Collaboration & Engagement: Museums & the Web 2013 Takeaways

Games, curation, design thinking, more games, crowdsourcding, theater, humor, and 3D printing. These were some of the topics of great salons, discussions, workshops, and sessions, at this year’s Museums & the Web conference in Portland, Oregon.


Reaching out
Portlandia, on the Portland Building in Portland, OR

A common thread through all of these topics is some flavor of engagement (yes, even 3D printing! I’ll explain below.). ‘Engagement’ has become a buzz word of sorts in museum technology circles. Why is it that we seem so preoccupied with defining ‘engagement’ (and non-engagement) and exploring its nuances? Has the relationship with our audiences changed recently? Or is this just new terminology for an old idea? I am not quite sure. But museum folks certainly seem excited about working with technology to develop new modes of engagement for our visitors, and even among ourselves. And in the process, it seems to me that those of us who work in museums are collaborating more than ever, with our colleagues, with artists, across institutions, and with our audiences.

Inspiration from Theater
The conference was book-ended by two plenary sessions informed by theater. Larry Friedlander, professor emeritus and co-director of the Learning Lab at Stanford, opened the conference by painting a picture of an increasingly global, boundary-less world of spectacle in a sea of information. Saturated with images that are devoid of context and history, today’s global citizens are jaded. Information is cheap, and it’s difficult for them to discern the difference between art and mere spectacle. Friedlander, who teaches Shakespeare and drama, used the bard to summarize the problem:

How with this rage shall
Beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is
No stronger than a flower?

So how can museums stand out and be heard in this mess? Friedlander’s suggestions seem incongruous at first: engage the viewer by challenging them. Make it hard. Don’t connect all the dots. Friedlander seemed to be arguing that engagement involves thinking and reflection, and that can only happen when you test the viewers’ assumptions and then provide a way of responding and sharing their own views. Watch Friedlander’s plenary talk on YouTube.

The closing plenary for the conference was dedicated to discussion of the theatrical phenomenon Sleep No More, and asked the question “What can museums learn from immersive theater?” A.R.T. producer, Diane Borger, was Skyped in to answer questions from the three panelists, Ed Rodley, Suse Cairns, and Seb Chan.

Even though I have experienced Sleep No More (SNM) myself, it’s a bit hard to explain. You roam around with a mask on in an old building. You can’t talk. You are essentially on-stage with the actors in a 5-story building, and can interact with the sets–open drawers, peek behind doors, tear up paper, climb in a bed (or bathtub). You see actors from time to time, as you move in and out of each others’ space (some fans will pick a specific character to follow through the space). You feel like a ghost, or a time traveler, existing on different plane of existence from the protagonists. Everyone’s experience is different. In the panel, Suse did an amazing job describing her own experience with SNM, in which one of the actors abducted her into a small room for a short time (jealous!). Immersion, unique experiences, personal encounters—these are the leitmotifs of SNM and immersive theater.

This is a very powerful form of engagement, clearly. All of the panelists described their experience with SNM as transformative; I certainly had a similar reaction, as has everyone I know who has experienced it.  So how can museums get some of this powerful juju?! I am not sure this question was answered in the session. Some interesting points were raised by comparing the production of SNM to the production of museum exhibitions; points about fiscal commitments and long-term sustainability, about disruption as a practice, about the role of volunteers, about the role of the physical environment in creating a sense of immersion. I feel like this conversation has just begun.

Games, Design Thinking, and Humor–FUN!
There was a lot of fun had at MW2013. Paige Dansinger drew the sessions and attendees, and watching her work and being her subject was super fun! Sessions on games, humor, and design thinking all addressed ways of not only injecting fun into the visitor experience, but also into the workplace. As to the question about whether museums should be fun—that’s apparently a debate. I have heard this ‘concern’ voiced in my own work. In a workshop about making games at the conference, Danny Birchall also raised the question in relation to games in museums. Well, I choose to say, yes! In a session on gamification, Kate Haley Goldman said that in her research she has found that museums are insecure about how fun they are; they think making games will make them more fun.

Games are certainly fun to create, but they are not easy. I attended a workshop on the first day about creating games and toys, in which we broke into groups and designed concepts for museum games. The thing that struck me about this process was how productively collaborative a rather large group of strangers could be when mobilized to create a fun experience. Workshop leaders Sharna Jackson and Danny Birchall both  talked about how key collaboration has been for them in their work designing games–both within the institution and with contractors. If you have to collaborate, it better be fun!

