Monthly Archives: October 2010

A Tale of Two Exhibits: “It was the worst of times…” Part One

An earlier version of this was posted among the Reviews at MuseumMobile.

Last month, I had two very different mobile experiences in one afternoon. I took a mobile tour on a Segway, and participated in a large-scale SCVNGR trek. I was looking forward to both, and had bike like mad to get from one to the other in time. At the end of the day, I felt let down by both. Looking back, they both left me feeling like I’d been marginalized and boy did I not like that feeling.  It doesn’t happen to me too often, so I think it was a good thing for me, because it reminded me how awful it feels to be willfully ignored.

#1) Boston Glider Segway tour

I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours cruising around Boston as part of a Segway tour with a group of colleagues. I have a great job! It was a mobile experience of a very different sort, but it shared a problem with many handheld museum experiences, an unfortunate focus on the technology at the expense of the user.

The Segway is an interesting device. If you’ve never tried one, you should.  They’re dead easy to use after about ten minutes and “wicked fun” as we say.  And on the surface, it would seem to be a great way to “see as much as possible” which is something tourists have been trying to do since tourism was invented.  A guided Segway tour of Boston’s waterfront should be a big hit, or so I reckoned. In downtown, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting something historic or worthy of note. The tour promised basic Segway training, and an hour out on the town with a guide who could talk to us through little radio receivers we got as part of the package. And yet, by the end of my hour-plus tour, I was more tired than if I’d been walking, and had seen less than if I had been walking.  What happened?  If I had to guess, I’d speculate that the people who worked on the tour were far more invested in the Segway than in the users’ motivations and experience. The tour actually did a great job of letting me experience a Segway. It just billed itself as a sightseeing tour of Boston, so my motivation (seeing sights) got trumped by their interest in their shiny object.

A perfect example of this misplaced focus is “Seg leg.” It turns out that you need to keep your feet motionless on a Segway, and I do mean motionless.  While you’re leaning and back forth and left and right to control the device, your feet are doing nothing. Try standing completely still for an hour. It aches after awhile.  So a constant undercurrent of the Segway experience after twenty minutes is, “Can I move my foot? No! Now? Oooh, red light! I can shift… Ah…” Not so conducive to focusing on the sights. When we returned our Segways and several people in the tour mentioned their leg fatigue, our guide laughed and replied, “Oh yeah. We call it ‘Seg leg.’” and continued collecting our headsets. If you love Segways as much as they do, you put up with it, or wear it as a badge of pride. If you’re a first time or casual user, you suffer. Not a great way to build word-of-mouth buzz.

Our tour covered an enormous amount of ground, easily a couple miles of the waterfront.  And yet, I took no pictures of our day out sightseeing.  Because you need both hands to drive, and if you never stop, you never get the chance to do that other thing tourists have been doing for ages; taking pictures of each other.  The tour route was obviously optimized to let us travel as long as possible between intersections and congested pedestrian areas.  And to make sure we covered as much ground as possible, we never stopped. We stood in place at red lights, but we never stopped and took time to be where we were.  It would’ve been a challenge to get us all off our Segways and back on again, so I can see how the tour planners would not want to do that.  But as a tourist, I wanted to be able to take a picture occasionally, and the experience didn’t allow it. So I breezed along, trying to hear what the guide was saying and wishing I could stop.

I won’t get into the tour content, because I missed a lot of it. I was at the end of the line and apparently their transmitter didn’t have quite enough range to get to me. I listened to a lot of white noise, a lot of wind over the tour guide’s mike and occasional content.  Compared to the care they lavished on making sure the machines were working and we were securely helmeted, the ostensible actual point of the exercise – the tour – received pretty cursory attention.

As we walked back to the Museum and debriefed each other, it became clear that we all experienced the same dissatisfaction. It was good to be on the receiving end of someone else content design decisions.  I often wrestle with exactly this kind of issue. In a science museum, you often wind up with shiny new devices that people think you ought to do something with because “They’re amazing! Have you seen what this can do?”  Technology is seductive and the lure of a solution seeking a problem can be hard to resist.  But resist! If you let your focus get stuck on what the shiny object can do instead of what your audience wants/needs/expects, you’ll probably get yourself in hot water.

