educators are also important, as others have pointed out. I'd go further and suggest that a really good explainer/docent can bring a lot of useful knowledge about how visitors interact in museum spaces to the exhibition design process.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Nina, for triggering some really interesting discussion about the relationship between on-line and in-person experiences provided by museums. Speaking as the IMA’s director of education, I’d like to respond to some of your comments about your visit, as well as some of those posted by others. First off, I’d like to argue against lumping all sorts of museums together in this discussion. I think the relationship between virtual and in-person offerings is necessarily different when the museum is an art museum. Though people may have real, visceral experiences when they encounter dolphins and telescopes and stone age tools, those creatures and objects were not probably created to pose questions, tell stories or evoke psychological responses. Art objects – even art made from found objects once these are presented as art – represents an artist’s intentions (conscious and unconscious, failed and realized). So one of the complex issues with which museum educators grapple is the fact that information about art is one thing, and experience with art is a completely different thing. Visual art is visual communication – the object (or artist-created installation) IS the message – and encountering it is fundamentally interactive. The best art museum galleries make visitors feel very comfortable exploring the possibilities of their encounters with art. Inserting lots of other interactives into the galleries raises the issue of distraction. Is the gallery the best place to read or hear about the artist’s life or cultural ambience? Sometimes, if these offerings are crafted to avoid undermining the primary interactive: the work of art itself.

So one thing I noticed about the list of innovative and transparent offerings on the IMA’s website that you praised is that all of them – dashboard statistics on loans, endowment, etc. - are about the museum as an organization. That’s not an accident; the IMA didn’t forget to offer art experiences or put them lower on the priority list for the tech team. There are activities on the website that represent art – social tagging of images via the Steve Project or searching the collection database, for example. But it’s clear that these activities interact with images of works of art and information about them. None of them recreates an experience with a work of art. One can look at an on-line image of a Baroque tapestry in the IMA’s collection and parse its imagery and style, but one will not experience its looming, impressive hugeness unless one stands before it. One can view a digital image of a Robert Irwin light disk without getting any sense of the aesthetic meanings embedded in the way it relates to wall and angle of view in the galleries. Of course there are also new art forms that employ the web, but that’s another blog topic.

So I was pleased to note the value found by blogger jtrant in the looking and informal discussions she witnessed in the galleries. Art museum galleries are places to look, think, sense, wonder, and talk. As some other bloggers noted, we do a lot to promote such interactivity at the IMA – in school and teacher programs such as Viewfinders, and in various tour and gallery hosting programs. The conviction that we need to do more to make galleries welcoming and information more useful is definitely behind the Viewing Project that some writers mentioned. That series of approximately 15 experimental installations over a three-year period, funded in part by Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne, was being changed out during your visit. That’s unfortunate because this project is testing out ways to increase on-site transparency by offering answers to some of the questions you posed: Why is the art being displayed? What value might it have for us, as human beings – the opinion of the museum staffers who created the installation and in the opinion of people who visit it? Why is this work of art shown in the context of the other works in this room?

I agree with K that having educators work more closely with the technology development team would be a very good next step – at the IMA and at most art museums. More than one blogger mentioned that IMA’s education team suffered staffing and budget cuts, as did other departments in this museum and at museums around the country. The IMA has been very transparent about what cuts were made, under the circumstance of heavy endowment losses. Those cuts do not signal a lessening of commitment to education or quality visitor experiences at our museum. In fact, in an odd and painful way, the cut-backs have clarified and intensified our team’s efforts to improve these arenas of service.

All in all, I’m tremendously proud that Museums and the Web attendees who visited the IMA were prompted to question all of these matters. Your reactions (and those of others who posted on your blog) to Max’s talk and to our galleries will be very useful to us as we move toward realizing the potential of the museum in the 21st century.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

Nina, the studies you refer to in this blogpost about not being able to convert “non-traditional” audiences into general museum visitors, can you give som references?


Nina Simon said...

@Anon, the studies were explained to me by a Swedish museologist and unfortunately I can't seem to get my hands on them.

The conversation about this post has continued on the IMA blog here.