Speaking of having fun on the job, in a session about Humor as Institutional Voice, Aaron Cope showed us lots of cat images, and argued for the importance of having fun on the job, and exposing that to the public. He made the very important point that being playful and humorous says to our public “We walk among you.” One point Aaron made hit me hard: that in order to be playful about our work, we must have confidence in what we do. Is it possible that playfulness and fun can be confidence-builders?

Design thinking was another inspiring thread involving collaboration and fun, thanks to Dana Mitroff Silvers and her colleagues from the Stanford, Molly Wilson and Maryanna Rogers. The first step of design thinking is to empathize, and that  definitely requires some engagement and collaboration. I see potential for design thinking strategies to really revolutionize the way we work. These strategies include making prototypes out of cardboard and ideas, asking innocent strangers to answer creative questions, and posting sticky notes everywhere! In many ways, I see it as about creating an environment for productive fun–games for working together. The authors built a website, Design Thinking for Museums as a hub for ideas, case studies, and toolkits about applying design thinking in museums

Curation & Crowdsourcing
The topics of curation and crowdsourcing merged into one another for me at the conference. In one session Laura Carletti gave an exhaustive overview of many of the different flavors of online crowdsourcing projects. Later, a Salon about crowdsourcing included curators who talked about what they called crowdsourcing inside the physical museum. One curator, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, talked passionately about a an exhibition she worked on in which she brought in a long-time museum visitor to co-curate an exhibition. This experience inspired the curator to think about ways to invite museum visitors to collaborate on curation and interpretation of the collection.  This was crowdsourcing to her–going out into the public and bringing them into the museum. This isn’t crowdsourcing as I had thought of it. In my mind, crowdsourcing needs a crowd and large batches of data that need to be slavishly read, analyzed, transcribed, coded. But the curator got me thinking about the type of engagement that my definition of crowdsourcing creates. Certainly, this is engagement too? Is collaboratively co-creating content for the museum that different from curation?

And thus we arrive at the question of curation. Who curates the museum? Who curates the Internet? Should museums be curating the Internet? I went to the Salon on the topic of curation in which these questions were raised. It was great to hear several curators speak up about their view of how curation is being changed and challenged by technology. My sense is that they were excited by possibilities, and grappling with how to embrace change. Koven Smith asked whether there is a new role/profession within museums emerging called something like “digital curation”? And then, after a roundabout discussion in which the group considered the history of museums, scholarship, archives, and curators, Suse Cairns brought up the issue of scale. Museums have historically drawn authority from scarcity, from the uniqueness and rarity of their collection. What happens when museums embrace the plethora of images and information and objects that exist in the world. Where is authority in this? We were back at Larry Friedlander’s point about the unbound global world. And crowdsourcing.

3D Printing
I have been lazily following Liz Neely’s experiments with 3D printing over the past year. It’s v. cool technology, and I wondered whether there were applications in the museum. In her session “Please Feel the Museum”, Liz and Miriam Langer showed how 3D printing technology can be used to print art objects, that can then be used to engage our audiences. A 3D print of a museum object can be held and touched, unlike the real object—obviously, this can really make our collections come alive in a tangible way. 3D printing offers a way to create the ‘social object’ as Nina Simon describes it, an object that sparks conversation. And the process of creating 3D prints is also instructive. In the process of capturing an object digitally and transforming it into a 3D model, you must examine the object in detail–this requires close looking and analytical thinking about how the original object was constructed.

3D print of God Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles, 9th/10th century

3D print of God Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles, 9th/10th century

There was more. I have written too much already, but here are a few more ideas gathered at MW2013 that resonated for me and I will be thinking about for a while >>

In an amazing session on Digital Strategy with inspirational case studies, most presenters asserted that it *is* the role of the technologists in the institution to teach, train, encourage, and support staff in the institution who want to learn about digital tools. And presenters created a zine, too – how cool.

Rob Stein and Rich Cherry presented the results of a survey that asked “What is a Museum Technologist Today?” Liz Neely stood up and asked how many people in attendance made up their job at some point in their career, and more than half the room raised their hands.

The Lightning Talks were awesome. I hope MW keeps this format, as it results in focused, fun presentations, and gives attendees a way to see into various aspects of museum work rather quickly. Check out Tim Svenonius’s talk Love Letters to Rothko. All of the Lightning Talks were recorded and are available on YouTube.

3 responses to “Collaboration & Engagement: Museums & the Web 2013 Takeaways

  1. Pingback: Thinking about museums·

  2. Pingback: MW2013 reflections on emerging and collapsing museum roles | museum geek·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s