Why “Thinking about exhibits”?

In a perfect world, I would’ve gotten this post out first, but the exhibits that I’ve seen in the past month were so compelling, in both good and bad ways, that writing this took a back seat.

I never had any training on how or why to make exhibits. I apprenticed, watched my mentors and more experienced colleagues, and picked it up as I went along, sometimes just barely fast enough.  As a result, I’ve often labored after the fact to put a theoretical underpinning beneath my work, and to figure out what lessons learned are applicable to more than the project at hand.  Often this would manifest itself as me talking to myself (literally) on my daily commute, or sitting at my computer typing furiously in between “real” work.  Reflecting on my own work and priorities has been enormously helpful.  And thanks to Bluetooth headsets, I no longer look like a crazy man, muttering to himself.

I have been nourished over the years by colleagues and role models too numerous to mention. In meetings, at conferences, and in more informal venues, I’ve had long discussions and debates about the hows and whys of informal education and how it relates to making things and putting them on display in museums.  I’ve read most of the literature and benefited from what I’ve found there, though I’m always amazed at how little of it is written from a practitioner’s perspective.

In the end, I’ve finally embraced the reality that we are responsible for our own learning. Constructivists believe that we create our own meaning from our experiences.  Whatever your pedagogical leanings, chances are once you’re working in the field, you will have to take charge of putting yourself in situations where you can learn. Whether it’s reading books, writing, reflecting, sharing what you’ve learned.  A reflective practitioner will make new meaning out of their experience.

This blog is a result of my own need to reflect and it is offered to you as a tool for you to reflect on what we do and how.  I look forward to seeing what you make of it

A Tale of Two Exhibits: “It was the best of times…” Part Two

Have you ever had one of those days when amazing things unexpectedly happen and make you remember why you go to work every day?  Tuesday was one of those days for me.  I had two very different, very magical experiences in two very different museums.

#2) Charles Sandison, Figurehead
Peabody Essex Museum

After tearing ourselves away from the de Cordova and Halsey Burgund’s Scapes mobile app, and dropping Nancy Proctor off at the Peabody Essex Museum, Sandy Goldberg and I decided to take a quick spin around the museum. Our host suggested we check out their new Chinese exhibition and an interactive installation in the East India Marine Hall.  Sandy was interested in the Chinese stuff, and I’m a sucker for anything maritime, so we agreed to try both.  The Chinese exhibition was big and impressive, but what grabbed us both was the crazy light show we encountered in Charles Sandison’s hacking of the East India Marine Hall.

Peabody Essex has a history of mixing and matching contemporary art with their historical collections in interesting ways, so I didn’t know what to expect. East India Marine Hall is the oldest part of the museum complex, dating back to 1799 or so, and is an artifact in its own right. Think high ceilings, bright, light walls, a restrained orgy of Neoclassical ornament, dark oil paintings, nautical goodies, and cabinets of curiosities from foreign ports and you’ll have an idea of the room. Or at least an idea of what the hall looked like before Sandison set up Figurehead.

We made our way through the intervening galleries and as we approached I knew something was up.  The hall was dark, as in all the lights were out. Playing over every surface of the room were swirling dancing projections of words, helices of pixels, clouds of pixels, rivers of pixels.  We entered the nearly-empty room and were immersed in a storm of movement.  I’m probably dating myself but I had same feeling of stepping onto an empty dance floor while the disco ball filled the school cafeteria with lights.  Only Sandison used a lot of projectors and some serious computing power.

After our obligatory moment of completely gobsmacked, it quickly became obvious that the lights were not just a cycling projection, but that there was some kind of intelligence directing their movement. Even with a dozen projectors throwing images around, it was still quite dark, too dark to see any of the artifacts in the room. As we turned in circles trying to take in the enormity of the whole installation, it became clear to me the streams of pixels were running along the edge of wall, as if they were following the line of the ceiling. And as I expanded my focus, I could now see that there were emergent patterns in all the pixilated swirl.  Words in archaic handwriting would become pixels, pixels would turn into a helix that stretched into rivers moving in definite patterns.  Sometimes tributaries would cascade down the walls, carefully avoiding paintings like water running downhill.  It was fascinating to watch.

One of my favorite parts of the installation was watching the pixels flowing through the clusters of paintings on the walls. They’re hung according to a 19th century aesthetic, high up, and in neat rows. While I was watching the pixels flowing between the frames and trying to imagine the programming necessary to achieve the effect, something wonderful happened.  Pixels broke off from the stream and passed over one painting and stopped at the bottom of the image, like water filling a vessel. As we watched, the light slowly “filled up” one painting, revealing it for us. Then the pixels drained away and another object was highlighted, this time a figurehead on the next wall. The artist was directing our gaze from object to object, and I suspect was trying to suggest more, but I managed to neatly avoid the lone, dark label describing the piece, so I missed all the deeper connections I might have made. You can get an idea of what I missed by reading the description at the end of this.

So what made this experience work?

1) Immersion works.  Standing inside a 1,500 sq. ft. room full of moving images on every surface hooked me. It was clear we were “inside” something, not standing in a room looking at things.  Sandison obviously studied the room and used every inch of it.  The museum even set up a little row of chairs at one end so you could let the installation wash over you.  An older couple sat there silently the whole time we were in the room, just watching and taking in the spectacle.

2) Size does matter.  It was impossible to see the whole installation at one time, so I was constantly shifting my focus, looking at this detail and that. I don’t think I got to see everything, so I’ll have to go back and look some more.

3) Being willing to do the unthinkable is powerful. Turning off the lights in one of your signature galleries and rendering some of the oldest pieces of the collection unviewable was a pretty impressive sight. It clearly conveyed the impression that PEM’s commitment to showing new work was not a half-hearted one, but a serious institutional goal. It made me take the experience more seriously, because I could only imagine the initial meeting where the curator gets up and says, “OK, we’re gonna turn off all the lights in the room and projectors are going to be the only light source…”  Wow.

What didn’t work for me?

1) Words that mean nothing mean something.  I’ve looked at a lot of 17th-19th handwriting, so I could make out the words and snippets of sentences that played across the walls, but they were too low-res to read easily.  I am a word person by trade, so I might be biased, but when I see words, I expect to be able to read them. If they’re in another language, I expect a translation. If they’re hard to read, I expect a transcription. Words exist to convey meaning, and I often get lost or unhappy when artists use them as mere decorative elements. I don’t know whether Sandison intended them to be, but I couldn’t read them most of the time, so I felt like I was missing out on part of the fun.

2) An insufficient introduction is worse than no introduction. The only label I could find was about 8 x 10 inches and told me the name of the series this work belonged to and the artist’s name. I didn’t know the piece was called Figurehead until I looked on the web.  There, I learned lots of things that would’ve enriched my experience of the piece.

Quibbles aside, it was a great experience. Unfortunately, it was also that photographs badly, being dark and constantly moving. Here’s one photo, courtesy of Sandy’s phone, to give you a sense of the space.

I’ll be going back.

[POSTSCRIPT – Jim Forrest from PEM thoughtfully sent a link to a video feature they’ve made on the making of the exhibit. It includes video that does justice to the artwork.  Check it out.]

Description of the project, cribbed from the Peabody Essex Museum site.

Charles Sandison, Figurehead

Internationally renowned for his animated digital projections, artist Charles Sandison installs a site-specific artwork created for PEM’s East India Marine Hall. Sandison will activate the words of 18th-century ship captains’ logs to create an immersive environment drawing upon the trade routes, politics, competition and voices that led to the founding of the museum and the origins of PEM’s remarkable collection. Working at the intersection of visual art and computer programming, he uses his own customized software to map trajectories around the room; the projected images respond to algorithms that guide their behavior. In Figurehead, Sandison’s algorithms draw on real-time weather data from the internet, making the installation organic and ever-evolving.

Organized by PEM’s Curator of Contemporary Art, Trevor Smith, this installation marks the first in a series of contemporary art interventions in PEM’s FreePort initiative.

A Tale of Two Exhibits: “It was the best of times…” Part One

Have you ever had one of those days when amazing things unexpectedly happen and make you remember why you go to work every day?  Tuesday was one of those days for me.  I had two very different, very magical experiences in two very different museums.

#1) Halsey Burgund, Scapes
De Cordova Sculpture Park and Museum
July 13, 2010 – November 14, 2010

Nancy Proctor from the Smithsonian (follow her on Twitter, @NancyProctor) was in town and she and Sandy Goldberg were going to the de Cordova Sculpture Park and Museum to see their latest mobile app, an audio art installation called Scapes, so I volunteered to accompany them. I came in completely cold, knowing nothing about the app or the exhibit series it was part.  In all honesty, it was an excuse to go back to visit a museum I hadn’t been to in years with friends.  Which is to say I was coming at it much more like a visitor than a museum professional. I was hoping I’d have a good time with my friends looking at art, but other than that I had no agenda or expectation.

I’ve gotten a bit discouraged by the state of mobile museum experiences of late. For all the promise the medium offers, most of the things I’ve tried in the past couple of years haven’t broken much new ground, or have had real usability issues (See my post on Walking Cinema’s Murder on Beacon Hill app at MuseumMobile) that ruined the experience for me. I was toting up my mental list of potential issues as we met the artist and checked out devices. “Only available for iPhone 3G and later? Tsk, tsk…” “The Museum recommends I wear a headset for the best experience? Hrm…” I decided I’d use my venerable iPhone 3G as a test, since it usually performs poorly in these situations since I updated to iOS4.  We got our headphones, borrowed a couple of machines from the desk for people who didn’t want to drain their batteries, and off we went.

Scapes is a two-way visitor created audio experience which uses the phone’s location-sensing ability to tag visitor comments to a particular spot in the sculpture garden.  When you launch the app, it locates you, and offers you two choices; Listen or Speak. That’s it. If you pick Listen, you can put the phone back in your pocket because you don’t need it for anything. The app handles the rest. What you get in Listen is an ambient soundtrack of musical themes composed by Burgund and mixed by the computer, based on where you are. If you’re near the pond, you get soothing strings. Closer to the parking lot where the school groups are, you get more percussive beats.  The music is never intrusive but it is a noticeable subtext to the whole visit. It’s like being in your own personal film. You get a soundtrack that is seamless, that changes as the scene changes, and provides an auditory bridge between the separate acts of looking at individual sculptures.  So I love it on the first count that it works as a musical experience. But there’s more.

Main screen of the Scapes app
The main screen of the Scapes app, showing the two menu choices

Layered on top of the music is a random, changing collection of visitor comments that were made in that space, which cycle in and out like spirit voices.  There are no obvious authorities, all the comments are visitor-derived, and the quality of them was really high.  I found myself reacting to other visitors’ reactions to the art as if they were talking to me.  Things they noticed, I looked for. Connections they made, I made too. I was successfully slowed down. I spent longer looking at these sculptures than I typically would, and nobody had given me any traditional content. I didn’t learn anything more about the pieces themselves from the comments, but I made a much stronger connection to them. The tone of the music seemed to inspire reflective, hushed comments. Maybe it was the subject matter that made people sound a bit tentative. I don’t know, but the quality of the commentary was very high and felt very private. I was eavesdropping.

Before we’d gotten past the first sculpture, I’d decided I needed to leave a comment and see how that worked.  When you press the Speak button, you get a list of questions you can choose from, the first of which basically gives you permission to say whatever comes into your head. I chose “Look up and tell us what you see.” And said something about the beautiful blue sky, Fall foliage and birds darting around. We continued to mill around the same area and within a few minutes, I heard myself in the mix. The sound quality was so good I was unclear if I was hearing myself.  Apple puts good mikes in their phones, it seems. It also made it clear that the comments weren’t being vetted for approval by some shadowy curator. A very gutsy thing to try. As someone who’s cleaned out my share of comment card boxes, feedback albums and digital video directories, I know how appallingly low the signal to noise ratio can be.  Somehow Scapes managed to pull it off.

We wandered around the grounds for a long time, listening and laughing and sharing things we’d heard. Sometimes, we’d clump up and talk and at other times, we each drifted off. The headsets were light Sennheiser on the ear type headphones, so they didn’t get in the way of talking.  I heard adults and children. Some of the comments were profound, some random, but it didn’t matter. It felt like overhearing conversations in a physical museum, only more private, more personal.  At one point a woman said “I’m looking at a giant tree root, it’s all gnarled. I’m not sure if it’s art but I’m not sure that matters.” I went over to share my latest discovery and Nancy said, “That was me! I said that!” I don’t think we’d’ve shared that observation if we’d just been talking.

We explored until it was time to head to our next location. On a lark, we plugged a phone into the car stereo to see if we’d pick up anything, and as we drove out of the museum grounds we could hear the spirit voices still talking until we got too far away. We were left with the music, which kept playing as we drove down the road. It was magical.

So what made this experience work?

I think a lot of factors combined to make this an experience that spoke to me when so many others haven’t.

1) It’s an artwork. Halsey Burgund, the artist who created Scapes, was interested in making music that incorporated visitor voices. His definition of success was primarily aesthetic – it had to be good music, not just noise. There is an attention to detail that I love. Tracks fade up and down smoothly and mesh with the music organically. The sound quality of the recordings is stunning, given the fact that they’re all done outdoors with a phone mic. The user interface is simple and pleasing.  Even the brand of earphones was selected to provide good sound while not obstructing your ability to hear real-world sounds.  Quality, quality, quality where it counts.

2) It’s a small place. The de Cordova is small museum in a wealthy suburb that doesn’t see the same kind of numbers as a Metropolitan Museum or Louvre.  They could deploy ten iPhones and sets of headphones and be OK, where a larger museum might need 100 or 700.

3) It’s outdoors covering a wide area. We all know that wayfinding with mobiles is still a stretch goal, but being outdoors amongst widely scattered, large-scale sculpture works with the current generation of phones capabilities. The accuracy of the positioning wasn’t great, but it didn’t need to be. Several times I heard someone talking about things I couldn’t see and it spurred me to go look for them.

4) It’s not a tour. If I were starting out to “make an app for the sculpture garden” I don’t think I’d ever have come up with something like Scapes. I’d be so busy working on my content strategy and educational goals for the project that I would have produced something much more educational and probably less affective.

In short, a lot of things were working in favor of this app and I can think of a million reasons why this couldn’t translate to other places easily. But, in the end, they don’t matter. Scapes is a truly great mobile experience that only works because it’s mobile, and location-aware. Instead of having a hypothetical example of “What would a great mobile app be like?” I now have a real one.  Go experience Scapes if you can.

Description of the project, cribbed from the deCordova Museum site.

Halsey Burgund, Scapes
Halsey Burgund is a musician and sound artist who lives and works in Bedford, MA. Burgund’s projects are collaborative and provide participants with an active role in content creation. Burgund uses open source platforms, GPS technology, and interactivity to create musical scores from participants’ spoken words that continuously evolve in real-time. Scapes, Burgund’s project for PLATFORM 3, creates a two-way audio experience for museum visitors influenced significantly by their physical location on deCordova grounds. Participants will use iPhones and headphones to listen to audio and also to make their own recordings, which will be immediately assimilated into the piece for everyone to hear.

Here’s a video intro to the piece, courtesy of the artist.

Or, download it from the iTunes Store.